Saturday, March 26, 2016

History Class: A Reagan in the Sun

A friend of mine mentioned to me a few days ago that I should write some brief (haha) posts about a historical figure or event, shedding some light on subjects that may be largely misunderstood or hazy to some individuals. What's factual, what's incorrect --and what's the wheat/chaff breakdown? For this series, I'll give the briefest of brief oversights, then simply tackle common points surrounding the subject -- I'll address talking points and common thoughts that often endure to the present.

This friend mentioned that, at her place of employment, patrons would get into anti-Democrat and -Obama rhetoric fests, and reminisce on the great days of Reagan.

She didn't really know a whole lot about Ronnie, so she texted me with the idea of posts like this. I gave her a virtual hug, as I think it's a stellar idea! So for the first installment of this infrequent (?) series, I present the holy grail of conservative idolatry:

Ronald Reagan.

Now, for many of our parents and grandparents, their generation was defined by a particular politician for whom they have much adoration. With little variation, you have two main factions: The Kennedy supporters and the Reagan fans. Their placement on this wavelength is largely due to his/her political ideology -- Democrats were/are typically huge fans of Kennedy, while Republicans worship Reagan. In my personal experience, however (and that may be simply because I live in a largely conservative state), the love toward Reagan eclipses that of Kennedy.


The one thing you should take away from Reagan's mere existence is that he's often thought of as the father of modern-day conservatism; the bigger loathing toward Obama and the Democrats, the bigger the heart bleeding for Reagan. But as with Kennedy, this godly status comes prepackaged with a some patent cases of historical revisionism. And no matter your political views, it's important to be able to navigate through the propaganda -- so you come off as a learned individual rather than a mindless drone programmed to give automated responses.

"Reagan was great for the economy."

Of all the things for which Reagan is known, perhaps paramount is his perceived finesse with handling the economic crises of the time. Looking at static numbers, one would be compelled to agree: unemployment shrank 2.1% during his tenure, amazing job creation (September 1983 saw 1 million jobs created alone), and we avoided the slip into a major recession.

On paper, this is a stellar record. And if you were alive during this time, the Reagan administration was relatively prosperous. During this time. But strict numbers don't actually do justice to the reality of the time.

Unemployment has a net 2.1% loss during his tenure, but it actually ballooned from around 7% to about 11% during his first term. It was during the latter half of said term, as well as most of his second term, that the unemployment numbers came down.

And a surefire way to stop unemployment is to create jobs. And here is arguably the most inaccurate piece of revisionism with respect to Reaganism. As aforementioned, certain pundits like to cite that, in September of 1983, Reagan's administration created a million jobs. Incredible. Until you realize that this is due to hundreds of thousands of AT&T workers going on strike in August, but returning to work in September. And the jobs creation numbers don't take the reasoning into account, so it looks like a surge in creation when, in reality, it was just a lot of individuals returning to a job they already had.

In reality, both Clinton and Carter created more jobs than did Reagan. And Carter is often cited as a very mediocre president -- especially in contrast to the titan who followed him. Sifting through the talking points, it stands to reason that Reagan was good for jobs, but certainly not the deity he's always painted as. In terms of the numbers of his immediate successor and predecessor, in fact, he's actually almost pedestrian.

And it's true that Reagan enacted huge tax cuts (especially for the wealthy), which boosted the amount of money in people's pockets, but the problem is that "Reaganomics" is basically what we derisively refer to these days as "trickle-down economics". It's a political-economic theory that involves gutting taxes for the wealthy, coupled with deregulation, so that the wealthy can create more jobs and opportunities for us common mountain folk. It doesn't work. In the short-term, it gives people more money and allows for more expenditures with disposable income. But in the long-term, especially when paired with that pesky deregulation, it can be horrible. Both Bushes tried it, and both Bushes reeled from unemployment disasters and slower GDP growth.

[Complains about the debt, loves Reagan.]

Reagan fans tend to excoriate Obama for the constant growth of the national debt, but then ignore the facts that point to Reagan being far worse. If you were to look at the raw numbers, again, it would seem to reinforce the idea of Reagan being a whiz. The debt only grew by about $2 trillion during his term. By comparison, the debt will likely have grown by about $10 trillion under Obama.

But facts matter.

Reagan inherited a debt of about $1 trillion, and left office with about $3 trillion -- an almost 300% increase. Meanwhile, Obama will have had an impact of not even 70% of that. It's true that Reagan gutted taxes, but taxes are the main avenue through which a country gets its money. So it was taking in much less money, but spending a heck of a lot more.

And when people complain about defense spending, that can be attributed to Reagan. For his part, he was big on allocating more money toward defense (currently, about 16% of our tax dollars go toward defense). So while he was racking up bigger receipts, he was simultaneously taking in a lot less money to pay for it all.

It is up to you to decide if you're okay with what he spent money on, and in fact, a lot of Republicans are okay with the spending because it was on something they deem important. But it persists that, percentage-wise, he was the worst among modern presidents as it pertains to adding to the debt.

Not saying it's good or bad (you'll learn from a future post how little I truly care about the debt), but reiterating that facts matter.

Drugs, drugs, drugs.

My main criticism of Reagan is one over which a lot of fans of his gloss -- but it's a big one: Some of his domestic policies were inherently racist. I don't personally believe he himself was a racist at all, but specifically his additions to Nixon's War on Drugs (which was literally racist, we learned last week) adversely affected minorities, and directly led to the horrible prison system we currently have.

Under Reagan's administration, drug users were given mandatory minimum sentences. And he publicly declared that marijuana was, "...probably the most dangerous drug." In addition, his administration cracked down (ahem) on crack cocaine -- leading to a 100:1 disparity in sentencing between users of crack vs. powdered cocaine. As is currently the case, crack is more prevalent in inner-city communities, while cocaine is a "white dude drug". As direct results of these initiatives, harmless drug users (chiefly of color) were being corralled into prisons and jails like cattle, taking up space that could be better suited for real criminals.

(Now, I personally don't drink or do any sort of drug. Never have. No interest at all. And as a youngster, I ignorantly projected that same expectation upon everyone else -- I hated drugs and everything about them. But as I think we all should at times, I evolved my views. I grew up and realized the deleterious effects of treating drugs like the worst thing in the world.)

48% of federal inmates are there for drug offenses. And that's absolutely unacceptable.

And despite likely knowing the truth in the matter, Reagan instead made the dangerous choice of demonizing drugs, drug users and, by extension, the black community. And thus pumping herds of harmless folks into prisons with rapists, murderers, pedophiles, and bank owners.

Minus the bank owners.

"You could trust Reagan."

One final point that people bring up is simply the trust they felt in a president Reagan. Brevity is preferred here, so I promise I'll keep it short.

The Iran-Contra affair occurred during Reagan's second term. It involved selling arms to Iran (who was under an arms embargo at the time) in order to 1) secure the release of US hostages, and 2) arm Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua to overthrow their government. Oh, and helping the Contras was banned by Congress at the time. And when an investigation ensued, Reagan's administration destroyed and withheld enumerable documents that would've potentially incriminated him or his staff. So as bad as it turned out to be, who knows how bad it really was? And time after time, the president lied. Call it what you want, but he lied.

If we're being honest, Reagan was probably a pretty average president. He was a phenomenal speaker, and was hilarious to boot. He helped bring down the USSR, championed American values, and ruled with great strength. He helped avoid a recession in the short-term, and he did what he truly thought was best. But he also trampled the poor, hated Medicaid, and continued the ill-advised War on Drugs.

Oh, and he was a Democrat until he was about 50.

Again, I can't stress enough how important it is to be objective when discussing politics -- don't be afraid to heap criticism upon figures who deserve it, even if their policies and views largely reflect your own. Reagan was a man, plain and simple -- not a god, not infallible, and certainly flawed.

But to me, that's vastly more interesting than the fairytales that persist.

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