On Goverment, Reagan versus Obama
by Charles Lemos, Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 04:57:14 PM EST
Here is Ronald Reagan from his Inaugural Address of January 20, 1981 on the role of government in American society and how government should confront an economic crisis:
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government--not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.
Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.
Now here is President Obama today:
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
Clearly, Obama's "we" is government. What else can it be? And it is a far different construct than Reagan's government of being the problem, not the solution.
But President Obama also goes on to say:
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
This, for me, is the crux of the speech. Obama frames the debate not one of size but of competence. We will do what works. If it doesn't work, we terminate the program. He pays homage as it seems all American politicians must do to the power of markets but calls importantly for their regulation. But then comes then undoing of Reagan. "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous" he intones. No, it cannot. America was most prosperous when it was fairest. That reach of our prosperity was at its zenith in the 1960s under the policies begun by FDR and extended by Truman, Eisenhower and LBJ an era that economic historians refer to as "the Great Compression."
From Paul Krugman's blog The Conscience of a Liberal:
The Long Gilded Age: Historians generally say that the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era around 1900. In many important ways, though, the Gilded Age continued right through to the New Deal. As far as we can tell, income remained about as unequally distributed as it had been the late 19th century - or as it is today. Public policy did little to limit extremes of wealth and poverty, mainly because the political dominance of the elite remained intact; the politics of the era, in which working Americans were divided by racial, religious, and cultural issues, have recognizable parallels with modern politics.
The Great Compression: The middle-class society I grew up in didn't evolve gradually or automatically. It was created, in a remarkably short period of time, by FDR and the New Deal. As the chart shows, income inequality declined drastically from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, with the rich losing ground while working Americans saw unprecedented gains. Economic historians call what happened the Great Compression, and it's a seminal episode in American history.
Middle class America: That's the country I grew up in. It was a society without extremes of wealth or poverty, a society of broadly shared prosperity, partly because strong unions, a high minimum wage, and a progressive tax system helped limit inequality. It was also a society in which political bipartisanship meant something: in spite of all the turmoil of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, in spite of the sinister machinations of Nixon and his henchmen, it was an era in which Democrats and Republicans agreed on basic values and could cooperate across party lines.
The Great Divergence: Since the late 1970s the America I knew has unraveled. We're no longer a middle-class society, in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared: between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose only 13 percent, but the income of the richest 0.1% of Americans rose 296 percent.
Fairness in American society didn't happen by accident. It was by design. Nor did our drift back to inequality happen by accident. It was by the design of the economic agenda that was first enacted under Reagan-Bush, not restrained by Clinton and then fully unleashed under Bush the lessor. This, thus, is our task. To remake the Great Compression and Middle Class America is to undo Reagan and all that has followed.