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Saturday, June 05, 2004

Reagan's Economic Legacy
It won't take long for Liberals to attack the memory of Mr. Reagan.
It's a typical knee jerk liberal reaction, but not based on the facts. Some nights, I just ignore those reactions, but NOT this night, with Mr. Reagan's body not even cold. So, at the risk of boring you with numbers, an excerpt from an article by Peter Sperry from 2001:


Despite the steep recession in 1982--brought on by tight money policies that were instituted to squeeze out the historic inflation level of the late 1970s--by 1983, the Reagan policies of reducing taxes, spending, regulation, and inflation were in place. The result was unprecedented economic growth:


This economic boom lasted 92 months without a recession, from November 1982 to July 1990, the longest period of sustained growth during peacetime and the second-longest period of sustained growth in U.S. history. The growth in the economy lasted more than twice as long as the average period of expansions since World War II.10

The American economy grew by about one-third in real inflation-adjusted terms. This was the equivalent of adding the entire economy of East and West Germany or two-thirds of Japan's economy to the U.S. economy.11
* From 1950 to 1973, real economic growth in the U.S. economy averaged 3.6 percent per year. From 1973 to 1982, it averaged only 1.6 percent. The Reagan economic boom restored the more usual growth rate as the economy averaged 3.5 percent in real growth from the beginning of 1983 to the end of 1990.12


Perhaps the greatest myth concerning the 1980s is that Ronald Reagan slashed taxes so dramatically for the rich that they no longer have paid their fair share. The flaw in this myth is that it mixes tax rates with taxes actually paid and ignores the real trend of taxation:


In 1991, after the Reagan rate cuts were well in place, the top 1 percent of taxpayers in income paid 25 percent of all income taxes; the top 5 percent paid 43 percent; and the bottom 50 percent paid only 5 percent.13 To suggest that this distribution is unfair because it is too easy on upper-income groups is nothing less than absurd.

The proportion of total income taxes paid by the top 1 percent rose sharply under President Reagan, from 18 percent in 1981 to 28 percent in 1988.14

Average effective income tax rates were cut even more for lower-income groups than for higher-income groups. While the average effective tax rate for the top 1 percent fell by 30 percent between 1980 and 1992, and by 35 percent for the top 20 percent of income earners, it fell by 44 percent for the second-highest quintile, 46 percent for the middle quintile, 64 percent for the second-lowest quintile, and 263 percent for the bottom quintile.15
* These reductions for the lowest-income groups were so large because President Reagan doubled the personal exemption, increased the standard deduction, and tripled the earned income tax credit (EITC), which provides net cash for single-parent families with children at the lowest income levels. These changes eliminated income tax liability altogether for over 4 million lower-income families.16

Critics often add in the Social Security payroll tax and argue that the total federal tax burden shifted more to lower-income groups and away from upper-income groups; but President Reagan's changes were in the income tax, not in the Social Security payroll tax. The payroll tax was imposed by proponents of big government over the past 50 years, and it is they, not Ronald Reagan, who should be held accountable for its distributional effects.

Nevertheless, even if one counts the Social Security payroll tax, the share of total federal taxes increased between 1980 and 1989 for the following groups:


For the top 1 percent of taxpayers, from 12.9 percent in 1980 to 15.4 percent in 1989;

For the top 5 percent of taxpayers, from 27.3 percent in 1980 to 30.4 percent in 1989; and
* For the top 20 percent of taxpayers, from 56.1 percent in 1980 to 58.6 percent in 1989.

On the other hand, the share of total federal taxes, if one includes the Social Security payroll tax, declined for four groups:


For the second-highest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 22.2 percent in 1980 to 20.8 percent in 1989;

For the middle 20 percent of taxpayers, from 13.2 percent in 1980 to 12.5 percent in 1989;

For the second-lowest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 6.9 percent in 1980 to 6.4 percent in 1989; and
* For the lowest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 1.6 percent in 1980 to 1.5 percent in 1989.17


No matter how advocates of big government try to rewrite history, Ronald Reagan's record of fiscal responsibility continues to stand as the most successful economic policy of the 20th century. His tax reforms triggered an economic expansion that continues to this day. His investments in national security ended the Cold War and made possible the subsequent defense spending reductions that are largely responsible for the current federal surpluses. His efforts to restrain the expansion of federal government helped to limit the growth of domestic spending.

If Reagan's critics had been willing to work with him to limit domestic spending even further and to control the growth of entitlements, the budget would have been balanced five to ten years sooner and without the massive tax increase imposed in 1993. Today, Members of Congress from across the political spectrum should stand on the evidence and defend the Reagan record.

To the extent that President Bush's proposals mirror those of Ronald Reagan, his plan should be a welcome strategy to lower the tax burden on Americans and to make the system more responsible. If the advocates of big government in Congress cooperate with President Bush rather than merely continuing to fund obsolete, wasteful, and redundant programs, there is no limit to the prosperity that Americans can generate.

Peter Sperry is the Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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