Reagan Was a Keynesian

By Krugman, Paul | International Herald Tribune, June 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Reagan Was a Keynesian


Krugman, Paul, International Herald Tribune


Does the Reagan-era economic recovery demonstrate the superiority of Keynesian economics?

There's no question that America's recovery from the financial crisis has been disappointing. In fact, I've been arguing that the era since 2007 is best viewed as a "depression," an extended period of economic weakness and high unemployment that, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, persists despite episodes during which the economy grows. And Republicans are, of course, trying -- with considerable success -- to turn this dismal state of affairs to their political advantage.

They love, in particular, to contrast President Obama's record with that of Ronald Reagan, who, by this point in his presidency, was indeed presiding over a strong economic recovery. You might think that the more relevant comparison is with George W. Bush, who, at this stage of his administration, was -- unlike Mr. Obama -- still presiding over a large loss in private-sector jobs. And, as I'll explain shortly, the economic slump Reagan faced was very different from our current depression, and much easier to deal with. Still, the Reagan-Obama comparison is revealing in some ways. So let's look at that comparison, shall we?

For the truth is that on at least one dimension, government spending, there was a large difference between the two presidencies, with total government spending adjusted for inflation and population growth rising much faster under one than under the other. I find it especially instructive to look at spending levels three years into each man's administration -- that is, in the first quarter of 1984 in Reagan's case, and in the first quarter of 2012 in Mr. Obama's -- compared with four years earlier, which in each case more or less corresponds to the start of an economic crisis. Under one president, real per capita government spending at that point was 14.4 percent higher than four years previously; under the other, less than half as much, just 6.4 percent.

O.K., by now many readers have probably figured out the trick here: Reagan, not Obama, was the big spender. While there was a brief burst of government spending early in the Obama administration -- mainly for emergency aid programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps -- that burst is long past. Indeed, at this point, government spending is falling fast, with real per capita spending falling over the past year at a rate not seen since the demobilization that followed the Korean War. …

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