A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Reaganomics in Retrospect

James Tobin

James Tobin, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in economics and a former member of President Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors, published this analysis of “Reaganomics” in 1988, close to the end of the Reagan administration. Reagan, he argues, was most interested in an ideologically driven agenda centered on reducing the size of government and of government spending on civilian programs, and his economic policies were crafted in service to those goals. Here, Tobin explains and critiques the key economic principles underlying Reagan’s economic policy. For readers, this article presents a clear explanation of these economic principles and their application, along with a contemporary liberal critique of Reaganomics. Do you think Tobin’s prediction, that the Reagan era would not really bring about a “counterrevolution” that turned the American government away from liberalism, has proved true? What is the legacy of Reagan if, as Tobin argues below, “an antigovernment president leaves few monuments”?

Rarely in a democracy does a new government take office determined to change course radically and endowed with the electoral mandate that enables it to do so. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and Lyndon Johnson in 1965 were the only United States presidents in my lifetime who had and used this opportunity, until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Most administrations veer only moderately from the established compromise consensus they inherit. Their minor course adjustments reflect the difference from their predecessors and opponents in the balance of interests in the coalition that elected them. Leaders like FDR, LBJ, and Reagan—and across the sea, Margaret Thatcher—manage to shift boldly the whole path of

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