Remembering Reagan

Ronald Reagan was a paradigm shifter.

He was what Charles Derber in his new book, Regime Change Begins at Home, calls a “regime-changer,” moving decisively to end the flagging New Deal era and launching the modern period of corporate rule.

Reagan changed the framework of expectations. He called into question a lot of things that had been taken for granted (such as the obligation of the government of the richest country in history to take care of its poorest people), and made it possible to consider things which had previously seemed unthinkable (for example, cutting the knees out from the powerful U.S. labor movement.)

Reagan was indeed a historic figure, and his death deserves the massive media attention it is receiving. But the odes to his cheerfulness and optimism should be replaced with reflections on how his policies destroyed lives. Pacifica’s Amy Goodman has appropriately titled her retrospective coverage of the Reagan era “Remembering the Dead.”

The standard commentaries recall Iran-contra as a blotch on the end of Reagan’s presidency, but the incident was trivial compared to the long list of administration crimes and misdeeds, among them:

1. Cruelly slashing the social safety net. Reagan cuts in social spending exacerbated a policy of intentionally raising the unemployment rate. The result was a huge surge in poverty. With homelessness skyrocketing, Reagan defended his administration’s record: “One problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

2. Taking the world to the brink of nuclear war. Reagan’s supposed contribution to the downfall of the Soviet Union was a military spending contest that drove the USSR into economic collapse. Neglected in most present-day reminiscences is that this military spending spree nearly started a nuclear war. Development and deployment of a host of nuclear missiles, initiating Star Wars, acceleration of the arms race — these led the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move its Doomsday Clock in 1984 to three minutes to midnight.

3. A targeted tax cut for the rich. The 1981 tax cut was one of the largest in U.S. history and heavily targeted toward the rich, with major declines in tax rates for upper-income groups. The tax break helped widen income and wealth inequality gaps. As David Stockman admitted, one of its other intended effects was to starve the government of funds, so as to justify cuts in government spending (for the poor — the cash crunch didn’t restrain government spending on corporate welfare).

4. Firing striking air traffic controllers. Reagan’s decision to fire 1,800 striking air traffic controller early in his term sent a message that employers could act against striking or organizing workers with virtual impunity.

5. Deregulating the Savings & Loan industry, paving the way for an industry meltdown and subsequent bailout that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

6. Perpetrating a bloody war in Central America. The Reagan-directed wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua submerged Central America in a climate of terror and fear, took tens of thousands of lives, destroyed a democratic experiment in Nicaragua, and entrenched narrow elites who continue to repress the poor majorities in the region.

7. Embracing South Africa’s apartheid regime (Said Reagan in 1981, “Can we abandon this country [South Africa] that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought?” He followed up in 1985 with, “They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country.”) and dictators worldwide, from Argentina to Korea, Chile to the Philippines.

8. Undermining health, safety and environmental regulation. Reagan decreed such rules must be subjected to regulatory impact analysis — corporate-biased cost-benefit analyses, carried out by the Office of Management and Budget. The result: countless positive regulations discarded or revised based on pseudo-scientific conclusions that the cost to corporations would be greater than the public benefit.

9. Slashing the Environmental Protection Agency budget in half, and installing Anne Gorsuch Burford to oversee the dismantling of the agency and ensure weak enforcement of environmental rules.

10. Kick-starting the era of structural adjustment. It was under Reagan administration influence that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank began widely imposing the policy package known as structural adjustment — featuring deregulation, privatization, emphasis on exports, cuts in social spending — that has plunged country after country in the developing world into economic destitution. The IMF chief at the time was honest about what was to come, saying in 1981 that, for low-income countries, “adjustment is particularly costly in human terms.”

11. Silence on the AIDS epidemic. Reagan didn’t mention AIDS publicly until 1987, by which point AIDS had killed 19,000 in the United States. While the public health service advocated aggressive education on prevention, Reagan moralists like Secretary of Education Bill Bennett insisted on confining prevention messages to abstinence.

12. Enabling a corporate merger frenzy. The administration effectively re-wrote antitrust laws and oversaw what at the time was an unprecedented merger trend. “There is nothing written in the sky that says the world would not be a perfectly satisfactory place if there were only 100 companies, provided that each had 1 percent of every product and service market,” said Reagan’s antitrust enforcement chief William Baxter.

The Reagan administration didn’t succeed at imposing all of his agenda. But even Reagan’s failures had paradigm-shifting impacts. Among policies he sought but failed to impose were: eliminating the Consumer Product Safety Commission, consummating an unprecedented giveaway of coal mining rights on federal land, and stripping benefits from thousands of recipients of Social Security disability (a move ultimately counteracted by the courts).

It’s important to remember Reagan all right, but let’s remember him for what he did, not for his ability to deliver a scripted line. Ronald Wilson Reagan played up and exacerbated economic and racial divisions, and he left the country, and the world, meaner and more dangerous.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and co-director of Essential Action, a corporate accountability group. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press;

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman