In attempting to cut back on domestic spending while lowering taxes, Reagan's approach was a departure from his immediate predecessors.
He lifted remaining domestic petroleum price and allocation controls on January 28 1981 and lowered the Oil Windfall profits tax in August 1981, helping to end the 1979 energy crisis. He ended the Oil Windfall profits tax in 1988 during the 1980s oil glut.
With the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Reagan and Congress sought to broaden the tax base and reduce perceived tax favoritism. In 1983, Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt had offered a proposal to clean up/broaden the tax base; in 1984 Reagan had the Treasury Department produce its own plan. The eventual bipartisan 1986 act aimed to be revenue-neutral: while it reduced the top marginal rate, it also partially "cleaned up" the tax base by curbing tax loopholes, preferences, and exceptions, thus raising the effective tax on activities previously specially favored by the code. Economists of most affiliations favor cleaning up the tax code, since tax preferences and exceptions distort economic decisions.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has pointed to the number of pages added to the Federal Register each year as evidence of Reagan's anti-regulation presidency (the Register records the rules and regulations that federal agencies issue per year). The number of pages added to the Register each year declined sharply at the start of the Ronald Reagan presidency breaking a steady and sharp increase since 1960. The increase in the number of pages added per year resumed an upward, though less steep, trend after Reagan left office. In contrast, the number of pages being added each year increased under Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and others.
The question of how much of the overall trend of deregulation can be credited to Reagan remains contentious. The economists Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales point out that many of the major deregulation efforts had either taken place or begun before Reagan (note the deregulation of airlines and trucking under Carter, and the beginning of deregulatory reform in railroads, telephones, natural gas, and banking). They argue for this and other reasons that "the move toward markets preceded the leader [Reagan] who is seen as one of their saviors. Economist William Niskanen, a member of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers and later chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, writes that deregulation had the "lowest priority" of the items on the Reagan agenda and that Reagan "failed to sustain the momentum for deregulation initiated in the 1970s." The apparent contradiction with Friedman's data may be resolved by seeing Niskanen as referring to statutory deregulation and Friedman to administrative deregulation. In sum, a large study by economists Paul Joskow and Roger Noll concludes that the changes in economic regulation
"simply do not reflect a sudden ideological change in federal executive branch views....many of the significant changes in economic regulation began during the Carter administration and were initiated by liberal Democrats.... it is not particularly productive to refer to a generic deregulation movement or to think of it as a consequence of the election of Ronald Reagan."
During Reagan's tenure, income tax rates of the top personal tax bracket dropped from 70% to 28% in 7 years, while payroll taxes increased as well as the effective tax rates on the lower two income quintiles. Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth recovered strongly after the 1982 recession and grew during Reagan's remaining years in office at an annual rate of 3.4% per year, slightly lower than the post-World War II average of 3.6%. Unemployment peaked at over 10.7% percent in 1982 then dropped during the rest of Reagan's terms, and inflation significantly decreased. A net job increase of about 16 million also occurred (about the rate of population growth).
The policies were derided by some as "Trickle-down economics," due to the significant cuts in the upper tax brackets. There was a massive increase in Cold War related defense spending that caused large budget deficits, the U.S. trade deficit expansion, and contributed to the Savings and Loan crisis, as well as the stock market crash of 1987. In order to cover new federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the world's largest debtor nation. Reagan described the new debt as the "greatest disappointment" of his presidency.
Donald Regan, the President's former Secretary of the Treasury, and later Chief of Staff, criticized Reagan for his supposed lack of understanding of economics: "In the four years that I served as Secretary of the Treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy or fiscal and monetary policy with him one-on-one....The President never told me what he believed or what he wanted to accomplish in the field of economics.” However, Reagan's chief economic adviser, Martin Feldstein, argues the opposite: "I briefed him on Third World debt; he didn't take notes, he asked very few questions....The subject came up in a cabinet meeting and he summarized what he had heard perfectly. He had a remarkably good memory for oral presentation and could fit information into his own philosophy and make decisions on it.
|Number of years after enactment|
|Tax bill||1||2||3||4||First 2-yr avg||4-yr avg|
|Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981||-1.21||-2.60||-3.58||-4.15||-1.91||-2.89|
|Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982||0.53||1.07||1.08||1.23||0.80||0.98|
|Highway Revenue Act of 1982||0.05||0.11||0.10||0.09||0.08||0.09|
|Social Security Amendments of 1983||0.17||0.22||0.22||0.24||0.20||0.21|
|Interest and Dividend Tax Compliance Act of 1983||-0.07||-0.06||-0.05||-0.04||-0.07||-0.05|
|Deficit Reduction Act of 1984||0.24||0.37||0.47||0.49||0.30||0.39|
|Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985||0.02||0.06||0.06||0.06||0.04||0.05|
|Tax Reform Act of 1986||0.41||0.02||-0.23||-0.16||0.22||0.01|
|Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987||0.19||0.28||0.30||0.27||0.24||0.26|
The belief by some proponents of Reaganomics that the tax rate cuts would more than pay for themselves was influenced by the Laffer curve, a theoretical taxation model that was particularly in vogue among some American conservatives during the 1970s. Arthur Laffer's model predicts that excessive tax rates actually reduce potential tax revenues, by lowering the incentive to produce.
Before Reagan's election, Reaganomics was considered extreme by the moderate wing of the Republican Party. While running against Reagan for the Presidential nomination in 1980, George Bush had derided Reaganomics as "voodoo economics". Similarly, in 1976, Gerald Ford had severely criticized Reagan's proposal to turn back a large part of the Federal budget to the states. Since Reagan's presidency, however, Republican federal politicians have for the most part continued to support his program of low taxes and private sector growth.
A recession occurred in 1982, his second year in office. This was central to Volcker's campaign against inflation: applying either the Phillips Curve or the NAIRU theory, high unemployment (more than 10 % of the labor force in both 1982 and 1983) undercuts inflation. Reagan benefited from the fact that Volcker relented (shifting to more expansionary monetary policy) after inflation had largely been beaten. Further, the sudden fall in oil prices around 1986 helped the economy attain demand growth without inflation in the late 1980s.
The job growth under the Reagan administration was an average of 2.1% per year, which is in the middle of the pack of twentieth-century Presidents.
Another recent critique of Reagan's policies stem from Tax Reform Act of 1986 and its impact on the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The tax reform was ostensibly to reduce or eliminate tax deductions. This legislation expanded the AMT from a law for untaxed rich investors to one refocused on middle class Americans who had children, owned a home, or lived in high tax states. This parallel tax system hits middle class Americans the hardest by reducing their deductions and effectively raising their taxes. Meanwhile, the highest income earners (with incomes exceeding $1,000,000) are proportionately less affected thereby shifting the tax burden away from the richest 0.5%. In 2006, the IRS's National Taxpayer Advocate's report highlighted the AMT as the single most serious problem with the tax code. As of 2007, the AMT brought in more tax revenue than the regular tax which has made it difficult for Congress to reform.
Proponent Think Tank Papers:
Opponent Papers by Economists:
The President Reagan Information Page
PBS Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy
Encyclopedia articles from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics on Econlib: