Irwin Stelzer (“No more consensus: this time there is a choice”) holds up Ronald Reagan as a model of a Conservative working for the ordinary voter. He could hardly have chosen a worse exemplar.
From 1947 to 1981 (the year in which Jimmy Carter left, and the Great Communicator took office), US public debt outstanding had fluctuated between $2 – 2.5 trillion (inflation-adjusted to 2009 dollars). Carter ended his Presidency with the debt no worse than it had been when he began. Under Reagan, the debt doubled in real terms (average 9.7% p.a. increase). Bush senior continued this trend (7.3% p.a.); the next two terms under Clinton showed a significant slowing (1.8% p.a.); but Bush junior picked up the pace again (6.3% p.a.) America now has $11.4 trillion public debt around its neck, approximately 5 times the equivalent in 1980, when Reagan asked voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Well, how much better-off is Joe Average now? In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih conclude that “average real weekly wages have essentially remained flat since 1980.” Instead, the “trickle-down effect” has turned out to be a torrent for the upper stratum only: in a 2006 speech reviewing hourly wage rate increases from 1973 – 2005, the economist Janet Yellen, of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said “... the growth was heavily concentrated at the very tip of the top, that is, the top 1 percent”. The rest played catch-up by taking on extra personal debt: an investment analyst quoted in The Economist (22 January 2009) says “... the share of household and consumer debt alone went up from 100% of GDP in 1980 to 173% today, equivalent to around $6 trillion of extra borrowing.” Naturally, this process was much to the advantage of bankers, brokers and others in the top 1%.
In short, America has been pretty nearly busted by and for its elite. So much for the party of smaller government; so much for supporting the core Conservative, hard-working average wage-earner; not so much clear blue water, as a tide of red ink. One can only hope that the next British Conservative government, if there is one, will seek not to emulate Reagan and the Bushes.