Socialism has been much in the news for some months. Recently, some GOP stalwarts charged President Obama with preaching the heresy. John Boehner, the House minority leader, characterized Obama’s stimulus package as, “one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”
“Socialism” is a pejorative term in American politics and needs to be carefully examined. It usually refers to increased government control over the economy, or policies that promote the redistribution of wealth. There is no doubt that President Obama’s economic measures, passed and proposed, will raise tax rates on the richest Americans to pay for increased government funding of health care, green energy and education. So the new president is indeed a redistributionist, but so was Ronald Reagan, except that Obama’s plans will transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, whereas Reagan’s bills transferred wealth from the poor and the middle class to the opulent. In fact, Obama’s measures are puny, whereas Reagan’s were massive. If the Democrat is a “small” socialist, Reagan was the Great American Socialist.
Let’s go back to the early 1980’s. In 1981, Reagan signed a law that sharply reduced the income tax for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. The president asserted his program would create jobs, purge inflation and, get this, trim the budget deficit. However, following the tax cut, the deficit soared from 2.5 percent of GDP to over 6 percent, alarming financial markets, sending interest rates sky high, and culminating in the worst recession since the 1930’s.
Soon the president realized he needed new revenues to trim the deficit, bring down interest rates and improve his chances for reelection. He would not rescind the income tax cut, but other taxes were acceptable. In 1982, taxes were raised on gasoline and cigarettes, but the deficit hardly budged. In 1983, the president signed the biggest tax rise on payrolls, promising to create a surplus in the Social Security system, while knowing all along that the new revenue would be used to finance the deficit.
The retirement system was looted from the first day the Social Security surplus came into being, because the legislation itself gave the president a free hand to spend the surplus in any way he liked. Thus began a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class, especially the self-employed small businessman, to the wealthy. The self-employment tax jumped as much as 66 percent.
In 1986, Reagan slashed the top tax rate further. His redistributionist obsession led to a perversity in the law. The wealthiest faced a 28 percent tax rate, while those with lower incomes faced a 33 percent rate; in addition, the bottom rate climbed from 11 percent to 15 percent. For the first time in history, the top rate fell and the bottom rate rose simultaneously. Even unemployment compensation was not spared. The jobless had to pay income tax on their benefits. A year later, the man who would not spare unemployment compensation from taxation called for a cut in the capital gains tax. Thus, Reagan was a staunch socialist, totally committed to his cause of wealth redistribution towards the affluent.
How much wealth transfer has occurred through Reagan’s policies? At least $3 trillion.
The Social Security hike generated over $2 trillion in surplus between 1984 and 2007, and if it had been properly invested, say, in AAA corporate bonds it could have earned another trillion by now. At present, the fund is empty, because it has been used up to finance the federal deficits resulting from frequent cuts in income tax rates. If this is not redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, what else is?
Thus, Reagan was the first Republican socialist – and a great one, because his wealth transfer occurred on a massive scale. His accomplishment dwarfs even FDR’s, and if today the small businessman suffers a crippling tax burden, he must thank Reagan the redistributionist. However, FDR took pains to help the poor, while Reagan took pains to help the wealthiest like himself.
Reagan’s measures were similar to those that the Republicans adopted during the 1920’s, which were followed by the catastrophic Depression. More recently, such policies were mimicked by President George W. Bush and they are about to plunge the world into a depression as well. Ironically, the Reagan-style socialism or wealth redistribution is about to destroy monopoly capitalism, the very system that he wanted to preserve and enrich.
(Dr. Ravi Batra, a professor of economics at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, is the author of five international best sellers. He was the chairperson of his department from 1977 to 1980. This article is based on Batra’s two books, “The New Golden Age” and “Greenspan’s Fraud.” )