It's Ronald Reagan Memorial Month in America, as newspapers, magazines and television come forth bearing appraisals of the former president who would have turned 100 last week. Robert Samuelson shoos away the deluge of retrospectives -- "most are misleading," he says -- and explains that the world is forgetting about the president's "singular economic achievement": ending double digit inflation.
Wait, wait. Reagan ended double-digit inflation? No, and yes. No, Reagan's tax and spending policies were not the fists the wrung inflation out of the economy. That would be the Paul Volcker's Federal Reserve, which nearly doubled interest rates from 11 to 20% between his appointment, under Jimmy Carter, in 1979 and Reagan's first year in office in 1981. (For comparison, today's federal funds rate is practically zero.) Volcker, not Reagan, controlled interest rates and the money supply, and by painfully drying the economy of money he ended inflation at the cost of double-digit unemployment.
Reagan's contribution to the anti-inflation crusade was more subtle -- or nearly invisible. He stood by and let Volcker do his thing. The president didn't budge when critics from the left and right and public criticized the president and marched on Washington. Instead, Reagan gave Volcker his space, cut taxes himself, and reappointed the Fed Chair in 1983 for another four years. (Then in 1987, with the economy back on track, he took the ball from Volcker and handed it to Alan Greenspan.)
After making the perfectly sensible point that Reagan's greatest achievement wasn't cutting down tax rates but rather watching Volcker cut down inflation, Samuelson makes a totally gratuitous swipe:
Reagan earned his success the hard way - by backing policies that, though initially unpopular, served the nation's long-term interests. That's called leadership, a quality Obama has yet to demonstrate.
But it makes you wonder. Can you think of a policy that the president backed ... that was initially unpopular
... that created enemies on the right
... that was skewered in the press even by self-modeled pragmatics
... that just very well might serve the nation's "long term interests
?" Surely, the only form of leadership acceptable to the Washington Post's op-ed page isn't watching interest rates go up while making tax rates go down.
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is a staff writer at The Atlantic,
where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers