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Jobless America: Reagan's chickens have come home to roost

Whether espousing an America so strong that no nation would dare insult it or promising to ''get the Federal Government out of the classroom,'' Mr. Reagan's message connected with Middle American audiences in a way that made Mr. Carter's blandishments seem pale in comparison. Mr. Reagan was the good-news candidate when it came to the getting and keeping of wealth. ''That is not materialism,'' he said. ''That is Americanism.''

-- The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1980.

You've probably heard recently that the American corporation has stopped hiring -- preferring to "do more with less" even as corporate coffers begin to fill with record profit margins. The impact of this on our country appears to be more devastating than anything since the upheavals of the 1960s -- unemployment threatens to linger at or perhaps rise back over 10 percent for months and possibly a number of years, creating a permanently idled class of Americans and leading to radical social movements that are already linked to increasing xenophobia and well as a total (and largely deserved) collapse in the trust of U.S. government.

Why is this happening? Why are American corporations sitting on cash yet sewing the seeds of long-term misery -- which will only hurt their bottom line in the long run -- by allowing high unemployment to fester. Kudos to the Washington Post, which went out last week and asked a number of CEOs of large and mid-sized companies have stopped hiring and have no plans to add workers in the foreseeable future. The answers were surprising -- and not in line at all with "the great debate" on 24/7 cable news.

Sure, there was verbal criticism of the Obama administration -- these are business leaders, and it's just what they do -- but when pressed there was no real link between the administration's center-left economics and the lack of hiring. The role of government stimulus was depicted as ineffective -- but that's because the amount of federal cash needed to overcome a complete private sector hiring freeze is too staggering for most Americans to comprehend.

So what is the deal?

They blame their profound caution on their view that U.S. consumers are destined to disappoint for many years. As a result, they say, the economy is unlikely to see the kind of almost unbroken prosperity of the quarter-century that preceded the financial crisis.

Across the industrial parks and office towers of the Chicago region, in a more than a dozen interviews, senior executives said they see Americans for years ahead paying down debts incurred during the now-ended credit boom and adjusting spending to match their often-reduced incomes.

"It's a different era," said Daryl Dulaney, chief executive of Siemens Industry, which has 30,000 U.S. employees who make lighting systems for buildings and a wide range of other products. "Our hiring and investment decisions have to be prudent and reflect that."

So while we're quick to blame Obama (for either being too timid or not timid enough, depending on your political bent) and the bass-ackwards tax and deficit policies of George W. Bush, the roots of this thing run much, much deeper. Put simply, Ronald Reagan's chickens have come home to roost. It was the Gipper, quite frankly, who constructed that cheap-credit Ponzi scheme that sustained an overheated and over-leveraged consumerist binge that lasted a remarkable two decades -- but God knows now how long we're going to be sifting through the rubble of this fiasco.

Reagan's crowning political achievement -- as spelled out up top in the New York Times article after his 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter -- was the slam-dunk of sunny optimism and American salesmanship that was in stark contrast to Carter's Castor-oil put downs of materialism. In his now famous so-called "malaise speech" from the summer of 1979, Carter said: " But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning."

Carter was way wrong. Within months, GOP nominee Reagan would be on the case to tell voters that Carter's sacrifice-oriented energy policies were a waste of time and that consumerism was not something crass but rather at the core of personal freedom, that what looked like "materialism" was really "Americanism." The contrast and the consequences were spelled out a couple of years ago by arguably the nation's most trenchant political analyst on the case today -- the writer and academic Andrew Bacevich, who said:

As an effort to reorient public policy, Carter's appeal failed completely. Americans showed little enthusiasm for the president's brand of freedom with its connotations of virtuous austerity. Not liking the message, Americans shot the messenger.

Carter's speech did enjoy a long and fruitful life--chiefly as fodder for his political opponents. The most formidable was Ronald Reagan. He portrayed himself as conservative but was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy--the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with talk of "morning in America," Reagan added to America's civic religion two crucial beliefs: credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due. Balance the books, pay as you go, save for a rainy day--Reagan's abrogation of these ancient bits of folk wisdom did as much to recast America's moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

It's important to note that while Reagan's rhetoric and powers of persuasion are were extremely critical to launching the age of debt in America, he didn't just talk the talk, he also walked the walk, beginning with his own misguided policies. It was under Reagan's presidency that the United States went from a creditor nation to a debtor nation for the first time since World War I, initiating America's massive slide into long-term dependency on China and other foreign powers to underwrite our spending spree. And of course, Tea Party activists today have amnesia over the fact that Reagan drove more debt than all the U.S. presidents who came before him. Years later, Vice President Dick Cheney said that he learned from Reagan that deficits didn't matter. Like so much of what came out of Cheney's lips while he was in the West Wing, that was a lie. The huge deficits wracked up by Reagan worsened the recession of 1990-91 by giving central bankers few options -- it eventually took politically risky tax hikes by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to undo Reaganomics and trigger the strong economy of the 1990s.

And that Reagan debt paid for things that were unproductive in the long-run -- a massive arms buildup that included many weapons that were outdated by the time they rolled off the assembly line, and massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans -- as the top marginal rate for high-earners went from 70 percent to 50 percent (where it was for most of Reagan's presidency, much higher than today) to 28 percent after the tax reform of 1986. This launched the huge spike in CEO pay; when Reagan was elected the average chief executive made 40 times what his average employee earned, but by 2000 that had risen astronomically to a multiple of 400. No wonder Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech from "Wall Street" is such an indelible image of the 1980s.

But earning power for middle-class Americans has barely budged since the dawn of the Reagan era. So in order to take part in the great festival of materialism that Ronald Reagan called "Americanism," people borrowed. The 40th president tried to make that easier by deregulating the savings-and-loan industry -- which proved to be a massive boondoggle that cost taxpayers $160 billion even as policy makers failed to learn the lessons of the S&L debacle. Still, people found many ways to borrow and buy, mainly on credit cards. In 1980, the typical American saved 10 percent of what he or she earned, but by 2004 that plunged to zero. Household and consumer debt went from 100 percent of the U.S. GDP in 1980 to 177 percent today. If you've been around for the last 25 years, you saw how this was accomplished through the chasing of bubbles, first on Wall Street and then in the housing mania of the mid-2000s. Now, with falling home prices and record foreclosures, there are no more bubbles to inflate, which is why the Reaganist chickens of our unsupported spending binge are finally coming home to roost.

It didn't have to be this way. Had the U.S. pursued more sensible policies in the 1980s --if all the dollars funneled toward the top 2 percent of American millionaires and unnecessary weapons had instead gone into rebuilding our infrastructure, making America the world leader in alternative energy that it is not because of Reagan's short-sighted policies, and a better education system -- we would not be facing this massive hangover that could now lead to a lost American decade.

It's a shame. As many of you know, I researched Reagan's presidency not long ago for my 2009 book Tear Down This Myth, and in some surprising ways his presidency was more reality-based than our wacky political world of 2010 -- today's GOP would find the real Reagan soft on terrorism and immigration and far too pragmatic to succeed as a modern Republican. But wecan't forget that this major part of the Gipper's legacy is also quite toxic -- the mindless worship of materialism backed by by feckless policies and rhetoric that steered American workers on a Pier Piper path to the current huge mess were in.

Meanwhile, right-wing activists continue their crusade to erect more Reagan statues and get his picture on money, maybe even as the "fifth Beatle" on Mount Rushmore. But in reality -- Reagan's face doesn't belong on a $50 bill. It belongs on your weekly unemployment check.