Krugman weighs in on Brooks: "Reagan did it"

America's love affair with debt really got going in 1980, writes the Times columnist. So it's the Gipper's fault

Published September 30, 2009 2:14PM (EDT)

A few hours after I posted my cranky disagreement with David Brooks' theory of American moral decay yesterday, a reader wrote in to point out that I might have missed the bigger picture: "Brooks situates the original inflection point at 1980," he wrote. "Worth noting who took office as President then and started escalating the public deficits..."

Others made the same point in the comments. And they weren't the only people to notice the gaping lacunae in my fault-finding. Paul Krugman makes precisely the same point this morning.

Andrew Leonard is unhappy with my colleague David Brooks for suggesting that rising debt in America reflects moral decay. Surprisingly, however, Leonard doesn't make what I thought was the most compelling critique.

David points out, correctly, that something changed around 1980 -- that consumers started spending a larger share of national income and that debt began increasing. Although he doesn't point this out, this was also when the federal government first began running substantial deficits even in good years.

David would have you believe that what happened then was a decline in Calvinist virtue. But, um, didn't something else happen around 1980? Can't quite remember ... someone whose name begins with the letter "R"?

Yes, Reagan did it.

It is very, very rare that I get accused of letting Ronald Reagan off the hook for the damage his presidency did to the United States. As I wrote back to my reader yesterday, I felt the Reagan critique was "almost implicit" simply by virtue of my mentioning the year 1980. And I did consider making that larger point, because Reagan did exactly the same thing as George Bush -- he pushed through tax cuts that were not matched by spending cuts, leading to enormous deficits.

No argument there. But I think you can also make the case that just by focusing on the last ten years, we can highlight the stark political insanity of the current moment even more drastically than if we try to look at the entirety of the past 30 years. The U.S. had a balanced budget just ten years ago. The great majority of the current annual budget deficit is the result of decisions made by the party that controlled the White House in the last eight years. Political memory in the United States seems to be pretty darn short. If millions of people can't seem to remember what just happened, yesterday, why confuse them with ancient history?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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David Brooks How The World Works Paul Krugman Ronald Reagan U.s. Economy