The last three decades have seen a monumental decline in virtually every qualitative measurement in America. This can be directly linked to the conservative political paradigm that was ushered into dominance starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Stagnant wages, rising costs, decreasing benefits, ballooning national debt, and a loss of freedoms have been the keynote of the Reagan Era.
The Drug War, Social Repression, and Incarceration
Where to begin? Let’s start with the colossal failure known as the drug war. Many states had decriminalized marijuana by the 1970s. When the Reagan conservatives came to power, one of their central plans was to force cuts in recreational drug usage (including alcohol). Thus began the Just Say No program and the drug war. Costs quickly spiraled.
While a Harvard Study claims that legalizing drugs could save $76.8 billion per year, and 53% favor marijuana legalization, there are some vested industries at stake now, particularly the for-profit private prison/security complex who are entrenched in the bureaucratic establishment and hire powerful lobbyists to keep the drug war going.
All this money being spent to massively expand the government has to be justified somehow, so the authorities began to ‘fight back against crime’. The number of arrests for marijuana offenses alone is approaching 1,000,000 people per year. With an estimated 44% of Americans have tried or currently use it (compared to 22% in Holland), we have become a nation of criminals. What better way to justify these bloated governmental budgets?
The spike in the number of incarcerated Americans reflects an increasing social repression. Gilbert Mercier writes that the US is the worlds leading jailer, “According to the BJS, in 2008 over 7.3 million people were either on probation, in jail, in prison or on parole. This amounts to an astonishing 3.2 percent of all US adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.” The following chart represents incarceration rates for a few countries:
Liam Fox expands on this, “America incarcerates more of it’s citizens than any other country in the world. With only 5% of the world population, America has more than 25% of the world’s prisoners. The steep incline in the number of Americans incarcerated began in 1980. Since that time the number of Americans incarcerated has jumped from under 500,000 people to close to 2,500,000. The advent of private prisons during that time has created a powerful lobby, on behalf of its Wall Street investors, to lengthen sentences. Longer sentences means more prisoners. More prisoners means more prisons. More prisoners, and more prisons, means more profit. As a result, Americans now spend almost $70 billion a year on a corrections system (including prison, probation and parole) being run largely for profit.”
Taxes, Economics, and Standard of Living
Although Ronald Reagan actually instituted one of the largest tax hikes in US history, he and the fiscal conservatives started their campaign to drastically reduce the top tax rate for the rich.
The conservative tax policy that unleashed the class war that ended the period known as the Great Compression (which followed the Great Depression), and was the terminus of an era where single income families enjoyed plenty of jobs, economic opportunity, and a larger degree of social mobility.
This in turn created the phenomena of wealth consolidation to go into overdrive, starting the drive towards income disparity and a gulf between rich and poor that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression, a new conservative era known as The Great Divergence.
Additional charts for the share of wealth controlled by the top 10% and top 0.01%. Ronald Reagan and the conservatives ushered in an era of unbridled greed. An increasing amount of the share of the pie of wealth that is created by labor was gobbled up by those most well off to begin with.
The rich have reaped the vast majority of every economic expansion over the last 30 years, including the top 1% gaining two thirds of it in recent years. The top 0.1% have seen a 94% income growth since 2002. The richest of them all (the top 400) have seen an astounding 476% increase since 1992. The richest 74 people made as much as the 19 million lowest-paid people in America.
Today there is a higher Gini-Coefficient (which measures the wealth disparity in a nation) than the Great Depression. The US now ranks 42nd from the worst in the world in terms of the gulf between rich and poor, slightly worse than Iran, Nigeria, and Cambodia.
Currently, one third of all the pay in the United States is raked in by corporate executives. In 1970, the average CEO made 28 times what an average worker at his company made. By 2005, this had swelled to 465 times what an average worker made. This is phenomena exclusive to the US, and is not shared by other developed Western nations like Japan where an average CEO makes less than 20x what an average worker does.
Deficits and the National Debt
This is perhaps the most ironic part of the Reagan Legacy. He railed against the national debt, even though it was decreasing with every president from FDR to Carter. As soon as Reagan and the fiscal conservatives took control over economic policy, the very thing they talked about the most started to grow.
The national debt nearly tripled under Reagan. We see a sudden change in the trendline for the national debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product as soon as Reagan became president as well:
In fact, Reagan and the Bushes are responsible for over 93% of the national debt:
Since the election of Reagan and the conservatives in 1980, America has been on a downward spiral. The charts above are just the tip of the iceberg, but demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we are on the wrong track in America. From turning the United States into a police state with the highest incarceration rate in the world, to waging class warfare on the poor so the rich can get richer, to massively ballooning the national debt, the Reagan Legacy is disastrous.