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The St. Reagan Cargo Cult

Today is Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday (they will even start the Super Bowl with a video tribute to the Gipper), so it is fitting to look back on his legacy.

Is Reagan a true American hero, or was he simply the first actor to play the role of President in real life? I’m not sure, actually. But I do know that any acting he was doing in the White House has been far eclipsed by the fiction that has been spun around his presidency by conservatives.

Perhaps the biggest example of this is the cargo cult that fervently believes that cutting taxes is the best (and perhaps only) way to economic growth. These people think of Reagan as the saint of tax cuts. And it is true that in his first year as president, Reagan cut the marginal tax rate for the rich from 70% to 28%. But what they ignore is that Reagan’s big tax cut was a disaster.

Perhaps it is a credit to Reagan that he realized this, and he raised taxes every year after his first year. In fact, the man who edited Reagan’s memoirs says:

Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes. … And so there’s a false mythology out there about Reagan as this conservative president who came in and just cut taxes and trimmed federal spending in a dramatic way. It didn’t happen that way. It’s false.

Unfortunately, his biggest tax increase was to the payroll tax, so in effect he replaced a progressive tax with a regressive tax, shifting much of the tax burden from the rich to the not-rich. And even Reagan’s budget director, the same man that orchestrated Reagan’s huge tax cut, says that tax cuts are not working, and that we should raise taxes.

And yet, conservatives and Republicans still believe that Reagan never raised taxes. Worse, they claim that we can solve our budget deficit problems and help the economy by cutting taxes even more, although there is plenty of evidence of the opposite.

So on this day of remembrance for Reagan, if you are cornered by a conservative complaining about deficits and the size of government, remind them about how Reagan increased our deficit by $3 trillion and increased the size of government dramatically. Or if they start complaining about illegal aliens, remind them that Reagan gave amnesty to three million undocumented workers. Or if they talk about fighting a war with Iran, remind them that Reagan secretly sold arms to Iran despite an arms embargo against them, and used the proceeds to fund death squads in Nicaragua, which Congress had outlawed. Or if they try to pretend they are not racist, remind them of how Reagan vetoed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, asserting that they would not work. Or if they claim that only Republicans can prevent terrorism, remind them that Reagan helped create and fund the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

If you are truly interested in Reagan’s legacy, read this excellent article in CBS news about Reagan, including both the prevalent myths and the reality. Or if that is too much trouble, here’s a cartoon:

© Kirk Anderson

UPDATE: If you are concerned about corruption in government, Reagan’s administration was one of the most corrupt in history with a total of 138 Reagan officials convicted, indicted, or named in investigations of official misconduct or criminal acts. Here is a list of all the people in the Reagan administration who were convicted of serious crimes directly related to their jobs — there are 21 of them, compared to eight for Nixon (who was forced out of office) and only one for Clinton (who was not).



  1. Gray Fox wrote:

    I think you made a typo:

    “Worse, they claim that we can solve our budget deficit problems and help the economy by RAISING taxes, even though there is plenty of evidence of the opposite.”

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  2. ebdoug wrote:

    And Palin is claiming we aren’t sticking to the Reagan Doctrin. Too bad she can’t read. And she is trying to patent her name so no one can use it without paying royalties. Sigh. We will here of her no more.
    Funny about Reagan. I just remember having this extreme hatred of him like other people who don’t want their name used.
    On the other hand, I’d vote for Michael Palin any day.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 5:08 am | Permalink
  3. Mad Hatter wrote:

    PALIN FOR PRESIDENT!!! (Michael that is)

    I said this in some previous comment. If the American experiment of self rule eventually goes down in flames, I believe that a future Gibbon will lay the beginning of the decline and fall squarely at the feet of Ronnie and those that managed him.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    Gray Fox, thanks, I fixed that typo (and another one). I really shouldn’t write while sick.

    Eva, actually Sarah and her daughter Bristol are taking out trademarks on their names (not a patent). Trademarking a name is reasonably common for entertainment celebrities, but is almost unheard of for politicians. Figures.

    However, she failed to finish that too.

    Oh, and Reagan’s daughter doesn’t have very nice things to say about Sarah Palin headlining one of her father’s birthday celebrations.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  5. ebdoug wrote:

    I’m so sorry you are sick. I hope you made it back from your trip.
    I was hinting at the Michael Palin name which he would never bother to trade mark. In his travel books he give away a lot about himself. He is the antithesis of the other Palin. I only hoped she’d get paid everytime her name was mentioned so that no one (exceptFox) would mention her name. Eva

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Don wrote:

    Reagan increased the size (both budget and number of Federal employees) of the Federal government more than any peace-time president. He was also the man under whom the explosion of government contracting to the private sector occurred which continues to this day and, in most sectors, costing tax-payers more for government services performed by government employees.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  7. westomoon wrote:

    Great piece — even if you were sick as a dog while writing it.

    The problem is, you can spout facts at the cargo cultists til you’re blue in the fact and it will make no difference — they don’t believe in facts, and they know they know better than you do. You could show them this data in a paper copy of Forbes dating from 1985 and it still wouldn’t shake their convictions.

    During the middle Reagan years, I was the outside-contact person for the Federal government’s workers compensation program, whose expenditures were directly related to the size of the Federal workforce. Even at the time, and even when talking to OMB and the CBO, who should have known better, it was nearly impossible to convince people that Federal employment had been going UP during Reagan’s term. Even while it was happening, the meme had more reality than the facts; that was also the beginning of the conservative practice of using the terms “Federal budget” and “Federal workforce” to mean only the domestic discretionary programs they didn’t like.

    Reagan cut domestic programs savagely. He also larded so much new money and so many new employees into the Defense budget that it overwhelmed the deep cuts he’d made in all the areas conservatives mean when they talk about “government”. But he uttered such seductive lies about it that even the experts denied that it was happening — while it was happening.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Gray Fox wrote:

    Glad you fixed the typos, now I can share this on my facebook, on the gippers birthday no less.

    Sorry to hear you’re sick, and I thought it was that it was posted at 1am had something to do with it though it seems it was possibly double trouble.

    Enjoying the site, keep up the good work!

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  9. someone wrote:

    Why does Reagan get credit for dismantling the Soviet empire. That credit goes to Gorbachev who dismantled the Soviet system from within when he realized it was not working.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Jackson W Barnett wrote:

    “The problem is, you can spout facts at the cargo cultists til you’re blue in the fact and it will make no difference — they don’t believe in facts, and they know they know better than you do.”


    Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  11. Bert wrote:

    Reagan did that speech asking Gorbachev to dismantle the wall after the wall was already coming down. it was a calculated move to manipulate history. For some, it seems to have worked.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink