WSJ Editorial: Reaganomics at 25

Roundup: Talking About History

Twenty-five years ago this weekend, Ronald Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act. The bill cut personal income tax rates by 25% across the board, indexed tax brackets for inflation and reduced the corporate income tax rate. The anniversary is worth commemorating as a seminal moment that continues to influence policy for the better in the U.S., and around the globe.

The achievement of Reaganomics can only be fully understood by recalling the miserable state of affairs a quarter-century ago. Newsweek summarized the national mood when it wrote in 1981 that Reagan "inherits the most dangerous economic crisis since Franklin Roosevelt took office 48 years ago."

That was no exaggeration. The economy was enduring a cycle of rising inflation with growing levels of unemployment. Remember 20% mortgage interest rates? Terms like "stagflation" and "misery index" entered the popular vocabulary, and declinists of various kinds were in the saddle. The perception of American economic weakness encouraged the Soviet empire to ever bolder adventures, as reflected by Soviet tanks in Kabul and Communists on the march in Nicaragua and Africa.

The reigning Keynesian policy consensus had no answer for this predicament, and so a new group of economic ideas came to the fore. Actually, they were old, classical economic ideas that were rediscovered via the likes of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, and such policy activists in Washington as Norman Ture and Jack Kemp, among others. These humble columns under our late editor, Robert Bartley, led the parade.

For every policy goal, you need a policy lever, Mr. Mundell likes to say. Monetary restraint was needed to break inflation, while cuts in marginal tax rates would restore the incentives to save and invest. With Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve and Reagan at the White House, those two levers became the essence of the "supply-side" policy mix.

The results have been better than even some of its supporters hoped. The Dow Jones Industrial Average first broke 1,000 in 1972, but a decade later it was barely above 800 -- one of the worst and most enduring bear markets in history. In the 25 years since Reaganomics, however, the Dow has climbed to about 11,000, accounting for an increase in national wealth on the order of $25 trillion. To match that increase in percentage terms, the Dow would have to rise to some 150,000 in the next quarter century. American living standards have risen steadily, and U.S. businesses have created entire industries that didn't exist a generation ago.

Obviously, the economic policy path from 1981 to the present day has not been a straight line. The biggest detour occurred from 1990 through 1994, when George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton forgot the Gipper's lesson and raised marginal income-tax rates; they suffered for it in the elections of 1992 and 1994. The arrival of the Gingrich Republicans in Congress stopped this slow-motion repeal of Reaganomics, however, and even helped to extend it at the margin with a cut in the capital-gains tax rate to 20% in 1997....

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