April 10, 2013

Headlines revive memories of '80s supply-side economics

Adam Geller / The Associated Press

Believers hailed its reduced tax rates and deregulation as springboards for economic miracles under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Critics dismissed the very same ideas as so much trickle-down hocus-pocus and voodoo.

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: Their belief in conservative supply-side were as central to the story of the 1980s as Michael Jackson's moonwalk.

AP

It's been most of three decades since debate over "supply-side" economic policies was at the center of U.S. politics. But for the moment, talk of conservative economic ideas that were as central to the story of the 1980s as Michael Jackson's moonwalk and the first MacIntosh personal computer is back. Why? A pair of its leading proponents have returned to the headlines.

Memories of economic days gone by were rekindled last week when David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, unleashed a scathing attack on years of decision-making by U.S. leaders, including his former boss. It continued this week, when Thatcher's death on Monday prompted recollections — some fond, others not so much — of how the Iron Lady imposed her will on a long-stagnant British economy.

The confluence of events got economists waxing about what the past means for today, although there's disagreement on how much supply-side's ideas have been abandoned in the U.S. or are they just awaiting their moment of return. In the meantime, there was Arthur Laffer, the U.S. economist often called the father of supply-side, back on television three times Monday, recalling a warm friendship with Thatcher that highlighted a time when prevailing wisdom on taxes, deficits, and the roles of government and individuals was very different.

"We're back in the time machine," said Yoram Bauman, a Seattle economist who makes a living doing stand-up comedy about the dismal science — and who has long opened with a joke or two about supply-side to test the depth and endurance of his audience's knowledge.

Supply-side economists argued that reducing taxes through lower rates would encourage work, saving and investment. Early supply-side theory promised that the reduced tax rates could pay for themselves by raising tax revenues. Under Reagan, the government lowered tax rates and reduced government regulation as the Federal Reserve worked to rein in inflation. The administration's focus on lowering tax rates for the wealthy, labeled "trickle-down economics," reflected the belief that these gains would encourage the rich to spend and invest more to create jobs for others.

Now that theory — and Bauman's comic material, for that matter — may have found its moment, but it's not clear how long it will last.

It began last week when Stockman wrote a lengthy opinion piece in The New York Times, followed by interviews, to build awareness of his new book, "The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America." He used the forum to go after everyone from Richard Nixon to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush for decades of decisions that he said have left government bloated and swimming in deficits and the economy on a fault line.

Along the way, Stockman also lambasted Reagan — whom many Republicans embrace as an economic hero — for the "destruction of fiscal rectitude" inherent in running up big deficits. The criticism by Stockman, who resigned from the administration in 1985 over disagreement with those policies, was labeled as a rant by some economists. But there was little doubt that, if only briefly, it revived memories of the economics of the 1980s — and pointed out how much the landscape has changed.

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