Reading the president's State of the Union message, you are supposed to see such virtues as a willingness to "change," "bipartisanship" and a more "realistic" assessment of the nation's "troubled" economy.
But there is less here than meets the eye. Except for minor adjustments and changes in tone or rhetoric, President Reagan was really proposing to "stay the course."
In the White House's Roosevelt Room on Friday, when Reagan was charged by conservative columnist John Lofton with having adandoned his original principles--notably a belief that deficits can't be cured by raising taxes--the president responded:
"I'm just as stubborn as ever." And, in fact, he is.
The harsh reality is that for all the rhetoric of accommodation and compromise, the president has stubbornly stuck to the key elements of Reaganomics that got us into the mess in the first place: a 25 percent cut in individual tax rates, followed by tax indexation due to begin in 1985; huge depreciation tax benefits for business; and a $1.6 trillion defense buildup.
The president's address had the tone of compromise. But the budget he proposes makes only cosmetic adjustments. More, much more, is needed to avert economic disaster. Reaganomics is an utter failure. The nation is entitled, now, to a new set of priorities from its government in Washington that will reduce in a meaningful way the big buildup in military spending and excessive tax reductions from the middle of this decade to the end of it.
And since the president apparently can't bring himself to set this change in motion, it's up to Congress to seize the initiative, much as it did last year when it rejected and rewrote the president's 1983 budget.
The extent of the failure of Reaganomics is there for anyone to read in the White House "fact sheet" issued with the State of the Union message.
Instead of the balanced budget that Reagan promised for fiscal 1984, these documents now project a deficit of $189 billion, assuming that Congress does everything the president asks, including partially freezing federal spending, so as to "save" $43 billion.
Otherwise, the deficit next year would be $231 billion, following on a staggering $208 billion deficit for the current fiscal year. (Last year's was a mere $115 billion.) These are the kind of numbers that freaked out the former Republican cabinet members who banded together with their opposite Democratic numbers to form a bipartisan group appealing for lower deficits.
The prospective deficit story is told graphically in a simple table issued as part of the "fact sheet" material: [TABLE OMITTED] This little table speaks volumes: What it shows is that, despite the "sweeping initatives" Reagan touted in his address, the budget deficit for the current and the next two fiscal years remains on a very high plateau of around $200 billion. The deficit comes down--and not very fast--on the assumption that future Congresses (and a future president) can be locked into a standby tax increase.
The "supply-side" tax cuts and the extraordinary buildup of defense have created such a gap between income and outgo that even if there were to be economic recovery and rapid growth, enormous deficits would remain. In all of our history, there has been no parallel for this kind of financial crisis.
Budget director David Stockman says that the new budget for fiscal 1984 calls for a real increase (after allowing for a 5 percent inflation factor) of 9 to 10 percent in military spending. But the civilian agencies would be cut by a real 3 percent.
As the nation faces 11 percent unemployment, and the deepest recession since the Big Depression, that is simply unacceptable.
Thus the president, while paying lip service to the "challenge of change" (a quote from FDR), offered little to back it up. An exception is his endorsement of the Social Security Commission's report, which is a plus because it would help restore the income-outgo balance in the Social Security system, at least in the short run.
A government wage freeze is a Band-Aid that in any event would have to be removed in a year. For the long haul, a standby tax increase is a bit of fluff that only makes the out-year deficits look smaller--assuming this Congress buys it, and other Congresses (or presidents) are bound by it. Its chances of adoption are about zero.
A real deficit reduction, not a contingency reduction in the later years, is desperately needed. Why? There is still a tendency, in some circles, to pooh-pooh the importance of big budget deficits: After all, it is said, Japan and West Germany run big deficits as a percentage of their economies, and they--over the years at least--have done all right. But Japan and West Germany generate relatively larger savings that can be used to finance government borrowing.
For us, there's a Catch-22: If deficits near the $200 billion level continue after economic recovery begins, private borrowing will begin to compete again with Treasury needs, inevitably pushing interest rates up; the Fed will tighten the screws, and recovery will be aborted.
That's why the nation needs a basic shift in priorities. Put aside Reaganomics, Mr. President--it hasn't worked. Your defense buildup can be stretched out without risking national security. Listen to the officials in your own administration who argue privately that even if you keep the last stage of the Kemp-Roth tax cut (because of the recession this year), you ought to abandon the tax-indexation system, which will pile up the deficits in the later years.
The only reality is for you to change the course, not the rhetoric.