Recently, there's been a rash of assessments of the Reagan administration, and of the extent to which it should be blamed for the huge budget deficit, or get the credit for economic recovery.
Outside of the Republican National Committee, the most up-beat judgment I've run across comes from neoconservative Ben J. Wattenberg, who in his book "The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong" dispenses cheer with an even hand.
"Conservatives may find it hard to accept that we moved ahead during the 'Carter years' or during 'big-spending Democratic congresses'; liberals may find it hard to swallow that there was progress in America even as Ronald Reagan was President," Wattenberg writes.
He goes on to fault "the media" (I hate that expression: I wish he and others would say "the newspapers and television") for focusing on the bad news and the down side of the economy. The fact is that the overall quality of life has improved, he says.
For example, Wattenberg believes that blacks, "despite some negative developments," have shared in the general economic progress of the past dozen years. He scoffs at the suggestion that blacks are destined to remain in a permanent underclass of society:
"On balance: the permanent underclass as measured economically is both shrinking and not very permanent. There is a rising tide lifting many boats -- including some that once appeared to be sunk. There has been progress for blacks. And for others as well. . . . "
Wattenberg mustn't be allowed to paper over all of the economic problems here and abroad with a new version of the trickle-down theory. Therefore, I'm prepared to recommend to him three new books for his Labor Day weekend reading.
First, there's "The Reagan Record," by John L. Palmer and Isabel V. Sawhill, written for the nonpartisan Urban Institute.
Palmer and Sawhill argue that the Reagan administration's policies "have often failed to produce the promised results." They find that blacks and other minorities are worse off than they were when the Reagan administration began almost four years ago.
They fault Reagan for making the deepest budget cuts in grants to state and local governments and for programs serving the poor.
"The long cycle of dramatic growth in the social activism of the national government that began with President Roosevelt's New Deal has ended," Palmer and Sawhill say. "President Reagan has shifted the national social policy agenda from problem-solving to budget-cutting; and as long as the federal deficit remains a serious problem (which is likely to be long, indeed) there is little room for the agenda to shift back."
Next on my reading list for Wattenberg is a new book by Brookings economist Barry P. Bosworth, who thinks the time has come for a 180-degree change in policy. In "Tax Incentives and Economic Growth," Bosworth recommends a reversal of Reagan policy with new fiscal restraints that "encourage national saving, and a monetary policy that encourages the pass-through of that saving into investment."
One of Bosworth's main points is that supply-side economists give tax cuts and incentives too much credit for stimulating economic growth. The Reagan tax cuts in 1981 encouraged some individuals to put money into IRAs and other tax-exempt assets, but total savings have not increased, according to the Brookings economist.
Bosworth blames Reagan for the deficits, because the president failed to match tax reductions with equal budget reductions. The Reagan fiscal stimulus "collided with a monetary policy intent on . . . reducing inflation." But he accuses the Fed of causing the recession, which "was planned by the monetary authorities as a necessary means of reducing inflation."
Bosworth worries that the onset of recovery will give new impetus to supply-siders. A reading of the Republican Party platform, with its plethora of proposed new tax give-aways, confirms his fear. What he recommends instead is tax reform aimed at sharp reductions in the taxation of capital income, while the government gets cracking on a budget policy that aims at a surplus.
My final reading assignment for Wattenberg is a plain-speaking indictment of the Reagan budget by Howard E. Shuman, an old Capitol Hill hand who was administrative aide to Sens. Paul Douglas and William Proxmire. Shuman's "Politics and the Budget" should be studied by anyone who wants to understand the budget process.
His conclusions are compatible with those of Palmer, Sawhill and Bosworth. He agrees that, "Instead of being available for investment, much of the tax cut savings was claimed by the Treasury to finance the burgeoning debt."
I don't expect Ben Wattenberg to be converted by these books if he reads them. The "bad news" contained in these volumes is wrong, he would say. The thirst for "good news" is strong, especially in an election year. But the danger is that the weaknesses in Reaganomics that these other authors detail will be forgotten in the euphoria of the economic recovery.
"It's working!" the Reaganauts like to say, believing their own press releases and the Dow-Jones index: "Read the good news! Forget the bad news!" My recommendation: Before being seduced by Wattenberg's happy-ending soap opera, maintain a sense of balance by reading these books. The titles aren't as catchy as Wattenberg's, but they will help maintain your ties to reality.