The 1980s, it seems, are being trashed at a ferocious pace. Donald Trump is flirting with bankruptcy. Michael Milken appears headed for jail. The cost of the savings-and-loan bailout grows by the hour. Now comes political pundit Kevin Phillips predicting that the greed and excesses of the '80s may soon give way to a populist backlash in the '90s. Welcome to a future of soak the rich and greater government activism.
It could happen -- but don't bet on it. Great changes in U.S. politics are rare, though our rhetoric constantly changes. Ronald Reagan didn't dismantle Big Government, but he did condemn it. George Bush is "kinder and gentler," but his policies mostly involve modest shifts in emphasis. We have lots of problems: an economy that raises living standards too slowly, mediocre schools, too much crime, an overburdened health care system and too much poverty. Phillips wrongly thinks that resentment of the rich offers an adequate political response to these frustrations.
The argument of his new book, "The Politics of the Rich and Poor," is that earlier eras of unbridled greed bred populism. The Gilded Age of the late 19th century led to the Progressive movement, and the speculative binges of the 1920s led to the New Deal. Now the 1980s boom may lead to a new populism. The parallels sound plausible, but they are essentially misleading.
A century ago, America was adjusting to industrialization. Progressive reforms (antitrust laws, child labor laws, workers' compensation and other government regulation) were mild responses to industrial power in a nation that distrusted concentrated power. As for the New Deal, it was a reaction to the Great Depression -- nothing more, nothing less -- and not the 1920s.
True, economic inequality increased in the 1980s. Consider:
The incomes of the wealthiest one percent of Americans now average about $550,000 and rose an astonishing 75 percent in the 1980s, estimates a new study by the House Ways and Means Committee. Their capital gains (such as profits on the sale of stock) and salaries both roughly doubled.
Most families did better, but only modestly so. For married couples, the median income -- the middle point -- rose 9 percent between 1980 and 1988 to $36,389, reports the Census Bureau. The proportion of all families with incomes over $50,000 (adjusted for inflation, as are all the figures here) rose from 20 percent to 26 percent. The share with incomes over $35,000 rose from 41 percent to 46 percent.
Millions of Americans got left behind, especially the poorly educated and single mothers. The median income of male high-school graduates fell 9 percent between 1980 and 1988. The median incomes of single mothers rose a meager 2.6 percent.
The trouble with Phillips' theory is that these changes can't be blamed mainly on Ronald Reagan. All the income figures cited above are before taxes, so Reagan's cut in tax rates isn't the main cause of rising inequality. What is? We really don't know. Greater import competition and more immigrants probably hurt the wages of the low-skilled. The large size of the "baby boom" generation may have depressed the wages of some younger workers.
Equally mysterious is the big jump in the pay of the super-rich. Economist Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution thinks people at the top of companies and the professions may be increasingly paid like "sports and entertainment stars -- there's disproportionate compensation for the guy who comes in first." Phillips is correct in a limited sense. Reagan's policies, by lowering tax rates and skimping on social services, exaggerated the growing income differences. For example, the effective tax rate for all federal taxes on the wealthiest one percent of Americans has dropped from 32 to 27 percent since 1980.
The fascination with Phillips' theory lies mostly in his political pedigree. In 1968, he advised Richard Nixon, whose endorsement graces the book's jacket along with -- get this -- Mario Cuomo's. Given Phillips' "conservative" credentials, his attack on Reaganism delights anyone who felt the 1980s were a fraud.
Perhaps the huge costs of the S&L debacle will ignite Phillips' backlash either alone or in concert with some other event (a deep recession?). Otherwise, the 1980s don't seem to have offended most Americans as much as they offended him. For all its excesses, the U.S. economy performed much better than in the 1970s: a fact that most people apparently grasp.
What's also needed to fulfill Phillips' vision -- and is conspicuously missing -- is enthusiasm for more government. Somehow, many of us see our fates as detached from society's. A recent Gallup poll found that 44 percent of us are "very optimistic" about our personal futures, but only 29 percent of us are similarly optimistic about the country. The great break in postwar politics came in the mid-1970s, when a slowing economy and rising government spending created a stalemate. People wanted more government services than the economy would support without (unwanted) higher taxes. Big budget deficits resulted.
Deciding what government should do and paying for it is what the budget debate is about. Taxing the super-rich can't provide an easy way out, though they are legitimate targets for higher taxes. In 1990, the wealthiest one percent will pay an estimated 15.7 percent of federal taxes, up from 12.8 percent in 1980. The huge jump in their incomes meant higher taxes despite lower tax rates. But just below the super-rich are large numbers of voters who don't count themselves as wealthy. Among the richest fifth of Americans, about half have incomes under $75,000. They consider themselves comfortable, not filthy rich.
It's now fashionable to attack the 1980s' glitz and greed. But this is a lazy and and ultimately ineffective argument for better or bigger government. Nor will it create an economy that raises living standards faster. Americans care less about equality (the gap between rich and poor) than about everyone becoming better off. The politics of envy lead to a dead end.