Albert Einstein said that chopping wood is satisfying because you see the results of your work immediately. For today's most eminent chopper, the president, the presidency has been like chopping wood: instant gratification. But before the fields are again white with daisies, he will see gratifications delayed.
Focusing on the economic program has been an excuse for not dealing with such "social issues" (why is the economy not a "social" issue?) as abortion, school prayer, and capital punishment. Soon the economy may make those other issues welcome as respites.
The idea that Reagan "controls" Congress is peculiar. Republicans control the Senate, but anyone who thinks that means Reagan controls the Senate has never met a senator. Was Republican Bob Dole, chairman of the Finance Committee, more docile regarding Reagan's program than the previous chairman, Russell Long, would have been? Who is leading opposition against the president's plan to sell AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia? Oregon's Robert Packwood, a Republican.
Democrats control the House, and when the president proposed cutting the Social Security minimum benefit, 174 of 191 Republicans voted with Democrats to endorse the benefit. If Reagan "controls" Congress, why did he not get the "clean" tax bill he wanted, instead of the usual gaudy Christmas tree?
Ironies abound. The man who criticizes federal power has used power to obliterate a trade union. Conservatives, who you might think would deplore a plebiscitary presidency, rejoice because their man used television to incite a blizzard of telephone calls and telegrams to Congress. Most of the callers and senders of telegrams probably knew little about the tax alternative they were stampeded into clamoring for. Imagine what conservatives such as Edmund Burke or John Adams would have thought about that. Fortunately, the use of television as a cattle prod to move a herd of telephoners is not something that can be done often.
Conservatives talk of revitalizing government below the federal level, but new policies adversely affect America's 80,000 other governments, in four ways. Federal aid is declining. Federal tax cuts, especially for business, cut resources in the approximately 40 states that "couple" taxes to federal rates. Federal tax cuts have raised the probability of large federal deficits and borrowing, thereby depressing the bond market, which state and local governments use. (A state utility recently had to sell its bonds by offering yields of 15 percent--tax free. How many local leaders want to commit their communities to 20-to 30-year obligations at today's rates?)
Furthermore, cuts in corporate taxes, as well as creation of tax-exempt "All Savers" certificates, will reduce demand for tax-exempt municipals. All things considered, it is misleading to say state or local governments are "free" to assume the burden of services the federal government is relinquishing.
The most entertaining irony of the autumn is that although Reagan preaches respect for markets, the financial markets are not expressing respect for his program. Even the Wall Street Journal, the Vatican of the Church of Supply-Siders, says the balanced budget of 1984 is "a dream, not a forecast."
The venerable Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and currently an "outside" adviser to Reagan, says that in the next six months the administration must calm the financial markets. It must do so, he says, by convincing them that it can pass enough additional large budget cuts to hold down deficits, and hence hold down federal borrowing, thereby (or so the theory goes) holding down interest rates.
But Social Security and defense account for about 60 percent of the budget. Regarding Social Security, remember that in 1980 Reagan's key task was to establish his place in the political mainstream. A key to doing this was his acceptance speech at the Detroit convention, and perhaps the key sentence in it was: "It is essential that the integrity of the Social Security system be preserved." That sentence may be carefully ambiguous, but it was meant to be heard as: no cuts.
Regarding defense, the secretary of defense said, just six months ago: "It is the across-the-board suppression of past defense budgets that is the direct cause of the need now for across-the- board increases. . . . We do not believe we can afford to temporize any longer in the face of the Soviet threat; the time for taking our time has ended."
So has the easy, wood-chopping part of Reagan's presidency.