Out of the West: Republican years bring a mixed blessing

Rupert Cornwell
Tuesday 07 July 1992 23:02

Washington - Remember 1977, when the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and Britain, believe it or not, had a Labour prime minister? Across the Atlantic another comparably improbable event was taking place - a Democrat entered the White House. Four years later the Carter presidency went the way of the Callaghan government, in a United States feeling much as it does now - anxious, uncertain and searching for a hero to restore national self-esteem.

What it got was Ronald Reagan and then George Bush. Is the US better off today, and have things really changed in the past 15 years? The answers, it would appear, are: 'Not a very great deal' and 'Yes, but not quite as you might have expected.'

At this point, readers may well be bracing themselves for a party- political on behalf of Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Not so, however. For what follows I am indebted to none other than the Heritage Foundation, that free-enterprise- preaching, supply-side-advocating, get-Government-off-our- backs think-tank, which provided much of the intellectual underpinning of the 'Reagan revolution'.

Now, in three small pages of unadorned statistics which are to appear in its next quarterly policy review, it sets out the balance sheet of 1992 versus 1977. 'We offer no interpretation,' the Heritage Foundation blandly insists, 'and draw no conclusions.' I will not be so bashful.

First, a few cheerful findings. Fifteen years ago there were 22 Communist countries; today there are five - score one to the victors of the Cold War. Over the period the Dow Jones Index has roughly quadrupled, while US consumer prices merely doubled. The US is a land of hi-tech households: 77 per cent have video-recorders and 83 per cent microwave ovens, compared with 2 and 7 per cent respectively in the Carter years. Subscribers to cable television have risen from 12 million to 50 million. New homes cost a little more on average, but they're 15 per cent bigger than in 1977, and 81 per cent come with central air-conditioning. So far so good. But the Reagan/Bush record on government is less impressive.

Everyone knows about the budget deficit, up from dollars 114bn ( pounds 64bn) in 1977 to dollars 388bn this year, as measured in 1991 dollars. But what about those promises to scale down government and 'empower' ordinary citizens to run their daily lives? In fact, the total of state and local employees has risen by a quarter, to 15.4 million, while total federal, state and local spending is up almost 50 per cent.

All of which, naturally enough, costs money. 'Tax Freedom Day', the date by which you have earned enough to settle your annual financial obligations to Uncle Sam, has slipped back from April 30 in 1977 to May 5 in 1992. And the population has hardly grown richer: in constant 1991 dollars, median family income has risen only from dollars 34,570 to dollars 36,916, despite a jump in the number of working women. More government also means more laws (33,553 pages of new regulations in 1991 against 24,192 in 1977). And in this most litigious of countries, more laws means more lawyers - up from 550,000 to 735,000 during the 1980s alone.

There have been other spectacular changes too, intended and less intended. The Reagan/Bush 'law-and-order' crusade has yielded some successes. Cocaine usage has fallen, and 23 per cent of households were victims of crime in 1990 compared with 31 per cent when Carter took power. But the prison population has tripled since 1977, to 823,414 last year, meaning one citizen in 300 is behind bars. Abortions have risen from 1.3 million to 1.6 million a year; the number of births to single and divorced mothers has doubled since 1980.

Then take total health spending: in today's dollars up from dollars 367bn in 1977 to dollars 809bn, a sum almost equal to Britain's entire GNP. Like lawyers, doctors have been prime beneficiaries of Reaganism. Less predictably, the environment seems to have been, too. During the 1980s, annual emissions of carbon monoxide and sulphur pollutants fell by 20 per cent. The Pacific Spotted Owl may be in trouble: but not, according to the Heritage Foundation, the domestic populations of whitetailed deer and wild turkeys (numbers of the latter have more than doubled in the 1980s to reach almost 4 million).

Forget what you read about Rio: George Bush may just be the 'Environment President' he claims to be. As for the rest, though, he is defending a mixed record, to put it mildly. The Carter years certainly were not the golden age of modern America. But even by the Republicans' own standards, they weren't a disaster either.

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