Ronald Reagan, the "Teflon President" for whom, incidentally, I voted twice, shrewdly deceived us on taxes, fiscal realities and other things. And we swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. But to his everlasting credit Reagan hastened the Soviet Union’s demise by increasing U.S. defense spending, thereby forcing them to follow suit. This drove the final nail in the Soviets’ coffin by bankrupting their already-failing economy. The overall collapse of the USSR, however, was the result of our long-term policy of containment rather than confrontation devised in 1946 by Russian specialist George F. Kennan. Kennan predicted that the Soviet communist system, if contained for long enough, would self-destruct of its own weaknesses and dysfunctions without any overt action on our part. And he was right.
As part of his grand strategy Reagan refused to fund one penny of his increased defense spending with new taxes. He intended to force Congress to cut domestic spending instead to pay for it. How utterly naïve! No Congress, Democrat or Republican, is going to give up its pork, its very lifeblood. The inevitable result of Reagan’s plan was substantially increased federal indebtedness. Tax-and-spend Democrats were replaced by borrow-and-spend Republicans.
Almost since our nation’s beginnings the federal government has aided the states in funding the construction and maintenance of harbors, canals, dams, levees, highways, railroads, bridges and other infrastructure deemed vital to interstate commerce, national defense and the general welfare. In another disingenuous move Reagan cut federal aid to the states for infrastructure. His reasoning was to reduce federal spending by shifting some of the costs to the states, although he knew the state budgets there were tighter and taxpayers there were stingier. Today spending on infrastructure has reached a 30-year low in 45 of 50 states. In a recent survey by the American Society of Civil Engineers our infrastructure was rated mostly "D" (unsatisfactory) or worse. It will require an estimated $360 trillion outlay by 2020 just to bring us up to minimum standards.
With typical Republican duplicity Reagan didn’t actually cut much spending, he merely shifted or postponed it. These budget manipulations were classic examples of Republican long-term pain masked by short-term gain. But the chickens have come home to roost. Any politician who promises lower taxes today without substantially raising the federal debt is flat-out lying. Trump promises to make infrastructure restoral a top priority, but it will be interesting to see how he plans to pay for it.
In the entire period from 1940 to 2015 federal indebtedness averaged 9.3% under the Democrats and 7.3% under the GOP. Therefore, debt is higher under the Democrats, right? But this isn’t the whole story. When we exclude World War II with its humongous military spending, peacetime debt averaged 7.9% under the Republicans and 4.9% under the Democrats. But what is the real message for survival in the twenty-first century?
All, not some or most, but all former world hegemonic powers have eventually fallen without exception. And they usually fell because of military overspending, imperialistic overstretch and the belief that divine providence would sustain them. Anyone want to speculate about who might be next? But it doesn’t have to be this way. We still have choices, but time is growing short.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at email@example.com.