Hitting the '80s

While I have yet to read Richard McKenzie's What Went Right in the 1980s, in "Hits of the '80s" (Aug./Sept.) he has misdiagnosed the negative reaction to his book. Greed, he seems to have forgotten, is a moral concept, not an economic one. In particular, it is a way of characterizing the aggressive pursuit of self-interest as evil. What the Left sensed about the "Reagan Revolution" was that his administration was trying (and even occasionally succeeding) to make it easier for creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs to make money.

The moral critics of the '80s hate that decade not despite, but because of, its successes. They have constructed a morality tale whereby the morality they despise -- the morality of self-interest -- leads inevitably to all our country's problems. Mr. McKenzie's work subverts that moral. But it does not subvert the morality behind the moral. To do that, the engine behind what went right in the '80s -- the creative entrepreneur in selfish pursuit of his values -- needs to be held up as a symbol of moral virtue, rather than of vice, in our culture. To the extent that his work at least covertly suggests this, the reaction of the intellectual left was to be expected.

James Lennox
Department of History and
Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA

Apologists for Reaganomics never use the most straightforward data to make their point. They never quote the broadest overall assessment of the economy, real Gross Domestic Product growth. Here's why. The GDP grew slower in the '80s (2.4 percent per year) than in the '50s (4.1 percent), the '60s (4.0 percent), and the '70s (2.9 percent). Recall that the '70s included an OPEC oil embargo, the demoralizing loss in Vietnam, and the worst financial markets since the Great Depression. Contrast that with all the positives that benefited the economy in the '80s, including the collapse in oil prices, the historic bull markets in stocks, bonds, and real estate, and the unprecedented levels of peacetime deficit spending. But even with all those '80s advantages, Reaganomics produced the slowest growth in four decades.

Another key statistical series shows that the average worker ended the decade making less. Real average hourly earnings for workers in manufacturing and services actually fell during the Reagan years. Today those earnings are at 1966 levels. These facts support the popularly held view that the Reagan economic record was a bust. Michael G. Caracappa Haddonfield, NJ

I lived in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, where I saw the American steel industry collapse. The mills have now been razed, the high-tech manufacturing sites we were promised never materialized, and now the only growth industry in Pittsburgh is prisons. There is no way that Mr. McKenzie is going to convince me that U.S. industrial production rose in the '80s -- unless he's being disingenuous and including companies owned by U.S. corporations but located outside the country.

Edward Pervin
Indialantic, FL

Mr. McKenzie replies: I remain fascinated by people who criticize the 1980s and who refuse to read views that might be at odds with what they believe to be the case -- and then admit that their minds can't be changed no matter what the evidence shows. There is not much I can say to them other than read what I have written, evaluate the entire argument as I have tried to present it, and then consider the possibility that I have tried to deal with claims of the critics as openly, fairly, and completely as reasonable.

I have said it before, but I will stress it here once again. My book What Went Right in the 1980s is not intended as a defense of Ronald Reagan or Reaganomics. I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I have no formal party allegiance. I give Ronald Reagan far less credit for what happened during the decade than do many others. If pressed to do so, I would give far more credit to the microchip (and to the international competitiveness inspired by technological developments) for the renewed prosperity (which was impaired by the reversal of the inflationary spiral of the 1970s) than to any set of federal policies. In my view, the success of the economy during that decade largely occurred in spite of what went wrong in Washington. In the end, I have tried in my book to deal only with what happened, not with what caused events to unfold as they did. As it happens, my findings stand in sharp contrast to many prevailing views.

Let me also add that I have in no way meant to suggest that everything went right in every part of the country during the last decade. A number of things went wrong during the decade, and my book recognizes them. I have shown that far more went right in the American economy than the critics, who are joined by two of the letter writers, have suggested. My admonition is simple: Read the book.

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