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Washington Times Op-ed: “What they’re teaching in college about Mr. Reagan”

My second op-ed in the Washington Times appeared on page A21 of the October 6, 1995, edition, and was inspired by my happening across a truly awful freshman-level American-history book used then at, among many other schools, the University of Georgia.  (I do not know if this textbook is still widely used.  I’d not be surprised if it is.)  My op-ed is below the fold.

Henry Ford declared history to be “bunk.” Although typically denounced as a yokel’s grumble, I defend Ford’s indictment – if by “history” is meant what is taught at many universities. Such “history” is pitifully short on informed judgment.

Consider the treatment Ronald Reagan’s presidency received from George Tindall and David Shi in their leading college textbook America: A Narrative History. Throughout, Mr. Reagan is portrayed as an oafish bootlicker for tycoons.

How did this rascal from the “far right” defeat Jimmy Carter, a man with a “sincere desire to create a moral presidency”? Mr. Tindall’s and Mr. Shi’s answer is appallingly shallow: luck. Luckily for Mr. Reagan in 1980, many urban Democrats were “non-voters” while lots of voters moved to the GOP-friendly Sunbelt. Unluckily for Mr. Carter, historical forces conspired against him. The economy was made “desperately sick” by OPEC oil sheiks, and the Iranians refused to release American hostages. Americans, we are told, simply expected too much: “Carter was predestined to fail at an impossible task.”

Luck also gave Mr. Reagan a second term. Luckily for him, OPEC was “unraveling.” Mr. Tindall and Mr. Shi declare that the fall of both OPEC and oil prices “was the greatest stroke of luck for Reagan and the economy.” Unluckily for the Democrats, Walter Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, “was quickly placed on the defensive by the need to explain her spouse’s complicated finances, something no male candidate had been called upon to do.” (How quickly Spiro Agnew has been forgotten.) Only through such duplicitous theater could Mr. Reagan have “entranced” as many voters as he did.

Thank goodness for Mr. Reagan that his “prepared lines” and “showmanship” supplemented his good fortune, for he possessed neither intelligence nor substance. Mr. Reagan’s first inaugural address was “made up largely of recycled campaign speeches” and as president (according to an unnamed “aid”) Mr. Reagan registered “anecdotes rather than concepts.” Mr. Reagan became “entranced” by supply-side economics – a simplistic “old idea” peddled to an unsuspecting public as sound economics.

Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts and restrained monetary growth were “contradictory” policies, despite the resulting “short run . . . economic recovery without inflation.” Mr. Tindall and Mr. Shi depict Mr. Reagan’s economic program as balm for the greedy rich, snake oil for the middle class, and poison for the poor.

The result was a cascade of horrors. Tax reductions put “more cash in the hands of the rich” but caused a “revenue hemorrhage,” made cruel by “cuts in programs for the disadvantaged.” A “virus of greed and self-absorbed materialism . . . seemed to infect the nation,” “people in the upper-income groups benefitted most in a material way,” while “financial mania” and “opportunities for outrageous profits” came to a head with the “shenanigans” and “magic acts” of junk-bond kings who underwrote the “hijacking” of corporations by “corporate raiders.” No corporation, regardless of size, was safe from these financial predators who sold off acquired corporations “piece by piece,” much like common thieves in the business of “stealing cars and selling the parts.” Overall, the 1980s witnessed “a weak, unpredictable economic situation.”

The authors concede that 19 million new jobs were created during Reagan’s presidency, but this fact, they say, must be set against “the picture of uncounted beggars in the streets and homeless people sleeping in doorways, in cardboard boxes, and on heat grates – street scenes once associated with Calcutta.”

Whew! The 1980s must have been a dismal decade. Trouble is, Mr. Tindall’s and Mr. Shi’s facts are either falsehoods or half-truths. Perhaps the most false “fact” is the claim that Reagan lucked into falling oil prices. Oil prices fell only because Reagan decontrolled them in 1981. Decontrol encouraged greater domestic oil exploration – thus ending shortages, breaking OPEC’s chokehold on the U.S. economy, and reducing prices.

Mr. Tindall’s and Mr. Shi’s blindness to the cause of falling oil prices is consistent with the absence throughout their book of any hint of economic understanding. History for these authors is nothing but a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Good guys help the masses by creating government programs; bad guys help only the rich by obstructing government growth.

Students will learn no more about recent U.S. history from the Tindall-Shi text than they would learn by looking at reruns of Dan Rather from the 1980s. Regrettably, the Tindall-Shi text is what passes for scholarship in today’s universities, where too often history by historians is bunk.

Donald J.  Boudreaux is associate professor of Law and Economics at Clemson University.