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Evening in America

Monday, February 14th, 2011

By Chuck Williams
I am curious why there is so much hoopla surrounding Reagan’s 100th birthday and the coming year-long celebration. I don’t remember him as a particularly good guy. I find that our sharing Feb. 6 as the day of our arrivals sullies what otherwise is a perfectly good day.

What I remember of Reagan is this. He rigged the election of 1980 by manipulating the Iran hostage crisis. He waged an illegal war in Central America. He changed the rules for the savings banks and thus helped create the savings and loan crisis (an ominous sign of things to come). He was in power during the market crash of 1987 and the ensuing recession. But worst of all is his legacy.

I think Reagan’s legacy is not the optimism he showered on the country but his dividing of America through his ingraining of the idea that the wealthy should neither have to pay their fair share of taxes nor be responsible citizens as it pertains to the health of the country. Before Reagan, common ground could be found and the most serious problems of the country could be addressed. (It was Nixon who signed into law the 55 mph speed limit in 1973. Can you imagine a Reagan or Bush doing that?) After Reagan, the country has been divided down ideological lines to such an extent that it seems the split can never be closed – even with the most common sense solutions to the horrendous problems facing us today.

But worse, I think Reagan’s optimism can now be seen as denial. Frank Rich commented in the Times recently on how Obama’s State of the Union address, with its optimism, brought back strains of Reagan and not the doom and gloom of Carter. But maybe Carter had it right. The irony may be that the rosy picture Reagan painted and the seeming growth and expansion we saw in the 80’s and 90’s were nothing more than mirages driven by lax credit and inflated property values.

That is, our growth really stopped in the 80’s; there weren’t any meaningful jobs then and there aren’t any now. Sure, there were construction jobs but those were driven by easy credit and false property values. But real middle-income factory jobs went overseas or were automated; one hundred workers can now do what it took a thousand to do 40 years ago from the auto industry to the printing industry.

So where are those other 900 working? They aren’t.

Everyone, from Obama on down, talks about the need to create good jobs, but nobody talks about what those jobs are. As Paul Krugman has wisely pointed out in the Times, what is good for international corporations, such as GE, GM, Apple, Microsoft, is not necessarily good for the U.S. In fact these companies could have great profits and not create a single well paying job in the U.S. (In the sense of a middle-income factory worker that is.)

Looking back, it’s rather sobering to see that it seems like America’s day in the sun lasted about 40 years at best, from 1946 to 1986. In our drive to provide ourselves with cheap “stuff” we’ve cut our legs out from under ourselves without even knowing it.

I would suggest that Reagan’s real legacy is:

–A crumbling infrastructure; bad roads and bridges, inadequate airports, an archaic power grid, etc.

–An education system in shambles.

–An alternative energy policy that is 30 years behind.

–An industrial base that has abandoned America for cheap labor and markets abroad. (As Bob Herbert said in the Times, American industry doesn’t need America any more.)

–A financial industry whose interest is completely at odds with the good of the country.

–A political climate that has put ideology above practicality and which makes it impossible to learn and build from crises, such as 9/11 and the Tucson shootings.

–A backward looking philosophy that fails to prepare the country for the global economy and its ramifications to the workforce, Reagan created a false sense of stability and prosperity that finally collapsed in 2008.

True to form though (in what I remember to be his demented state), I think Reagan was looking out the wrong window when he said it was morning in America. I don’t think he was looking at a sunrise, rather at a sunset.

Chuck can be reached at

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Chuck Williams is an architect by training and profession. He recently developed specialized computer software for the architecture and construction industry. He is an avid fly fisherman.