Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Voodoo You

“It just isn’t going to work, and it’s very interesting that the man who invented this type of what I call a voodoo economic policy is Art Laffer, a California economist.” – George H.W. Bush, Carnegie Mellon University, April 10, 1980

 

I’m frightened for the United States, and it’s not just because of my disdain for our faux president, Donald Trump.  I’m genuinely concerned about what could happen over the next few years.

In the above quote, George H.W. Bush was referring to the plans of fellow Republican and 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for revitalizing a stagnant U.S. economy.  Then, when Reagan won in most of the primaries, his camp offered Bush the vice-presidential position, and the former Texas congressman shut up about economics.  In 1980, the nation was in a bad financial situation.  The costs of the Vietnam War, coupled with oil embargoes from OPEC nations, had finally taken their toll.  Unemployment stood at nearly 10%; the prime interest rate was 21%; inflation was 14%; home mortgage rates were 17%; and the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  In the second quarter of 1980, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 8%.  By the end of the year, the overall GDP boasted about $3 trillion (in today’s dollars).

With the help of some Democrats in both houses of the U.S. Congress, Reagan was able to generate an agreement that slashed taxes down to 50% on wages, to 48% on corporate income, and to 20% on capital gains.  These measures initially jumpstarted the economy.  Average citizens had more expendable income, which they poured back into the economy by purchasing many so-called big ticket items, like vehicle and electronics.  By 1990, the size of the U.S. economy had grown from $3 trillion to $6 trillion, with roughly 4 million new businesses and 20 million new jobs created.  Although the national debt increased from $1 trillion to $4 trillion during the same period, overall revenues doubled.

Reagan’s economic policies were in line with conservative views on taxation: if we give the “investing class” (meaning, the most affluent) generous tax breaks, they will respond by expanding their businesses or starting new ones, which in turn, will create more products and / or services and more jobs.  Along with reduced business regulations (“job killers” in conservative lingo), average citizens will have more income, which of course, they will pour back into the economy.  Such growth then will expand the tax base; the additional revenue will replace any money lost to the initial tax cuts.

Ask any frustrated project manager and they will tell you that everything always looks great on paper.  While Reagan disciples keep championing his financial moves, the reality is that “Reaganomics” didn’t work out as planned.  One thing people forget is a little thing called the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which rolled back financial regulations that had been established by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to prevent further damage caused by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.  It’s interesting that Bush’s voodoo comment was made at Carnegie Mellon University.  Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900 as Carnegie Technical School, it merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1967 to become Carnegie Mellon.  The Mellon Institute had been established in 1913 by brothers Andrew and Richard B. Mellon who, like Carnegie, were self-made businessmen and titans of early 20th century America.  Andrew Mellon served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 – 1932, one of the longest tenures for this position.  He created the “trickle-down” economic theory by declaring, “Give tax breaks to large corporations, so that money can trickle down to the general public, in the form of extra jobs.”

But Andrew Mellon is also known for a notoriously rotten hands-off policy with the Great Depression.  The banks that failed had put themselves in such a precarious financial position, he believed, and thus, they were responsible for extricating themselves from it.  It didn’t seem to matter that these bank failures took people’s money with them; therefore, amplifying the effects of the 1929 crash.

Still, President Reagan – like any good fiscal conservative – held onto these beliefs and eagerly signed the Garn-St. Germain bill.  That reduced the number of regulations on financial institutions and allowed them to expand and invest more of their customers’ deposits in various ventures, particularly home mortgages.  Again, that looks-great-on-paper ideology swung back around to bite everyone when the Savings & Loans Crisis erupted.  Between 1986 and 1995, 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan institutions in the U.S. failed; costing $160 billion overall, with taxpayers footing $132 billion of it.  It was the worst series of bank collapses since the Great Depression.  That led to the 1990-91 Recession, the longest and most wide-spread economic downturn since the late 1940s.  I started working for a large bank in Dallas in April of 1990 and saw the S&L crisis unfold in real time.

Nonetheless, trickle-down economics saw a rebirth with George W. Bush, as his administration further deregulated the banking industry and also deregulated housing.  Combined with the costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. economy almost completely collapsed at the end of 2008.  The 2007-08 Recession was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached double digits for the first time since the start of the Reagan era, as millions of citizens lost their homes and their savings.  Had it not been for such programs as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC, established by Roosevelt), we surely would have plunged into another depression.

Now, with Donald Trump in office, I fear we’re headed for the same morass.  On December 22, 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; the largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years.  Financial prognosticators have already forecast the act will raise the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars over the next 10 years.  The law cuts individual taxes temporarily, but cuts corporate tax rates permanently.  As suspected, the most affluent citizens will benefit greatly, as they experience a significant reduction in their taxes.  The rest of us lowly peons may see a tax increase after those temporary provisions expire in 2025.

You know that classic definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.  It’s more like, well, if you keep doing stupid shit, stupid shit will keep happening!

Ignore Russia-gate for a moment and the fact Melania’s side of the First Bed is colder than a Chicago winter.  This past week Trump visited the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  This is where the most elite members of the business world meet (conspire) with leaders of developed nations to create economic policies and decide what’s best for us peons.  Kind of like evangelical Christians often meet to decide what people should see and read.  They’ve set themselves up as the righteous few; the ones who supposedly understand exactly what works and what doesn’t and are divinely compelled to bestow such knowledge upon the rest of us.

Trump ran his presidential campaign on the wave of anti-Washington sentiment; appealing to average citizens about reviving a once-lost “Great America” with a variety of clever ruses: ban Muslims, build a wall along the Mexican border, etc.  So many people, of course, bought into it.  Like Ronald Reagan, Trump was able to tap into that sensitive nerve of everyday angst; spitting out a slew of quaint buzz words to appeal to average folks.  He had said he would never take part in a WEF convention.  Yet, there he was; leading a parade of those self-righteous few into another kind of revitalization: the Gilded Age.

I doubt if most Trump voters even know what Davos means and how it could impact their lives.  Understand, though, that Switzerland is a place where Hollywood celebrities often went for a retreat or a little vacation – code words for cosmetic surgery; long before Phyllis Diller made it openly acceptable.  That’s essentially what Donald Trump did this past week.  He flew to Davos to tell the world, “America first is not America alone.”

I’m frightened for the United States.

 

Image: Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah.

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Viral Vitriol

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By the time the President of the United States made a public statement about the epidemic, several people had died and an untold number were already infected. But, when he stepped to the podium to address the media, his words weren’t anything some in the audience had hoped he’d say. His brief speech wasn’t about funding or education directed towards stemming the scourge and ultimately finding a cure; it was about policy. A cacophony of jeers slammed into his geriatric face, and he merely lifted an eyebrow, as if saying, ‘Well, that’s all I need to say about it.’ Indeed, that’s all anyone should have expected Ronald Reagan to say about AIDS.

On June 5, 1981, the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” a publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented data about the peculiar cases of 5 young men, “all active homosexuals,” who had developed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles. Two of them were dead by the time the report came out. PCP is a very rare form of pneumonia, occurring only in people with depressed immune systems. That seemingly healthy young men in large urban areas around the country were coming down with it seemed to contradict medical scripture about the ailment. Because the patients were all “active homosexuals,” however, the CDC labeled the new disease “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID). Within months, however, the CDC realized that “active homosexuals” weren’t the only victims. Intravenous drug users were also coming down with the mysterious new disease; then prostitutes, but also other people who didn’t fit into any of those groups. They quickly renamed it Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). But the damage was already done by those 2 words: “active homosexuals.”

When Reagan addressed the press on September 17, 1985, he mentioned AIDS only to declare a travel ban for all HIV-positive and AIDS-afflicted people. By then, scientists had identified the AIDS virus, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved usage of the first test to detect it, the ELISA test. Scientists had already confirmed one critical fact about the new scourge: it was a blood-borne pathogen; infectious, but not contagious. Still, panic had set into the nation. Gay men were being targeted with more violence than they ever had been in the nation’s history. Even as the gay-rights movement gained momentum in the 1970s, gay men didn’t face the sort of vitriolic backlash as they did with the rise of AIDS.

In 1983, Pat Buchanan, a former speech writer for President Richard Nixon, published a column about the AIDS epidemic, in which he claimed, “The poor homosexuals – they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

In 1986, Libertarian Lyndon LaRouche proposed legal discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS as a matter of public interest. He wanted federal and state governments to protect people from AIDS in the same way it protects the citizenry against other diseases by quarantining them in concentration camp-like structures.

Reagan’s lack of concern for the burgeoning epidemic has always been a sore point for human rights activists. The former actor, however, repeatedly extolled the virtues of personal responsibility, even with health matters, and bemoaned government involvement. During his 1966 run for governor of California, Reagan denounced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Medicare program as “socialized medicine.”

But, previously, the U.S. government did respond quickly to health scares. When several people attending the annual legionnaire’s convention in Philadelphia in September of 1976 came down with a vicious flu-like ailment, health care workers jumped into action and almost immediately identified the source: a water-borne bacteria later called Legionella.

That same year U.S. health officials warned the public about a pending influenza epidemic, swine flu, and urged people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Panic set into the American psyche and several individuals rushed to their doctors. The resulting hysteria now stands as one of the worst debacles in U.S. healthcare history.

When 7 Chicago-area residents died from ingesting cyanide embedded in Tylenol capsules in the fall of 1982, the federal government jumped into action to help Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson manage the crisis. The company pulled every single one of its products off store shelves, resulting in a multi-million dollar loss, and then reintroduced them with tamper-resistant packaging. It’s difficult for younger folks to imagine now, but there was a time when you could open a bottle of something and not have to peel away a layer of plastic or foil. The crime spawned only one known copycat incident – in Auburn, Washington in 1986 – but it remains unsolved.

For those of us who recall the hysteria over the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the current reaction to the Ebola fiasco is painfully similar. Like HIV, Ebola is a blood-borne virus; spread only by close contact with the body fluids of an infected person. They both originated in Africa. HIV has been traced to green monkeys, where it started out as simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV. How or when it metamorphosed is still being investigated, but researchers believe it made its first appearance in humans in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire) in the 1920s. Scientists still don’t know the host source of Ebola, but they believe it comes from fruit bats. That’s pretty much where the direct comparisons end. Ebola is far deadlier; it induces a severe hemorrhagic fever, in which the internal organs not only collapse, but literally begin to disintegrate. Once an infected patient reaches the stage where they’re bleeding incessantly, it’s too late to save them. There are now drugs that can slow the advance of HIV and even full-blown AIDS. But, there’s not even a vaccine for Ebola. Agents like ZMapp haven’t gone beyond the experimental stage yet. Now some have the audacity to wonder why there isn’t enough of it.

It’s ironic that the world learned of Ebola before it learned of HIV and AIDS; yet more people have died from the latter. That the developed world never contemplated (outside of scientific circles) that Ebola could spread beyond remote Central African villages signals a certain degree of naiveté, if not stupidity. In this increasingly interconnected global economy, there’s no reason to suspect otherwise.

But, the attitude of ‘them-vs-us’ is what allowed the AIDS epidemic to get so out of hand. The “active homosexuals” comment – something the CDC regrets to this day – burned into the minds of socially conservative activists who saw the scourge merely from the viewpoint of a moral lens. Conservatives warned Reagan not to mention AIDS or HIV during his speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, lest he lose the party faithful. Those in control of the U.S. blood industry, such as the Red Cross, didn’t want to believe their products and patients were at risk from HIV; literally asking some hemophiliacs and organ transplant recipients if they wanted to be placed in the same group as “them” – meaning the gay male / drug user / prostitute gallery.

If the U.S. had taken AIDS seriously from the start, we might have developed protease inhibitors by the end of the 1980s, instead of a decade later. By now, we might even have a vaccine, if not a cure. (If you read my 2012 essay, “I Almost Hope They Don’t Find a Cure for AIDS,” you might understand my sense of trepidation about this particular matter.)

The perception of ‘it’s their problem’ has impacted countless issues of various types: economic, medical, political, religious and social. Some health officials saw the need to work towards a cure, or at least a treatment for Ebola long ago. Dr. Kent Brantly, a U.S. medical missionary, contracted Ebola this past July while working with patients in Liberia. When he was brought to Atlanta’s Emory University, looking like an extreme beekeeper, he became the first person with the disease to step foot on American soil, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere for that matter. Some people have wondered aloud why he would have spent so much of his time and energy in the first place to work with Ebola patients in Africa, when we have people dying of obesity and drug addiction here in the U.S. Those are fair questions. Yet Brantly sees his purpose in life as more than just a dispenser of medicine and sage advice. His Christian outlook on life (and I don’t want to bring religion into this debate) prompted him to be concerned about everyone around him – not just his immediate circle of family and friends. More than just a few people have used their religious ideology to narrow their view of ‘Others.’ I’ve worked with plenty of them. Just look at the AIDS epidemic. Even now, more than three decades after the epidemic was given a name, several individuals still look at AIDS from a moralistic perspective. They still don’t understand that morality really has no place in health and medicine.

Right-wing extremists have proposed simple solutions to the Ebola epidemic. Sen. Ted Cruz called for a complete ban of people traveling from Ebola-ravaged nations in West Africa. “Common sense dictates that we should impose a travel ban on commercial airline flights from nations afflicted by Ebola,” he said. “There’s no reason to allow ongoing commercial air traffic out of those countries.”

He’s just one of many who have made such idiotic proclamations. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, an early proponent of AIDS research and current head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), literally scoffed at the notion; dubbing it “counterproductive.” “[W]hen people come in from a country, it’s much easier to track them if you know where they’re coming from,” he noted. “But what you do, if you then completely ban travel, there’s the feasibility of going to other countries where we don’t have a travel ban and have people come in.”

There are no direct flights from anywhere in Africa to the U.S. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who developed Ebola shortly after arriving in Dallas last month and who died on October 8, had initially flown from Monrovia to Brussels; then from Brussels to New York City.

Reductions in the CDC’s budget also may have played a part in the Ebola mess. As usual, conservative Republicans were quick to demand cuts in health care; rampaging through the CDC’s financial allotments like a drunk rabbi in a Catholic boys’ school. Even President Obama bought into the philosophy that this was a wise move, slashing $72 million from the CDC’s public health emergency preparedness program for fiscal year 2012. I’ve noticed social conservatives are never so eager to cut military spending or funding for more prisons.

I don’t know what’s next in the Ebola scourge. It shows no signs of abating in West Africa, and there’s a good chance more people are going to contract the virus outside of that region. I shudder at the thought of it reaching India or China. Politics and religion don’t have places in health and medical care. Whenever they’re factored into the mix, people get hurt and die. In this modern world, we can no longer afford it.

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The Worst Legacy

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This past April marked twenty years since the death of President Richard M. Nixon, which came nearly two decades after he became the first Chief Executive in U.S. history to resign from office. That ignominious fortieth anniversary is coming up next month. It’s not something to be celebrated. The Watergate affair that brought him down has left an indelible stain on both American politics and the soul of the American people. Those of us in the 50 and under crowd have pretty much grown up in a world suspicious and even hostile towards all levels of government. The over 50 crowd helped build and fuel that distrust after a brutal sense of betrayal for a nation that set itself up more than two centuries ago as a beacon of democracy and freedom.

I’ve always said Watergate burned whatever bridges of faith and trust the American public had in their elected officials. But, the wicked uncertainty actually began the moment President John F. Kennedy had his head blown apart by an assassin’s bullets and Jacqueline Kennedy clambered onto the trunk of the presidential limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The ensuing Warren Commission Report hoped to quell doubts that the murder was anything but the act of one deranged ex-Marine with delusions of grandeur. Yet, people saw it for what it really was: a rush to judgment. Americans weren’t so gullible anymore. The quagmire in Vietnam; the various energy crises of the 1970s; and the absolute failures of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Administrations (the latter burdened by the ineptness of the Iran hostage ordeal) only sealed the fate of Americans’ general distrust of their government.

Ronald Reagan fed off that fear like a lion gorging on a sick zebra and metamorphosed it into two successful political campaigns. One of his most popular statements, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’,” resonated strongly with the frustrated masses. Indeed, he had a point. But, Reagan’s own professional disconnect and ineffectiveness – Iran-contra, covert U.S. involvement in Central American conflicts, ignoring the AIDS epidemic, a pathetic war on pornography – placed him in the same pantheon of “Them.”

Almost from the moment Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for president, Republicans took retribution against their Democratic counterparts over Watergate by targeting Clinton every chance they could. They dissected the Whitewater deal and found – nothing. So, they turned to First Lady Hillary Clinton and manufactured something called “Travelgate.” When that didn’t work, they pounced on the events surrounding the suicide of Vince Foster; dragging the memory of a man who may have had severe emotional problems into their cesspool of arrogance and striving fruitlessly to twist it into an evil political plot. Alas, in 1998, they zeroed in on something totally unrelated to politics: the Monica Lewinsky affair and tried to impeach Clinton over a tawdry sexual indiscretion. The final report by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr read like a soft-core porn novel. I remember looking at that mess and thinking, “They want to impeach a U.S. president over that?! A blowjob?!”

We see that stubbornness now with the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. They complain that President Obama has no viable plans to help the U.S. economy, for example, but stand in their buckets of ideological cement and won’t budge. Thus, Obama (slowly growing some semblance of a backbone) has been forced to invoke executive privileges to get the work done. Now, Boehner is threatening to sue him because of it! I remember Boehner repeatedly asking, “Where are the jobs?” But, when Obama wanted the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans to expire at the end of 2010, Republicans balked and threatened to block extension of unemployment benefits, which were also set to expire at the end of that year; thus holding struggling Americans hostage. Obama relented, and the wealthiest citizens continued to see their after-tax incomes grow, while average Americans continued to lose their jobs and their homes.

The administration of George W. Bush solidified, in my mind, the corruptness and intransigence of the U.S. government. The 09/11 horror compelled many Americans to question what our government officials know and what they’re doing about it. That the Bush Administration then tied the 09/11 affair to Iraq’s alleged development of nuclear and / or chemical weapons convinced so many of us that our government is willing to go to extreme lengths to obfuscate and mislead just to embolden its own agenda. They tap-danced on the dead bodies of the innocent people who hurtled themselves from the World Trade Center’s burning Twin Towers and merely wiped the blood of soldiers from the millions of dollars they earned from oil revenue.

Bush was a puppet president; a doll adorned in designer business suits and propped up with ersatz ‘Mission Accomplished’ bravado. I almost feel sorry for him. Even he said, after leaving the White House, that he felt “liberated.”

Obama hasn’t done much better. At least he’s more verbally adept than Bush. But, I wish he’d make the time to rummage through his wife’s cache of designer handbags for his gonads before telling John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, “Fuck you. I’m president of the United States. I run this shit here – not you guys.”

It bothers me, for example, that we’re still entrenched in Afghanistan. I feel we should have bombed the crap out of them twelve years ago – damn their civilians, including the children and women, because they didn’t care about ours – and then leave. Maybe airdrop a few high-protein biscuits and bottled water into the mountainside, just to show we’re not complete assholes and go about our own business.

But, it bothers me even more that Obama hasn’t empowered Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the causes of the near-total economic collapse in 2008. The worst financial downturn since the 1930s didn’t happen because someone on the Dow Jones trading floor accidentally unplugged a computer before the end of the business day because they needed to do a software upgrade. It resulted from a multitude of events; such as hefty tax cuts for that “job-creating” 1%; extreme deregulation of the housing and banking industries; and the billions of dollars on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Except for a handful of notable exceptions – Bernie Madoff, Mark Dreier – no one has been held accountable for the “Great Recession.” But, if I walk into a local convenience store with a toy gun and rob the Pakistani clerk of fifty bucks, I could spend thirty years in prison. I believe there were other more diabolical machinations in play, beginning in 2001, that caused the economic downturn. Yes, economies endure cycles of bull and bear markets. But, this fiasco wasn’t just cyclical, like rainfall. Somebody did something, and it wasn’t by accident.

In February 2012, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe stunned her constituents by announcing that she wouldn’t seek reelection that year. She didn’t hesitate to explain why: the level of hostility and unwillingness to compromise in the U.S. Congress had become unbearable. To her, I guess, it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. It was a shame. Snowe was one of the most level-headed politicians in Washington, regardless of party affiliation. She was willing to listen to and work with all of her colleagues. But, many of them just didn’t seem to share the same ethic.

I still say it all goes back to Watergate. Nixon and his band of henchmen were determined to keep the president in power, as the 1972 elections neared. Nixon had a modest tenure as Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower, but suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the upstart Kennedy in 1960. When he lost the California governor’s race in 1962, he vowed to exit public life altogether, loudly proclaiming, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” But, he just couldn’t stay away. He loved the political game and desperately wanted the presidency. His dogged ambition put him in the White House six years after the California debacle – and forced him back out six years later.

Things have never been the same since. And, we still can’t bring ourselves to trust anyone in government.

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Good Night, Margaret Thatcher

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The death of Margaret Thatcher – England’s first female Prime Minister and the first female chief executive of any European nation – has invoked a gallery of responses about both her political career and her personal attributes.  That’s to be expected from the passing of any world leader.  History will judge her time in office; contemporary observers and future historians will always have a personal opinion about her.

Thatcher came to power in 1979 as a member of Britain’s Conservative Party.  At the time, the United Kingdom – and England, in particular – was mired in social and economic crises.  Both unemployment and inflation hovered around 20%.  Worker strikes, mainly among coal miners, had stretched the nation’s emotional and fiscal resources.  Oil embargoes that had such a negative impact on the U.S. economy also inflicted heavy damage on England.  Amidst the economic carnage, the Irish Republican Army had grown more militant in the 1970s; demanding with even greater ferocity that the U.K. relinquish control of Northern Ireland.  Just like union worker strikes had increasingly turned into riots, IRA protests had metamorphosed more and more into bombings.

England had been in a seemingly perpetual downward spiral since the end of World War II.  The British had successfully fought off the Nazis, but they paid a heavy financial and psychological toll.  England reluctantly accepted rescue from the United States in the form of the Marshall Plan; an ambitious and mostly triumphant effort to help all of Western Europe recover from the global conflict.  But, amidst the reconstruction, England became a nearly-total socialist welfare state.  It didn’t help that the English empire was slowly being dismantled, another after-effect of the war.  Its weakened state allowed for many of its imperial colonies to break free from the British Crown.  First, India gained independence in 1947; followed by the U.K.’s various outposts in Africa.

By the 1970s taxes were high; labor unions had gained extraordinary amounts of power and most industries were government-owned, and the English government appeared utterly paralyzed and helpless.  Fellow Europeans denounced England as “the dead man of Europe,” a label that angered its proud citizenry, but one that was rather appropriate given the conditions.

Into this mess stepped Margaret Thatcher.

It’s ironic that even Thatcher would rise to become Britain’s Prime Minster.  In a 1973 television interview, she stated, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”  More importantly, though, Thatcher was born into a humble family; the second of two daughters of a grocer who had his own political ambitions.  Despite England’s current position as one of the staunchest bearers of democracy, it once existed pretty much under a caste system; a society where an elite few held the reins of government.  It was rare – almost impossible – for someone outside of the bourgeois class to attain any position of power.  Most of England’s national leaders had essentially been aristocrats.  It’s a legacy of British royalty’s vice grip on English society.  Even though the Magna Carta technically removed power from the British royal family, it wasn’t until enactment of the Reform Bill of 1832 that a formal Parliament (the House of Commons) was established.  That elevated the voting powers of the Parliament above the king and traditional ruling families.  But, not until the start of the 20th century did Parliament gain almost complete power.  Regardless, it remained a tough climb from Britain’s working classes to a seat in the nation’s Parliament.  And, when Thatcher won her first term, it shocked the staid patriarchal “boys’ club,” while pleasing the masses.

Thatcher introduced a tougher, more stringent agenda; tackling the heavy taxes and obstinate union bosses.  I suppose – given the circumstances – she had no choice.  She had to be loud and blunt; otherwise, the men in the Parliament chamber wouldn’t take her seriously.

Thatcher’s stubbornness and determination compelled her to privatize many of the nation’s industries, such as oil and electricity.  She believed a capitalist free market was best for any society; the only true means to economic prosperity.  She lowered taxes and almost completely extinguished the country’s long-entrenched welfare system, along with tackling workers’ unions, mainly the coal miners.

She also had no qualms about confronting the IRA.  Even after she narrowly survived the 1984 “Brighton Bombing” that killed 5 people and injured 31 others, Thatcher remained undeterred.  “That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared,” she announced the day after the assassination attempt, “and the fact that we are gathered here now – shocked, but composed and determined – is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

One of the worst crises of Thatcher’s first term in office came in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands; a long-held British territory Argentina called Las Malvinas.  The 74-day conflict resulted in more than 1,200 casualties; the vast majority of whom were Argentine military personnel.  Even when Argentina realized it was no match for the U.K., Thatcher authorized the bombing of the ARA General Belgrano, an Argentine light cruiser, even though it was actually sailing away from the Falklands.

The term “Iron Lady” has become synonymous with Thatcher, but it’s one that was bestowed upon her even before she announced her candidacy for Prime Minister.  In a 1976 speech, Thatcher declared that “the Russians are bent on world dominance,” prompting the “Iron Lady” comment from Soviet leadership.  It was a moniker she actually adored.  Others had more colorful names for her.

Thatcher developed a close political and personal relationship with Ronald Reagan, her ideological soul mate.  Like Thatcher, Reagan originated from a working class background, but – just like Thatcher – seemed to loathe working people.  He, too, believed fervently in a free market society and thought labor unions were a pox on economic stability.  With Thatcher it was coal miners; with Reagan it was air traffic controllers.  When they went on strike in 1981, Reagan fired 11,000 of those who refused his executive order to return to work.  Reagan sided with Thatcher during the Falklands War, but refused to get involved.  He also joined her in repeatedly and loudly announcing the death throes of the Soviet Union.

Reagan had run his campaigns on the typical conservative mantra of limited taxation and smaller government.  But, whereas Thatcher actually lowered English taxes, Reagan ultimately increased them in the U.S.  In analyzing their respective leaderships, I can only note Thatcher didn’t just delegate responsibilities to her cabinet members and then take naps; plus, she always seemed to remember what she had said and done.  Thatcher had spent a lifetime in politics, while Reagan entered the game as his acting career fizzled.  Personally, I have only slightly more respect for Thatcher than Reagan, but I didn’t like either of them.

I supposed Thatcher was simply a product of her time.  The circumstances were dire when she first walked into 10 Downing Street.  Her presence was a welcome respite from the dismal state in which England found itself.  Sadly, more people fell into poverty during her three terms in office; a direct result of her anti-union stance and intense deregulation of industries.  That’s something else she has in common with Reagan.

Like most hardcore fiscal conservatives, however, Thatcher never seemed to understand that workers’ rights are basically human rights.  I think she felt that, since she rose to such prominence, everyone else could do the same.  But, not everybody has the wherewithal to accomplish what she did; not everyone has the same ambitions; and not everyone is so fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to make such dramatic changes on society.  Somebody has to work a cash register; somebody has to wait on tables; somebody has to dredge the coal mines.  Not everyone can be president or prime minister, a doctor or a lawyer; it just can’t happen.  Average workers form the spine of a nation, and they should be appreciated and respected.

I don’t know exactly how Margaret Thatcher’s legacy will be inscribed.  As with any national figure, it will depend on the reviewer.

There is one other odd parallel between Thatcher and Reagan.  In 1971, while still Secretary of Education, Thatcher became known as the “Milk Snatcher,” a name not nearly as familiar as “Iron Lady,” but one that’s more befitting of her capitalist agenda.  During World War II, milk (among other staples) was subjected to extreme rationing in England, as it was just about everywhere else.  Afterwards, the 1946 Free Milk Act ensured free milk to everyone under the age of 18.  But, as the British government looked for ways to trim its budget in the tumultuous 1970s, Thatcher saw free milk subsidies as a drain on the economy and subsequently pushed through measures to stifle them.  Edward Short, then education spokesman for the Labor Party said scrapping milk was “the meanest and most unworthy thing” he had seen in his then 20 years in office.  Thatcher, of course, was unfazed.

Around the same time, Reagan – then beginning his second term as governor of California – toyed with the idea of having ketchup declared a vegetable, since it’s tomato-based.  That, he claimed, would count towards the nutritional needs of the state’s schoolchildren.  Fortunately, it never got past his desk.  But, he pulled the same stunt a decade later as the nation’s newly-elected president and demanded that the U.S. Department of Agriculture do its part to stabilize the economy by devising new ways to trim its budget.  Thankfully, nothing came of it.  Reagan never became known as the “Vegetable Snatcher,” but these incidents display the arrogance of the fiscally conservative mindset.

Milk, bombings, distant islands – for better or worse, Margaret Thatcher made an impact on English society.  Her story is still not complete.

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Retro Quote

“We’re going to close the unproductive tax loop holes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share.” 

– President Ronald Reagan, Northside High School, Atlanta, GA; June 6, 1985

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Quote of the Day

“Ronald Reagan, who, as I recall, is not accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control, that for him to make a deal, he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases.  Did it multiple times.  He could not get through a Republican primary today.” 

– President Barack Obama, at a meeting of the Newspaper Association of America

 

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