There Krugman Goes Again

In his Monday columnNew York Times writer Paul Krugman claims to (borrowing the headline) “Debunk… the Reagan Myth,” arguing that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies “did fail.” (The column does not mention that Krugman worked for Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1982–1983.)

In fact, Krugman devotes precious little space to examining (or debunking) Reagan’s economic policies or their performance. The column is mostly a lament that Americans view Reagan positively and that Democrats have not challenged (and may even share) that opinion.

Krugman’s criticisms comprise just seven of the column’s 37 sentences (and three of the seven are throwaway lines). Here they are verbatim:

For it did fail. The Reagan economy was a one-hit wonder. Yes, there was a boom in the mid-1980s, as the economy recovered from a severe recession. But while the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before — and the poverty rate had actually risen.

[T]here wasn’t any resurgence [in productivity growth] in the Reagan years.

Like productivity, American business prestige didn’t stage a comeback until the mid-1990s….

In short, Krugman makes four criticisms: Reagan’s policies resulted in (1) stagnant middle-class incomes, (2) an increase in the poverty rate, (3) stagnancy in productivity growth, and (4) stagnancy in “American business prestige.”

Are those claims true and do they show that Reagan’s economic policies “did fail”? Let’s look at the data. (Hyperlinks connect to the relevant federal data sets.)

MIDDLE-CLASS INCOME   To determine the course of middle-class income over Reagan’s presidency, let’s examine the U.S Census Bureau’s Current Population Reports on median real income over time. That is, let’s look at inflation-adjusted family income and household income for families/households that are in the exact middle of all U.S. families/households.

From 1981 to 1988 (which roughly corresponds with Reagan’s tenure), median real family income grew 11.1 percent while real household income grew 10.3 percent. Those growth rates are in the top third of the 30 eight-year periods from 1968–1975 to 1998–2005.

To be fair, Krugman did not speak of middle-class income over Reagan’s tenure, but instead compared middle-class incomes of “the late 1980s” with the decade before. So we look at the data again and find that, in 1986, despite two recessions (1980, 1982) in the intervening years, median family income was 10.7 percent higher than a decade ago and median household income was 10.3 percent higher. The following year, median family income was 11.8 and 11.0 percent higher than a decade before. (The gains were smaller in 1988.)

In contrast, income growth during Bill Clinton’s administration only eclipsed Reagan’s 1986 and 1987 numbers once: at the height of the tech bubble in 2000, family income was 12.3 percent higher than a decade previous (however, household income was lower than Reagan’s 11.0 percent). Further, the George W. Bush administration eclipsed those numbers in three straight years — in 2001, 2002 and 2003, both family and median income gains over the preceding decade were higher than the best Reagan or Clinton numbers. Curiously, Krugman does not credit G.W. Bush with being more successful, economically, than either Reagan or Clinton.

POVERTY   Krugman is correct that the poverty rate was higher at the end of Reagan’s term than it was “a decade before” in 1978. However, the poverty data show much more that Krugman doesn’t discuss.

In 1978, 9.1 percent of families and 11.4 percent of individuals in the United States were living below the poverty line. The year marked the penultimate in a previously unprecedented span of years (beginning in 1972) where the poverty rate for families fell below 10 percent. However, both rates began climbing in 1979, preceding the onset of the twin recessions of 1980 and 1982. Poverty topped out at 12.3 percent for families and 15.2 percent for individuals in 1983.

From there, though, poverty under Reagan moved downward steadily, reaching 10.4 percent for families and 13.0 percent for individuals in 1988. Both rates fell further in the first year of the George H.W. Bush administration. However, neither rate would be that low again until 1997, the year after welfare reform passed Congress. The poverty rate for families would not duck below 10 percent again until the last two years of the Clinton administration and the first three years of the George W. Bush administration.

PRESTIGE   On this point, I cannot challenge Krugman. He gives no evidence to support this claim, and I know of no data sets that measure “prestige.”

PRODUCTIVITY GROWTH   Krugman is correct that the data show productivity growth under Reagan was around 1.4 percent a year, not much higher than the previous period 1973–1979 (1.2 percent) and a little less than the subsequent period 1990–1995 (1.5 percent). Those numbers are all considerably lower than the 2.8 average annual increase for 1947–1973 and the 2.5 percent for 1996-2000.

Krugman does not mention the productivity rate for 2000–2006; at 2.7 percent, productivity growth is even higher under the George W. Bush administration than it was in the best of the Clinton years. Again, curiously, Krugman does not credit G.W. Bush with being even more successful economically than Reagan or Clinton.

This raises a question: If the average productivity growth rate increased over the last five years of the Clinton administration, and that growth continued (at a slightly higher rate) through the first five years of the G.W. Bush administration, then does policy (or politics) have much to do with productivity? The recent spurt in U.S. productivity seems the product of cheap computers and Americans’ special talent for using them, not the machinations of Washington, D.C. More broadly, significant increases in productivity growth have much more to do with stochastic innovation than White House actions (except, perhaps, Al Gore’s creating the Internet).

KRUGMAN CONSIDERED   This leads to a broader question: How much credit can any president take for economic growth that occurs during his presidency?

To be sure, Reagan deserves some credit for improving on the economic trends of the 1970s, but credit should also go to Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter for taking the first steps toward deregulation, and to Paul Volcker and the Fed for tamping down inflation. Likewise, the economic success of Clinton and George W. Bush owe some debt to Reagan (and, in W’s case, to Clinton) and much to Alan Greenspan (not to mention Silicon Valley). If the United States successfully combats the current economic slowdown, the credit should go to Ben Bernanke and his Fed colleagues, not to any stimulus package cobbled together by the White House or Capitol Hill.

Economic policies are intended to have long-term effects (though those policies can have some immediate effects). But economic conditions are only partly the product of economic policies — they are products of many different decisions by many different economic actors, most of whom are not elected. Politicians receive far too much credit and blame for current economic conditions.

Krugman’s claims about the Reagan record are misleading and, in the case of middle-class income, outright false. But more significantly, the concept underlying Krugman’s column is facile.