What Is Reaganomics?

President Reagan's Economic Policies Explained

Ronald Reagan giving a speech
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Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th U.S. president, serving from Jan. 20, 1981, to Jan. 20, 1989. His first task was to combat the worst recession since the Great Depression. Reagan promised the "Reagan Revolution," focusing on reducing government spending, taxes, and regulation. His philosophy was, "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

Reagan was an advocate of laissez-faire economics, where a government's role is reduced. He believed that a free market and capitalism would solve the nation's woes.

Reaganomics Policies

America was in trouble when Ronald Reagan was elected to office. He inherited an economy mired in stagflation, a combination of double-digit economic contraction and double-digit inflation. He promised to slow the growth of government spending and deregulate business industries. At the same time, he encouraged the Federal Reserve to combat inflation by reducing the money supply.

The Reagan administration developed the Program for Economic Recovery, which focused on four areas:

  • A reduction in the federal tax rate
  • A substantial reduction in the growth of federal expenditures
  • Relief from federal regulatory burdens
  • A monetary policy for the Federal Reserve System that complimented the previous three policies

Reaganomics was based on the theory of supply-side economics. This theory proposes that tax cuts encourage economic expansion enough to broaden the tax base over time. The increased revenue from a stronger economy is supposed to offset the initial revenue loss from the tax cuts.

According to the Laffer Curve, this only works if the initial tax rates are high enough. Reagan's first tax cuts worked because tax rates were high when he entered office. However, tax cuts in 1986 and 1987 weren't as effective because tax rates were already reasonable.

Reagan also offset these tax cuts with tax increases elsewhere. He raised Social Security payroll taxes and some excise taxes.

Reaganomics and Tax Cuts

Unemployment was 8.5% in December 1981, then rose to 10.8% by December 1982. Congress cut the top tax rate from 70% to 50% in 1982. This helped spur growth in gross domestic product for the next several years. The economy grew 4.6% in 1983, with a decrease in unemployment to 8.3%. In 1984, growth rose 7.2%, and unemployment fell to 7.3%. In 1985, the economy grew 4.2%, and unemployment fell to 7% by that December.

In 1986, growth was a healthy 3.5% by the end of the year, but the unemployment rate was 6.6%. It was still higher than the natural rate of unemployment. Reagan cut the tax rate again, to 38.5% this time, in 1987—growth remained similar at 3.5%, and unemployment fell to 5.7%.

Corporate tax rates were cut from 46% to 40% in 1987, but the effect of this break was unclear. Additionally, the tax treatment of many new investments changed. In 1988, Reagan cut taxes again to 28%. Growth rose to 4.2%, and unemployment fell to 5.3% in 1988.

These changes complicated tax measurements so much that the overall results of the changes are difficult to define; therefore, the results remain controversial.

Reaganomics Spending Cuts

Despite campaigning on reduced government spending, Reagan wasn't as successful with this as he was with tax cuts. He cut domestic programs, but he increased defense spending to achieve "peace through strength" in his opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union.

Reagan increased the defense budget by 35% to accomplish these goals. As a result, defense spending grew faster than general spending, rising from $154 billion in FY 1981 to $295 billion in FY 1989.

Overall, government spending still grew; From 1981 through 1989, Reagan increased the budget by $390 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget's historical tables.

Reaganomics and Deregulation

Reagan was applauded for continuing to eliminate Nixon-era price controls. They constrained the free-market equilibrium that would have prevented inflation. Reagan removed controls on oil and gas, cable television, and long-distance phone service. He further deregulated interstate bus service and ocean shipping.

Congress passed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act in 1982. The Act helped savings and loan banks deal with rising inflation and interest rates by further deregulating deposit rates, among other things.

Reaganomics and Monetary Policy

Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker had steadily raised the federal funds rate to 20% in 1980. While very unpopular, these high interest rates worked to end double-digit inflation. Reaganomics took the stance that the supply of money had been growing too fast in the years previous, so the monetary policy developed to support the program was to reduce the growth rate of the money supply to more "modest" levels. This growth reduction complemented the Federal Reserves' policy of raising interest rates to reduce borrowing and spending.

Reaganomics Effect on the Debt

Reagan's first budget was for the fiscal year 1982. As the chart below reveals, he incurred substantial deficits for each year of his presidency. As a result, debt also increased each year. Reagan's budgets tripled the national debt from $998 billion at the end of Carter's last budget to $2.9 trillion at the end of Reagan's final budget.

Check the chart below to see how that debt contributed to the deficit as it related to GDP.

Fiscal Year Deficit
(billions)
Debt (billions) Deficit/GDP Event
1981 $79 $997 2.46% Reagan tax cut
1982 $128 $1,142 3.83% Reagan's 1st budget
1983 $208 $1,377 5.72% Increased defense spending
1984 $185 $1,572 4.59%  
1985 $212 $1,823 4.89%  
1986 $221 $2,125 4.83% Tax cut
1987 $150 $2,350 3.08% Black Monday crash
1988 $155 $2,602 2.96% Fed raised rates
1989 $153 $2,857 2.71% S&L crisis

Was Reaganomics Effective?

Whether Reagan's economic policies were effective depends upon your point of view. Critics denounce the policies and claim they further damaged the economy, while fans proclaim that they helped lift the country out of tumultuous circumstances and put it back on the road to growth.

Regardless of the argument for or against Reaganomics, the spending increases, and tax cuts, it's difficult to challenge the economic results of the administration's efforts:

  • GDP (growth): nearly doubled
  • Inflation: Increased slowly
  • Unemployment: Slowly decreased

Key Takeaways

  • Reaganomics reduced taxes and gave specific industries relief from federal regulatory burdens.
  • Reagan attempted to reduce federal spending but was relatively unsuccessful.
  • Reagan worked with the Federal Reserve to reduce the supply of money to lower inflation.
  • Critics and fans have different opinions on whether Reaganomics was effective or not; however, the economy improved.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the three goals of Reaganomics?

Reaganomics reduced taxes, gave specific industries help by reducing tax burdens, and tried to reduce government spending.

Did Reagonomics decrease poverty?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people in poverty decreased through Reagan's presidency but rose in the end. However, the poverty rate decreased through his time in office but only rose slightly towards the end of his second term.

Why is Reagonomics important?

Reaganomics is important because it gives a historical view of an administration's actions during specific economic circumstances. This assists economists and policymakers when creating solutions to deal with various economic fluctuations.

Article Sources

  1. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. "White House Report on the Program for Economic Recovery."

  2. Congressional Research Service. "Federal Excise Taxes: Background and General Analysis," Page 5.

  3. Social Security Administration. "Social Security & Medicare Tax Rates."

  4. Tax Foundation. "Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History," Page 8.

  5. Bureau of Economic Analysis. "National Income and Product Accounts Tables: Table 1.1.1 GDP Growth." Select "Modify," select "1981- A & Q" as "First Year," select "1989 - A & Q" as "Last Year," select "Annual" as "Series."

  6. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Noncyclical Rate of Unemployment (NROU)."

  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey," Enter parameters "From: 1981, To: 1989."

  8. Tax Policy Center. "Historical Corporate Top Tax Rate and Bracket, Tax Years 1909 to 2022."

  9. Tax Foundation. "Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History," Page 6.

  10. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. "Peace Through Strength."

  11. Office of Management and Budget. "Fiscal Year 2017 - Historical Tables: Budget of the U.S. Government," Pages 87-88.

  12. The White House. "Ronald Reagan."

  13. Office of Management and Budget. "Fiscal Year 2017 - Historical Tables: Budget of the U.S. Government," Page 28.

  14. Library of Economics and Liberty. "Reaganomics."

  15. United States Congress. "President Reagan's Economic Legacy: The Great Expansion," Page 26.

  16. Federal Reserve History. "Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982."

  17. Federal Reserve History. "Volcker's Announcement of Anti-Inflation Measures."

  18. TreasuryDirect. "Historical Debt Outstanding - Annual 1950-1999."

  19. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Federal Surplus or Deficit [-] as Percent of Gross Domestic Product."

  20. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Federal Surplus or Deficit [-]."

  21. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. "Gross Domestic Product."

  22. St. Louis Federal Reserve. "Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items Less Food and Energy in U.S. City Average."

  23. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. "Unemployment Rate."

  24. U.S. Census Bureau. "National Poverty in America Awareness Month: January 2022."