Author and Reagan administration veteran Donald J. Devine yesterday reviewed how the nation got to where we are now, and provided a glimpse of how we can get back on track.
He was head of the federal civil service under President Reagan, and noted that the president charged him with cutting 100,000 non-defense jobs from the federal payroll. “We actually did it,” Devine said, adding that Reagan also cut entitlement spending as a share of the gross national product.
But Reagan didn’t cut spending just to save money, Devine said. Reagan proclaimed, “I’m cutting spending so I can reduce the power of the central government and return it to the states and people.”
Much of our crisis is caused by federal action that oversteps the Constitution’s separation of power. For example, too few of us appreciate the things Reagan didn’t do, Devine said. There have been three times the Dow Jones Average has dropped 20 percent abruptly: in the Crash of 1929, the Wall Street meltdown in 2008, and in 1987. The first two sparked economic crises lasting years. Why don’t we hear much about the 1987 slump? Certainly the experts told President Reagan he must step in to save the economy, as presidents did after the 1929 and 2008 crashes. Reagan’s response: We have to let the market hit the bottom. “People have to see things have leveled off.”
Devine recalled hearing Michael Reagan say of the incident: “My father did nothing — and it worked!” The economy quickly rebounded.
Yet, of course, today the challenges are immense. Devine noted that when the federal debt is added to other liabilities, the nation owes at least $76 trillion. “This can’t last,” he said. “We can’t pay it.”
Government seems more dysfunctional than ever. NYU Professor Paul Light summed it up, and echoed the Constitution, when he observed that “the federal government can no longer guarantee the faithful execution of our laws.”
“We have a government that can’t work,” Devine said. Moreover, he added, “We didn’t get into this by mistake. It was planned.”
He traced the problem back to the Progressive Era, when Woodrow Wilson and other liberals decided that the Constitution had to be bypassed, because it divided power among the different branches of the government.
Our current plight shows how well progressive politics work in the long run. Can America come back?
One conclusion is that we must return to the synthesis of freedom and tradition Devine cited at the beginning of his talk. More of the answers will be found in his latest book, America’s Way Back, which we will discuss soon in this blog.