The Seven Fat Years and How to Do It Again, by Robert L. Bartley
The Legacy of the 80’s
The Seven Fat Years and How to do it Again.
by Robert L. Bartley.
Free Press. 256 pp. $22.95.
Robert L. Bartley’s book could hardly have arrived at a more appropriate time—his intention, surely, in getting out this pugnacious, opinionated, and entertaining volume before the 1992 election campaign entered its home stretch. As the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s, editorial and op-ed pages, Bartley has been one of the country’s most adept and ardent practitioners of the art of getting conservative ideas—not necessarily orthodox ones—off broadsheets and into minds. Now, as the Reagan-era political coalition that supported so many of those ideas is threatened with meltdown, the crusader has saddled up his war-horse, strapped on the greaves, and sallied forth to battle again. Someone, after all, must defend the Reagan era, and Bartley has a better claim to being that champion than does the current occupant of the White House.
Unlike George Bush, Bartley is aware that the legacy of the 1980’s is intellectual as well as political, social, and economic. Ideas were what bound together the policies of the Reagan era, policies which in turn made possible the kind of coalition politics that persisted to give Bush his own first presidential term. To help us understand the ideas that fueled the “Seven Fat Years” of his title, Bartley takes us back to the Wall Street eatery where in the late 1970’s he and Jude Wanniski, Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, and others hammered out their critique of Keynesian economics as that dismal science had been practiced by recent American Presidents.
The counter-prescriptions they came up with—low marginal income-tax rates; a principled antipathy to capital-gains taxes; tough, anti-inflationary monetary policy; porous trade and investment frontiers; a return to something resembling a fixed system of international monetary exchange—were anathema not only to Carter-era Democrats but to conventional Republicans, whose thirst for fiscal-deficit reduction, Bartley reminds us, has been slaked through tax hikes with occasionally disastrous recessive effects (cf., for example, Herbert Hoover). The presidency of Ronald Reagan, however, was another matter.
Bartley’s aim, then, is to praise Reaganomics while others aim to bury it. But that is putting his objectives too narrowly. During the Reagan era, he argues, unconventional ideas and concepts, focused primarily on restoring vigor to the American genius for capitalism, came together not only with a President willing to support them but with a technological revolution that only unconventional capitalist tools could finance. The result was the greatest period of sustained growth in American economic history, an energetic time of freedom and enterprise in which Americans at virtually all income levels grew richer.
This, of course, is hardly the way the 80’s are routinely seen today. Yet Bartley is unfazed by denunciations of the decade as an era of profligacy, insider-trading, rapacious takeovers, spurious finance—an era of private waste and public squalor. If the ideas of the 80’s were so bad, he asks, why have they been adopted by almost every nation in the world desirous of improving its material conditions, and most especially by those who helped to undermine and now have succeeded the Communist empire? Only in America, he muses, could achievement of this order of magnitude be written off so rapidly as failure.
“Perhaps,” Bartley writes, “the era of self-realizing pessimism has arrived, perhaps we have left a decade of greed for a decade of envy.” An inveterate optimist, he does not really believe that. Indeed, in his effort to recapture the high ground for Reaganomics, Bartley invokes a vision of what he calls a new Belle Epoque, a period of stable, uninterrupted, globally-oriented growth that lies within reach if the lessons of the 80’s are not repudiated. A better name might be High Victorianism, after that era of unilateral free trade in which Britain embraced a stable international currency based on gold, the free movement of capital, and untrammeled technological innovation. “If we can overcome the cramped and pessimistic outlook in which we’ve been nurtured,” Bartley enthuses, “those of us living in the 1990’s have a chance to try to put the dream together again.”
The capitalist dreamer is Bartley at his most seductive. But Bartley the editorialist has laden The Seven Fat Years with some unwieldy freight, including occasionally bewildering thickets of drab economic technospeak. More perilously, by undertaking a wholesale defense of the decade’s reputation against the stigma of insider-trading scandals, savings-and-loan debacles, and other signs of capitalism in excess, Bartley has tried to do too much: surely not everything about the Reagan 80’s needs to be defended as right and good for the attainments of Reaganomics to be established. But none of that diminishes the importance or the interest of a book which it would greatly benefit all, and especially one incumbent, to read.