Josna Rege

345. Reaganomics 101

In 1980s, Books, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on October 10, 2015 at 1:40 am
Poor People's March, 1968 (

Poor People’s March, 1968 (

When I started my graduate studies in the late 1980s I taught freshman composition to entering undergraduates. As an undergraduate myself in the early 1970s and as a child of the 1960s (not just the 1960s in general, but the 1960s of post-Independence India in particular), I had had my core values instilled in me much earlier. At first it shocked and unnerved me to see how dramatically different their basic assumptions were from mine, until it dawned on me that, as children of the 1980s, these 18 year-olds had come to consciousness during the Reagan era.


My realization of this difference in perspective came when we were discussing an essay on poverty in the United States. In my childhood, the poor were the products of structural inequities in society, their children having grown up without proper housing, healthcare, or nutrition and without the educational and employment opportunities of the more privileged classes. The dominant view then was that social programs existed as a safety net for those who were struggling and to redress the imbalance in society. The poor were to be given a helping hand: not charity, but a fair shake. Furthermore, the rich were indebted to the poor, since it was their hard labor that had afforded the wealthy their lives of ease. That’s more-or-less how we saw it. We further believed that acquisitiveness was not a virtue: the wealthy at least ought to invest their surplus wealth in the national economy, rather than squandering it in conspicuous consumption.

WelfareMy students, however, thought that the rich deserved their wealth and had every right to the most lavish of lifestyles. Their disapproval was reserved for the “undeserving poor“, whose condition they ascribed to laziness and lack of ambition. If they wanted money, then they ought to work for it like the rest of us. This was the prevailing attitude among my students: if these people were poor, it was their own fault.This was the legacy that Reaganomics bequeathed to them and to subsequent generations.

I ought not to have been surprised. This attitude was set forth as common sense in the marketing of Reagan’s domestic policy and has taken root so successfully as the national ethos that all subsequent U.S. administrations have adopted it to some degree. While Ronald Reagan was fond of repeating a story of a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac (a myth that maligned black people as well as justifying the slashing of social programs for the poor) it was Bill Clinton on whose watch “welfare reform” cut off single mothers’ welfare payments after a certain period of time and forced them to return to work on sub-poverty salaries, often having to leave their children unsupervised. Blame the Poor was again the watchword: if these immoral and irresponsible women had gotten themselves pregnant out of wedlock, what right did they have to expect society to pay for raising their children while they lay abed all day taking drugs and living lives of gay abandon?

baby-20with-20headphonesJust as hypnopaedia imprinted the babies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with the ideology of their society, so Reaganomics 101 was imbibed by the children of the 1980s all unawares.

There’s plenty of work; they just don’t want to do it.
They just want a government handout.
Why should we subsidize their sloth?
I’m so glad I’m an investment banker. 

I guess I was out of step with the times; as Reagan was taking the oath of office, pledging to get Big Government off the backs of hardworking Americans, our newly-formed letterpress print shop joined the IWW (the Wobblies), whose Little Red Songbook featured the feisty Dump the Bosses off Your Back.

DumpTheBosses_thumbAlthough the Wobblies shamelessly secularized the beloved Christian hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I’d dare bet that the IWW’s declaration in the Preamble to their constitution that “there can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life”, is closer to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19:24 than is Reaganomics 101, a doctrine that taught my innocent students to honor the rich and to blame, rather than bless, the poor.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. I remember a time in the 60s and 70s when bigger business here in Australia believed that if they invested in the community, paid decent wages & improved working conditions, their workers would be happier, and the benefits would transfer to society in general.
    It worked, for the most part. The big iron & steel works trained apprentices then saw them go off into other industries, but that was their contribution to society.
    With Reaganomics (even in Australia), the focus changed. The 1980s and 1990s saw the development of a very different ethos – the one you describe. The bottom line became the holy dollar, and the workers were squeezed as tight as possible.
    The results were several – unemployment, a loss of trust in the ‘bosses’, a culture of me, me, me, and a denial of the benefits of industry to society in general. It has been a huge loss.
    Before, it was a win-win situation. Since the change, it has become a win big – lose big situation. Society in general has suffered and there is very little incentive for most people now to put effort into jobs that pay them little in either dollars or job satisfaction.

    • “…if they invested in the community, paid decent wages & improved working conditions, their workers would be happier, and the benefits would transfer to society in general.” Doesn’t that sound quaint nowadays, with the Walmart model, which takes us back to the worst of monopoly capitalism with the added bonus of outsourcing all their production to the lowest-cost (and lowest-wage) location.

      “…a culture of me, me, me, and a denial of the benefits of industry to society in general.”
      “…there is very little incentive for most people now to put effort into jobs that pay them little in either dollars or job satisfaction.”
      Yes, society as a whole has suffered and more people are more alienated than ever in dead-end service jobs—if they have jobs at all, that is.
      Thank you for your reply, Linda.

  2. Now it seems to be even worse than it was in the 1980s.Or else I was out of the mainstream for so long, I didn’t realize how strange many people’s thinking become.

    I had a copy of the IWW song book in the 1960s. I think I bought it at Debs Hall in Detroit. It’s available online for downloading. Or was the last time I looked.

    • Yes, perhaps it is worse, although perhaps there is also a new generation coming up who are rediscovering and updating the ideas from their grandparents’ era.
      Debs Hall sounds very historic! I found that online version of the songbook, and linked to it, or tried to. . .

  3. I have found that, although I am not Catholic, the current Pope is one of the most timely leaders,whose effectiveness is precisely because he really lives his faith and hops in his little Fiat while the rest of the “Noblesse Oblige” of our era drive away in huge, fancy, bullet proof limousines! What a contrast! His message puts many high and mighty Americans to shame!
    Unfortunately, the media focusses more on the spectacle than the actual message and whether it is being followed. Now we are bombarded with Trump-itis.
    I am liking the “OFF” button more and more!

    • I second your sentiments, Marianne. Yes, I too am feeling very distant from the election campaign with all its “Trump-itis”–great word!x J

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