The Reagan effect

Anthony Lewis

July 29, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

OVER THIS summer millions of Americans have rediscovered what Ronald Reagan and the new right worked so hard to deny: We need government.

It has been the summer of fiscal crises. New York City and state, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and other states have gone through extraordinary struggles to balance their budgets. And all had to make severe cuts in public services. According to the conservative ideology that bloomed in the Reagan years, we should have welcomed those cuts. Government is the enemy, we were told.

It wastes our money. Most of what it does, private individuals or institutions could do better. By and large, government should be limited to policing the streets and protecting the national security.

But the state and local budget cuts this summer reminded us how many other things governments do that are essential to our well-being.

They educate most of our children. They protect the public health. They light the streets and clean them. They maintain the infrastructure that makes urban society bearable. Many of those functions suffered in the budget cuts. When public schools open in the fall, they will be even more overburdened and under-funded.

In New York City the work of exterminating rats will be drastically cut; Andy Logan, writing in the New Yorker, figures that in a year the city may have a million more rats.

Then there are the amenities that add up to civilization. Public libraries in Boston and New York and many other cities are forced to reduce their hours and services.

There is no money for libraries and schools or for music classes. Funds for parks and museums are shrinking.

Local governments are not blameless. Their bureaucracy tends to grow and stagnate. New York City has lost population in the last 30 years, but the number of city employees has increased by almost 50 percent.

But all the efficiency in the world would not restore services to a desirable level. The money is not there.

As we begin to feel the social cost of fiscal crisis, we should also understand where a large part of the responsibility for the crisis lies: with President Reagan and his anti-government theoreticians.

The Reagan administration ended revenue-sharing, with painful consequences for local governments. In 1980 federal funds covered nearly 20 percent of New York City's budget. The figure now is less than 10 percent.

In addition to reducing federal support for states and cities, the Reagan administration crimped their tax revenues. That was a side effect of cutting federal tax rates on higher incomes. Because many states link their income taxes to federal returns, their revenues fell.

The result has been, and is, the impoverishment of community life in this country. And that matters. The Reaganite notion that individuals can do it all for themselves is a chimera.

In urban society we cannot live in isolated cocoons -- except perhaps for the very rich, and even they feel the effect of spreading ignorance, disorder and squalor in society.

Everyone knows that there are urgent domestic needs in the United States today. Take only the most obvious.

It is a scandal that American children are so ill educated. It is a scandal that 30 million Americans have no health insurance, that the incidence of measles is growing for lack of a universal immunization.

We also know, if we face reality, what it will take to meet those needs. It cannot be done by glossy, cost-free "reforms." It cannot be done by private initiative, by a thousand points of light. It will take federal leadership and federal money.

But there again the Reagan years sabotaged hope. The administration built the budget deficit up so high that any proposed domestic program now meets the cry: There is no money. And that is exactly what the right-wing intellectuals intended. They ran up deficits so that government would be unable in the future to spend money for domestic purposes.

It is a formidable legacy to overcome: deliberate starvation of the resources needed for a decent community life. To overcome it will require political leaders able to make us see again the imperative of the community, to understand with Holmes that taxes are the price of civilization.

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