Reagan's first year; Economy: a mix of gains, setbacks; President Reagan at one-year mark: still popular, but growing doubts about his ability to deliver
''How you look on the first year of the Reagan program,'' says economist Barry P. Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, ''depends very much on your income level.''Skip to next paragraph
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''If you have an upper income, you applaud the progress on inflation. If you are a low-income person, you either have lost your job or worry about losing it.''
Progress on inflation indeed has been the brightest spot over the past year, with consumer prices increasing at roughly a 9 percent level and wholesale prices even lower.
This progress, however, results not so much from the President's economic program, as from the deepening recession. High interest rates are the chief cause of the economic downturn.
The President hammered through Congress more than $35 billion in spending cuts, mostly in social programs. To some extent, however, these gains are offset by higher government outlays, including interest on the expanding debt.
''Between 1981 and 1983,'' says Rudolph G. Penner, director of fiscal policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, ''interest on the budget debt will rise by at least $30 billion,'' washing out the benefit of most of the spending cuts which Mr. Reagan worked so hard to achieve.
Apart from a few increasingly lonely supply-side voices, experts in both political parties - plus the President's top aides - now urge him to correct his course or face potential disaster.
''What I can't figure out,'' says Mr. Penner, ''is this refusal to change.''
Until November, Penner says, he had been ''one of the real optimists'' that Mr. Reagan's economic policies would work. Now he is confronted by a sign that troubles him - the upward thrust of interest rates over the past few weeks.
Wall Street, in his view, had been waiting for a signal from President Reagan that his administration would do something dramatic to curb the huge budget deficits that loom ahead.
What should Reagan do? ''Rescind the third year of his income tax cut,'' says Penner, thereby saving $30 billion to $40 billion and sending a positive signal to investors that deficits will not be allowed to run wild.
So far the President refuses to countenance such a move, forcing his advisers to talk in terms of a package of excise tax boosts - on tobacco, alcoholic beverages, and gasoline - plus the closing of some tax loopholes.
Penner says such a package could be nickeled and dimed to death in Congress, as lobbyists for affected industries line up to oppose higher taxes.
As matters now stand, the Treasury may have to finance a $100 billion deficit this fiscal year, plus larger shortfalls in 1983 and 1984.
The pool of savings in the United States, from which investment capital comes , is limited. When the US Treasury, businessmen, and consumers all demand more money, there may not be enough to go around. Interest rates, in such a case, shoot up.
Monetarists in the Reagan administration applaud the determination of the Federal Reserve Board to fight inflation by sharply restricting the growth of the money supply.
This means, however, that President Reagan is trying to ride two policy horses that are steadily drawing apart. His fiscal policy, based on tax cuts, will stimulate the economy, while the Fed's tight money policy - which he supports - threatens to starve the recovery and generate a new recession.
''Every time we fail to coordinate fiscal and monetary policy,'' says economist Bosworth, ''we have soaring interest rates and recession.''
In the past, he notes, ''government has always done something to end the recession,'' by pumping more money into the economy to create jobs. This fans inflation.
This time around, says Bosworth, both the White House and the Federal Reserve ''are following a demand restraint policy and we will accept unemployment.''
Rather than lose the gains made against inflation, in other words, the Fed intends to stick with its tight money policy.
The first cost is growing unemployment. The second cost may be soaring interest rates, if the White House and Congress fail to limit budget deficits.