On Feb. 19, 1981, Ronald Reagan presented his administration's game plan in ''America's New Beginning: A Program for Economic Recovery.'' It contained tough Reagan rhetoric and a comprehensive set of sound proposals. For example, the President stated that ''the leading edge of our program is the comprehensive reduction in the rapid growth in federal spending.''
That was two years ago. Since then the administration has continued to talk tough but spend at a rate which, adjusted for inflation, is more than double that achieved by the Carter administration.
This pattern of double talk and policy flip-flops now appears to be a hallmark of the Reagan administration. The most recent episode concerns ''public works'' spending. In the President's ''Program for Economic Recovery,'' he stated that ''given the instability in the U. S. economy, the budget reform plan requires that in the short run (public-sector capital-investment programs) be stretched out or delayed.'' Well, all this was changed on Feb. 10, 1983, when the President sent James A. Baker III, David A. Stockman, Kenneth Duberstein, and Richard G. Darman to Capitol Hill with ''good news'': the President proposed a speedup in spending on public works as part of the so-called jobs bill. This, of course, delighted House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill and House Majority Leader Jim Wright, and set the stage for another Reagan-O'Neill embrace.
But does this most recent policy flip-flop make any economic sense? The answer can be found in the ''Economic Report of the President,'' which was transmitted to Congress last month, as well as a variety of academic studies. The President's economic report concludes that the ''available evidence suggests . . . that public works programs adopted in past recessions proved to be counterproduc-tive. . . .''
The reasons for the failure of public works programs are clear:
* First and foremost, public works programs crowd out private employment opportunities. Regardless of whether public works are financed by increased taxes, user fees, or public borrowing, private investment is ultimately reduced and private-sector jobs and productivity suffer.
* Second, public works projects require long gestation periods. Consequently , they have their effects on public employment long after economic recovery is under way. As a result, these programs are destabilizing. For example, the peak of added public employment associated with the Accelerated Public Works Program of 1962 came a full 37 months after the bottom of the recession, and 90 percent of the public works outlays to stimulate recovery from the 1974-75 recession came 2.5 years after the recession's trough.
* Third, federal spending on public works often is nothing more than a substitute for state and local spending that would have taken place in any event. For example, as a result of the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976 and the Public Works Employment Act of 1977, state and local public works expenditures fell substantially in 1976 and 1977, and total government spending on these projects, about $22 billion, was postponed.
* Fourth, public works programs are of limited value to participants. For example, public works jobs are of short duration. Public jobs created by the programs initiated in 1976 and 1977 lasted an average of only 3.5 weeks. Moreover, only 12 percent of the jobs generated by these programs went to workers who had been previously unem-ployed.
Armed with his original blueprint, hard evidence, and subsequent advice from his economic advisers, we must ask: ''Why has the President so consistently engaged in double talk and policy flip-flops?'' Although we cannot offer a definitive answer, perhaps the following story will shed some light on the issue.
In 1883, Woodrow Wilson began his graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In those days, graduate students ''picked up'' pocket money by making speeches. Given Wilson's talents, he did rather well on the lecture circuit. Typical of his public talks was one he gave in Towson-town in which he railed against socialists as being ''long-haired and wild-eyed.'' After this performance, one of Wilson's professors noted that he thought that these remarks were untrue and unwarranted. Whereupon Woodrow Wilson candidly said, ''If you say such things you make people believe you are conservative, and then you can go ahead and do progressive things.''
Given the President's performance, it appears that he is unwittingly following Woodrow Wilson's example.