OMB Director David Stockman (right) during a budget briefing alongside Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Martin Feldstein, Chairman Council of Economic Advisers, Jan. 31, 1983.
AP Photo/Barry Thumma
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The Education of David Stockman

"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers."
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While ideology would guide Stockman in his new job, he would be confronted with a large and tangible political problem: how to resolve the three-sided dilemma created by Ronald Reagan's contradictory campaign promises. In private, Stockman agreed that his former congressional mentor, John Anderson, running as an independent candidate for President in 1980, had asked the right question: How is it possible to raise defense spending, cut income taxes, and balace the budget, all at the same time? Anderson had taunted Reagan with that question, again and again, and most conventional political thinkers, from orthodox Republican to Keynesian liberal, agreed with Anderson that it could not be done.

But Stockman was confident, even cocky, that he and some of his fellow conservatives had the answer. It was a theory of economics—the supply-side theory—that promised an end to the twin aggravations of the 1970s: high inflation and stagnant growth in America's productivity. "We've got to figure out a way to make John Anderson's question fit into a plausible policy path over the next three years," Stockman said. "Actually, it isn't all that hard to do."

The supply-side approach, which Stockman had only lately embraced, assumed first of all, that dramatic action by the new President, especially the commitment to a three-year reduction of the income tax, coupled with tight monetary control, would signal investors that a new era was dawning, that the growth of government would be displaced by the robust growth of the private sector. If economic behavior in a climate of high inflation is primarily based on expectations about the future value of money, then swift and dramatic action by the President could reverse the gloomy assumptions in the disordered financial markets. As inflation abated, interest rates dropped, and productive employment grew, those marketplace developments would, in turn, help Stockman balance the federal budget.

"The whole thing is premised on faith," Stockman explained. "On a belief about how the world works." As he prepared the script in his mind, his natural optimism led to bullish forecasts, which were even more robust than the Reagan Administration's public promises. "The inflation premium melts away like the morning mist," Stockman predicted. "It could be cut in half in a very short period of time if the policy is credible. That sets off adjustments and changes in perception that cascade through the economy. You have a bull market in '81, after April, of historic proportions."
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