The nation endured a deep recession throughout 1982. Business bankruptcies rose 50 percent over the previous year. Farmers were especially hard hit, as agricultural exports declined, crop prices fell, and interest rates rose. But while the medicine of a sharp slowdown was hard to swallow, it did break the destructive cycle in which the economy had been caught. By 1983, inflation had eased, the economy had rebounded, and the United States began a sustained period of economic growth. The annual inflation rate remained under 5 percent throughout most of the 1980s and into the 1990s.
The economic upheaval of the 1970s had important political consequences. The American people expressed their discontent with federal policies by turning out Carter in 1980 and electing former Hollywood actor and California governor Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan (1981-1989) based his economic program on the theory of supply-side economics, which advocated reducing tax rates so people could keep more of what they earned. The theory was that lower tax rates would induce people to work harder and longer, and that this in turn would lead to more saving and investment, resulting in more production and stimulating overall economic growth. While the Reagan-inspired tax cuts served mainly to benefit wealthier Americans, the economic theory behind the cuts argued that benefits would extend to lower-income people as well because higher investment would lead new job opportunities and higher wages.
The central theme of Reagan's national agenda, however, was his belief that the federal government had become too big and intrusive. In the early 1980s, while he was cutting taxes, Reagan was also slashing social programs. Reagan also undertook a campaign throughout his tenure to reduce or eliminate government regulations affecting the consumer, the workplace, and the environment. At the same time, however, he feared that the United States had neglected its military in the wake of the Vietnam War, so he successfully pushed for big increases in defense spending.
The combination of tax cuts and higher military spending overwhelmed more modest reductions in spending on domestic programs. As a result, the federal budget deficit swelled even beyond the levels it had reached during the recession of the early 1980s. From $74,000 million in 1980, the federal budget deficit rose to $221,000 million in 1986. It fell back to $150,000 million in 1987, but then started growing again. Some economists worried that heavy spending and borrowing by the federal government would re-ignite inflation, but the Federal Reserve remained vigilant about controlling price increases, moving quickly to raise interest rates any time it seemed a threat. Under chairman Paul Volcker and his successor, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve retained the central role of economic traffic cop, eclipsing Congress and the president in guiding the nation's economy.
The recovery that first built up steam in the early 1980s was not without its problems. Farmers, especially those operating small family farms, continued to face challenges in making a living, especially in 1986 and 1988, when the nation's mid-section was hit by serious droughts, and several years later when it suffered extensive flooding. Some banks faltered from a combination of tight money and unwise lending practices, particularly those known as savings and loan associations, which went on a spree of unwise lending after they were partially deregulated. The federal government had to close many of these institutions and pay off their depositors, at enormous cost to taxpayers.
While Reagan and his successor, George Bush (1989-1992), presided as communist regimes collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the 1980s did not entirely erase the economic malaise that had gripped the country during the 1970s. The United States posted trade deficits in seven of the 10 years of the 1970s, and the trade deficit swelled throughout the 1980s. Rapidly growing economies in Asia appeared to be challenging America as economic powerhouses; Japan, in particular, with its emphasis on long-term planning and close coordination among corporations, banks, and government, seemed to offer an alternative model for economic growth.
In the United States, meanwhile, "corporate raiders" bought various corporations whose stock prices were depressed and then restructured them, either by selling off some of their operations or by dismantling them piece by piece. In some cases, companies spent enormous sums to buy up their own stock or pay off raiders. Critics watched such battles with dismay, arguing that raiders were destroying good companies and causing grief for workers, many of whom lost their jobs in corporate restructuring moves. But others said the raiders made a meaningful contribution to the economy, either by taking over poorly managed companies, slimming them down, and making them profitable again, or by selling them off so that investors could take their profits and reinvest them in more productive companies.