Memo to Robert Reich: Rewrite Your Brief

Robert Reich posted a letter in June 20 Wall Street Journal responding to my article of June 16, “Why 70% Tax Rates Won’t Work.”

He argues that I distort his proposal (though I wasn’t talking about his proposal) and ignore his argument that, “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur [economic] growth.”

This strikes me as a futile effort to change the subject.  Since I proved that past tax rates of 50-70% on relatively modest incomes raised less revenue than a top tax rate of 28%, how could Reich’s proposal of 50-70% rates at incomes above $500,000 raise more revenue?   And if 50-70% tax rates would not raise more revenue, then how could he possibly promise “substantial rate reductions [actually a refundable tax credit] for people with incomes under $100,000”?  

The original draft of my article was not focused on Reich, but included others − including two of his Berkeley colleagues (Brad DeLong and Emmanuel Saez) who recently suggested a tax rate of 70% would be “revenue-maximizing.”  The details of Reich’s proposal were not in the blog I quoted, but such details have no relevance to any points I made.

Only after top tax rates came down, I noted, were we able to afford very substantial reductions in taxes for people with incomes under $100,000.  Since President Reagan took office the average income tax rates have become negative for the bottom 40% and were cut in half for the “middle class.”   In 1980, when top tax rates were 70% and nearly 40% on capital gains, such rates brought in so little revenue that the Feds were compelled to tax low and middle-income families quite heavily to bring revenues up to the normal 8% of GDP.

At his blog, Reich argues that, “Reynolds bends the facts to make his case. The most important variable explaining the rise and fall of tax revenues as a percent of GDP has been the business cycle, not the effective tax rate. In periods when the economy is growing briskly, tax revenues have risen as a percent of GDP, regardless of effective rates; in downturns, revenues have fallen.”

For that to work as an explanation of why individual tax revenues were higher when the top tax rate was 28% than when it was 70-91%, Reich is logically obligated to argue that the economy was growing more briskly when the top tax rate was 28% than when the top tax rate was 70-91%.  Contradicting his own logic, however, Reich instead claims that “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur growth.”

Reich is not proposing to add new tax rates to 50-70% on salaries, dividends and capital gains because he believes it will raise more revenue (my data show otherwise), but because he believes it will raise the growth of real GDP.   This is breathtaking. Reich should be glad that I ignored his “central argument” about super-high tax rates boosting economic growth by taking income from those who earned and giving it to those more likely to squander it.   I was just being too polite.

Within his hyper-Keynesian lawyer’s brief, Reich is logically required to argue that top tax rates of 70-91% (1) raised revenue, and that (2) this imaginary added revenue allowed imaginary tax reductions on poorer people with a lower propensity to save.  He must then arrive at the logical conclusion, which is that (3) the average savings rate must have been much lower when top tax rates were 70-91% than since 1988 when to tax rates have frequently been 28-35% and as low as 15% on capital gains and dividends. A low savings rate, in Reichian theory, is what makes the economy grow.

My article proved the first two premises are false.  High statutory tax rates on the rich generated less revenue, and the poor and middle classes paid much higher taxes as a result.

The third premise of Reich’s brief is key to the Keynesian fable about growth depending to incentives to consume rather than incentives to produce.  Once again, the facts are the exact opposite of what Reich imagines. The personal savings rate was 9% from 1959 to 1981 when top tax rates were 70-91%, and 4.5% from 1988 to 2007 when top tax rates were 28-39.6%.

Reich’s comment that “the richest 1% of Americans got 10% of total [pretax, pretransfer] income in 1980, and get more than 20% now” refers to income reported on individual tax returns, assembled by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.   When top tax rates went way down, particularly in 1988, 1997 and 2003, the amount of reported income and capital gains went way up.  As Saez explained in the 2004 issue of Tax Policy and The Economy (MIT Press, p.120): “Top income shares … show striking evidence of large and immediate responses to the tax cuts of 1980s, and the size of those responses is largest for the topmost income groups.”   That is why revenues from high-income households went way up rather than down, and why it then became feasible to hand out refundable credits to the bottom 40% and cut tax bills in half for those earning less than $100,000.

Reich would apply his 50-70 % tax rates to reported capital gains and dividends, which is a surefire way to make taxable capital gains and dividends vanish from tax returns.  No high-income taxpayer can be compelled to sell property or financial assets for the sheer joy of paying 50-70 % of the gain to the IRS.  No investor can be compelled to hold dividend-paying stock rather than tax-free bonds.  

With the enormous amount of revenues lost under the Reich tax proposal, we would have no choice but to revert to the pre-1986 stingy personal exemptions and standard deductions while also repealing the Bush child credit and the vastly expanded earned income tax credit.