Tag: president reagan

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.

Obama and Reagan’s Speeches about Freedom

President Obama spoke to Chinese college students on Monday, as President Ronald Reagan spoke to Moscow State University students in 1988. There were a lot of similarities – both men are great communicators, convinced of the rightness of their views and of their persuasive ability, and confident that their values are not just American but universal. But there were some clear differences in the philosophies they presented.

President Obama was eloquent in his defense of freedom in the heart of an authoritarian country:

The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship – of access to information and political participation – we believe are universal rights.

Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles – that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice….

Those are important American values, and I agree with the president that they are universal, as classical liberals have long argued. But I’m disappointed that President Obama didn’t cite freedom of enterprise,  property rights, and limited government as American values. Those are not only the necessary conditions for growth and prosperity, they are the necessary foundation for civil liberties.

He did glancingly mention in the paragraph above that “commerce should be open, information freely accessible,” so that’s half a clause about commerce, I guess. But that’s it for the freedoms that allow people to work and save, create, build, invest, and prosper. He noted that “China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – an accomplishment unparalleled in human history” but didn’t examine how that happened. (Hint: economic reforms that moved toward free markets and (quasi) property rights.)

His only subsequent mention of freedom touched on economics in the context of citizen participation and the Internet:

Now, that’s not just true in – for government and politics. It’s also true for business.  You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was – less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you.  It was a science project.  And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world.  So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn’t exist.

So I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter.

Yes, “the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows” were important to the development of Google. But more fundamental was the freedom of enterprise in America. There’s a reason that so many technological advances and consumer benefits are developed in the world’s freest economies. Property rights, freedom of exchange, low taxes, and limited restrictions on entreneurship allow people to invest and create.

Contrast the speech that President Reagan gave to the students who were still behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. Start with the way he addressed a very similar point to the one Obama made about Google:

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home.

Reagan praised democracy and justice and openness:

At the same time, the growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age….Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured.We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every 4 years the American people choose a new President, and 1988 is one of those years. At one point there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates – all trying to get my job. About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government – report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next President.But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections.

Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs – in many places, synagogues and mosques – and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that no government can justly deny; the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women – common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused. Go to any university campus, and there you’ll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you’ll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them; the people’s right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police. Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law….

But freedom is more even than this. Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.

And he came back to the basic purpose of democracy in the American context, not a plebiscitary system but a way to ensure that the governors don’t exceed the consent of the governed: “Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.”

He tied all of these freedoms to the American commitment to economic freedom as well. Throughout the speech he tried to enlighten students who had grown up under communism about the meaning of free enterprise:

Some people, even in my own country, look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste. What of all the entrepreneurs that fail? Well, many do, particularly the successful ones; often several times. And if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; yes, it’s what they learned from failing. Like an athlete in competition or a scholar in pursuit of the truth, experience is the greatest teacher….

And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world.

He even explained why China would one day, as President Obama said, lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty:

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world — places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. Low-tax agricultural policies in the sub-continent mean that in some years India is now a net exporter of food. Perhaps most exciting are the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China, where one-quarter of the world’s population is now getting its first taste of economic freedom.

President Obama said some important things to the Chinese students. But his continuing failure to mention the virtues of productive enterprise in a commencement address or to note the centrality of economic freedom in the American experiment could easily lead listeners to conclude that he really doesn’t care much for business and economic liberty.

Back to the Bad Old Days of High Marginal Tax Rates

As Mike Tanner has written, the health care bill means a big tax hike – indeed, a lot of tax hikes.  It also means a reversal of one of President Ronald Reagan’s great achievements, bringing down the top marginal income tax rate. 

Reports the Washington Times:

Small-business owners are warning that the economy would suffer under a health care bill proposed by House Democrats, which would drive tax rates for high-income taxpayers to levels not seen since before President Reagan’s tax reform of 1986.

The top federal income tax rate, which Mr. Reagan and a bipartisan Congress lowered from 50 percent to 28 percent, would reach 45 percent in 2011 if Congress and President Obama enact the surtaxes that are part of the health care reform plan that House Democrats announced Tuesday.

Small-business owners, who would take a direct hit from the surtaxes, expressed dismay over the proposal, saying it would force them to curtail hiring and reduce wages amid the worst recession in a generation.

“If they institute a 5 percent surtax on income, it will have a severe impact on small businesses that are already hurting,” said Michael Fredrich, whose Wisconsin company, MCM Composites, molds plastic parts.

“We run maybe three days a week, sometimes four days a week, sometimes zero days,” he said. “I can tell you that at some point, people … running a small business are just going to say, ‘To hell with it.’ “

Individuals tend to focus on their tax burden.  After all, our overall tax bill reflects the amount of money we lose as legislators speed about the country allegedly “serving” us while promoting their own political ends. 

Marginal tax rates more directly affect decisions on saving, investment, business formation, work effort, job creation, and more.  Even politicians not enamored of the “rich,” whatever that term means, should recognize that we all benefit from an economic system which encourages entrepreneurship.

Proponents of big tax hikes might want to recall Aesop’s Fable, The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.  Wreck the economy, and the health care system will crash too.