Tag: Reaganomics

We’ll Never Improve the Tax System by Clinging to Partisan Folklore

top marginal tax rates over time

A stubborn myth of the pro-tax left (exemplified by Bernie Sanders) is that the Reagan tax cuts merely benefitted the rich (aka Top 1%), so it would be both harmless and fair to roll back the top tax rates to 70% or 91%.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Between the cyclical peaks of 1979 and 2007, average individual income tax rates fell most dramatically for the bottom 80%  of taxpayers, with the bottom 40 percent receiving more in refundable tax credits than paid in taxes.  By 2008 (with the 2003 tax cuts in place), the OECD found the U.S. had the most progressive tax system among OECD countries while taxes in Sweden and France were among the least progressive.

What is commonly forgotten is that before two across-the-board tax rate reductions of 30% in 1964 and 23% in 1983, families with very modest incomes faced astonishingly high marginal tax rates on every increase in income from extra work or saving (there were no tax-favored saving plans for retirement or college).

From 1954 to 1963 there were 24 tax brackets and 19 of those brackets were higher than 35%.  The lowest rate was 20% -double what it is now.  The highest was 91%.

High and steeply progressive marginal tax rates were terrible for the economy but terrific for tax avoidance. Revenues from the individual income tax were only 7.5% from 1954 to 1963 when the highest tax rate was 91%, which compares poorly with revenues of 7.9% of GDP from 1988 to 1990 when the highest tax rate was 28%. 

One Year Later, Another Look at Obamanomics vs. Reaganomics

On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website.

Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.

But perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.

So let’s look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?

Meh… not so much.

Let’s start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan’s policies, the economy skyrocketed.  Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn’t even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.

Under Obama’s policies, by contrast, we’ve just barely gotten back to where we were when the recession began. Unlike past recessions, we haven’t enjoyed a strong bounce. And this means we haven’t recovered the output that was lost during the downturn.

This is a damning indictment of Obamanomics

Indeed, I made this point several months ago when analyzing some work by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. And it’s been highlighted more recently by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, the jobs chart is probably even more discouraging. As you can see, employment is still far below where it started.

This is in stark contrast to the jobs boom during the Reagan years.

So what does this mean? How do we measure the human cost of the foregone growth and jobs that haven’t been created?

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and budgetary expert Mike Solon compare the current recovery to the post-war average as well as to what happened under Reagan.

If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today. …President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.

By the way, the Gramm-Solon column also addresses the argument that this recovery is anemic because the downturn was caused by a financial crisis. That’s certainly a reasonable argument, but they point out that Reagan had to deal with the damage caused by high inflation, which certainly wreaked havoc with parts of the financial system. They also compare today’s weak recovery to the boom that followed the financial crisis of 1907.

But I want to make a different point. As I’ve written before, Obama is not responsible for the current downturn. Yes, he was a Senator and he was part of the bipartisan consensus for easy money, Fannie/Freddie subsidies, bailout-fueled moral hazard, and a playing field tilted in favor of debt, but his share of the blame wouldn’t even merit an asterisk.

My problem with Obama is that he hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Instead, he has kept in place all of the bad policies - and in some cases made them worse. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a meaningful difference between the economic policy of Obama and the economic policy of Bush.

  • Bush increased government spending. Obama has been increasing government spending.
  • Bush adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies. Obama adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies.
  • Bush bailed out politically connected companies. Obama has been bailing out politically connected companies.
  • Bush supported the Fed’s easy-money policy. Obama has been supporting the Fed’s easy-money policy.
  • Bush created a new health care entitlement. Obama created a new health care entitlement.
  • Bush imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector. Obama imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector.

I could continue, but you probably get the  point. On economic issues, the only real difference is that Bush cut taxes and Obama is in favor of higher taxes. Though even that difference is somewhat overblown since Obama’s tax policies - up to this point - haven’t had a big impact on the overall tax burden (though that could change if his plans for higher tax rates ever go into effect).

This is why I always tell people not to pay attention to party labels. Bigger government doesn’t work, regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or Democrat. The problem isn’t Obamanomics, it’s Bushobamanomics. But since that’s a bit awkward, let’s just call it statism.

Comparing Reaganomics and Obamanomics

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old on February 6, so let’s celebrate his life by comparing the success of his pro-market policies with the failure of Barack Obama’s policies (which are basically a continuation of George W. Bush’s policies, so this is not a partisan jab).

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has a fascinating (at least for economic geeks) interactive webpage that allows readers to compare economic downturns and recoveries, both on the basis of output and employment.

The results are remarkable. Reagan focused on reducing the burden of government and the economy responded. Obama (and Bush) tried the opposite approach, but spending, bailouts, and intervention have not worked. This first chart shows economic output.

The employment chart below provides an equally stark comparison. If anything, this second chart is even more damning since employment has not bounced back from the trough. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. Why create jobs when government is subsidizing unemployment and penalizing production? And we already know the so-called stimulus has been a flop.

None of this should be interpreted to mean Reagan is ready for sainthood. He made plenty of compromises during his eight years in office, and some of them were detours in the wrong direction. But the general direction was positive, which is why he’s the best President of my lifetime.*

*Though he may not be the best President of the 20th Century.