Tag: laffer curve

The 1990 Bush “Tax Increase” Reduced Taxes

The late President G.H.W. Bush famously reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge and signed the “Bush tax increase” on November 5, 1990, to take effect the following January.   The new law was intended to raise more revenue from high-income households and unincorporated businesses.  It was supposed to raise revenue partly by raising the top tax rate from 28% to 31% but more importantly by phasing-out deductions and personal exemptions as income on a joint return climbed above $150,00  (the phase-outs were called the PEP and Pease provisions).  

Treasury estimates expected revenues after the 1990 budget deal to be higher by a half-percent of GDP.  What happened instead is that revenues fell from 17.8% of GDP in 1989 to 17.3% in 1991, and then to 17% in 1992 and 1993.  Instead of rising from 17.8% of GDP to 18.3% as initial estimates assumed, revenues fell to 17%.  In fact, revenues did not climb back to the 1989 level of 17.8% of GDP until 1995, despite much higher excise taxes since 1991.

Another way to gauge the 1990 and 1993 tax increase is to measure the revenue gains in real 2009 dollars, adjusted for inflation.  According to Table 1.3 of the Historical Statistics in the U.S. Budget, real revenues (in 2009 dollars) soared from $1,308.8 billion in 1980 to $1,654.6 billion in 1990 (26.4%), as the top tax rate fell from 70% to 28%.  After the Bush tax increases in 1991 and retroactive Clinton tax increases in 1993, by contrast, revenues were virtually no higher in 1993 than they had been before – $1,655.7 billion.  GDP in 1993 was a bit larger than in 1990 but revenues fell as a percent of GDP despite higher excise taxes.

A recession began in October 1990, just as the intended tax increase was being enacted.  To blame the weak revenues of 1991-93 entirely on that brief recession begs the obvious question: To what extent was a recession that began with a tax increase caused or at least worsened by that tax increase?   

Some describe the Bush tax increase of 1990 act of great political courage and bipartisan cooperation which supposedly helped shrink the budget deficit “by $492 billion … over just five years.”   But that figure too was (1) just an estimate, (2) only 30% of it was ostensibly to come from higher taxes, and (3) most of the hoped-for added revenue was not from higher income tax on couples earning over $150,000 but from higher excise taxes on gasoline, alcohol, tobacco, telephones, etc.  The gas tax went up a nickel; the beer tax was doubled.  Nearly 10% of the revenue windfall was expected from a new luxury tax on cars, yachts, airplanes, furs, and jewelry which devastated those businesses (contributing to the recession) before being repealed in less than a year.

Journalists who look back at what happened to tax revenues after tax rates were raised or lowered, such as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, commonly rely on an updated version of a 1998 working paper by Treasury economist Jerry Tempalski.  However, Tempalski only presented estimated effects on revenues, not actual effects.   “Treasury estimates a bill when it is enacted… and sometimes reestimates a bill for several subsequent January budgets,” Tempalski explained, but some of “the first post-enactment estimates proved not very accurate.”  Tax changes were often phased-in or phased-out, yet “the estimates… include no adjustment to capture the long-run, fully-phased-in effect of the tax bills.”  Early estimates looked ahead only two years, later ones covered four.

These antiquated revenue estimates tell us nothing about what actually happened after tax laws were changed.  They only tell us what notoriously erroneous revenue estimators expected.  Yet the Tempalski estimates have been repeatedly cited as evidence that lower tax rates never even come close to “paying for themselves”  by such leading journalists as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler and Lori Robertson of FactCheck.org, and even by the chief economist for Tax AnalystsMartin A. Sullivan

In the same vein, estimated revenue effects of the 1990 “tax increase” are still being cited as if they are facts rather than discredited old estimates.   When discussing tax increases (or tax cuts), journalists and economists must take care to distinguish between intended effects on revenue and actual effects.  Fact checkers can’t fact check the old estimates because they’re not facts. Estimates are just estimates.  


The International Monetary Fund Accidentally Provides Strong Evidence for the Laffer Curve

As a general rule, the International Monetary Fund is a statist organization. Which shouldn’t be too surprising since its key “shareholders” are the world’s major governments.

And when you realize who controls the purse strings, it’s no surprise to learn that the bureaucracy is a persistent advocate of higher tax burdens and bigger government. Especially when the IMF’s politicized and leftist (and tax-free) leadership dictates the organization’s agenda.

Which explains why I’ve referred to that bureaucracy as a “dumpster fire of the global economy” and the “Dr. Kevorkian of global economic policy.”

I always make sure to point out, however, that there are some decent economists who work for the IMF and that they occasionally are allowed to produce good research. I’ve favorably cited the bureaucracy’s work on spending caps, for instance.

But what amuses me is when the IMF tries to promote bad policy and accidentally gives me powerful evidence for good policy. That happened in 2012, for example, when it produced some very persuasive data showing that value-added taxes are money machines to finance a bigger burden of government.

Well, it’s happened again, though this time the bureaucrats inadvertently just issued some research that makes the case for the Laffer Curve and lower corporate tax rates.

A Left-Wing Tax Victory that Is Actually a Triumph for Supply-Side Economics

Our statist friends like high taxes for many reasons. They want to finance bigger government, and they also seem to resent successful people, so high tax rates are a win-win policy from their perspective.

They also like high tax rates to micromanage people’s behavior. They urge higher taxes on tobacco because they don’t like smoking. They want higher taxes on sugary products because they don’t like overweight people. They impose higher taxes on “adult entertainment” because…umm…let’s simply say they don’t like capitalist acts between consenting adults. And they impose higher taxes on tanning beds because…well, I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t like artificial sun.

Give their compulsion to control other people’s behavior, these leftists are very happy about what’s happened in Berkeley, California. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, a new tax on sugary beverages has led to a significant reduction in consumption.

Here are some excerpts from a release issued by the press shop at the University of California Berkeley.

…a new UC Berkeley study shows a 21 percent drop in the drinking of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods after the city levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. …The “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” campaign, also known as Measure D, won in 2014 by a landslide 76 percent, and was implemented in March 2015. …The excise tax is paid by distributors of sugary beverages and is reflected in shelf prices, as a previous UC Berkeley study showed, which can influence consumers’ decisions. …Berkeley’s 21 percent decrease in sugary beverage consumption compares favorably to that of Mexico, which saw a 17 percent decline among low-income households after the first year of its one-peso-per-liter soda tax that its congress passed in 2013.

I’m a wee bit suspicious that we’re only getting data on consumption by poor people.

Why aren’t we seeing data on overall soda purchases?

The VAT Laffer Curve: A Lesson for India

India’s move to replace varying federal, state and interstate sales tax with a uniform Value Added Tax (VAT) makes a lot of sense (unlike Brazil which has high sales taxes and a 19% VAT). 

Yet India should take care not to let the 17.3% tax rate creep up, because VAT too is subject to the “Laffer Curve.”

VAT Revenues Never Exceed 10 percent of GDP

As the graph shows (using 2013 OECD data) the VAT never brings in revenue higher than 10% GDP even in countries that mistakenly raised the VAT to 20% or more - 23% in Greece and Ireland, 25% in Scandanavian countries, 26% in Iceland, 27% in Hungary. New Zealand collected 9.7% of GDP with a 15% standard VAT, while countries with much higher VATs brought in less.

No tax fails to inflict economic damage, of course, which holds down the revenue collected from income and payroll taxes. A study by James Alm of Tulane University and Asmaa El-Ganainy of the IMF found “a one percentage point increase in the VAT rate leads to roughly a one percent reduction in the level of aggregate consumption in the short run and to a somewhat larger reduction in the long run.” Such a reduction in consumer spending means fewer jobs, wages and profits, so a higher VAT leads to lower revenue from taxes on personal income and profits – a fact borne out by Japan’s experience.

Honest Leftist Admits Desire for Spite-Driven Tax Policy

Every so often, I’ll assert that some statists are so consumed by envy and spite that they favor high tax rates on the “rich” even if the net effect (because of diminished economic output) is less revenue for government.

In other words, they deliberately and openly want to be on the right side (which is definitely the wrong side) of the Laffer Curve.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating in order to make my opponents look foolish, check out this poll of left-wing voters who strongly favored soak-the-rich tax hikes even if there was no extra tax collected.

But now I have an even better example.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias openly argues that we should be on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, “the case for confiscatory taxation” is part of the title for his article.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to useless for revenue-raising purposes — but powerful for achieving other ends. We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. …But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

The tobacco tax analogy is very appropriate.

Indeed, one of my favorite arguments is to point out that we have high taxes on cigarettes precisely because politicians want to discourage smoking.

As a good libertarian, I then point out that government shouldn’t be trying to control our private lives, but my bigger point is that the economic arguments about taxes and smoking are the same as those involving taxes on work, saving, investment.

Needless to say, I want people to understand that high tax rates are a penalty, and it’s particularly foolish to impose penalties on productive behavior.

But not according to Matt. He specifically argues for ultra-high tax rates as a “deterrence” to high levels of income.

If we take seriously the idea that endlessly growing inequality can have a cancerous effect on our democracy, we should consider it for top incomes as well. …apply the same principle of taxation-as-deterrence to very high levels of income. …Imagine a world in which we…imposed a 90 percent marginal tax rate on salaries above $10 million. This seems unlikely to raise substantial amounts of revenue.

I suppose we should give him credit for admitting that high tax rates won’t generate revenue. Which means he’s more honest than some of his fellow statists who want us to believe confiscatory tax rates will produce more money.

But honesty isn’t the same as wisdom.

Debunking the Debunking of Dynamic Scoring and the Laffer Curve

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether congressional Republicans are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion - sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve - that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking:

Linear Thinking and the Rahn Curve: Responding to a Critic

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.