Supply-side economics

Republicans Embrace Bad Economics and Bad Policy

To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to The Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

Lessons from the Reagan Tax Cuts

In a column in today’s  New York Times, Steven Rattner attacks Trump’s tax plan for being unrealistic. Since I also think the proposal isn’t very plausible, I’m not overly bothered by that message. However, Rattner tries to bolster his case by making very inaccurate and/or misleading claims about the Reagan tax cuts.

Given my admiration for the Gipper, those assertions cry out for correction. Starting with his straw man claim that the tax cuts were supposed to pay for themselves.

…four decades ago…the rollout of what proved to be among our country’s greatest economic follies — the alchemistic belief that huge tax cuts can pay for themselves by unleashing faster economic growth.

Neither Reagan nor his administration claimed that the tax cuts would be self-financing.

Instead, they simply pointed out that the economy would grow faster and that this would generate some level of revenue feedback.

Which is exactly what happened. Heck, even leftists agree that there’s a Laffer Curve. The only disagreement is the point where tax receipts are maximized (and I don’t care which side is right on that issue since I don’t want to enable bigger government).

Anyhow, Rattner also wants us to believe the tax cuts hurt the economy.

…the plan immediately made a bad economy worse.

This is remarkable blindness and/or bias. The double dip recession of 1980-1982 was the result of economic distortions caused by bad monetary policy (by the way, Reagan deserves immense credit for having the moral courage to wean the country from easy-money policy).

GDP Growth Was “Stronger after Tax Increases on the Wealthy”?

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt claims, “G.D.P. growth has been stronger after recent tax increases on the wealthy.”  To prove it he writes,  “The economy has performed better under Democratic Presidents during the last half century.”  

This might make sense if Eisenhower and Nixon had cut tax rates for the wealthy and JFK and LBJ raised them.  But the opposite happened.  It might also make sense if Clinton had raised the capital gains tax rate in 1997 rather than cutting it from 28% (under Reagan-Bush) to 20%. 

President Eisenhower put the highest tax rate up to 92% in 1953-54 and the lowest rate to 22%.  By contrast, President Kennedy’s 1963 plan for “getting America moving again” proposed to cut income tax rates to 14-65%.  As enacted by LBJ after Kennedy’s assassination, the top tax rate was reduced to 70% and the lowest to 15%.  These rate cuts came quickly, unlike Reagan’s – which were was unwisely postponed until 1983-84. 

Does “Wagner’s Law” Mean Libertarians Should Acquiesce to Big Government?

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a budget-cutting businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting—albeit depressing—article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

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?

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%. 

Assessing Jeb Bush’s Pro-Growth Tax Plan

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I highlighted the three biggest warts in the current system.

1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior such as work and entrepreneurship.

2. Pervasive double taxation that undermines saving and investment.

3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that lure people into using resources inefficiently.

These problems all need to be addressed, along with additional problems with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.

Based on these criteria, I’ve already reviewed the tax reform plan put forth by Marco Rubio. And I’ve analyzed the proposal introduced by Rand Paul.

Now let’s apply the same treatment to the “Reform and Growth Act of 2017” that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has unveiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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.

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