Fiscal Stimulus: What do Ronald Reagan and Joseph Stalin have in common?

Photo of Miltie from Univ.Tennessee at Chattanooga

What do Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and the current US Congress have in common with Joseph Stalin?

No, it’s not that they are dead.

Recently I appeared on one of those TV shows where a right-wing host interrupts the guest frequently. (Not that I had realized what it was. I had not heard of the guy, Glen Beck, and the producer had only told me they wanted me to talk about Washington’s reaction to new recession fears.) On the show I said I thought it would be a good idea if the recipients of tax rebates this time around included lower-income Americans, at least those workers who did not make enough to pay income taxes, but who did pay payroll (social security) taxes. This would be in contrast to the last 7 years of tax cuts which have left these people out. The TV host’s reaction was “Welcome to the show Mr. Stalin.” A media watch site called Media Matters for America picked this up, as an egregious comment even by the standards of talk show hosts. Of course the Democratic and Republican leadership of Congress, with the encouragement of the White House, have decided to include precisely these lower-income workers in the tax cuts this time. So I guess they are Stalinists. And Milton Friedman originally proposed the negative income tax, which was enacted as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and became highly successful when expanded by Ronald Reagan (1986) and Bill Clinton (1993). Quite a few Stalinists around!

I think the serious point is that conservatives like to think that they are keenly aware of the adverse effect of marginal tax rates on work incentives. Effective marginal tax rates on lower-income Americans trying to lift themselves out of poverty can be higher than on ultra-wealthy Americans. Yet the fixation of the Republican party from 2001 to 2007 was to make sure that the tax cuts went largely to the upper end and that they excluded workers at the bottom. Incentives are a third argument for tax rebates at the lower end, in addition to the two more familiar arguments we have been hearing: (1) income distribution, and (2) lower-income Americans will spend the money, which is supposed to be the point of the new fiscal stimulus.