Politicians have always faced the temptation to give their constituents tax cuts. But in recent decades “conservative” presidents have enacted large tax cuts that have been anything but conservative fiscally, and have justified them by appealing to theory. In particular, they have appealed to two theories: the Laffer Proposition, which says that cuts in tax rates will pay for themselves via higher economic activity, and the Starve the Beast Hypothesis, which says that tax cuts will increase the budget deficit and put downward pressure on federal spending. It is insufficiently remarked that the two propositions are inconsistent with each other: reductions in tax rates can’t increase tax revenues and reduce tax revenues at the same time. But being mutually exclusive does not prevent them both from being wrong.
The Laffer Proposition, while theoretically possible under certain conditions, does not apply to US income tax rates: a cut in those rates reduces revenue, precisely as common sense would indicate. As detailed in a new paper of mine “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” for the Economic Policy Institute, this conclusion was the outcome of the two big experiments of recent decades: the Reagan tax cuts of 1981-83 and the Bush tax cuts of 2001-03. It is also the conclusion of more systematic scholarly studies based on more extensive data. Finally, it is the view of almost all professional economists, including the illustrious economic advisers to Presidents Reagan and Bush, even though it contradicted the views of their employers. So thorough is the discrediting of the Laffer Hypothesis, that many deny that these two presidents or their top officials could have ever believed such a thing. But abundant quotes show that they did.
These matters are not solely of interest to historians or economists. The presidential campaign of Senator John McCain appears set to drive its wagon down the same road in which Reagan and Bush have already worn deep ruts. The candidate is apparently selling the same snake oil: he says he believes that tax cuts increase revenues. His principle policy director disavows the Laffer Principle, just as the economists who advised Presidents Reagan and Bush did. But the views of the economic advisers are not what determines what these presidents do.
“The Queen in Alice in Wonderland said that, with practice, she was able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Most of us are more limited in our capacity for credulity. If John McCain believes both the Laffer Proposition (tax cuts raise revenues) and Starve the Beast (higher revenues lead to higher spending, anathema to conservatives), then as a good conservative, his duty is clear. He ought to run on a truly novel platform of higher tax rates! Why? Higher tax rates would reduce revenues (this is what Laffer says would happen) and thereby reduce spending (this is what Starve the Beast says would happen).
Seriously folks. If McCain continues to propose extending the Bush tax cuts, he should at least be forced to choose between the Lafferite defense and the “Starve the Beast” defense. Only then can the rest of us know which of the two mutually inconsistent propositions to refute.
I discussed my paper September 12, in a panel where Larry Summers and Gene Sperling also gave their thoughts on Supply Side Economics, at a joint meeting of the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute.
[Any readers wishing to comment on this blog post: I suggest you go to the RGE version.]