Politicians who advertise themselves as “fiscal conservatives” sometimes campaign on crowd-pleasing pledges to cut taxes and simultaneously reduce budget deficits. These are difficult promises to deliver on in practice, since the budget deficit equals government spending minus tax revenue.
Aspiring fiscal conservatives may be interested in learning four innovative tricks that are commonly used by American politicians who like to promise what seems impossible. Each of these feats has been perfected over three decades or more. Indeed they first acquired their colorful names in the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency:
As I understand it, the authors of the “Pledge to America” want not just to renew permanently all Bush-era tax cuts, but also to balance the budget while exempting social security, Medicare, and military spending.To ask what would be the effects if the Republicans put this pledge into law is to ask what would be the effects if they repeal the laws of arithmetic. It can’t be done.All the money is in the parts of the budget they are putting off limits. (That is what we all assume they mean by “common sense exceptions for seniors, veterans and troops” when cutting spending. Admittedly, it is hard to tell what they are really proposing, due to the usual lack of specifics in the 21-page document.)
Martin Feldstein and others predicted that the tax-cut component of the 2009 fiscal stimulus package would have substantially less expansionary bang-for-the-buck than the spending component of the package, because much of the tax cut would be saved, as had been the case with the 2008 tax cut. (“Bang for the buck” in this case could be defined as demand stimulus divided by budget cost.) We knew this from Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis, or even from good old Keynesian multiplier theory.
A panel on Supply Side Economics in Washington, September 12, included statistics on the superior performance of the American economy under President Clinton compared to his Republican successor. (The graph to the right, from Ettlinger & Irons, shows the first term of each administration. The growth gap during the second terms was even wider.) Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers gave some statistics that included Democratic versus Republican presidents throughout the postwar period. As others have also pointed out, the Democratic record dominates to a surprising extent. (The event was jointly sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute.)
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.
The Starve the Beast Hypothesis claims that politicians can’t spend money that they don’t have.In theory, Congressmen are supposedly inhibited from increasing spending by constituents’ fears that the resulting deficits will mean higher taxes for their grandchildren.The theory fails on both conceptual grounds and empirical grounds.Conceptually, one should begin by asking: what it the alternative fiscal regime to which Starve the Beast is being compared?The natural alternative is the regime that was in place during the 1990s, which I call Shared Sacrifice.During that time, any congressman wishing to increase spending had to show how they would raise taxes to pay for it. Logically, a Congressman contemplating a new spending program to benefit some favored supporters will be more inhibited by fears of constituents complaining about an immediate tax increase (under the regime of Shared Sacrifice) than by fears of constituents complaining that budget deficits might mean higher taxes many years into the future (under Starve the Beast). Sure enough, the Shared Sacrifice approach of the 1990s succeeded.Compare this outcome to the sharp increases in spending that took place when President Reagan took office, when the first President Bush took office, and when the second President Bush took office.As with the Laffer Hypothesis, more systematic econometric analysis confirms the rejection of the hypothesis.
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).
In my earlier post, I catalogued some quotes from high Bush Administration officials asserting the Laffer claim that a cut in US tax rates stimulates income so much that the Treasury ends up taking in more revenue than before. I didn’t then quote in detail the extensive statements made by the Director of Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, in July 2005.
Director Bolton’s statements are of particular interest for several reasons. First, by 2005 it had become obvious to any objective observer that (1) the record budget surplus inherited by the Bush Administration had been quickly converted into a record budget deficit, and that (2) the aggressive Bush tax cuts were a major cause of that swing (as was the sharp acceleration in federal spending, both domestic and international, relative to the 1990s). Second, while the utterings of President Bush himself can in general perhaps be dismissed as not to be taken seriously, Bolten was the professional whose job is to be responsible for the integrity of the budget process. (Indeed, he is a higher-quality civil servant than some in the Bush Administration who have been quick to “bolt on” crazy ideological propositions to what should be serious positions.)
Following up on my preceding post, I will here document who has said what.
High officials in the Reagan Administration apparently did subscribe to the Laffer Hypothesis:
• Reagan himself: “…our kind of tax cut will so stimulate the economy that we will actually increase government revenues…” July 7, 1981 speech 1/
• His Secretary of the Treasury, Don Regan, even after events had falsified the proposition to the satisfaction of most observers, wrote of his “very strong opinion that a tax cut would produce more revenue than a tax increase.”2/
Also: “The increase in revenues should be financed not by new and higher taxes, but by lower tax rates that would produce more money for the government by stimulating higher earnings by corporations and workers…” (p.173).
So Arthur Laffer — still arguing the improbable “supply side” proposition that cutting income tax rates generally raises total tax revenue — is apparently now a special adviser to John McCain. And McCain has taken on a big consignment of the snake oil, to Greg Mankiw’s dismay. The political temptation for a Republican candidate to promise both lower tax rates and higher revenues is irresistible. The policy-makers who cut taxes when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, came to power subscribed to this claim. Remarkably, at the same time, the economists who were the chief economic advisers to Reagan and Bush during these tax cuts disavow the proposition that they increase revenue (Murray Weidenbaum, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, Mankiw…) . Almost all serious economists – let us say Ph.D. economists – disagree with this proposition, with only a microscopic handful of exceptions like Laffer. Indeed some of the advisers who defend the Reagan and Bush economic policies claim that this formulation of supply side economics is a caricature, and was not the true rationale of the tax cuts. This wishful thinking is directly at odds with quotes from the presidents themselves and their Treasury secretaries and other economic officials, to the effect that tax cuts stimulate income so much as to produce more tax revenue. Laffer is not a straw man. (See my next post.)