Category Archives: Laffer curve

The Return of Voodoo Economics

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Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times today talked of the revival of “Voodoo economics” by some Republican politicians.  This refers to the Laffer Proposition that a cut in income tax rates stimulates economic activity so much that tax revenue goes up rather than down.   Gov. Sam Brownback, who is running for re-election in Kansas, has had to confront the reality that tax revenues went down, not up as he argued they would, when he cut state tax rates.

I disagree with one thing that Krugman wrote in his column: the idea that there was a long break,  particularly after George W. Bush took office, during which Republican politicians did not push this line.  To the contrary, I have collected many quotes from George W. Bush and his top officials claiming the Laffer Proposition during the decade of the 2000s.   The quotes are on pages 35-39 of “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” RWP 08-056, Harvard Kennedy School, 2008.   Here is one of many from him: “The best way to get more revenues in the Treasury is…cut taxes to get more economic growth.“ It is true that the chairmen of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers did not support the Laffer Proposition, known as the centerpiece of “supply-side economics”.  But then that was also the case in the Reagan Administration.

The McCain presidential campaign replayed the pattern yet again in 2008: the candidate said tax cuts would bring in more revenue even though his economic adviser said it wouldn’t.    Voodoo economics is a very hardy perennial.

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Four Magic Tricks for Aspiring Fiscal Conservatives

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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:

1. The “Magic Asterisk”
2. “Rosy Scenario”
3. The Laffer hypothesis
4. The “Starve the Beast” hypothesis.

As shop-worn as these four conjuring tricks are, voters and journalists continue to fall for them. Thus they remain useful equipment in the repertoire of the fiscal conservative.

The first term was coined by Reagan’s Budget Director, David Stockman.  Originally it was an act of desperation, because the numbers in the 1981 budget plan didn’t add up.  “We invented the ‘magic asterisk’:  If we couldn’t find the savings in time – and we couldn’t-we would issue an IOU. We would call it ‘Future savings to be identified.'” [p.124]   Since that time the Magic Asterisk has become a familiar device in the American policy arena.   Recent examples include the recommendation of the Simpson-Bowles commission to cut real spending growth by precise amounts, without saying where.   US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has done the same in his spending plan.    Another current application of the Magic Asterisk is Romney’s plan to eliminate enough tax expenditures to make up the revenue lost by cutting marginal tax rates by 20% (which is $5 trillion in revenue), while steadfastly refusing to say what tax expenditures he would eliminate.

As Election Day nears, the pressure on a candidate to get more specific grows.  The conjurer is thus forced to go to Trick Two:  since he can’t find enough tax loopholes to eliminate, he must claim that what he meant by closing the revenue gap was that stronger economic growth will bring in the added revenue.   The most popular magician’s assistant of all time makes her encore on the stage.  Murray Weidenbaum, Reagan’s first Council of Economic Advisers Chairman, deserves the credit for originally dreaming up Ms. Rosy Scenario, “perhaps my most lasting legacy” [p.57].  The Reagan Administration in its early years forecast 5% income growth (twice the long-run average), in order to imply in its projections a boost to revenues big enough to make up for its many tax cut measures [p.93-97].   Since then candidates of every party have made use of Rosy’s talents.

Indeed official growth forecasts are systematically overly optimistic in almost all of a sample of 33 countries, contributing to overly optimistic budget forecasts.   European governments are particularly biased.

In the Republican primaries last year, candidate Tim Pawlenty assumed a 5 per cent growth rate to make his own plan work.   He was all but laughed out of the race.  Mitt Romney probably can’t get away with this sleight-of-hand either.   The press asks, “Why should we believe that the growth rate will magically accelerate just because you become president?   Where will this GDP come from?   It sounds like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.”  Right on cue, it is time for Trick 3.

Trick 3 is the famous Laffer Hypothesis.   This is the proposition, identified with “supply side economics,” that reductions in tax rates are like magic beans:  they stimulate economic growth a lot — so much so that total tax revenue (the tax rate times income) goes up rather than down.   One might think that the Romney campaign would never resurrect such a hoary and discredited trick.  After all, two of his main economic advisers, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, both have textbooks in which they say that the Laffer Hypothesis is incorrect as a description of US tax rates.  Mankiw’s book, in its first edition, even called its proponents “charlatans.”  But the historical record is that each Republican presidential candidate since Reagan has had good economic advisers who disavow the Laffer Hypothesis.  Yet time and again the president (or candidate), and his vice president (or running mate) and his political aides read from a script that relies on the Laffer logic (Appendix I). They are the ones who make the policy if the candidate wins, not the academic economist.   George W. Bush had these same two top economic advisers in his first term, Hubbard and Mankiw, when he cut taxes and transmogrified a record surplus into a record deficit.

Trick 4, “Starve the Beast,” typically comes later, if and when the president is elected, has enacted his tax cuts, and discovers that smoke and mirrors don’t work against hard fiscal reality. He can’t find enough spending to cut (Magic Asterisk has disappeared up the conjurer’s sleeve); the acceleration in GDP is nowhere to be seen (Rosy Scenario has vanished in thin air); and tax revenues have not grown (no rabbit in the Laffer hat).   The audience is now told that losing tax revenue and widening the budget deficit was the plan all along.  The performer explains that the deficit is all the fault of Congress for not cutting spending and that the only way to tame the beast is raise the budget deficit because “Congress can’t spend money it doesn’t have.”  This trick never works either, of course.  Congress can in fact spend money it doesn’t have, especially if the “conservative” president has been quietly sending it budgets every year that call for that.   “Starve the Beast” as a budget strategy, like the other three, dates back to the first Reagan Administration. (Bartlett, 2007, p.6-7.)

By the time the crowd realizes it has been had, the confidence man has pulled off the greatest trick of all:  yet another audience who came to see the deficit shrunk instead leaves the theater with the deficit bigger than when it came in.

References
Bruce Bartlett, 2007, “‘Starve the Beast’ Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor,”The Independent Review, XII, 1, summer, 5-26.
Jeffrey Frankel, 2008, “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper 221, September.
–2011, “Over-optimism in Forecasts by Official Budget Agencies and Its Implications,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy vol.27, no. 4, 536-562. NBER WP 17239; Summary in NBER Digest.
David Stockman, 1986, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (Harper & Row).
Murray Weidenbaum, 2005, Advising Reagan: Making Economic Policy, 1981-82 (Washington Univ., St.Louis).

[A version of this column appeared earlier at Project Syndicate, which has the copyright.  Comments can be posted there.]

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Republican Congressmen Pledge to Repeal the Laws of Arithmetic

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The National Journal asks what would happen if the Pledge to America, proposed last week by congressional Republicans, were fully implemented.

     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.) 

      We have been through all this before.  Two experiments are most memorable.  First, Ronald Reagan was elected on his pledge of balancing the budget while cutting taxes, which soon produced what were at the time the biggest budget deficits in history.   Then the same thing happened when George W. Bush took office; but he broke the Reagan records for increases in the deficit.  

     I am convinced that if the Republicans, running on the supposed fiscal conservatism of the “Pledge,” were to sweep control of Washington, we would soon have larger deficits than if Obama were calling the shots.  And not just because Obama would raise taxes.   (He may not ever raise them at all, relative to current law, incidentally.  His current proposal is to cut them relative to current law.)     Rather we would probably get a faster rate of growth of spending under the Republicans, just as spending grew more than twice as rapidly under Presidents Reagan and Bush as it did under Clinton.

     It is not only Republican presidential candidates who pledge “small government” and then do the opposite.   It is true of Republican Congressmen too.    A 2004 study of the 258 members of Congress who signed an unconditional Pledge not to raise taxes found that they on average voted for greater increases in spending than those who did not sign the pledge.    Still not convinced?   One more fact:    Congressmen in those states that vote Republican tend to take home a significantly higher level of federal dollars for their states (relative, for example, to taxes paid) than those states that vote Democratic.    

     What is the explanation for the consistent pattern, over the few decades, that the pledge candidates, those who talk the loudest about the need for fiscal conservatism, in practice do the least to achieve it?   After all this time, I still don’t know for sure.    The explanation used to be that the Republican politicians believed one or the other of two erroneous theories:  the Laffer Hypothesis that cutting tax rates would generate more tax revenue, or the Starve the Beast Hypothesis that lower tax revenue would lead to lower spending.  But I haven’t heard either of these claims this time around.  

      Perhaps the true explanation all along is that pledge politicians are under the impression that cutting spending is as easy as waving a magic wand.  The candidates don’t realize that to reduce the deficit one must begin by looking at the numbers and one must end up with constituents who are furious at having lost benefits.  It takes numeracy, competence, experience, and guts.  It takes concrete measures such as those that yielded budget surpluses by the end of the 1990s.  Perhaps when pledge candidates get into office, they are unprepared for the difficulty of the task.

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