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:
Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.
Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.
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.)