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October 03 2011

September 04 2011

Why Inequality is the Real Cause of Our Ongoing Terrible Economy | robertreich.org - 2011-09-04

THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal.

When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?

The economy won’t really bounce back until America’s surge toward inequality is reversed. Even if by some miracle President Obama gets support for a second big stimulus while Ben S. Bernanke’s Fed keeps interest rates near zero, neither will do the trick without a middle class capable of spending. Pump-priming works only when a well contains enough water.

Look back over the last hundred years and you’ll see the pattern. During periods when the very rich took home a much smaller proportion of total income — as in the Great Prosperity between 1947 and 1977 — the nation as a whole grew faster and median wages surged. We created a virtuous cycle in which an ever growing middle class had the ability to consume more goods and services, which created more and better jobs, thereby stoking demand. The rising tide did in fact lift all boats.

During periods when the very rich took home a larger proportion — as between 1918 and 1933, and in the Great Regression from 1981 to the present day — growth slowed, median wages stagnated and we suffered giant downturns. It’s no mere coincidence that over the last century the top earners’ share of the nation’s total income peaked in 1928 and 2007 — the two years just preceding the biggest downturns.

Starting in the late 1970s, the middle class began to weaken. Although productivity continued to grow and the economy continued to expand, wages began flattening in the 1970s because new technologies — container ships, satellite communications, eventually computers and the Internet — started to undermine any American job that could be automated or done more cheaply abroad. The same technologies bestowed ever larger rewards on people who could use them to innovate and solve problems. Some were product entrepreneurs; a growing number were financial entrepreneurs. The pay of graduates of prestigious colleges and M.B.A. programs — the “talent” who reached the pinnacles of power in executive suites and on Wall Street — soared.

The middle class nonetheless continued to spend, at first enabled by the flow of women into the work force. (In the 1960s only 12 percent of married women with young children were working for pay; by the late 1990s, 55 percent were.) When that way of life stopped generating enough income, Americans went deeper into debt. From the late 1990s to 2007, the typical household debt grew by a third. As long as housing values continued to rise it seemed a painless way to get additional money.

Eventually, of course, the bubble burst. That ended the middle class’s remarkable ability to keep spending in the face of near stagnant wages. The puzzle is why so little has been done in the last 40 years to help deal with the subversion of the economic power of the middle class. With the continued gains from economic growth, the nation could have enabled more people to become problem solvers and innovators — through early childhood education, better public schools, expanded access to higher education and more efficient public transportation.

We might have enlarged safety nets — by having unemployment insurance cover part-time work, by giving transition assistance to move to new jobs in new locations, by creating insurance for communities that lost a major employer. And we could have made Medicare available to anyone.

Big companies could have been required to pay severance to American workers they let go and train them for new jobs. The minimum wage could have been pegged at half the median wage, and we could have insisted that the foreign nations we trade with do the same, so that all citizens could share in gains from trade.

We could have raised taxes on the rich and cut them for poorer Americans.

But starting in the late 1970s, and with increasing fervor over the next three decades, government did just the opposite. It deregulated and privatized. It cut spending on infrastructure as a percentage of the national economy and shifted more of the costs of public higher education to families. It shredded safety nets. (Only 27 percent of the unemployed are covered by unemployment insurance.) And it allowed companies to bust unions and threaten employees who tried to organize. Fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

More generally, it stood by as big American companies became global companies with no more loyalty to the United States than a GPS satellite. Meanwhile, the top income tax rate was halved to 35 percent and many of the nation’s richest were allowed to treat their income as capital gains subject to no more than 15 percent tax. Inheritance taxes that affected only the topmost 1.5 percent of earners were sliced. Yet at the same time sales and payroll taxes — both taking a bigger chunk out of modest paychecks — were increased.

Most telling of all, Washington deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses. In so doing, it allowed finance — which until then had been the servant of American industry — to become its master, demanding short-term profits over long-term growth and raking in an ever larger portion of the nation’s profits. By 2007, financial companies accounted for over 40 percent of American corporate profits and almost as great a percentage of pay, up from 10 percent during the Great Prosperity.

Some say the regressive lurch occurred because Americans lost confidence in government. But this argument has cause and effect backward. The tax revolts that thundered across America starting in the late 1970s were not so much ideological revolts against government — Americans still wanted all the government services they had before, and then some — as against paying more taxes on incomes that had stagnated. Inevitably, government services deteriorated and government deficits exploded, confirming the public’s growing cynicism about government’s doing anything right.

Some say we couldn’t have reversed the consequences of globalization and technological change. Yet the experiences of other nations, like Germany, suggest otherwise. Germany has grown faster than the United States for the last 15 years, and the gains have been more widely spread. While Americans’ average hourly pay has risen only 6 percent since 1985, adjusted for inflation, German workers’ pay has risen almost 30 percent. At the same time, the top 1 percent of German households now take home about 11 percent of all income — about the same as in 1970. And although in the last months Germany has been hit by the debt crisis of its neighbors, its unemployment is still below where it was when the financial crisis started in 2007.

How has Germany done it? Mainly by focusing like a laser on education (German math scores continue to extend their lead over American), and by maintaining strong labor unions.

THE real reason for America’s Great Regression was political. As income and wealth became more concentrated in fewer hands, American politics reverted to what Marriner S. Eccles, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, described in the 1920s, when people “with great economic power had an undue influence in making the rules of the economic game.” With hefty campaign contributions and platoons of lobbyists and public relations spinners, America’s executive class has gained lower tax rates while resisting reforms that would spread the gains from growth.

Yet the rich are now being bitten by their own success. Those at the top would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy than a large share of one that’s almost dead in the water.

The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5 percent alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards. Nor can we rely on exports to fill the gap. It is impossible for every large economy, including the United States, to become a net exporter.

Reviving the middle class requires that we reverse the nation’s decades-long trend toward widening inequality. This is possible notwithstanding the political power of the executive class. So many people are now being hit by job losses, sagging incomes and declining home values that Americans could be mobilized.

Moreover, an economy is not a zero-sum game. Even the executive class has an enlightened self-interest in reversing the trend; just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the ebbing tide is now threatening to beach many of the yachts. The question is whether, and when, we will summon the political will. We have summoned it before in even bleaker times.

As the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression, what we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.”

That dream is still within our grasp.

[I wrote this for today’s New York Times]

Reposted from02myEcon-01 02myEcon-01

January 20 2010

Taxing Bailed-Out Financial Institutions

The administration's proposed bank tax can be considered an insurance payment that is paid after disaster strikes rather than the more usual case of collecting premiums ex-ante (as I talked about here). But what's the best way to structure this after the fact insurance premium? Diamond and Kashyup say that the answer is to base the tax on the difference between bank assets at the end of August 2008, and their level of capital today:

Return Our Investment, by Douglas Diamond and Anil Kashyup, Commentary, NY Times: Wall Street is considering legal action to prevent President Obama from imposing a new tax on bailed-out financial institutions. Because the law that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program compels the government to recoup the bailout money, it’s unlikely that banks will succeed... So rather than debate the constitutionality..., it is far more productive to design the best possible repayment plan.
The consequences of getting this right are huge: with a new tax, the administration aims to raise $90 billion over the next 10 years, which would do much to offset TARP’s estimated $117 billion losses. We therefore suggest taxing banks based on the difference between their assets at the end of August 2008 and their current level of capital. After all, the support these firms received was based on the size of assets before the financial panic began, not the size of those assets today.
With the bailout money, the government wound up insuring the bondholders and other creditors of the financial institutions. The tax we propose would allow the government to effectively collect insurance premiums now that should have been charged ahead of time. ...
Because our version of the tax would require each firm to pay a tax proportionate to the size of its bailout, it would fall hardest on the former investment banks whose very survival was in doubt before the government stepped in. These firms are now making eye-popping profits and are on a path to pay record bonuses, but more importantly they had the most borrowed money that wound up being unexpectedly insured. This is why they ought to pay more.
Even TARP recipients that have repaid the bailout funds benefited from the stability the government provided, so they too would have to pay some portion of the tax. But our formula would lower the tax for organizations that have raised capital after August 2008...
By focusing on each institution’s assets before the fall of Lehman Brothers almost brought down the system, our plan would make it impossible for banks to shrink their way out of the tax. ... Likewise, by focusing on the historical size of a bank, our plan would allow little room to engage in sham accounting transactions to sidestep the tax. ...
It is generally a bad idea to enact after-the-fact penalties. But giving away free insurance, as the government did during the bailout, is also bad. Our tax would merely ask financial institutions to finally pay for the insurance policy that kept them afloat.

If we are going to provide such insurance -- and there is an implicit guarantee that the insurance will be available whenever a shock to the banking system has the potential to create systemic trouble -- then (as I argue here), one part of the regulatory response to the crisis must be to limit the amount of risk that these firms can take on.

January 14 2010

The Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee

Calculated Risk summarizes today's proposal from the Obama administration for a "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" to recover the cost of the bailout of the financial system:

Proposed "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee," by Calculated Risk: From Treasury:

Fact Sheet: Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee: Today, the President announced his intention to propose a Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee that would require the largest and most highly levered Wall Street firms to pay back taxpayers for the extraordinary assistance provided so that the TARP program does not add to the deficit. The fee the President is proposing would:
  • Require the Financial Sector to Pay Back For the Extraordinary Benefits Received: ...
  • Responsibility Fee Would Remain in Place for 10 Years or Longer if Necessary to Fully Pay Back TARP:
  • Raise Up to $117 Billion to Repay Projected Cost of TARP:
  • President Obama is Fulfilling His Commitment to Provide a Plan for Taxpayer Repayment Three Years Earlier Than Required: ...
  • Apply to the Largest and Most Highly Levered Firms: The fee the President is proposing would be levied on the debts of financial firms with more than $50 billion in consolidated assets ... Over sixty percent of revenues will most likely be paid by the 10 largest financial institutions.
There is much more detail at the link. The proposed fee would be 15 bps of covered liabilities per year.
Free Exchange gives the motivation for the tax over and abovethe desire to recoup the money spent bailing the banks out:
The administration is clear in its desire that this function as an incentive for banks to get smaller and less leveraged:
The fee the President is proposing would be levied on the debts of financial firms with more than $50 billion in consolidated assets, providing a deterrent against excessive leverage for the largest financial firms. By levying a fee on the liabilities of the largest firms – excluding FDIC-assessed deposits and insurance policy reserves, as appropriate – the Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee will place its heaviest burden on the largest firms that have taken on the most debt. Over sixty percent of revenues will most likely be paid by the 10 largest financial institutions.
What's mystifying, then, is that the fee will only apply until TARP has been repaid.

But how much impact will the tax actually have, i.e. is it substantial enough to serve as a deterrent? Will the levy be large enough to change the behavior of investment banks? FT Alphaville does some calculations:

A quick, very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, has Goldman Sachs, for instance, paying a very conservative (i.e. assuming all of its deposits are FDIC insured, which is unlikely) 2008 figure of:
($884.55bn – $62.64bn – $27.64bn) * 0.0015 = $1.19bn.
Or, less than a tenth of the $10.93bn the bank spent on compensation and benefits that year.

Kevin Drum summarizes:

Ouch! That's hitting 'em where they hurt.

And if the Lucas critique type effects are stronger than anticipated (i.e. firms taking actions to avoid the tax), the tax burden will be even smaller.

What else might have been done? Progressive Fix has a list:

In the discussion of taxing banks and bankers, a couple of possibilities have been floated, some of which can reap short-term political points, others of which have the potential to promote progressive policies:
Bonus tax – One of the easiest – and politically most satisfying – would be a tax on excess bonuses. The British exercised this option on London bankers this past year. Bonuses in the City above a certain amount were taxed at a 50 percent rate. Banks responded by threatening to move offshore and – when that threat rang hollow – doubled the bonus pool they paid out to bankers. The end result was that the bankers whose decisions led in part to the crisis were financially unharmed, the British government raised a relative pittance in taxes, shareholders in City banks took a hit (as the bonus pools were increased at their expense), and the underlying fault lines in the British banking system remain unaddressed.
Transaction tax – The worst of the options would be a tax on transactions. As discussed before, this would merely pour sand in our financial system, breaking it and slowing economic recovery.
Excess profits tax – A more appealing option would be a tax on excess profits. A defining aspect of the financial bubble of the last decade was the fact that financial profits were 40 percent of overall corporate profits – more than double the slice financials made up of profits in the 1980s. A tax on these excess profits would rein that in. But while this could be useful, as Simon Johnson points out, it would be fairly easy to game, and end up being ineffective.
Tax on assets – A tax on bank assets above a certain amount addresses not just political sentiment that banks have made it through the crisis unscathed, but also the fact that banks are too big to fail. Encouraging banks to “right-size” themselves would make our economy safer from the systemic risk imposed by banks like Citigroup or Bank of America – which are debilitated but whose failure would be economically catastrophic.
Excess leverage tax – Taxing the leverage that financial institutions use to increase returns would allow us to avoid situations like that faced a year and a half ago when Lehman Brothers – leveraged over 30:1 – collapsed over the course of a weekend. It would make banks “safer” but would leave them still too big. In the event a bank were to fail, it would still be a systemic threat to our economy. This would be a more targeted version than an assets tax, but it would be harder to implement — definitions of leverage differ – and if not properly defined would leave hedge funds, insurance companies and other “non-bank financial institutions” untouched, leading to a crisis like that perpetuated by Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 or AIG last fall.

I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions on the transactions tax, particularly when applied to actions such as those described by Robert Solow:

Take an extreme example. I have read that a firm such as Goldman Sachs has made very large profits from having devised ways to spot and carry out favorable transactions minutes or even seconds before the next most clever competitor can make a move. Deep pockets in a large market can make a lot of money out of tiny advantages. (Of course, if you have any such advantage the temptation is irresistible to borrow a lot of money to enlarge your bets and your profits. Leverage is good for you, until it isn’t. It is not so good for the system.) A lot of high-class intellectual effort naturally goes into trying to invent ways to find those tiny advantages a few seconds before anyone else.
Now ask yourself: can it make any serious difference to the real economy whether one of those profitable anomalies is discovered now or a half-minute from now? It can be enormously profitable to the financial services industry, but that may represent just a transfer of wealth from one person or group to another. It remains hard to believe that it all adds anything much to the efficiency with which the real economy generates and improves our standard of living.

But that aside, I would have preferred to recoup the bailout money and increase the safety of the system at the same time through a tax on assets (to get at the too big to fail problem) and a tax on leverage (to reduce the damage the big banks can cause if they do fail).

[More on the proposal: NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Steve Benen, Ezra Klein, , Mathew Yglesias, Felix Salmon, Jon Chait, Dean Baker.]

December 15 2009

Should Taxes be Progressive?

Bruce Bartlett doesn't like taxation that redistributes income:

Inequality: A Problem?, by Bruce Bartlett: Normally, when one reads a proudly left-wing magazine like The American Prospect one expects to read vocal denunciations of inequality. So there's a certain man-bites-dog quality to a recent article by Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at NYU and card-carrying liberal. He argues that those on the left should stop worrying so much about inequality per se--its costs are overstated, as well as the benefits of greater equality. Instead, he argues, liberals should concentrate more on helping the poor and less on beating up on the rich.
At the risk of getting Conley's membership in the liberal club revoked, I think he is right. I have never understood how I am worse off if the top 1% of households increase their share of national wealth or income as long as the absolute level of wealth and income of the other 99% is unchanged. It may be aesthetically displeasing, but it doesn't impose any actual costs on anyone as long as the pie is not fixed. ...
Implicitly, liberals tend to believe the pie is fixed. But, generally speaking, it isn't. A rising tide does tend to lift all boats even if those at the top get lifted a lot more. But Conley is also right to ridicule the view, common among many conservatives, that enriching the wealthy somehow automatically benefits the poor. That's obviously nonsense. But neither does it follow that there is no limit to how much we can soak the rich without average people suffering some of the consequences. We really don't want the rich spending all their time figuring out how to hide their wealth from the tax man or engaging in conspicuous consumption; we'd rather that they invested their wealth in businesses that will increase their wealth but also create jobs and income for the rest of us, too.
For this reason, I have always been more sympathetic to programs that aid the poor than other conservatives. It's not so much that it's the right thing to do as that it's a necessary price that has to be paid to maintain democracy, open markets, private property, a stable currency and a tax system that doesn't punish success too much. To be sure, there is a heavy price to be paid when social welfare programs go too far. But at the same time I don't think the social Darwinist, Randian state in which people are left to die if they don't work is the one that maximizes growth or well-being for the producer class.
Where I think the left is mostly wrong about inequality is in thinking that taxes level the playing field. But the only way taxes really create equality is by discouraging the rich from earning income. The nation is not enriched when this happens. ...
I think we should simply give up trying to redistribute income on the tax side and accept that it can only be done meaningfully on the spending side. ... The left would accept that the only purpose of the tax system is to raise revenue and the right would accept that a fairly extensive social welfare state is here to stay. ... That's more or less the way it works in Europe, where conservatives accepted the welfare state in return for having it financed conservatively through a value-added tax. Liberals accepted this regressive form of taxation in return for conservatives accepting the legitimacy and permanence of the welfare state.

Over the years, I have asked a number of liberal friends if they would take this deal. They would get a pot of net new government spending of some amount--say 1% of GDP--to spend any way they like to help the poor. But in return, they would have to let me have a low-rate, consumption-based tax system and I would agree to raise taxes enough to pay for the additional spending. It seems like a free lunch to me, but I've never found a liberal willing to even consider the deal. They are too wedded to maintaining steeply progressive tax rates on income as a matter of equity.

I've commented on this in the past:

Personally, I'm not much on redistribution simply to make outcomes more equal. But there are (at least) three reasons to depart from this. First, when there is change such that makes one group better off at the expense of another as has happened recently with globalization, and when redistribution can leave everyone better off, then redistribution is justified.
Second, I think everyone should have equal opportunity to be a CEO or a hedge fund manager, or whatever they want to be. However, the playing field is far from level and there is a lot more we could do on this side of the equation. Not everyone will be a CEO of course, or achieve their dream job whatever it might be, but everyone should have an equal chance to be one of the winners. In the meantime, until more has been done to level the playing field, progressive taxation is a means of making up for inequality in opportunity. [And allowing people to reach their potential will increase productivity - this is why both the nation and the individuals are worse off without redistributive taxes that overcome inequality in opportunity.]
Third, for me at least, progressive taxation is justified by the equal marginal sacrifice principle (the last dollar paid should cause the same amount of disutility for everyone). Thus, even if opportunity is equal, and even if there were no winners and losers to worry about, justification for progressive taxation would remain. I think a more progressive tax structure than we currently have is needed to equalize the disutility of paying taxes.
We could list "preventing a political backlash" as a fourth reason for redistribution. But I'm not sure we need to invoke the political economy argument. If we use progressive taxation in accordance with the three principles above, then income will be more equally distributed and a backlash ... is less likely to occur.

Let me also add one more reason. A hidden assumption in Bartlett's comments is that the income received by those at the top is justified because it matches their contribution to society (i.e., it is justified by their high productivity). But much of the high productivity that financial executives were rewarded for wasn't really there, something that the financial crisis has made all too apparent. And looking at executive compensation outside of the financial sector, it's hard to believe that it is only due to their productivity, i.e. that their pay is not augmented substantially by some sort of market failure. Thus, in general, there's a strong case that pay at the top levels exceeds the contribution to society To the extent that progressive taxes represent a claw-back of these false rewards or a claw-back of rewards for something other than productivity, the taxes are justified.

Finally, if market power is present to a significant degree, as I'd argue it is in many markets, that will distort the flow of resources and distort profits. In this case rewards will reflect, in part, market power and pay will exceed productivity. If progressive taxation removes these distortions, then the taxes are justified. In some sense, it simply returns the income to its rightful owners.

When the flow of profits is distorted and some people fail to get what they deserve while others get more than they've earned, when opportunity is limited and people fail to reach their potential, when the burden of taxes is unequal, and when the distribution of the costs and benefits of globalization or some other economic change is unequal, there is harm from inequality -- social welfare can be improved through redistribution -- so I don't buy the argument that there are no economic costs associated with inequality, or that taxes cannot level the playing field. Some of it, e.g. the creation of opportunity, can be accomplished on the spending side as Bartlett suggests. But someone has to pay for that spending, and I see no reason why the burden shouldn't be progressive.

November 27 2009

Paul Krugman: Taxing the Speculators

Is it time to impose a financial transactions tax?:

Taxing the Speculators, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Should we use taxes to deter financial speculation? Yes, say top British officials... Other European governments agree — and they’re right.
Unfortunately, United States officials — especially Timothy Geithner... — are dead set against the proposal. Let’s hope they reconsider: a financial transactions tax is an idea whose time has come.
The dispute began back in August, when Adair Turner, Britain’s top financial regulator, called for a tax on financial transactions as a way to discourage “socially useless” activities. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, picked up on his proposal...
Why is this a good idea? The Turner-Brown proposal is a modern version of an idea originally floated in 1972 by the late James Tobin, the Nobel-winning Yale economist. Tobin argued that currency speculation — money moving internationally to bet on fluctuations in exchange rates — was having a disruptive effect on the world economy. To reduce these disruptions, he called for a small tax on every exchange of currencies.
Such a tax would be a trivial expense for people engaged in foreign trade or long-term investment; but it would be a major disincentive for people trying to make a fast buck (or euro, or yen) by outguessing the markets over the course of a few days or weeks. It would, as Tobin said, “throw some sand in the well-greased wheels” of speculation.
Tobin’s idea went nowhere... But the Turner-Brown proposal, which would apply a “Tobin tax” to all financial transactions ... is very much in Tobin’s spirit. It would ... deter much of the churning that now takes place in our hyperactive financial markets.
This would be a bad thing if financial hyperactivity were productive. But after the debacle of the past two years, there’s broad agreement ... that a lot of what Wall Street and the City do is “socially useless.” And a transactions tax could generate substantial revenue, helping alleviate fears about government deficits. What’s not to like?
The main argument made by opponents of a financial transactions tax is that ... traders would find ways to avoid it. Some also argue that it wouldn’t do anything to deter the socially damaging behavior that caused our current crisis. But neither claim stands up to scrutiny.
On the claim that financial transactions can’t be taxed: modern trading is a highly centralized affair. ... This centralization keeps the cost of transactions low... It also, however, makes these transactions relatively easy to identify and tax.
What about the claim that a financial transactions tax doesn’t address the real problem? It’s true that a transactions tax wouldn’t have stopped lenders from making bad loans, or gullible investors from buying toxic waste backed by those loans.
But bad investments aren’t the whole story of the crisis. What turned those bad investments into catastrophe was the financial system’s excessive reliance on short-term money.
As Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick ... have shown, by 2007 the United States banking system had become crucially dependent on “repo” transactions... Losses in subprime and other assets triggered a banking crisis because they undermined this system — there was a “run on repo.”
And a financial transactions tax, by discouraging reliance on ultra-short-run financing, would have made such a run much less likely. So contrary to what the skeptics say, such a tax would have helped prevent the current crisis — and could help us avoid a future replay.
Would a Tobin tax solve all our problems? Of course not. But it could be part of the process of shrinking our bloated financial sector. On this, as on other issues, the Obama administration needs to free its mind from Wall Street’s thrall.

November 04 2009

"Tax Cuts and Recoveries"

Do tax cuts spur economic growth?

Tax Cuts and Recoveries, by David Leonhardt, Economix: One big question about the 1983-84 economic boom (a boom I mention in my Wednesday column) is: Was it the tax cut?
Ronald Reagan signed a large tax cut in the summer of 1981, while the economy was in recession. Within a year and a half, the economy was booming. Conservatives, understandably, like to argue that the tax cut helped cause the boom.
I’m open to that argument. ... What’s unclear is how big an effect tax rates have.
In 1982, with the economy in the second part of its double-dip recession, Reagan signed a tax increase, meant to reduce the deficit. Here’s Bruce Bartlett, writing at Forbes.com:
According to a recent Treasury Department study, Ronald Reagan proposed the largest peacetime tax increase in American history as part of a budget deal to get the federal deficit under control. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) ... took effect on Jan. 1, 1983.
During debate on TEFRA, many conservatives predicted economic disaster. They argued that raising taxes in the midst of a severe recession was exactly the wrong thing to do. ... Said Rep. Newt Gingrich, “I think it will make the economy sicker.” The Chamber of Commerce ... said it had “no doubt that it will curb the economic recovery everyone wants.”
Looking at the data, however, it is very hard to see any evidence that TEFRA had a negative effect on growth. Indeed, one could easily make a case that its enactment stimulated growth.
A little more than a decade later, Mr. Gingrich made the same argument about Bill Clinton’s tax increase. But ... the ... late 1990s expansion was the fastest of any in the past forty years.
Mr. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, signed a large tax cut during his first year in office — as Mr. Reagan did. But Mr. Bush never signed a tax increase to reduce the deficit. And growth in the Bush years was slower than in the Reagan years or the Clinton years, even before the financial crisis hit.
The history seems to suggest that tax cuts are not the most reliable strategy for spurring growth, at least in the United States, where top income-tax rates are not sky high.
But maybe readers can offer an analysis that explains this history and still makes the case for tax cuts as the main engine of economic recoveries. ...

Just one quick note - for those anxious about the deficit and eager to do something about it, the Reagan experience shouldn't be used as an excuse to start raising taxes too soon. The time will come when deficit spending is no longer needed to spur the economy and at that point we should reverse course, but we shouldn't make the mistake of 1937-38 when an attempt to balance the budget too soon in the recovery caused the economy to fall back into recession.

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