LESSONS LEARNED #75: “Lower income tax rates generate more tax revenue by making more rich people who pay more income taxes.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 21st, 2011

Inflation is a Bitch

The top marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration peaked at 92%.  When it wasn’t at 92% it was at 91%.  This was post-war America.  A happy time.  They even named a TV series after this time.  Happy Days.  Life was good.  There were jobs aplenty.  And lots of baby making.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the war-devastated economies rebuilt themselves and didn’t need American manufacturing anymore.

Things started to change in the Sixties.  Sure, a top marginal tax rate of 92% was high.  But few paid it.  Creative accounting and useful tax shelters avoided that punishing rate.  But government was still fat and happy with the money it was collecting.  Until the Vietnam War came along.  Johnson‘s Great Society.  And let’s not forget the Apollo moon program.  With renewed competition for American manufacturing, trouble in the oil-rich Middle East and rising inflation, the Seventies weren’t going to be happy.

And they weren’t.  Oil shockNixon shockStagflationMiseryKeynesian economics says to tax and spend to tweak the economy back to health.  When you can’t tax enough, you borrow.  When you can’t borrow, you print.  Nothing is more important than creating demand where no demand exists.  Give consumers more money to spend and ignore the debt, deficit and inflation.  The problem is, inflation is a bitch.

Reaganomics increased GDP 82.9%

Ronald Reagan routed Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election.  Carter’s economic numbers were some of the worst in history.  Double digit interest rates, unemployment and inflation.  All being flamed by an expansionary Keynesian monetary policy.  Until Paul Volcker took over the Fed during Carter’s last year or so in office.  And there really is only one way to cure a bad inflation.  With a bad recession.  And the Reagan recession of the early 1980s was one of the more severe ones.

Reagan was from the Austrian school of economics.  Supply-side.  His Reaganomics embraced the following tenets: cut spending, cut taxes, cut regulation and cut inflation.  In 1980 the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  When he left office it was 28%.  During his 8 years in office he took GDP from $2,788.1 billion to $5,100.4 billion (an increase of 82.9%).

The Reagan critics will note this explosive economic growth and say, “Yeah, but at what cost?  Record deficits.”  True, Reagan had some of the highest deficits up to his time.  But those deficits had nothing to do with his tax cuts.  For Reagan increased tax revenue from $798.7 billion to $1,502.4 billion (an increase of 88.1%).  Those deficits weren’t from a lack of revenue.  They were from an excess of spending.  And, therefore, not the fault of the Reagan tax cuts.

A Downward Trend in Prices is like an Upward Trend in Wages

And the Reagan critic will counter this with, “Sure, the economy grew.  But the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”  Yes, his income and capital gains tax cuts made a lot of rich people.  But they also transferred the tax burden from the poor to the rich.  In 1980, the top 1% of earners paid 19.1% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 27.6% (an increase of 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less.  Their share fell from 7.1% to 5.7% (a decrease of 18.9%).

Of course, the Reagan critic will then note that Reagan slashed domestic spending to pay for his military spending.  Well, yes, Reagan did spend a lot.  He increased spending from $846.5 billion to $1,623.6 billion (or an increase of 91.8%).  But he made a tax deal with Congress.  For every new $1 in taxes Congress would cut $3 in spending.  Those spending cuts never came.  Hence Reagan’s monstrous $200 billion deficits.  That’s a lot of money for both guns and butter.

But the greatest thing he did for low-income people was curbing inflation.  High inflation makes everything cost more, leaving low-income people with less to live on.  In 1980, inflation was at 13.5%.  When Reagan left office he had lowered it to 4.1% (a decrease of 69.6%).  No one benefited more from this reduction in inflation than low-income people.  A downward trend in prices is like an upward trend in wages.

The Reagan Economy was Better than the Clinton Economy

The Reagan critic likes to point to the Clinton years as a better economic period with better economic (and fairer) policies.  The Nineties were a period of economic growth.  But even with the dot-com bubble near the end of that period the Clinton GDP growth of 56.9% was less than Reagan’s 82.9%.   

Whereas Reagan achieved spectacular GDP growth while fighting inflation, the Clinton growth did not have to slay the inflation beast.  In fact, inflation rose from 3.0% to 3.4% during his two terms, indicting the GDP growth was not as real as Reagan’s.  Reagan’s was measured with a strengthening dollar.  Clinton’s was measured with a weakening dollar.  Also, real prices fell under Reagan.  While they rose under Clinton.  Making life more expensive for low-income people under Clinton than under Reagan.

Thanks to the dot-com boom, though, Clinton continued to transfer the tax burden to the rich.  He experienced a wind-fall of capital gains tax revenue when all those rich dot-com people cashed in their stock options.  In 1992, the top 1% of earners paid 27.4% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 37.4%.  This was an increase of 35.9% (compared to Reagan’s 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less, too.  Their share fell from 5.1% to 3.9%.  This was a decrease of 22.7% (compared to Reagan’s 18.9%). 

Over all, though, Clinton’s policies increased tax revenue 69.8% compared to Reagan’s 88.1%.  And this was with the dot-com boom thrown in.  Had there been no dot-com bubble (that burst after he left office) no doubt his GDP and tax revenue would have been less.  Some of this economic dampening perhaps being caused by his increase of the top marginal tax rate from 31% to 39.6%. 

Both Reagan and Clinton made more Rich People

Reagan’s tax cuts led to an economic boom.  He cut inflation making life more affordable for lower-income people.  And he transferred the tax burden to the rich.

Clinton increased taxes.  His economic boom was good but not great.  A big part of his GDP growth and tax revenue was due more to irrational exuberance than real economic growth. 

But both Reagan and Clinton made more rich people.  And these rich people paid more taxes.  And because they did low-income people paid less.  Which would seem to prove that the best way to increase tax revenue (and make the tax system more progressive) would be to create more rich people.  And yet the very people who want to do this advance policies that work against these objectives.  Why?

Politics.  Sure, the Austrian school of economics has a proven track record over the Keynesian school.  But Austrian school economics has a terrible side affect.  It doesn’t grow government.  And all the economic growth and tax revenue doesn’t mean a thing if you lose your comfy federal job.  At least to a Big Government politician.

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