LESSONS LEARNED #74: “When negotiating it’s important to understand the ‘time value’ of promises. The longer out in time something is promised the less likely that promise will be kept.” -Old Pithy
Slaying the Inflation Beast
In Washington promises would make a poor currency. Because they’re very inflationary. Politicians make a lot of promises. And they break almost as many as they make. Promises just don’t hold their value over time. Especially when it comes to spending cuts. Any promise for future spending cuts will be worthless by the time that ‘future’ arrives. Because things change. The economic picture may change. And they’ll write new legislation to eliminate those spending cuts. To adjust for these unforeseen changes in the economy. Just as those promising those spending cuts knew they would. That’s why politicians (i.e., Democrats) can be generous when offering future spending cuts in any budget debate. Because they have no intention of ever keeping those promises. So Democrats can be very generous in offering ‘future’ spending cuts. In exchange for tax hikes in the here and now. It’s a con. And one of the biggest such cons was the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 that Ronald Reagan fell for.
Reagan’s poor economy had its roots in the Sixties and LBJ‘s Great Society. LBJ was a tax, borrow, print and spend liberal. And he spent. He exploded government spending for his Great Society. On top of the massive war spending for Vietnam. The economy limped into the Seventies. A bad economy and high taxes left few options to pay for that spending. So the Fed just printed money. Which devalued the dollar. The dollar then was still convertible to gold at $35/ounce. With the depreciation of their dollar assets, foreign nations converted their dollars to gold, depleting U.S. gold reserves. To stem this loss of gold Nixon suspended the dollar’s convertibility into gold (the Nixon Shock). Free from the restraint of a quasi gold standard, Nixon turned the printing presses on high. Devaluing the U.S. dollar in the process, giving us high inflation. Then the 1973 oil embargo came and made everything worse.
Gerald Ford did little to change things. Or Jimmy Carter. They were little more than Keynesians themselves. And believed in the power of government spending to stimulate the economy out of recession. So their policies remained Keynesian. Tax rates were high. As was government spending. And then another oil crisis came thanks to the Iranian Revolution. Things just went from bad to worse for Carter. Inflation was killing the economy. Until Paul Volcker came on board after a cabinet shakeup. He slew the beast. Eventually. Starting in the Carter administration. And finishing the job in the Reagan administration. For one of the tenants of Reaganomics was a sound currency. Which Volcker gave him by slaying the inflation beast.
Reagan was not a Keynesian
Inflation is the great big bad side affect of Keynesian economics. For it’s the only economics system that tells governments that counterfeiting money is a good thing. So governments do. And find justification for their actions by the sweet nothings Ivy League economists whisper in their ears. But once the inflation beast is unleashed it is not easily subdued. Because the only true antidote for runaway inflation is a good, deep recession. And a bit of a deflationary spiral to put prices back to normal. So this was where the economy was in 1982. In deep recession. With high unemployment. And double digit interest rates (reaching as high as 20% on occasion).
Tax receipts fell. As you would expect them to during a deep recession. Which increased the deficit. And this was just a calamity. The country was facing economic ruin. They just had to raise taxes. For it was the only cure. And the Democrats demanded that Reagan do just that. Raise taxes. But being that it went against another tenant of Reaganomics, Reagan refused. He was not a Keynesian. His Reaganomics was more of the Austrian School variety. Low taxes. Less regulation. Sound money. And little government spending. He believed that the massive government spending was the problem. And you didn’t fix that problem by giving the government more money to spend. No, Reagan wasn’t going to abandon principles easily. They needed something to sweeten the deal. To make him abandon his principles more easily. And they came up with a pretty sweet lie.
“Okay,” they said to Reagan. “You’re right. We need to cut spending. We’re all in agreement here. But the recession is hurting the people. We can’t hit them with spending cuts now. We’ll have to ease them in over time. To make it easier on the people. So we’ll give you your spending cuts. A lot of them. Just not right now. In the future. When the people are back on their feet. You win. All we ask for in return is that we increase taxes now before this deficit causes some damage that we won’t be able to walk away from.”
Democrats are Liars
And they made a deal. Tax hikes now. For spending cuts later. And a lot of them. For every new dollar in taxes they would cut $3 of spending. It was some unprecedented spending cuts. So Reagan accepted the deal. Tax hikes now for spending cuts later. He signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 into law. He only made one mistake. He trusted the Democrats. And didn’t see them twisting their evil mustaches while they were making their deal. Nor did he see them rub their hands together as they made a sinister laugh.
A Democrat’s promise to cut taxes isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. For it starts to depreciate before the ink even dries. And the numbers prove this. According to CBO, tax revenue in 1982 (the year of the tax hikes) was $617.8 billion dollars. At the end of Reagan’s second term in 1988, tax revenue rose to 909.1 billion. For an increase of $291.5 billion. Supply-siders (of the Austrian School) will say it was Reagan’s massive tax cuts in 1981 (Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) and 1986 (Tax Reform Act of 1986) that that generated this tax revenue by creating more taxpayers. Keynesians will say it was the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 that generated this revenue by taking more from each taxpayer. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Keynesians are right. And all that new tax revenue is from the higher taxes. So, according to the deal he made with Democrats to get this tax increase, government spending for the same period should have gone down by three times this amount, bringing total outlays at the end of that period to a negative $128.8 billion.
Now we know that didn’t happen. Government spending didn’t go to less than zero. So if they didn’t honor their 3-1 pledge, how much did they cut spending? Well, in 1982 government outlays were $745.7 billion. In 1988 that increased to $1.06 trillion. For an increase in spending of $318.8 billion. Clearly something is amiss here. For this is not spending reduction. It’s a spending increase. For every new tax dollar Congress collected they increased spending by $1.10. That’s not the promised spending reduction. It’s quite the opposite. More spending. A lot more spending. That $3 gain in spending cuts turned out to be a $4.10 loss. The Democrats lied. And Reagan would never fall for this trick again. For he learned the hard way that there are no such things as future spending cuts with Democrats. And that Democrats are liars.
Don’t trust Democrats when they Promise to make Spending Cuts
Of course, we could say that the supply-siders were right in regards to that increase in tax revenue. The reason the Democrats failed to follow through on their promise was due to the success of Reagan’s tax cuts. It just created so much money above and beyond what the tax hikes brought in. They may have delivered their promised cuts but you can’t see them looking at the aggregate numbers. Because Reaganomics created such great economic activity that it showered Washington with dollars.
It is an interesting choice. Either the Democrats are liars and renege on their promises. Or they are incompetent and follow failed Keynesian economic policies. Perhaps it’s a little of both. They’re both liars. And incompetent. For it would explain a lot. Such as how their policies never make the economy any better.
Either way the lesson learned is for certain. Don’t trust Democrats. Especially when they promise to make spending cuts. Because whatever may happen, one thing is clear. What won’t happen are the spending cuts.
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