JFK, Tax Cuts, Vietnam, LBJ, Great Society, Hippies, Race Riots, Keynesian Spending, Nixon, Carter and Ronald Reagan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 21st, 2012

History 101

Ronald Reagan would follow the Kennedy Example of Cutting Taxes to Grow the Economy

In 1961 West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard gave John F. Kennedy (JFK) some good advice.  During JFK’s visit he told him not to make the same mistake the British had.  He told Kennedy NOT to follow their policy of high taxation.  Because it killed economic activity.  And economic growth.  England was suffering from her bad tax policy.  He urged the American president not to make the same mistake.

JFK heeded Erhard’s advice.  And cut tax rates.  This did not please liberals in his Democrat Party.  Who were all Keynesians.  And believed in large government interventions into the private sector.  Funded by large government expenditures.  Which in the Keynesian world you got in one of three ways.  Tax, borrow or print money.  You did not cut tax rates.  Which was blasphemous in Keynesian doctrine.  You never, ever, cut tax rates.  But Kennedy did.  Arguing that “an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenue to balance the budget—just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits.”

A message Ronald Reagan would give time and again some 20 years later.  And would follow the Kennedy example of cutting taxes to grow the economy.  Generating more tax revenue without having to cut spending.  The result of JFK’s ‘trickle-down’ economics were impressive.  He cut the top marginal tax rate from 91% to 70%.  And cut the 20% rate to 14% at the other end of the scale.  What did people do with these tax savings?  They saved.  And invested.  Savings rose from an annual growth rate of 2% to 9%.  Business investment from 2% to 8%.  New jobs grew at a rate of 100%.  And unemployment fell by one third.  With GDP rising some 40% in two years.  And despite cutting tax rates tax revenue rose.  The booming economy generating more tax revenue even at the lower rates.  Even more than the Keynesians said Kennedy was going to cost the government with his tax cuts.

The Social Upheavals of the Sixties, the Race Riots and his Unpopular Vietnam War all took their Toll on LBJ

Liberals love JFK.  But for none of these reasons.  They prefer to wax poetically about his fight to end economic and racial injustice.  Which were in reality low on his priority list.  Addressing civil rights only after trouble was escalating in the south.  But that’s the Left’s cherished memory of him.  And of Camelot.  The American royal family.  They don’t talk about JFK’s trickle-down economics.  His Bay of Pigs fiasco (the plan to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba that he withdrew support from after it met difficulty on the beaches).  His Cuban missile crisis (near nuclear war with the Soviet Union) which his indecision at the Bay of Pigs may have invited.   Or his war in Vietnam.  No.  They stay silent on the best part of his presidency.  As well as the worst parts.  And focus instead on the fairy tale that was Camelot.  Ignoring completely his excellent economic policies and the strong economy they gave us.  And all that tax revenue that poured into the treasury.  Yes, they may have liked having that money.  But they didn’t have to like how it got there.

Following JFK’s assassination Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) ascended to the presidency.  An old school politician that knew how to make deals to advance legislation.  And boy did he.  He declared unconditional war on poverty.  And unleashed the Great Society to spend America out of poverty.  Keynesian to the core.  Pure demand-side economics.  Give poor people money which they will use to buy consumer goods.  That Keynesian consumption that was so crucial to a healthy economy.  So Johnson made good use of all that tax revenue JFK created with his tax cuts.  And LBJ’s Great Society consumed enormous amounts of that tax revenue.  As did JFK’s Vietnam War.  Now LBJ’s war.  Which LBJ escalated.  Government expenditures exploded during the Johnson administration.  And the spending obligations he put into place were only going to escalate future expenditures.  Oh, and we were also trying to land a man on the moon during this time.  All during a time when the world was changing.  When a bunch of filthy hippies began to protest anything that didn’t somehow gratify them (their rallying cry was sex, drugs and rock & roll).  And racial tensions simmered to the boiling point in our crowded cities.

The social upheavals of the Sixties.  The race riots.  The unpopular war on our living room televisions.  They all took their toll on LBJ.  The race riots especially hurt him as he had spent so much money on ending economic and racial injustice.  On a televised address he told the nation that he was through being the president.  He wasn’t going to run for another term.  And he wouldn’t accept a nomination for a second term.  He basically thanked an ungrateful nation.  And planned for his retirement.  Leaving a fiscal mess for the next president.  As well as a mess in Vietnam.  And the job for cleaning up these messes fell to Richard Milhous Nixon.

When Nixon entered the Presidency all those Spending Obligations of the Great Society were Coming Due

Nixon had a lot of liberal tendencies.  He was actually a member of the NAACP since 1950.  Long before JFK or LBJ talked of civil rights.  He believed in New Deal economics.  Of the good government could do.  He was also an environmentalist.  Giving us the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  And giving us emissions standards for our cars.  He gave us the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA).  And a flurry of other regulations.  Not what you would expect from a Republican these days.  Of course, few probably know this.  But they probably do know about Watergate.  At least the word ‘Watergate’.  Which was pretty tame by today’s standards.  Spying on the political opposition.  Then lying about it.

When Nixon entered the presidency all those spending obligations of the Great Society were coming due.  The cost of LBJ’s Great Society really hit the Nixon administration hard.  Enormous amounts of money were flowing out to poor people (so they could spend it and buy consumer goods).  To the war in Vietnam.  To the Cold War.  To the space program.  To the enlarged federal government.  Government spending was going off the chart.  But it wasn’t having the affect on the economy the Keynesians said it would.  They were taxing, borrowing and printing money like good little Keynesians.  But they were devaluing the dollar in the process.  And igniting inflation.  Worse, the U.S. dollar was the reserve currency of the world.  Foreign nations pegged their currency to the U.S. dollar.  The U.S. pegged the dollar to gold.  As the Americans devalued the dollar, though, the foreign countries traded their dollars for gold.  Gold began to fly out of the country.  So Nixon did what any responsible Keynesian would do.  Instead of playing by the rules of the game he changed the rules.  And decoupled the dollar from gold.  The Nixon Shock.  Ushering in the era of unfettered Keynesian economics.  Deficit spending.  Growing debt.  High inflation.  High unemployment.  Stagflation.  And malaise.

Jimmy Carter would see the worse of LBJ’s Great Society.  As it left his economy in a mess.  Despite all of that government spending.  And Carter suffered because he, too, was a Keynesian.  He believed in that GDP formula where GDP equaled the sum of consumption, investment, government expenditures and net exports (exports – Imports).  And the formula clearly states that the way to increase GDP (and increase the number of jobs) was to increase government spending to give money to people so they could buy consumer goods (increasing government spending and consumption in the formula).  It was simple arithmetic.  But the formula left out about half of all economic activity.  The intermediate business spending that takes place before any consumer goods enter our stores.  Think of things consumers don’t buy.  Like railroad track, blast furnaces, construction front-end loaders, etc.  Economic activity that JFK encouraged with his tax cuts.  As Ronald Reagan did so, too, some 20 years later.  Which is why the JFK and the Reagan economies were far better than any Keynesian administration.

Even after more than a decade of unfettered Keynesian spending consumption was only 34% of all economic activity in 1982.  Even though official GDP figures reported it at 65%.  Why the discrepancy?  Intermediate business spending.  The stages of production before consumer goods.  Coming in at 54% of real economic activity in 1982.  Which is why the tax-cut policies of JFK and Ronald Reagan worked.  And the spending policies of JBJ, Nixon and Carter didn’t.  Trickle-down works.  Because it creates jobs.  And those lower tax rates generate higher tax revenues because more people are working and paying taxes.  All things a Keynesian wants.  But they will reject them because they resulted from the ‘wrong’ policies.  Because Keynesians want to tax, borrow and print.  Regardless of their effect on the economy.



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LESSONS LEARNED #55: “Liberals are all for trickle-down economics as long as the wealth trickles down from those who support liberals.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2011

 JFK Governed as a Conservative

We’ve had two ‘trickle-down’ administrations in recent times.  Both JFK and Ronald Reagan were proponents of supply-side economics.  Between these two administrations we had a few Keynesians (LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter).  JFK and Reagan cut tax rates.  The Keynesians never lowered the tax rate lower than JFK’s.  Reagan did.  But not the Keynesians.

JFK was a Democrat.  But he governed as a conservative.  He was strong on defense.  Even got us into Vietnam to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia.  And he was business friendly.  But that doesn’t stop Democrats from loving him, though.  Most probably don’t know anything about his conservative side.  They think about Camelot.  Jackie.  John John.  “Ich bin ein Berliner” (the big Cold War speech after the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall).  Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely.  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  And the civil rights stuff.  Not that he was a hawk when it came to war (Bay of Pigs-sort of, Cuban Missiles Crisis and Vietnam).  And a tax cutter.

LBJ may have been JFK’s vice president but he was no JFK.  Kennedy wanted to build a strong economy and he believed that started with making a business-friendly environment.  Which he did.  Johnson, on the other hand, was a big, old school, liberal.  To him businesses were just cash piñatas for the government to whack.  He wanted their money.  Because he wanted to spend it.  And boy did he.  He exploded the role of government in our lives.  Increased taxes.  Increased regulation.  And increased the government bureaucracy.  He called it his Great Society.  And he gave FDR‘s New Deal a run for its money.

JFK’s Tax Cuts Stimulated Economic Activity

When Kennedy became president, there was a bit of a recession going on.  Unemployment got as high as 6.7% in his first year.  And the top marginal tax rate was 91%.  When he looked at the two the answer was obvious to him.  With a top marginal tax rate of 91%, there was little incentive to invest.  If your earnings exceed a certain amount, you only kept 9 cents of each additional dollar?  So why bother?  Like Billy Joel said, “You can pay Uncle Sam with the overtime.  Is that all you get for your money?”  Or like George Harrison said, “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.  Cause I’m the taxman.”   

No one likes paying taxes.  Especially confiscatory taxes.  It’s why the Beatles left the UK.  All you need may be love.  But even hippies want to keep their money.  And JFK understood this.  High taxes discouraged investment.  And drove some business away.  So he put together an economic plan that included cuts in the tax rates.  He brought the top marginal rate from 91% to 70%.  And how did that work?  Not too bad.  Based on the numbers.

In the four years following his tax cuts, tax receipts increased 41%.  So he brought more money into Washington by cutting tax rates.  And it gets better.  The unemployment rate went down 33% (from 5.7% to 3.8%).  And GDP increased 35%.  In the technical language of economists, these numbers are awesome.

The LBJ/Nixon Policies End the JFK Economic Expansion

Well, the party wasn’t going to last.  Thanks to Lee Harvey Oswald.  JFK was dead.  Assassinated.  And LBJ took the oath of office in Air Force One before leaving Texas.  Who can forget the image of a grief-stricken Jackie as Johnson took the oath?  Much like with the assassination of Lincoln, the consequences of that action was to forever change the country (we all wonder how Reconstruction would have gone with Lincoln).  JFK was gone.  LBJ was in.  And he was bringing his Great Society with him.  And the size of government would never be the same.

Johnson raised taxes in his last 2 years to pay for the massive federal spending.  Nixon cut them.  He brought the top marginal rate back to the Kennedy level.  But he didn’t cut spending.  And to keep up with the spending he started printing money.  Gold started flying out of the country so he decoupled the dollar from gold, igniting inflation.  The heady days of the JFK economic expansion were over.  Looking at a period that included the last 2 years of LBJ’s term and Nixon’s 6 years, it’s not a pretty picture.

Tax receipts soared 77% to pay for all that government spending.  And, not surprisingly, the unemployment rate soared, too.  It went from 3.8% to 5.6% (an increase of 47%).  GDP shot up an impressive 80%, too.  Landing on the moon, Vietnam and the Great Society created a lot of economic activity.  But that economic activity wasn’t real.  It was a bubble.  Paid for with high taxes and printed dollars.  So prices were high thanks to inflation.  And a lot of us didn’t have a job.  And this is what Carter got when he entered office.  Malaise.  Stagflation (high unemployment and high inflation).  And something we called the misery index (the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates).  Carter was not going into the 1980 election with a lot going for him.  And the Iranian Hostage Crisis didn’t help any either.

Ronald Reagan Cuts Taxes, Stimulates the Economy and Wins the Cold War

Then came Ronald Reagan.  He put Carter out of his misery by winning the 1980 election.  Then rolled up his sleeves.  And got to work.  When he came into office the top marginal tax rate was 69%.  By the time he left it was 28%.  The Left called him reckless and irresponsible.  That he ran high deficits.  And exploded the federal debt.  Well, yes, both of these did increase during the Reagan years.  But it’s not because of the tax rate cuts.  Those were caused by spending more money than the treasury collected.  And, believe you me, the treasury really raked it in during the Reagan presidency.

In 1981, tax receipts were about $600 billion.  In 1990 (adding in the first year of George H.W. Bush), tax receipts were about $1 trillion.  In other words, the Reagan tax rate cuts increased tax receipts by 72%.  The treasury collected more tax dollars at the lower tax rates.  So there is no way no how you can blame deficits and debt on the Reagan tax rate cuts.  And it gets better.

During the Eighties, the unemployment rate fell 26%.  And the GDP rose 86%.  Lower tax rates.  Higher tax revenue.  Lower unemployment.  And a surge in economic activity.  Wow.  Can it get any better?  Why, yes.  Reagan spent the Soviet Union into defeat in the Cold War.  They just couldn’t keep up.  Caused a lot of trouble on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Long story short, after his presidency, Eastern Europe would be free of Communism.  And the Berlin Wall would be no more. 

Supply-Side Economics Works

The moral of this lesson?  Supply-side (aka, trickle-down) economics works.  It worked for JFK.  And it worked for Reagan.  What doesn’t work is the Keynesian economics of LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter.  They grew government.  Increased government spending.  Giving us higher taxes, higher unemployment, higher inflation and malaise.  The only thing that trickled down was their misery.

So if trickle-down can fill the federal coffers why do liberals hate it?  Because those who support supply-side economics are typically in the private sector.  Have jobs.  Don’t belong to a union.  And don’t need any help from government.  You put that all together and the answer is clear.  These people don’t lobby liberals.  So what good is their wealth when no part of it makes its way to liberal pockets?  Like Big Labor?  Or public sector unions?



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