In his recent National Review Online article on the federal government’s deficit spending, Rich Lowry wrote, “The same way overzealous Republicans once argued that tax cuts paid for themselves, Obama Democrats argue that deficit spending pays for itself.”
Lowry’s statement is problematic on several levels.
For one, it essentially equates tax cutting and deficit spending, abandoning the moral high ground in an attempt to come across as reasoned. Even more importantly, it misrepresents the facts. In truth, tax cuts have paid for themselves time and time again: the Harding/Coolidge, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush tax cuts all accomplished this.
As noted in the Foundation’s Thinking Economically lesson on the Laffer Curve, “In the four years prior to the 1965 (Kennedy) tax rate cuts, federal government income tax revenue, adjusted for inflation, had increased at an average annual rate of 2.1%, while total government income tax revenue (federal plus state and local) had increased 2.6% per year. In the four years following the tax cut, these two measures of revenue growth rose to 8.6% and 9.0%, respectively. Government income tax revenue not only increased in the years following the tax cut, it increased at a much faster rate.”
People claim the early Reagan income tax cuts didn’t pay for themselves. But they compare tax revenues between 1981 and 1982 when the tax cuts didn’t take full effect until July 1983. Look at the revenue before and after the cuts had been fully implemented, and they worked. The problem with the Reagan tax cuts is that they weren’t implemented fast enough. Just as predicted, people deferred income until after the tax cuts were fully implemented, delaying the growth in tax revenues. Tax cuts generally won’t increase revenue overnight, but they will increase revenue once the economy has a chance to respond.
The one tax where cuts (or increases) affect revenues almost immediately is the capital gains tax. “Following the 1981 capital gains cut from 28% to 20%, nominal capital gains tax revenues leapt from $12.5 billion in 1980 to $18.7 billion by 1983—a 50% increase.” After the rate went back up in the late 1980s, capital gains revenue collapsed. And, once again, “in 1996, the year before the tax rate cut (back to 20%) and the last year with the 28% rate, taxes paid on assets sold totaled $66.4 billion. A year later, tax receipts jumped to $79.3 billion, and they jumped again to $89.1 billion in 1998. … Seldom in economics does real life so closely conform to theory as this capital gains example does to the Laffer Curve. Lower tax rates change people’s economic behavior and stimulate economic growth, which can create more, not less, tax revenue.”
Tax cuts won’t always increase the incentives for people to earn or recognize more income. But we are a long way from a tax rate low enough for that to be the case.