Posts Tagged ‘ronald reagan’

The strategic deficit

22 November 2011

The Republican “starve the beast” strategy of running up huge deficits (preferably by cutting taxes on the wealthy and raining money on military contractors) and then using them as an excuse to cut social programs is nothing new, but this interview tidbit with iconic conservative economist Friedrich von Hayek was new to me:

‘A 1985 interview with von Hayek in the March 25, 1985 issue of Profil 13, the Austrian journal, was just as revealing. Von Hayek sat for the interview while wearing a set of cuff links Reagan had presented him as a gift. “I really believe Reagan is fundamentally a decent and honest man,” von Hayek told his interviewer. “His politics? When the government of the United States borrows a large part of the savings of the world, the consequence is that capital must become scarce and expensive in the whole world. That’s a problem.” And in reference to [David] Stockman, von Hayek said: “You see, one of Reagan’s advisers told me why the president has permitted that to happen, which makes the matter partly excusable: Reagan thinks it is impossible to persuade Congress that expenditures must be reduced unless one creates deficits so large that absolutely everyone becomes convinced that no more money can be spent.” Thus, he went on, it was up to Reagan to “persuade Congress of the necessity of spending reductions by means of an immense deficit. Unfortunately, he has not succeeded!!!”’

The snippet comes from this article about David Stockman, former Republican Congressman and Reagan Office of Management and Budget Director. Another keeper:

‘The deficits were intentional all along. They were designed to “starve the beast,” meaning intentionally cut revenue as a way of pressuring Congress to cut the New Deal programs Reagan wanted to demolish. “The plan,” Stockman told Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the time, ” was to have a strategic deficit that would give you an argument for cutting back the programs that weren’t desired. It got out of hand.”’

All of which is worth remembering the next time you’re subjected to the hand-wringing of yet another media or political figure who says the deficit is our biggest problem. (Usually these people don’t bother to mention the 25 million unemployed and underemployed, or the $1 trillion output gap.) Yes, the deficit is a problem, but don’t forget where it came from, and especially don’t trust anyone who says reversing the 2001 tax cuts or cutting military spending can’t be part of the solution.

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How dead is Keynes? Very.

3 September 2011

Eric Alterman hits the nail right on the head right here. Just as E. Cary Brown concluded about New Deal fiscal policy in the 1930s, the problem wasn’t that Keynesian fiscal stimulus was tried and found wanting, it’s that it wasn’t tried. Or was barely tried. In the 1930s the federal deficits were too small, were largely offset by budget cutting at the state and local level, and were reversed by a misguided attempt at budget balancing in 1936-37. Sound familiar? A key difference between then and now, however, is that Pres. Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses of the 1930s believed in direct government job creation. The New Deal added an average of 3.5 million workers per year to the federal payroll. Pres. Obama was under great political pressure to keep that number at zero, and to hope that job creation would come from tax cuts (not promising, since much of that money gets saved or spent on imports) and government contracts (also not promising, since profit-maximizing contractors try to economize on labor costs).

For the last few quarters the government has actually been cutting spending and as a result its contribution to GDP growth has actually been negative. Yes, that’s from too little government, not too much.

Alas, this famous passage by Keynes no longer seems to be true:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

One could argue that Keynesian economics gave way to another academic branch of economics, like monetarism or new classical economics, but I see little in recent political or policy debates to suggest that either of those schools is being consulted. What about supply-side economics, you ask? It’s not really an academic school of economics, more a fig leaf for certain vested interests. Consider for, example former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s famous admission that the Kemp-Roth/Reagan “supply side” tax cuts were really just a Trojan Horse for cutting taxes on the rich.

Speaking of Reagan, his declaration thirty years ago that “government is the problem” seems to have become the  guiding light for economic policy-making in America. Score one for “the power of vested interests.”

Taxes — not lonely enough at the top?

20 August 2011

Bruce Bartlett offers a fine economic history lesson on the U.S. top marginal tax rate. Most people know that the top rate has changed quite a bit over time. (For those keeping score: 91% from WW2 to the early 1960s; 70% till the early 1980s; 50% for most of the Reagan administration; 28% in the late 1980s; raised to 31%, then 36%, then 39.6% in the early 1990s; lowered to 35% in 2001). Bartlett compares the top tax rate with the economic growth rates during those intervals and finds basically no correlation. That, too, is not really news (and a more careful study would take other factors into account).

What is striking, however, is how the threshold level of income for the top rate has changed over time. The original income tax, at the height of the Progressive Era during the Wilson administration, set the threshold at $500,000, which is not only higher than today’s $374,000 but was in 1913. The price level has increased more than 20 times since then; adjusting for inflation, the 1913 top tax rate kicked in at $11 million.

The famous tax cuts engineered by Harding-Coolidge-Hoover Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in the 1920s lowered that threshold considerably (to $100,000, or $1.2 million in today’s dollars) but in real terms left it still well above today’s. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt raised both the top tax rate and the threshold to sky-high levels (79%, and a threshold that would be $80 million in today’s dollars and may have only affected one person; some called it “the Rockefeller tax”).  The threshold fell to $200,000 (equivalent to about $3 million today) during WW2 and basically stayed there till the early 1980s. The “Reagan tax cuts” of 1981 lowered the threshold to $85,600 (not quite $200,000 today). The Tax Reform Act of 1986, which Reagan signed, flattened the tax system further, with a top rate of 28% that kicked in at just $30,000 (about $50,000 today). The “Clinton tax increase” raised the threshold from $86,000 to $250,000, and inflation adjustments have raised it to $374,000 today.

Notice a partisan pattern here? It’s no secret that Republicans think the rich are overtaxed and Democrats think the rich are undertaxed, but the discussion almost always focuses on the top tax rate. What’s often missing is just where the definition of “rich” begins. In the historical record, Democrats (Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton) have tended to set the top tax threshold high, whereas Republicans (Harding, Reagan) have tended to lower it. Much of this comes down to different notions of fairness: Democrats tend to favor a progressive income tax in which richer people pay a larger share of their income and poor people pay little or none; Republicans tend to favor a flat income tax (or no income tax), in which everyone pays the same marginal rate. Having the top rate kick in at very high levels of income tends to go hand in hand with a multiplicity of different tax rates and a highly progressive tax structure, whereas having it kick in at low levels of income means a much flatter tax.

Ever since the “Bush tax cuts” of 2001 were passed, many Democrats have talked about raising the top tax from 35% back to 39.6%, but until recently I’d  heard surprisingly little talk about raising the threshold.This was surprising to me, because, as Bartlett points out, many people do not regard $250,000 or even $374,000 as particularly rich — at least not if, say, you live in New York City and have a family of four. It’s rather unclever politics to talk about raising the top rate without reassuring upper-middle class people that you’re not going to raise their taxes too. Republicans, with clever simplicity, typically truncate “tax increase on the wealthy” to “tax increase,” implying that it’s a tax increase on everybody. Lately Pres. Obama has called for raising the threshold to $1 million, so that people making $374,000-$999,999 would still pay 35 cents on their last dollar of income but people would pay 39.6 cents on every dollar of income above $1 million.

It is still debatable whether raising anyone’s taxes in a depression is ever a good idea, but ideally whatever major long-term deficit reduction plan Congress passes will go into effect only when recovery is well underway and unemployment is down to, say, 7% or less. When that happens, I agree with Bartlett that raising revenues efficiently and equitably will entail raising taxes on the top brackets (either through raising rates or, better yet, closing loopholes) and raising the top tax threshold.

Selective-attention deficit disorder

15 June 2009
debt/gdp ratio

debt/gdp ratio

So who’s the party of fiscal responsibility again?  That mantle seems to be claimed by whichever party does not occupy the White House.  In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan and other Republicans charged that Jimmy Carter’s deficits (although puny in retrospect) were inflationary and needed to be stopped.  As president in the 1980s, Reagan presided over the largest deficits ever (in absolute terms) and the first-ever major peacetime increase of the national debt-to-GDP ratio in history.   Leading Democrats pounded him for the deficits, and Reagan swatted them away as “born-again budget balancers.”  Dick Cheney said later (quoted in one of the Bush 43 administration tell-all books), “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”  Economists by and large weren’t buying it, but aside from relatively high real interest rates and relatively low levels of business investment, the economy was prospering as it hadn’t in two decades, and Democratic attacks on Republican deficits found little traction.  Just ask Walter Mondale.

As we can see from the red line in the diagram, courtesy of my former professor Willem Buiter, the debt/GDP ratio (our best measure of the overall burden of federal deficits and debt):

  • mostly fell during the 1970s, as appears to be the norm for the economy in peacetime (at least in non-recession years);
  • more than doubled during the 1980s and all through Bush 41’s presidency, from about 24% to 54%, likely due to tax cuts, the Reagan military buildup, and the growth of health care costs and entitlements spending;
  • fell sharply during the Clinton years to about 34% in 2000, likely due mostly to the booming economy and the post-USSR “peace dividend”;
  • rose sharply in the Bush 43 presidency, likely due initially to the 2001 recession, tax cuts, and Medicare prescription drug expansion, then to the Iraq and Afghan wars, rising health care and entitlement costs, the aging of the population (including early baby boomer retirements), and of course the 2008 recession and bank bailouts.

So what? you ask . . .

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