Opinion

What the godfather of Reaganomics gets wrong

Just because the Reagan tax cuts weren't an impossible unicorn doesn't mean they weren't a success

Chris Christie just announced a big tax-cut plan. Well, of course he did. Offering such proposals is de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates. And it pretty much has been since the Reagan presidency.

No surprise, then, that Arthur Laffer, intellectual godfather of the Reagan tax cuts, remains in high demand on the right. Many GOP 2016ers — including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz — have been publicly consulting with the supply-side economist who continues to joyfully preach the wonder-working power of cutting top marginal tax rates.

But Laffer is, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about my recent column here at The Week, in which I argued that some presidential wannabes were misinterpreting and misapplying the lessons of Reaganomics. As I wrote a few weeks back:

Republicans sometimes misuse Reaganomics to justify fantastical tax plans that promise deep rate cuts for the rich — both Cruz and Paul favor low-rate flat taxes — that will pay for themselves and boost the middle class through explosive economic growth. … Republican policymakers and voters have little reason — either from historical experience or empirical studies — to assume tax reform will generate a prolonged period of 4-5 percent GDP growth such that concerns about budget deficits and income distribution are irrelevant. [The Week]

In other words, a flat tax won't supercharge growth enough to prevent us from losing big bucks. This is a rather modest claim and critique, one perfectly compatible with the idea that the Reagan tax cuts were still good policy. Reaganomics was a home run — just not an impossible five-run dinger.

My comments are also compatible with the consensus among economists on the left and right. Yet Laffer felt compelled to respond to my article with a three-chart, five-page, 2,000-word rebuttal.

Laffer is one of the most important public policy entrepreneurs of the 20th century, right up there with John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. His official bio asserts his work was responsible for "triggering a world-wide tax-cutting movement in the 1980s" — and that is no vain boast. His famous Laffer Curve — an illustration of the trade-off between tax rates and tax revenue derived from the ideas of philosopher Ibn Khaldun — is indeed one of "the main theoretical constructs of supply-side economics."

So it is disappointing that Laffer, in responding to me, offers such an odd, airy, and ultimately unnecessary defense of his life's work. For instance: While Laffer doesn't explicitly say the Reagan tax cuts paid for themselves, he doesn't say they lost revenue, either. Yet he spends hundreds of words countering my claim that they didn't pay for themselves. What Laffer basically argues is that since (a) income tax revenue rose during the 1980s, (b) the rich paid a higher share of GDP in income taxes, and (c) there were more employed people as a share of the entire adult population, then that must mean the tax cuts paid for themselves. Except he doesn't actually say that. "Well, I hope you get the idea” is how he puts it. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Put aside for a moment that Laffer mostly avoids my evidence, such as a Treasury Department study concluding the Reagan tax cuts lost $200 billion a year and one by former Bush II economists that found income tax cuts only recoup a sixth of the revenue they lose through higher growth. A bigger flaw in Laffer's argument is that he ignores everything else happening in the U.S. economy during the 1980s. Tax rates matter plenty — Laffer's key insight — but they aren't all that matters. Laffer ignores the big role of easier monetary policy in driving the recovery after the awful 1981-82 recession. And, yes, the employment-population ratio rose in the 1980s — as it did in the 1970s. Did the Reagan tax cuts cause the Baby Boom, too? Laffer also ignores the revenue impact of $115 billion a year in 1980s tax hikes and how the Tax Reform Act of 1986 nudged rich people to shift how they took their income to the personal income tax base from the corporate one. Laffer ignores a lot as he attempts to make a stronger-than-necessary case. The economist doth protest too much.

Laffer's other big objection is that I downplay the growth effects of the Reagan tax cuts by cherry picking dates. Since the tax cuts did not go fully into effect until 1983, Laffer argues that's the appropriate start date for the Reagan boom. Indeed, real GDP grew at a snappy 4.5 percent annually from 1983 through 1988. But Laffer's timing is problematic. The recovery likely would not have been as strong if not for the 1981-82 recession itself. Sharp recoveries after downturns were the rule of the postwar era through the 1980s. And since the 1981 downturn was the deepest, a strong rebound would be expected. For example, the economy grew by 5 percent during the first two years after the awful 1973-75 recession.

Again, none of this means the Reagan tax cuts failed. It would be hard to find a reasonable economist who denied they boosted growth in the 1980s as the Fed battled inflation. The effects just were not ginormous enough to fully offset the direct revenue loss. More importantly, perhaps, Reaganomics — tax cuts, deregulation, entrepreneurial optimism — changed America's longer-term economic direction. Economist Michael Mandel contends that "the impact of the policies Reagan set out in the 1980s, which slowly worked their way through the economy, helped lay the groundwork for the Information Revolution of the 1990s." So, yeah, you can give Reagan a bit of thanks for your smartphone.

This is the data-driven, evidence-based analysis Laffer and other old-school Reaganauts should be making to today's GOP and center-right movement. The real Reaganomics. With fantasy tax plans again abounding on the right, the presidential race could use a reality check more than more distorted Reagan nostalgia.

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