There is an economic theory of sorts that helps us to understand why our political parties can’t agree on how to grow an economy that benefits most Americans. It’s called the Laffer Curve, reputedly first drawn on a napkin by doctoral student Arthur Laffer in a meeting with Dick Cheney, President Ford’s Chief-of-Staff in the 1970s.
Laffer basically claimed that raising taxes was harmful to economic growth, and his pretty picture convinced conservatives who didn’t like taxes of any kind. His ‘claim’ isn’t true, though it had always been behind conservatives’ call to shrink government spending by cutting taxes. It was the higher maximum tax rates of the 1950s and 60s that enabled the US to build our Interstate highway system and land on the moon, for starters.
But cutting taxes just to enrich certain income brackets, without cutting comparable spending has always resulted in burgeoning deficits, as conservatives certainly know, even if they won’t admit it.
For instance, it purportedly convinced Cheney as GW Bush V.P. that “deficits don’t matter”. Laffer’s claim gave Republicans the cover to lower taxes while increasing spending for President GW Bush’s War on Terror after 9/11, because Laffer asserted it would pay for itself with faster growth. Instead, the Bush tax cuts and increased spending has added a cumulative $4 trillion to the federal debt since then.
A short spurt of growth happened in 2018 after the 2017 Republican tax cut, but GDP growth is settling back to the 2 percent range that has prevailed since the end of the Great Recession. And there is another consequence—an upcoming $1 trillion budget deficit.
Growth had flagged since 2008 because so many Americans weren’t put back to work, as happened during the Great Depression. Spending was erratic amid continual budget wars between the two political parties impeded productive investments, such as in our badly outmoded infrastructure.
One example: more than one-third of America’s 600,000 plus bridges are badly in need of repair; our energy grid is more than 70 years old and subject to power failures; our drinking water systems are becoming health hazards—Flint, Mich and Newark, NJ are the latest examples; and we have a K-12 educational system that ranks near the bottom of developed countries.
So the Laffer Curve has really done no one good, except to give conservatives talking points with which to maintain the low tax rates of today that have resulted in record federal debt levels.
“There is a strong correlation between cuts in top tax rates and increases in top 1 percent income shares since 1975,” said economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva in a 2011 NBER Working Paper. “But top income share increases have not translated into higher economic growth, consistent with the zero-sum bargaining model.”
The resulting record income inequality from the Laffer-Curve inspired tax cuts has finally reached the same level that prevailed in 1928, and we all know what happened next—the Great Depression.
Harlan Green © 2019
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