If there's one thing that Republican politicians agree on, it's that slashing taxes brings the government more money. "You cut taxes, and the tax revenues increase," President Bush said in a speech last year. Keeping taxes low, Vice President Dick Cheney explained in a recent interview, "does produce more revenue for the Federal Government." Presidential candidate John McCain declared in March that "tax cuts ... as we all know, increase revenues." His rival Rudy Giuliani couldn't agree more. "I know that reducing taxes produces more revenues," he intones in a new TV ad.
If there's one thing that economists agree on, it's that these claims are false. We're not talking just ivory-tower lefties. Virtually every economics Ph.D. who has worked in a prominent role in the Bush Administration acknowledges that the tax cuts enacted during the past six years have not paid for themselves--and were never intended to. Harvard professor Greg Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, even devotes a section of his best-selling economics textbook to debunking the claim that tax cuts increase revenues.
The yawning chasm between Republican rhetoric on taxes and even informed conservative opinion is maddening to those of wonkish bent. Pointing it out has become an opinion-column staple. But none of these screeds seem to have altered the political debate. So rather than write yet another, I decided to find out what Arthur Laffer thought.
Laffer is a bona fide economist with a doctorate from Stanford. He's also largely responsible for the Republican belief that tax cuts pay for themselves. Now 67, Laffer runs economic-consulting and money-management firms in Nashville. About the best I could get out of him on the question of whether the Bush tax cuts have paid for themselves was "I don't know." But that's only part of the story.
It's a saga that began in a bar near the White House on a December afternoon in 1974. Huddled at a meeting arranged by Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski were Cheney, then the deputy chief of staff to Republican President Gerald Ford, and Laffer, who was teaching at the University of Chicago's business school after a stint in the Nixon White House. In trying to explain to Cheney why a tax hike mooted by the President might not be such a great idea, Laffer drew a chart on a napkin that showed government revenues increasing as the tax rate moved up from 0% but then turning around and heading back toward zero as it neared 100%.
The idea that high tax rates brought diminishing returns was not controversial or even new--Laffer traces it to 14th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun. But few economists in the 1970s even considered that real-world tax rates could be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. Laffer thought they might be, and Wanniski argued on the Journal's editorial page and elsewhere that they almost certainly were. The claim became a key plank of Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign for President.
And how did things work out? Laffer is convinced that the reduction of the top tax rate from 70% to 28% during the Reagan years paid for itself--in part by encouraging the rich to stop finagling--and the evidence mostly backs him up. "You find these enormous responses in the upper brackets," Laffer says. "These guys fire their lawyers and accountants and actually pay their taxes. Yay! Isn't that what we want them to do?"
But Reagan's tax cuts for the nonrich were big money losers, and it took the fiscal discipline of Bill Clinton to mop up the resulting red ink. Laffer gushes with praise for Clinton, but he's also a fan of Clinton's successor. "What Clinton did was, he gave Bush the fiscal flexibility to do what was right," Laffer says. In the face of the recession and terrorist attacks of 2001, Bush "needed to stimulate the economy and spend for defense, and Clinton gave him the ability to do that."
In other words, the Bush tax cuts were meant to create big deficits. But Laffer's O.K. with that. "The Laffer Curve should not be the reason you raise or lower taxes," he says. Perhaps not, but it does make for great campaign promises.