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Where are we on the Laffer Curve?
Posted by: Jon Henke on Tuesday, January 03, 2006

It's a major question with important policy implications and it comes up every time politicians talk tax cuts. Yet nobody actually knows the answer; to be fair, the precise answer may be unknowable. Are we on the left or right side of the Laffer Curve? And where, exactly, is the inflection point?

Dale has touched on this subject before in various posts.

Show/Hide

It's perfectly correct to argue that a right side of the Laffer Curve exists; it's another thing entirely to permanently maintain that we are on the right side and that tax cuts will continue to increase revenue, as many Supply Siders have done.

Now, helpfully, there is some research on the matter, estimating "how an across-the-board cut in income tax rates could generate higher levels of economic activity, potentially replacing lost tax revenue". Or not, as the case may be...
Early last month, without much fanfare, the Congressional Budget Office released a paper called "Analyzing the Economic and Budgetary Effects of a 10 Percent Cut in Income Tax Rates." ... The recent analysis by Mr. Page at the Congressional Budget Office dismisses the idea that tax cuts may actually improve the government's fiscal situation. Even in his most generous scenario, only 28 percent of lost tax revenue is recouped over a 10-year period. The United States, it seems, is firmly planted on the left side of the Laffer Curve.
Recent empirical evidence substantiates this, author Daniel Altman notes, pointing to the fact that "federal receipts from personal income taxes, at $802 billion in 2004, are still lower than they were in 1998 ($826 billion) and much lower than in 2001 ($994 billion)."

You can read a PDF of the CBO report here. Now, on to the complexities.

Arguing that an across-the-board tax cut of 10% will not increase tax receipts is not the same as arguing that 1) no tax cuts will increase revenue, 2) that tax cuts should not be pursued in certain instances regardless of their effect on revenue, or 3) that tax cuts are bad.

With theoretical and historical evidence that we're on the left side of the Laffer Curve — and "starve the beast" looking like a perfectly good theory ruined by reality — there seem to be only three legitimate arguments for tax cuts...

(1) The counter-cyclical "stimulus" argument, employed during recessions.


(2) Tax Efficiency: while income taxes as a whole may be on the left side of the Laffer Curve, some brackets or categories of taxes may, in fact, still be on the right side of the curve (temporarily or permanently); it might also be more profitable to reorganize the tax code — e.g., targeting consumption rather than savings, or vice versa — to reduce the economic distortions created by taxes.

Matt McIntosh put this well in a comment to a recent post, noting that:
"Cutting marginal tax rates on capital, for example, when combined with a modest increase in the income tax would increase the government’s budget while simultaneously making people better off. Once we move beyond this kind of facile "tax cuts GOOD!", "no, tax cuts BAD!" stuff and actully get into the nitty grity details, things aren’t as simple as either side would like them to be."
The 3rd argument for tax cuts — freer markets, more limited government, more individual freedom — is the best as far as I'm concerned, but it requires corresponding reductions in spending, or else it's simply not a tax cut in any ultimately meaningful sense of the word. [cross-posted on Chequer Board]
 
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Previous Comments to this Post 

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That’s all well and good, but I’m not at all inclined to worry about a moderate increase in taxes which would "increase the government’s budget while simultaneously making people better off."

Instead I’m much more interested in seeing people better off and cutting the government’s budget, and that would mean keeping the tax cuts and seeing real cuts in spending.

So, in keeping with my ideology, I find nothing pragmatic in agreeing in a "moderate tax increase" to make people better off when there is a viable alternative much more in line with my political philosophy.

That, of course, brings us back to the central question: how to mobilize an significant enough element within the Republican party, who ideologically (well at least on paper), have the same goal. Seems to me disgust with the present administration’s spendthrift ways and looming ’06 elections makes the timing ripe for some sort of coalition.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Instead I’m much more interested in seeing people better off and cutting the government’s budget, and that would mean keeping the tax cuts and seeing real cuts in spending.
Yes, well, to borrow a line from Dale again, if we had any ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had any eggs. Frankly, since we haven’t had spending cuts, we haven’t really had tax cuts.
I find nothing pragmatic in agreeing in a "moderate tax increase" to make people better off when there is a viable alternative much more in line with my political philosophy.
There are two problems with this. One, noted previously, is the apparent implausibility of serious spending cuts.

Two, you seem to be assuming a "moderate tax increase". Matt didn’t say taxes would be increased generally — just that taxes would shift from capital to income. That may be a general tax increase, it may be a general tax decrease or it may be revenue neutral.

In any event, I doubt you’d argue against restructuring taxes to make them more efficient.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Not when you consider the disgust with the loons running the only other viable party to take power... the Democrats, is even larger, McQ.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Yes, well, to borrow a line from Dale again, if we had any ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had any eggs.

Yup, and I think my last sentence alluded to the fact that maybe it was time to go out and look for both ham and eggs instead of continually saying we can’t have them for lack of, well, having them.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
It’s perfectly correct to argue that a right side of the Laffer Curve exists; it’s another thing entirely to permanently maintain that we are on the right side and that tax cuts will continue to increase revenue, as many Supply Siders have done.
(shrug)

It’s not so much that Treasury revenue continues to increase given tax rate cuts, but that Treasury income goes DOWN once the tax rates go back UP. I mmore than grant that there is a diminishing return past a certain point. At the same time, the drop in treasury income as a percent of GDP drops markedly over a few years once the economy starts becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates... as it did under Clinton.... particularly the final year.

Now as to spending cuts.... True enough; Your point is taken. That’s only going to happen when two other things are in place; Less damage from the previous years to repair, and less RINOs in the congress.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
There’s an old adage, you can’t out-earn your spending. You have to cut spending in order to see any sort of positive budgetary result. Granted, we have had none of that under the current administration, but let’s all agree that the solution is _NOT_ to go back to the Democrats. It’s to hire more conservatives, and fire the ones who don’t buy into spending reductions.

I still argue that the best solution to government spending is to remove the value to the politicians. That is, eliminate the right to vote for anyone who takes government hand-outs. If you put together a consitutional ammendment that said that anyone taking a hand-out couldn’t vote in the next election cycle for the offices of that level of government (federal, state, local), then you’d quickly see handouts become useless to legislators. I’d bet that the first thing to go "private" would be Social Security, and Medicare/Medicade. Then it would be followed by unemployment insurance... Soon, none of them would hold any clout in government. Welfare would have to turn into a "work" program, just to maintain some sort of "validity", and allow the recipients to vote.
 
Written By: RWilson
URL: http://
Yup, and I think my last sentence alluded to the fact that maybe it was time to go out and look for both ham and eggs instead of continually saying we can’t have them for lack of, well, having them.
Yes, at some unspecified point in the future, after a whole lot of changes — in both government and society — we may be able to enact some real, permanent spending cuts. I don’t see how it’s possible to do that right now, though, since the incentives all work solidly for increasing spending. That’s why I suggest tax changes that affect the efficiency of the system, rather than simply cutting revenue. Tax cuts that simply cut revenue are just no longer very good options.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Treasury income goes DOWN once the tax rates go back UP
When have tax rates gone up following by treasury income going down?
the drop in treasury income as a percent of GDP drops markedly over a few years once the economy starts becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates... as it did under Clinton.... particularly the final year.
See, this is the kind of stuff that hurts to read. If tax receipts go down as a percentage of GDP...that’s a good thing. It means that taxes are becoming a smaller percentage of the overall economy. I’d LOVE to see us grow so much that treasury income declines to 1% of GDP while we balance the budget! It’s when tax receipts creep back up as a % of GDP while we blow the budget that we’ve got a problem.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
This might seem a bit crazy, but how many have actually considered that moderate tax increases may be a political compromise that will might allow enough Democrats to sign on to plans to control spending? I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes it actually works better than trying to destroy the other guy.

The interesting thing is that Democrats, as far as I know, are generally in favor of reinstating one of the most effective tools at reducing government spending of time. Full reinstating of congressional PAYGO rules.

Unfortunately it is Republicans who have consistently opposed reinstating those rules since they have come to power, and what little support there is among Republicans for reinstating them in a way that makes tax-cuts immune, which pretty much defeats the purpose. (Lets not forget that there is no shortage of pork being doled out through special interest tax credits along with the standard avenues of government spending.)
 
Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
The interesting thing is that Democrats, as far as I know, are generally in favor of reinstating one of the most effective tools at reducing government spending of time. Full reinstating of congressional PAYGO rules.
PAYGO wouldn’t solve the built-in, massive entitlement spending problem we’re going to face in forthcoming decades, buy—yes—I could see re-instituting it. It’s a bit of a price mechanism, which I’ve been saying would be a good thing to have in government.

I think gridlock might be a more effective tool for limiting growth. It might not be dependable — who can ensure constant gridlock? — but then, as we’ve seen, neither is PAYGO. Ultimately, PAYGO is a very partial measure, though, and we need more transparency and a better price mechanism.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
See, this is the kind of stuff that hurts to read.
Yes, I can see where it would. Mostly because you’re still making the assumption that tax cuts below the budget.
I think gridlock might be a more effective tool for limiting growth
Thing is, what we have now is gridlock.... and you tell us that’s not working.
This might seem a bit crazy, but how many have actually considered that moderate tax increases may be a political compromise that will might allow enough Democrats to sign on to plans to control spending?
Bush the elder tried that one ...it was supposed to be a compromise with the democrats. that compromise was reached after bush’s war that there would be no tax increases.If you’ll recall the democrats used that compromise as a club to beat him about the head and shoulders with. But if you look closely at the records through that. You may notice that spending didn’t slow down as a result of the compromise... once again, the democrats didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

So who now do we make this deal you’re proposing, with?
 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
True. PAYGO has its uses, but it isnt a one-shot solution. The primary usefulness in PAYGO is to prevent increases in spending, or decreases in revenue collection, without making neccesary adjustments to the other side of the equation. It is helpful for limiting the growth of government and discretionary spending, and reducing defecits from those expenditures, but it admittedly does little in the way of solving entitlement problems.

Still, PAYGO would have been invaluable the last few years with congress on a spending and tax-cutting spree all at the same time.

I’m not sure I would compare it and gridlock as an either/or measure, though. If anything, I would say the two work best together. PAYGO is at its most useful when government is split, and therefore concessions must be made between both sides in order to maintain compliance with PAYGO rules. It becomes effectively pointless if one side can simply remove the rule when it becomes inconvenient, as we have seen.

You mean entitlment reform, which is undoubtedly a huge problem which needs addressed. While I generally agree, I think it is important to note that having a sound fiscal policy before we are faced with the SS crunch would be immensely helpful. This is something that PAYGO and gridlock can help ensure.
 
Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
I’m a "common man". I have no special insight or finger on the pulse of the "common man" at large, but my sense is that we are pretty much at the level of taxation people are largely comfortable with. More tax cuts wouldn’t bring any significantly increased sense of wealth. Rolling back current tax cuts would make people feel significantly poorer.

But as far as business productivity? No idea.

And while a $40 billion spending cut satisfies few, if any, we need to demonstrate strong support for it, along with making clear that it isn’t enough: "We love it! More of the same spending cuts, guys!"
 
Written By: Nathan
URL: http://chieflymusing.com/
More tax cuts wouldn’t bring any significantly increased sense of wealth
Not directly no, but that was never the issue in the first place. The issue, is whether or not such tax cuts would spur the economy enough to put more money in your pocket.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Spending and taxing policies need to be considered together, but there’s also a third horn that should be taken into acount: regulatory policy. A great deal of potential economic activity is lost due to transaction costs created by inefficient regulations. It’s my strong suspicion, though I have no data at hand right now, that even leaving spending and taxation constant and assuming the supply-siders happen to be correct, dramatic cuts in regulation would likely provide greater economic stimulus (and thus greater revenue) than any tax cuts would.
 
Written By: Matt McIntosh
URL: http://conjecturesandrefutations.net
Yes, I can see where it would. Mostly because you’re still making the assumption that tax cuts below the budget.
No, it’s largely because you seem to combine innumeracy with general economic ignorance.
Thing is, what we have now is gridlock....
Sire, in Bizarro Bithead World. In the meantime, I’m not referring to your own unique personal definition of gridlock.
Still, PAYGO would have been invaluable the last few years with congress on a spending and tax-cutting spree all at the same time.
Absolutely. It’s a band-aid, because it’s so disposable, so I’d prefer a more firm price mechanism, but it’s better than nothing I think.
If anything, I would say the two work best together. PAYGO is at its most useful when government is split, and therefore concessions must be made between both sides in order to maintain compliance with PAYGO rules.
Again, we agree. You know, the more I agree with you, the smarter I think you are. Remarkable!
there’s also a third horn that should be taken into acount: regulatory policy.
Indeed. My own preference would be to use regulation to internalize costs as much as possible, so that regulation would actually reduce economic distortions rather than enhancing them. (taxes on effluents, for example)
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Sire, in Bizarro Bithead World. In the meantime, I’m not referring to your own unique personal definition of gridlock.
No, out here in the real world. One you apparently don’t recall.
While it’s true Republicans have a numerical majority. But you’re forgetting how many Reublicans vote to the left. The result is the gridlock you seek.
No, it’s largely because you seem to combine innumeracy with general economic ignorance.
So, because I dare to disagree with your read, I’m stupid, say you?
How very Democrat of you.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
No, it’s because you make up your own definitions, make up facts and fail to understand basic economics. I’m not interested in debating that.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
"The 3rd argument for tax cuts — freer markets, more limited government, more individual freedom — is the best as far as I’m concerned, but it requires corresponding reductions in spending, or else it’s simply not a tax cut in any ultimately meaningful sense of the word."

And it’s a very good argument for tax cuts even if there aren’t any spending cuts.

The laws of economics work, therefore borrowing now forces spending cuts or tax increases later—and I don’t think the substantial tax increases required to fix the entitlements "millstone around the neck" obligations are possible.

So tax cuts are deferred spending cuts.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
So tax cuts are deferred spending cuts.
More likely, deferred tax increases. I’m surprised there are still so many people who would endorse the ’starve the beast’ strategy when it seems to be so ineffective and the possible consequences so serious.
 
Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
No, it’s because you make up your own definitions, make up facts and fail to understand basic economics. I’m not interested in debating that.
Interesting. I was about to say the same thing as regards your rantings.

Try using actual facts next time.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Well, that explains it. You didn’t even read the post. You might try it. It was filled with facts.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
So tax cuts are deferred spending cuts.

More likely, deferred tax increases.
And equally likely, deferred inflation.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
You didn’t even read the post.
Oh, but I DID... You see, I simply disagreed with your conclusion.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
No, you said I should "use facts". Plus, you made the nonsensical argument that declining receipts as a percentage of GDP was a bad thing and indicated the economy was "becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates".
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
And equally likely, deferred inflation.
Also true.
 
Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
Plus, you made the nonsensical argument that declining receipts as a percentage of GDP was a bad thing
Say WHAT!!!????!!
 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Was I unclear?
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
No, just delusional, apparently. Or you misread me. Either way, I made no such argument.
 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Quote: "At the same time, the drop in treasury income as a percent of GDP drops markedly over a few years once the economy starts becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates".

Were you saying that increasing tax rates (leading to declining receipts as a % of GDP) was a good thing?
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Oh, I see.

No, the context of that comment was WRT your concern over bringing the debt down, and assumed a rather static spending load.

(For this point, I’m viewing spending... which we tend to agree on in large part, BTW... as a seperate issue.)

Here’s the point I was making, within that context;

At some point... as yet unknown... tax cuts do in fact not boost the treasury income quite so much, or at the extreme, actually lower the treasury income.

However, the question at that point, becomes a balance between what that somewhat lower treasury income,(driven by the tax cuts beyond the as yet undefined breaking point) and the far lower treasury income (that occurs due to raising tax rates which lead invariably to a less productive, damaged economy. )

Leaving that context and moving to the whole, then; Your argument, it seems to me, is that we should have no tax cuts, because we lose income. I disagree, saying that the point at which the treasury loses income has yet to be defined, and meanwhile the economy needs the stimulation, and that without it, the whole question beomces moot as we move into economic stagnation.

In any event, the real issue, here, is social spending, and direct government payments to individuals... which make up well over half our current treasury outlays. Same issue they’re not talking about much in the EU.


 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Ex post facto bullshit. You clearly identified a time in the past in which receipts declined as a percentage of GDP, and claimed that the economy had become "atrophied" as a result of tax increases.
I disagree, saying that the point at which the treasury loses income has yet to be defined
Then you didn’t read the post at all. Additional tax cuts do not increase income. That’s been theoretically and empirically validated.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Then you didn’t read the post at all. Additional tax cuts do not increase income. That’s been theoretically and empirically validated.
That’s exactly the point; it hasn’t been. True enough... the data you presented lends itself to your argument, but it is about as conclusive as the data that we ’knew’ to be ’fact’ before Reagan disproved it.
You clearly identified a time in the past in which receipts declined as a percentage of GDP,
I did? At what point in time would that have been, where tax cuts were the causal? The point in time I identified was in fact a result of tax INCREASES, which were ostensibly made to allow for Clinton’s socialist spending.

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
Hell, now you’re just obfuscating to avoid admitting that you fucked up. You said that "the drop in treasury income as a percent of GDP drops markedly over a few years once the economy starts becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates". Yet, the economy was NOT atrophying, and the drop of receipts as a percentage of GDP was a good thing.

Oh, and spending wasn’t increasing that damned fast.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Hell, now you’re just obfuscating to avoid admitting that you fucked up.
Nice try, Jon.

Your nonsense not withstanding, this is not dodging anything nor is it ex-post-facto anything. Read your own blog, you’ll find what I’ve said here is exactly the same argument I and athe few others have presented the last three times you tried to sell this nonsense, and it’s also the argument I’ve made on my own blog.
. You said that "the drop in treasury income as a percent of GDP drops markedly over a few years once the economy starts becoming atrophied by increasing tax rates".
Yes, I did.
Yet, the economy was NOT atrophying
Yes, it was. The fact is that by the last year of the Clinton presidency, the economy was demonstrably in the plumbing, and on its way to the tank. You may recall that’s been proven here as well. And not by me, as you may also recall.
Oh, and spending wasn’t increasing that damned fast.
Well,(Chuckle) let’s see, by way of comparison; in a publication you may know something of.

Even if we take the numbers presented in the link at face value, discesionary spending only varies between Bush and Clinton about 1% total. And you’ve been screaming about how much Bush has been spending. All of which leads us to a logical side question; Does the qualification for the titles spendthrift depend on who you’re using the label gun on?

And while you have the editor open, you may want to explain why treasury income has gone up in dramatic fashion under Mr. Bush. If anything, Bush has lowered the overall tax rates. By the your lights that should lower treasury income. So the question to you, becomes why it hasn’t done what you say it should.






 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
The fact is that by the last year of the Clinton presidency, the economy was demonstrably in the plumbing, and on its way to the tank. You may recall that’s been proven here as well. And not by me, as you may also recall.
Ah, I see, the economy — which was entering the just about the shallowest economic slump ever — was atrophying because of the 1993 tax hikes and not, for example, the 1998 cap gains tax cuts. Or the usual business cycle. You have any evidence that this correlation is causation, or ought we simply take your word for it?
Well,(Chuckle) let’s see, by way of comparison; in a publication you may know something of.
As it happens, while I think he makes some interesting points, I think he did some salami slicing to make his argument. Quite apart from anything else, the Medicare Drug bill and the NCLB act were enormous expansions of federal spending and power. Spending certainly increased during the 90s, but less fast than it has at other points recently.
And while you have the editor open, you may want to explain why treasury income has gone up in dramatic fashion under Mr. Bush.
Because GDP is increasing. As it pretty much always does.
If anything, Bush has lowered the overall tax rates. By the your lights that should lower treasury income. So the question to you, becomes why it hasn’t done what you say it should.
You really are much too stupid for words. Understand, that’s not ad hominem. That’s a personal judgement of your ability to comprehend basic arguments.

At no point have I said that lowering tax rates will permanently lower treasury income. What it will do is, in certain cases, lower treasury income below what TI would have been at higher tax rates.

That is why "federal receipts from personal income taxes, at $802 billion in 2004, are still lower than they were in 1998 ($826 billion) and much lower than in 2001 ($994 billion)."
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
I don’t know if this discussion is still active and if anyone will see this, but it did come up on Google under "Laffer curve" (about 50 in).

First I want to question some of what is said in the original post by Jon Henke. There are now new figures for income tax receipts that include the year 2005. But also the figures for earlier years are different from those sourced through Daniel Altman. -I don’t know if the figures have been revised or what. Here are the figures as I read them from the recent release: Personal income tax 1998 $928b, 2001 $1.178 trillion, 2004 $990b. These all disagree with the figures in Henke’s post. The figure for 2005 is $1.1075t. So 2004 was above 1998, not below, and 2005 is at 94% of the peak year, 2001. It appears that 2006 could come in over 2001.

The CBO report cited by Henke may not be reliable. CBO estimates of the size of the deficit have been way too pessimistic. I hope they used better methodology for the underlying study the report is based on. -I tried to find the original study on the CBO site and it isn’t there (anymore?). This adds to my doubts.

The Bush tax cuts are not a very clean test of Laffer’s theory. The 2001 cut was not a "supply-side" tax cut and was disavowed by the likes of Jude Wanniski. The 2003 tax cuts were supply-side but have been introduced in parts over more than one year. They are also "temporary" which messes up long term planning.

For what it’s worth, I think Laffer and Wanniski are both somewhat muddle-headed.
 
Written By: Jerry Bridgman
URL: http://

 
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