The financial collapse and the economic downturn of the past months begs the question of whether the economic policies of the Bush administration will be repudiated. Supply-side economics, the ideology that has driven the economic agenda of President Bush, has survived for years despite its complete failure in practice. For example, some anti-tax lawmakers and activists now claim that the answer to the economic crisis is... more tax cuts for investors. But now that we have seen two presidents over the last thirty years run up massive budget deficits through supply-side tax cuts that did not seem to make the economy any stronger, there is reason to think that politicians may finally start to see the failures of this ideology.
The Supply-Side Theory
This issue of the Tax Justice Digest explores supply-side economics, which is generally the idea that policies, particularly tax cuts for investment or for those who invest, can change incentives to invest in a way that will yield huge increases in economic growth. Most incredibly of all, this resulting economic growth is often argued to result in so much new tax revenue that the tax cut can be cost-free or can even lead to increased revenues. Keep in mind there is no actual evidence that tax cuts can pay for themselves or actually lead to increased revenues. The Treasury Department under President Bush issued a report finding that there was no evidence for this, and Bush's current budget director has also said that tax cuts do not pay for themselves or lead to increased revenue. And yet, President Bush and many of his allies (including, recently, John McCain) have stated numerous times that tax cuts cause increases in revenue.
The Laffer Curve
This idea of revenue increases resulting from tax cuts -- the crown jewel of the supply-side belief system -- could of course be true in some conceivable context. The concept is illustrated by the Laffer curve, named after its creator, which is basically a diagram showing that tax hikes will increase revenues only up to a point, after which tax hikes will actually lead to a decrease in revenue because incentives to work and invest are so severely damaged. If profits are already taxed at 95 percent, raising that rate might, in fact, lead to less revenue, as people realize there is little to be gained from investing or running a business and there are consequently less profits to be taxed. Lowering that rate could instead lead to more business activity, more business profits, and even more taxes paid on business profits. (Or at the very least, more business profits might be reported, leading to more taxes paid.)
But supply-siders often take this idea, which might apply in very few situations in real life, and apply it to the United States today.
While this is the most bizarre form that supply-side economics takes, even the ideology's more mainstream adherents seem to believe that tax cuts will lead to economic growth that is so great that higher budget deficits and starved public services should be considered nothing more than a minor side-effect.
Lawmakers and Media: The At-Risk Community
When a person brings up the idea that a tax cut might lead to increased revenues, serious economists laugh, but lawmakers and reporters often find themselves strangely mesmerized. An idea that justifies offering constituents both a tax cut and higher spending on services is like a narcotic for some lawmakers, impossible to resist even though its ill effects are obvious to all observers. Meanwhile, reporters who find economics to be outside of their area of expertise give uncritical and expansive coverage to an idea that almost no serious economist actually believes in.
How It Began
The supply-side movement began with, to put it mildly, a colorful cast of characters, as Jonathan Chait describes in his excellent book, The Big Con. One is George Gilder, whose book Wealth and Poverty, helped launch the movement. He is also known for such quotes as "There is no such thing as a reasonably intelligent feminist," and he is a strong proponent of ESP (extrasensory perception). Another is Jude Wanniski, who wrote another important book (The Way the World Works) and preached that high taxes led to all evils, including Hitler's decision to invade his neighbors. He later compared Slobedan Milosevic to Abraham Lincoln and insisted that Saddam Hussein never gassed his people.
Then, of course, there is Arthur Laffer, who met with Wanniski and Dick Cheney one day, drew his diagram on a cocktail napkin and convinced Cheney that tax cuts could result in increased revenues. The Laffer curve was born, and progressives have been trying to throw it back into the fires of Mordor ever since.
Rather than dwelling on these interesting characters, we have decided to provide the following information for those who would like to know what supply-side economics is about, how it has influenced policy-making and how we can respond to it.