Congressional Research Service: Stop Assuming Tax Rate Reductions Will Help the Economy


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Several reports released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in the first week of January refute claims that tax rate reductions will boost the economy and even pay for themselves by generating economic growth.

Changes in Personal Income Tax Rates

A report released on January 2 “summarizes the evidence on the relationship between tax rates and economic growth” and finds “little relationship with either top marginal rates or average marginal rates on labor income.” It also finds that work effort and savings are “relatively insensitive to tax rates.”

While many advocates of tax cuts claim that a high top marginal personal income tax rate hinders investment by the wealthy, the report finds that “periods of lower taxes are not associated with higher rates of economic growth or increases in investment.”

The January 2 report also concludes, “Claims that the cost of tax reductions are significantly reduced by feedback effects do not appear to be justified by the evidence.” Many advocates for tax cuts claim that reducing tax rates will cause so much growth of income and profits that the additional taxes collected (the “revenue feedback effects”) will replace much of the revenue lost from the rate reduction.

But the report explains that “the models with responses most consistent with empirical evidence suggest a revenue feedback effect of about 1% for the 2001-2004 Bush tax cuts,” meaning the effects that the tax cuts had on the economy and on behavior of taxpayers offset just 1 percent of their total cost. And much of this effect may have taken the form of taxpayers changing how many deductions they take, and other tax planning changes, rather than actual economic growth.

Even cuts in tax rates for capital gains, which are often argued to have the most significant “revenue feedback effects,” don’t come close to paying for themselves.

“Capital gains taxes have been scored for some time as having a significant feedback effect through changes in realizations, one that had a revenue offset of around 60 percent,” the report explains.  In other words, some analysts have claimed that a tax cut for capital gains increases those gains to such an enormous degree that up to 60 percent of the lost tax revenue is ultimately regained.

But the report explains, “More recent estimates, however, have suggested a feedback effect of about 20 percent.” CRS’s descriptions of these more recent estimates have been used in CTJ’s analyses of capital gains tax changes and are explained in the appendix to this report. (Another CTJ report proposes coupling higher capital gains tax rates with a policy change that would largely eliminate any negative effect on revenue.)

Changes in the Corporate Income Tax

The idea of changing the corporate income tax rate has received so much attention that the topic apparently warranted a separate report, which CRS released on January 6.

“Claims that behavioral responses could cause revenue to rise if rates were cut do not hold up on either a theoretical basis or an empirical basis,” the report explains. It also shoots down the argument that the corporate tax is a regressive tax because it chases investment offshore in a way that ends up hurting American workers.

This report goes into great detail about some of the problems with the studies that advocates of reducing corporate tax rates rely on. Much of the report details how CRS, using the same data and methods found in these studies, found that the results either disappeared or became insignificant after correcting for various errors

For example, the CRS report cites an op-ed published by R. Glen Hubbard, chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. In it, Hubbard cites a study by Kevin A. Hassett and Aparna Mathur that was rife with methodological problems.

As the CRS report explains, Hassett and Mathur conclude that “a 1% increase in the corporate tax causes manufacturing wages to fall by 0.8% to 1%. These results are impossible, however, to reconcile with the magnitudes in the economy... corporate taxes are only about 2.5% of GDP, while labor income is about two thirds. These results imply that a dollar increase in the corporate tax would decrease wages by $22 to $26, an effect that no model could ever come close to predicting.” A later report by Hassett and Mathur “continued to produce implausible estimates” because it “implies a decrease of $13 in wages for each dollar fall in corporate taxes.”

To take another example, the CRS report also examines a cross-country study concluding that corporate taxes reduce investment. But CRS finds that some of the results seem to be affected by countries that are outliers, like Bolivia, for which a transaction tax is mistakenly counted as a corporate income tax. When such mistakes are corrected, the results are found to no longer be statistically significant.

This CRS report is particularly helpful because advocates of cutting the corporate income tax rate often rely on econometric studies that they claim support their case. These studies are often mind-numbingly complicated and it is rare that policymakers or their aides have the time and ability to go through these studies to understand whether or not they actually make sense. Thankfully, the Congressional Research Service has done that job for everyone.

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

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