Deflating Conservative Arguments: Tax Increases Hurt the Economy

While listening to NPR on our drive home on Tuesday, my wife and I heard Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) say (emphasis mine):

Well we, we believe that tax increases, by and large, and, and for the most part, decrease the economic vitality and, and ability for this economy to recover. Uh, if you tax, uh, something you get less of it, and right now if we tax productivity or if we tax, uh, businesses to a greater degree, we think that you stymie and, and stifle the economy’s ability to grow.

This is a very typical conservative view of the effect of taxation. The only problem is that it’s, “by and large, and, and for the most part,” not true. Join me below the fold as I pop another conservative balloon with the needle of truth in my ongoing series, Deflating Conservative Arguments.

The conservative argument goes like this: increasing taxes takes money out of hands of regular people who would spend that money (as they see fit) and therefore stimulate the economy. There is a grain of truth in this if the government is taking money that would otherwise be spent on consumer goods and services or invested into productive capacity (as opposed to being used for debt reduction, speculative investment, or savings).

Even President Kennedy was for tax cuts and spoke in favor of lowering the tax rate throughout his Presidency. However, when Kennedy took office in 1961, the tax rates, were much higher than they are today. The argument that taxing income at this level would take money out of the economy made a lot more sense and led to the Tax Reform Act of 1964 which lowered all tax rates over two years in a somewhat regressive manner. Note: For purposes of illustration, I am using the rates for Single taxpayers, no exemptions, deductions or credits, and not adjusting for inflation.

The lowest marginal rate fell from 20% in 1963 to to 14% in 1965 (on your first $2000 in income) and the highest marginal rate went from 91% on income over $200,000 in ’63 to 77% in ’64 and then the top bracket was eliminated and the next bracket, income over $100,000, became the new top and was lowered to 70% in ’65. While the richest Americans certainly got the lion’s share of the tax break, the money that those in the lower classes would have gotten would be spent on consumer goods and services and therefore, would have a stimulating effect on the economy. It could even be argued that those in the top income brackets would spend more because the previous tax rates were a large bite of any income over $200,000, so even a millionaire would purchase more things or even perhaps put money into a new American business.

By contrast, today the top tax bracket (35% on income over $379,150) is the lowest it’s been since 1916, the 4th year of the federal income tax. This fact means that much more income is staying in the hands of the rich rather than feeding the governments coffers. If you made a million dollars in 1963, you’d have had a tax liability of $880,680, but if you made a million dollars today, you’d have a tax liability of $326,558. Okay, so you’d have 554,122 more dollars to spend. Great, but how much can someone really spend on consumer goods and services? How many American businesses can one person start and actually handle? How much demand can any one of us actually create?

Nobody knows the answer to that for sure and it is certain to vary to a great extent, but there is a limit somewhere. Once that limit is reached, any income over that amount is excess income that will be saved or put into non-productive (speculative) investments. Therein lies the answer to the eternal question of taxation, (ie. What is the appropriate level of taxation?) The appropriate amount to tax, in the sense of generating the most economic activity, would be the amount that puts any excess income to productive use. This level is probably somewhere closer to the 1963 tax rates than the 2011 rates.

The conservative argument that increasing taxes is bad for the economy assumes that all money that is in the hands of the income earner will be spent in the most economically productive way. This is plainly not true. After someone has reached the limit on their own consumer spending and has started as many businesses in America as they can, they will either use their money to speculate or sit on it. While investing in American businesses does increase our economy’s demand for supplies, equipment and labor in the US, speculation does not. It is merely a bet that such and such business will do well. Speculation adds no demand to the system and those dollars could therefore be used more wisely to do so. Clearly the same is true for savings although some savings is obviously necessary to have a personal cushion and be able to live with dignity in ones old age.

In contrast to the conservative argument, increasing taxation rates on top income earners, such as in the proposed Fairness in Taxation Act, which would implement new brackets of 45-49% for millionaires and billionaires, would actually increase economic activity. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the author of the bill estimates that if it was enacted in 2011, it would generate $78 billion in new revenue. This would then get spent by the government on goods and services, generating more demand for goods, supplies, equipment and labor (read: jobs). This is money that is currently unproductive and would be put to good use.

I would even go so far as to say that lowering (or perhaps eliminating) taxes on the lowest income earners while raising taxes (even drastically) on top income earners will generate the most economic activity as it will simultaneously put more money into the hands of people who will spend it immediately and put money that is currently unproductive back into the economy. Although the People’s Budget does not include lowering taxes on low income earners, it would allow us to balance our budget without cutting needed programs, or endangering social security or medicare and medicaid and put our fiscal house on the path to sanity.

The grain of truth in the argument that tax increases hurt the economy can only be true as far as the assumption that all money that is not taxed is being put to its most economically beneficial use. Raising taxes on top income earners will not hurt the wealthy and it will not hurt the economy. It is a simple matter of fairness and justice.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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