Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution but also wants an $8 trillion tax cut. He rationalizes this contradiction by asserting that his tax cut will not actually lose any revenue. As Pawlenty told Slate reporter Dave Weigel on June 13:
“When Ronald Reagan cut taxes in a significant way, revenues actually increased by almost 100 percent during his eight years as president. So this idea that significant, big tax cuts necessarily result in lower revenues – history does not [bear] that out.”
In point of fact, this assertion is completely untrue. Federal revenues were $599.3 billion in fiscal year 1981 and were $991.1 billion in fiscal year 1989. That’s an increase of just 65 percent. But of course a lot of that represented inflation. If 1981 revenues had only risen by the rate of inflation, they would have been $798 billion by 1989. Thus the real revenue increase was just 24 percent. However, the population also grew. Looking at real revenues per capita, we see that they rose from $3,470 in 1981 to $4,006 in 1989, an increase of just 15 percent. Finally, it is important to remember that Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times, increasing revenues by $133 billion per year as of 1988 – about a third of the nominal revenue increase during Reagan’s presidency.
The fact is that the only metric that really matters is revenues as a share of the gross domestic product. By this measure, total federal revenues fell from 19.6 percent of GDP in 1981 to 18.4 percent of GDP by 1989. This suggests that revenues were $66 billion lower in 1989 as a result of Reagan’s policies.
This is not surprising given that no one in the Reagan administration ever claimed that his 1981 tax cut would pay for itself or that it did. Reagan economists Bill Niskanen and Martin Anderson have written extensively on this oft-repeated myth. Conservative economist Lawrence Lindsey made a thorough effort to calculate the feedback effect in his 1990 book, The Growth Experiment. He concluded that the behavioral and macroeconomic effects of the 1981 tax cut, resulting from both supply-side and demand-side effects, recouped about a third of the static revenue loss.
Republicans also assert that the tax cuts of the George W. Bush years paid for themselves. On July 13, 2010, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that there was no net revenue loss from any of the Bush tax cuts, in defense of an earlier comment by Senator John Kyl that all spending increases must be offset so as not to increase the deficit, but tax cuts need never be offset. Said McConnell:
“There's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”
This is a view not shared by economists who worked for Bush. For example, Alan Viard, senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers during Bush’s first term, told the Washington Post in 2006, “Federal revenue is lower today than it would have been without the tax cuts. There’s really no dispute among economists about that.” Robert Carroll, deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department during Bush’s second term, also told the Post, “As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves.” On September 28, 2006, Stanford economist Edward Lazear, chairman of the CEA in Bush’s second term, testified before the Senate Budget Committee:
“Will the tax cuts pay for themselves? As a general rule, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves. Certainly, the data…do not support this claim. Tax revenues in 2006 appear to have recovered to the level seen at this point in previous business cycles, but this does not make up for the lost revenue during 2003, 2004, and 2005. The tax cuts were a positive step and have contributed to the enhanced economic growth, additional jobs, higher real disposable income, and the low unemployment rates that we currently see today.”The truth is that no serious Republican economist has ever said that a tax rate reduction would recoup more than about a third of the static revenue loss. The following studies represent their generally accepted view.
- A 2005 Congressional Budget Office study during the time that Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin was director concluded that a 10 percent cut in federal income tax rates would recoup at most 28 percent of the static revenue loss over 10 years. And this estimate assumes that taxpayers have unlimited foresight and know that taxes will be raised after 10 years to stabilize the debt/GDP ratio. Without foresight and no compensating tax increases or spending cuts, leading to an increase in the debt, feedback would be negative; i.e., causing the actual revenue loss to be larger than the static revenue loss.
- In a 2006 article published in the Journal of Public Economics, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, who chaired the CEA during Bush’s first term, estimated the long-run revenue feedback from a cut in taxes on capital at 32.4 percent and 14.7 percent for a cut in labor taxes.
- A 2006 analysis of extending the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts by the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation estimated that only 30 percent of the gross revenue loss would be recouped through behavioral effects and macroeconomic stimulus.
For the record, the CBO recently concluded that the Bush tax cuts reduced federal revenues $2.8 trillion between 2002 and 2011.
In short, there is no evidence whatsoever supporting Gov. Pawlenty’s view of the Reagan tax cuts or Sen. McConnell’s view of the Bush tax cuts. They didn’t pay for themselves and there is no reason to think that further tax cuts will, either. Republican economist Alan Greenspan confirmed this fact last year on “Meet the Press.” Asked whether he thought that tax cuts pay for themselves, as Republican leaders had said, Greenspan replied, simply, “They do not.”