An article I read recently suggested that President Donald Trump’s tax plan was based on his understanding of the Laffer Curve. At the risk of boring some of you I decided it was worth the effort to explain what this means since tax reform is high on the GOP agenda in September.
Dr. Arthur Laffer holds a PhD in economics and was the chief economist in President Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget from 1970 to 1972. As the story goes, Laffer was having dinner with President Gerald Ford’s top advisors, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, in 1974 when the U.S. economy was in recession. At the time the top income tax rate was 70 percent. Laffer was counseling Cheney and Rumsfeld that the top federal tax rates were too high and that high taxes were stifling economic growth. To emphasize his point, he drew a crude graph on a napkin that I believe looked something like graph from the Laffer Center depicted here.
Laffer’s purpose was to show that as the top tax rate goes up it initially increases revenue but at the tip of the curve economic growth is stifled and revenues begin to go down. At a 100 percent tax rate no revenue would be collected because there would be no incentive to work. This is obviously false since the top tax rate during 1952 and 1953 was 92 percent and lots of people were still working and paying taxes, even the very rich who were subject to that rate.
The key question was — and still is — at what top tax rate is revenue maximized without discouraging productivity and investment? As far as I know Laffer did not suggest what the optimum tax rate would be at the time, although his symmetrical curve would seem to indicate that revenues would be maximized at a top tax rate of around 50%. Today the top rate is 39.6 percent.
Devotees of the Laffer Curve use it to show that tax cuts stimulate economic growth and tax increases suppress economic growth. The Laffer Curve has even been used to support a theory that tax cuts actually pay for themselves by creating strong economic growth. In fact Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimed that Trump’s plan would do that.
In 1981 Dr. Laffer became a member of President Ronald Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board and remained in that position for eight years. It was during Reagan’s tenure that “supply-side economics” became the prevailing economic theory in the Reagan administration. And Laffer was its champion.
No doubt Laffer influenced Reagan’s first big tax cut in 1981 that reduced the top rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Then Reagan’s 1986 tax reform brought the top rate down to 28 percent in 1988. This reform was designed to be revenue neutral so it collected the same amount of revenue as when the top tax rate was 50 percent. Although rates came down significantly, this reform is not considered to have been a tax cut.
Dr. Laffer now runs Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics (ALME), an organization that does consulting and studies for mostly Republican led states like Kansas and North Carolina. Typically these studies suggest that if a state eliminates its personal and corporate income tax systems and replaces them with a much higher consumption (sales) tax, the state’s economy will boom. Of course, a sales tax puts the greatest burden on middle to lower income wage earners and the elderly on fixed incomes.
The study that ALME did for North Carolina in 2012 was entitled, “More Jobs, Bigger Paychecks,” It recommended a consumption tax based system. In January 2013 the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy published a report that concluded the ALME study for North Carolina “relies on an economic analysis that is fundamentally flawed to the point of making it entirely useless.”
Kansas Republican Governor Sam Brownback relied heavily on Dr. Laffer’s advice when he and the Republican controlled legislature passed a massive tax cut in 2012. But instead of stimulating strong growth, tax revenues plummeted and huge spending cuts became necessary. To this day the Kansas economy has not kept pace with its neighboring states. In short, the Kansas tax cuts were a disaster.
Here are a couple of other data points on tax cuts: President John Kennedy reduced the top tax rate from 90 percent down to 70 percent (enacted in 1964 after his death). This tax cut was by some measurements larger than Reagan’s 1981 cut but Kennedy is rarely mentioned as a tax cutter, nor is his tax cut touted as having spurred economic growth.
President George W. Bush engineered large tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that were also larger than Reagan’s in some respects. But his eight years in office ended in the Great Recession and he had the worst job creation record, on record, according to the Wall Street Journal.
There is nothing simple about tax policy, either in theory or in practice. But in my opinion the Laffer curve is entirely too simplistic to be useful. It focuses on the top tax rate when in truth the top rate is just one factor in tax policy as Reagan’s 1986 tax reform demonstrates. So I would not conclude that the Laffer curve is a joke; I just don’t think it has much relevance in today’s economy and Republicans shouldn’t claim that it does.