Several of my “progressive” friends sent me links to Robert Reich’s recent entertaining video proclamation of “The Truth About The Economy” . In it he suggests that all our nations fiscal problems stem from the Bush tax cuts and the resulting shift of political influence going to wealthy individuals. He implies the obvious cure for those problems being simply more taxes on the wealthy.
If only things were that simple.
I fully agree with his implication of the need to get special interest money out of politics. Even more important is the need to get politics out of being so thoroughly enmeshed in our economy, an area where I suspect Professor Reich may not agree with me.
Looking at the numbers, it is highly unlikely that increased taxation would realistically bring in the revenues need to match federal spending that is now at its highest level as a percentage of GDP since World War II.
In 2000 Federal spending was $2,290 billion with revenues of $2,593 billion and on Dec 28, 2000 President Clinton proudly proclaimed the entire federal debt would be eliminated by 2010. Instead, by 2010, thanks to the wild spending binges of both Presidents Bush and Obama, spending was up to $3,618 billion, and revenues are only at $2,118 billion.
But tax cuts don’t appear to be the problem. The Bush tax cuts were fully in effect in 2007, when federal revenues were at $2,709 billion, well ahead of the 2000 numbers. Revenues are down now mostly because of the nasty recession we are still in despite economists proclamations to the contrary.
On the revenue side, income tax accounts for approximately 45% of federal revenue, while payroll taxes for social security, medicare and unemployment insurance accounts for another 36%. Corporate taxes, already the second highest in the world, only accounted for about 12% of federal revenue in 2008.
According to the National Taxpayers Union, in 2008 the Top 1% of income earners paid 38.02% of all federal income taxes. the top 10% of earners paid 58.72% of all income taxes while the bottom 50% of earners paid only 2.7% or income taxes. Perhaps these proportions are unfair and the rich should pay much more. From a perspective of social justice, perhaps the tax system should be overtly used to confiscate and redistribute wealth to provide a more level economic playing field. That kind of policy doesn’t seem to be something the nation will reach clear consensus on any time soon.
Rather than raising tax rates, simplifying the tax code and eliminating the staggering abundance of loopholes that allow many very profitable companies and high income people to pay little or no taxes at all, would seem a much better and more generally supported avenue toward increasing both revenues and fairness. It would also help minimize the economic distortions and corruption inherent in government subsidies through obscure special interest tax deals.
From a strictly economic perspective, the real problem with our federal budget is on the spending side more than the revenue side. Federal spending is now about 25% of GDP, significantly higher than the historic average of about 20% since 1960.
Who would seriously suggest that the government was significantly too small or spending levels inadequate at the end of the Clinton administration? Yet its grown 58% from 2000 to 2010 and continues to grow. In the mean time incomes for most people in the private sector have stagnated.
Bottom line – no matter how the big spenders like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman or President Obama like to spin things, the serious problem we have with the nation’s budget is a spending problem. While perhaps additional revenues should be considered, there is no way the nations fiscal problems will be solved until spending is dramatically reduced.
Jay Amrose published an interesting article contrasting Texas vs California public policies and resulting job creation, fiscal condition and economic performance over the last decade. Texas created 730,000 jobs over the last decade while California lost 600,000 jobs. Separately, the federal reserve reports that since 2009 thirty-eight percent of all jobs created in the US were in Texas. For those concerned with social justice, as Ambrose suggests: “nothing helps the poor like jobs”. For what it is worth, Texas also leads the nation in renewable energy development and outperforms California on educational standardized test scores, both areas that California’s activist government aspires to lead and succeed. California meanwhile faces massive unsustainable deficits in budgets that even Governor Jerry Brown describes as fantasies.
Historic evidence from both here in the US and elsewhere throughout the world suggest that at a certain point increasing tax rates actually leads to declining government revenue and economic performance. The California vs Texas example seems to confirm that trend.
Europe seems to be finally facing the hard realities of unsustainable government spending as the risks of sovereign default by Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece are forcing governments throughout the continent to slash spending.
Professors Krugman and Reich have won all sorts of prestigious awards, degrees and professional positions and apparently some people still buy their arguments for even more of the Keynesian economic voodoo that has worsened and prolonged economic problems in every instance it has ever been tried. But for most folks, even in the socialist governments of Europe, their arguments are seeming pretty tired.
Rather than accelerating the same ideological agenda that is primarily responsible for causing our current economic problems, perhaps we should consider empirical evidence to determine what public policies will help the economy. Despite all the incumbent advantages California had and still has, the contrast in economic performance between California and Texas over the last decade provides a pretty good case study for what kind of policies actually work and which are just long worn academic fantasies. At some point perhaps even professors Krugman and Reich will have to notice.