The Connection between Taxes and Growth


One of my favorite economic journalists is Eduardo Porter of the New York Times who writes the weekly column Economic Scene. In his latest column.  He points out that taxes (federal, state and local) for the U.S. and the O.E.C.D. average were about the same 27% of GDP in 1969.  But now, almost 50 years later, the U.S. tax level has stayed the same while the O.E.C.D. average has grown by 7% (see chart below).

Mr. Porter says that according to Wagner’s Law “government spending as a share of the economy will increase as nations get richer and their citizens demand more and better public services.”
Americans may be receiving fewer public services than citizens of the OECD countries but we are also enjoying faster economic growth as pointed out by the AEI scholar James Pethokoukis using data from the International Monetary Fund (see chart below).

According to the Pew Research Center our median family wage is also one of the highest in the world (see chart below).

As pointed out by Mr. Pethokoulis, lower taxes are a fundamental reason for the superior performance of the U.S. economy.  Other (tax-related) reasons are:

  • The most competitive large economy as ranked by the World Economic Forum.
  • An entrepreneurial culture fueled by a willingness to take risks.
  • Labor markets which generally link workers and jobs unimpeded by excessively restrictive labor regulations.
  • A growing population fueled by immigration based on economic opportunity.
  • A culture and tax-transfer system that encourages hard work and long hours.
  • A favorable regulatory environment, relatively speaking.
  • A decentralized political system in which states compete both tax-wise and by other means.

Conclusion. Americans pay lower taxes than other developed countries and also enjoy faster economic growth and higher median wages than most. There appears to be a strong connection between these three fundamental measures of economic wellbeing.

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Is America in Decline?

A new book by the two economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane “Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America” analyzes the decline of many of the great empires and civilizations in human history.  According to the authors, they all declined (or are now declining!) primarily for internal economic reasons rather than from external military threat.  The authors conclude that America’s own existential threat is fiscal.  Our lowest debt level in recent years was 23.9% of GDP in 1974 ($344 billion) which has climbed to 75% of GDP today ($12 trillion) and is predicted to keep growing worse in the years to come.
Our political system is too polarized to solve our huge debt problem.  Republicans want lower taxes; Democrats want higher spending.  If Republicans succeed in cutting spending, it upsets the voters and gives the Democrats an advantage.  If Democrats succeed in raising taxes, it upsets the voters and gives the Republicans an advantage.  So we end up with low taxes, high spending, fiscal imbalance and political stalemate.  This is the dilemma we are in.
But the authors propose a solution: a flexible balanced budget constitutional amendment where total outlays for a year do not exceed the median annual revenue collected in the seven prior years.  A three-fifths supermajority of each house of Congress can declare a one-year emergency exemption.  Additional one-year exemptions may be approved only by escalating votes in each house of Congress.  The amendment would take effect in the seventh year following ratification by the states.  During the seven year transition period the deficit would be reduced gradually each year until it reached zero.
Messrs Hubbard and Kane provide an excellent, nonpartisan analysis of the deep predicament in which our country now finds itself as well as an attractive means of extricating ourselves from this precarious situation.

The President’s Budget

The Administration has now released its own budget, “Obama Makes Budget Gamble”  as reported by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, April 11, 2013.  We now have three budgets to compare with each other, from the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats as well as from the President.  Not surprisingly the President’s budget is very close to the Senate’s for the entire ten year period ahead, both in year-by-year spending totals as well as revenue projections.
The President’s budget shrinks the deficit from 5.3% of GDP for 2013 to 4.4% for 2014 and down to 1.7% in 2023.  But just retaining the sequester level of spending for next year, as the Republicans propose to do, with no other cuts, would lower the deficit level to 3.7% of GDP for next year.  And, of course, the Republicans propose to entirely eliminate the deficit by 2023.  Shrinking the deficit to 1.7% of GDP by 2023, as the Democrats propose to do, sounds good on the face of it, but it means a deficit of over $400 billion still remains ten years out.  Bottom line: both the Administration and Senate budgets increase the debt by about $5 trillion over the next ten years, making no attempt to eliminate the deficit, compared with a Republican increase of $1 trillion in debt by 2023 while finally ending our awful slide into deeper debt.
The President’s budget does have some good features such as changing the way the Consumer Price Index is computed, to make it more accurate, which could save $339 billion over ten years.  The administration suggests additional means testing for Medicare recipients so that the more affluent would pay higher premiums than at present (significant but unknown savings).  Limiting tax deductions for the top 3% of taxpayers to 28% of income would generate $529 billion over ten years.  Taxing all incomes over $1 million at the minimum rate of 30% (The Buffett Rule) would raise an additional $53 billion over ten years.
The problem is that all of these spending cuts and tax increases in the President’s budget would go to new spending rather than deficit reduction.  Tax reform, with a tradeoff between lower rates and fewer deductions, would give a big boost to the economy.  But just raising taxes in order to increase spending neither helps the economy nor lowers the deficit.  The President is again failing to provide leadership on our most critical problems.
The job of providing national leadership on economic and fiscal issues thereby goes by default to the Republican majority in the House.  This is a very big responsibility for John Boehner and company.  But they’re doing a remarkably good job so far under very trying circumstances!