The Election Campaign Con Game: “Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves”

Continuing a series to help voters and everybody else cut through the nonsense, lies, garbage, and con games that has become American electoral campaigns – at least with respect to economics. The claim up for consideration now is the claim that by cutting taxes now (particularly for the wealthy, very high income earners, capital income (as opposed to wages), and business taxes) we can both stimulate the economy and that the growth in the economy will increase the dollars collected, thus making the tax rates pay for themselves with no increase in deficits.  Just like magic.  Except that like most so-called magic, it’s just a con.  IT’S NOT TRUE.  Unlike the first con game (“I’ll cut the deficit“) which is an equal opportunity con between parties, the tax cut con does seem to be Republican focused.

This time, I’ll outsource the argument to Mark Thoma of Economist’s View:

Republicans are selling snake oil once again:

Some Republican Senate candidates have suggested that extending the Bush tax cuts — which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year — will actually be good for the country’s bottom line, as the economic growth that results will more than offset the trillions of dollars in lost revenue. “By extending tax cuts you pay down the deficit, you grow the economy by giving people more money,” said Colorado Republican Ken Buck.

Today, on Fox News Sunday, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate nominee Pat Toomey joined this club, telling Fox’s Chris Wallace that “it’s not clear” that extending the Bush tax cuts — while also lowering the corporate tax rate — would increase the deficit…

But, of course, the Bush tax cuts did not even come close to paying for themselves. The Bush tax cuts cost us around $1.7 trillion in revenue from 2001 through 2008, in part because of weak output and job growth following the cuts (contrary to assertions about how the tax cuts would stimulate economic growth).

As for the cost of extending the tax cuts to the wealthy, the Tax Policy Center estimates that making all the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to extending them only for the middle and lower classes, would cost $680 billion over the next decade.

The disappointing part is that the press still lets them get away with this. At best, the press generally says something like “some economists claim this isn’t true,” implying there’s a debate about this issue — that some credible economists think the tax cuts will, in fact, pay for themselves — when there is no debate and the answer is clear. Tax cuts don’t pay for themselves.

If the press won’t call them on this obvious falsehood, how can we trust them on anything? Instead of reflecting poorly on the press, this ought to bring the general credibility of the people making these claims into question. The press ought to ask something like, “Are you this ignorant about economics, in which case why should anyone vote for you, or are you deliberately misleading people? I’ll assume you aren’t ignorant, so here’s the question. If you are willing to make false claims about the revenue generated from tax cuts in order to promote them for the wealthy, what other falsehoods will you be willing to promote in order to serve political ends? If voters can’t trust you to tell the truth about tax cuts, how can they trust you on anything?”


One More Time, the Government Is NOT Like a Household or a Business

Ron Dzwonkowski of the Detroit Free Press ran a column today urging people to participate in various “town hall” discussions to help figure out the US can deal with it’s “deficit” and the “debt” that must “lead to collapse”.

Mr. Dzwonkowski adopts the posture of  “reasonable, practical man” – not that of an ideologue.  In fact he appeals to “basic math and logic”.   But again, we see that Keynes was right:   Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Mr. Dzwonkowski is the slave of defunct economists from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when gold and bankers reigned supreme.  This is not the world we live in today.  The following is the text of the email I sent him.

I was most disappointed in your column on Sunday, June 20. There are many reasons for my disappointment, but the greatest is your repetition of economic nonsense that is flatly, factually wrong.

I quote your opening:

Basic math — and logic — says you can’t keep spending almost $2 for every $1 in your pocket. However, neither rules in Washington, where our national government now adopts budgets that authorize spending more than $1 trillion beyond tax collections and has accumulated a debt in excess of $13 trillion, a simply incomprehensible number…..This can’t go on; it’s a formula for collapse.

Actually basic math and accounting (and “logic”) brings the exact opposite conclusion. I believe you have fallen prey to a very common error, an error that is promoted by people who know better (or should) but have reasons to keep people believing the error. The error is simple:

You assume that the national government is the same as any household or any business or any corporation. It is not.

Households, businesses, corporations, and even state governments are all “financing-constrained”. This means that before they can spend, they must raise the funding through either revenue (income or taxes depending on the entitity), borrowing, or selling assets. SImply put, they must have something in the checking account before writing the check to spend.

A national government is NOT the same as these other entities. A national government CAN and DOES spend without any restriction on raising the funds first.

For these purposes, I’m using a “national government” to mean one that is:

a. sovereign in it’s money (in other words, it is the sole source of determining what is money/legal tender inside it’s territory)

b. let’s it’s money float in exchange rate and doesn’t promise a fixed conversion rate into any other currency or gold

c. borrows money in it’s own currency (when it chooses to borrow) and not a foreign currency.

Who fits this definition? The U.S., Japan, Canada, the U.K., Australia, India, among many (most) others. Who doesn’t fit? Anybody in the Euro Monetary Union (Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, etc). Who else doesn’t fit? Anybody that borrows in foreign currencies (Russia & Argentina in the 1990’s).

What I am explaining is not “an economic theory” – it is basic, fundamental national income accounting and fundamental banking procedures.

The blunt truth is that the U.S. can indeed continue to run deficits. The same people who claim that we are on the verge of collapse (as you claim is obvious) said exactly the same thing about Japan in the mid-1990’s. A decade and a half later Japan is still running “high deficits” and has no problem with either it’s budget or “solvency”.

The blunt truth is that when unemployment is well in excess of 9% nationally, any attempt to reduce deficit spending now by cutting spending or raising taxes will only further contract the economy, reduce actual tax collections and make the actual deficit bigger (see Ireland over the last 2 years).

The fundamental economic reality (again, basic math and accounting, not “theory”) is that if the private sector, you and me and private businesses, want to get financially richer, that is if we want to see our bank balances and 401K’s get bigger over time, the government, the public sector, must run a deficit. It is simply impossible for the private sector to net save money AND have the government run a surplus at the same time. (technically, there is one situation where it is possible, but that can ONLY happen if net exports is so large – think 20% or more of GDP – Chinese scale. Such large net exports cannot happen in all countries at once).

These are not the thoughts of sole “crank professor”. I could provide plenty of support for everything I’ve said. In fact, if you are interested, I would be happy to discuss it further and help you learn.

I am distressed because I work so hard to educate students to think critically, evaluate the evidence, and make sound “logical” conclusions. But I can only reach maybe 150 students per semester. You, however, reach thousands of people and you repeat what are eggregious errors of math, logic, and accounting, while repeating these fallacies while posturing as a neutral adult voice of reason. I could leave it at that, except that this epidemic of illogical thinking about government budgets has consequences. Social services will be sacrificed on an the alter of 1800’s economics theory where governments were constrained by what gold the bankers would lend them.

There’s No Crowding Out Here.

People who worry the most about the recent increases in US government borrowing are generally worried about one of two things: crowding out or inflation.  They fear that either if The Fed doesn’t “print new money” for the govt to borrow, then the government’s demands for borrowing money will drive up interest rates.  This driving up of interest rates would then, in turn, discourage businesses from borrowing/expanding/growing.  I’ll deal with the inflation fear in a different post.  But right now, it appears there’s little prospect of crowding out.  It’s true businesses (and households) aren’t borrowing, but it’s not because of high interest rates.

In the past, when the government became a heavy borrower, there was talk about crowding out private borrowers. But this time, interest rates have remained low and no one seems to be worried about that.

The reason is simple: Rather than crowding out the private sector, Uncle Sam is now standing in for it. Much of the government borrowing went to investments in financial institutions needed to keep them alive. Other hundreds of billions went to a variety of programs aimed at stimulating the private economy, including programs that effectively had the government pick up part of the cost for some home buyers and some auto buyers.

via Off the Charts – A Rich Uncle Picks Up the Borrowing Slack – NYTimes.com.

Why We Really Need to End the Empire: “We Can’t Cut Spending – Forbes.com”

Bruce Bartlett explains why a “balanced budget” for the US federal government is an impossibility.  Unfortunately, most people who strenously object to the deficit and want a balanced budget simply don’t understand the realities.  They often confuse “millions” and “billions” (it takes 1000 millions to equal a billion).  They further operate from greatly distorted ideas of just where the actual federal spending goes.

Domestic discretionary spending amounted to $485 billion last year. With a deficit last year of $459 billion, we would have had to abolish virtually every single domestic program to have achieved budget balance. That means every penny spent on housing, education, agriculture, highway construction and maintenance, border patrols, air traffic control, the FBI, and every other thing one can think of outside of national defense, Social Security and Medicare.

via We Can’t Cut Spending – Forbes.com.