Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stephen Moore: Why Lower Tax Rates Are Good for Everyone

If we want millionaires to pay more taxes, then we need an economy where there are more millionaires.

President Obama on Wednesday announced that any budget deal must include $1.6 trillion from higher taxes. "When it comes to the top 2%," he said, "what I'm not going to do is to extend further a tax cut for folks who don't need it." He argued that we are never going to get anywhere near balancing the budget without more revenue from people earning above $250,000 a year.
He's probably right about that, though not in the way he intends. The country needs an economy that will create more of the "millionaires and billionaires" that Mr. Obama loves to excoriate, not more taxes from those who already exist. Total taxes paid by millionaires fell by almost $100 billion between 2007 and 2010, the last year with statistics available from the Internal Revenue Service. The drop resulted not from too-low tax rates, but from the severe recession and an anemic recovery since 2009 that thinned the ranks of the wealthy.

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Editorial board member Steve Moore on the GOP's stand-off with President Obama over raising taxes. Photo credit: Getty Images.

If Mr. Obama wants the Warren Buffetts and Justin Biebers to shoulder more of the nation's tax burden, he would do well to pay attention to the history of tax rates. Over the past century, lower rates have shifted the tax burden onto high-income earners and away from the middle class while maintaining the tax code's progressivity.
Let's start with the 1920s. All tax rates were cut during the Calvin Coolidge administration, including the top rate, which fell to 25% from the World War I high of 73%. Between 1923 and 1928, benefited by lower tax rates, the economy surged, raising incomes and living standards for the middle class. Tax collections in real terms nearly doubled—and the share of taxes paid by those who made more than $100,000 a year (more than $1 million today) increased to 51% from 28%.
The top tax rate rose to 63% in 1932, to 79% in 1936, and to 90% during World War II. The higher rates persisted after the war, and while the economy grew as the government's economic role ebbed, high rates generally helped to hold back the pace of growth.
imageCorbis Tax rates weren't reduced much until the Kennedy administration. JFK cut rates by about 30% for every income group. He argued that the lower tax rates would "boost the economy, produce revenues, and achieve a future budget surplus." He even called lower rates "an investment in the future."
The Kennedy tax cut was enacted in 1964 (after JFK's assassination), lowering the highest tax rate to 70% from 91%. His prediction that the economy would surge was validated by rapid growth every year from 1965 through 1968. Tax collections grew by 8.6% per year and unemployment fell to 3.4%. "The unusual budget spectacle of sharply rising revenues following the biggest tax cut in history," announced a 1966 U.S. News and World Report article, "is beginning to astonish even those who pushed hardest for tax cuts in the first place."
Americans earning over $50,000 per year (the equivalent of about $250,000 today) increased their tax payments by nearly 40% after the rate cut, according to a report from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. Their share of overall taxes paid rose to almost 15% in 1966 from 12% in 1963. Americans with an income of more than $1 million nearly doubled their tax payments to $603 million in 1965 from $311 million in 1962.
President Reagan cut all tax rates across the board in his first term, with the highest rate reduced to 50% from 70%. That was followed a few years later with the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which closed loopholes and lowered the top tax rate to 28%.
The economy soared in the 1980s and the unemployment rate plunged after the mini-depression of 1978-82. Tax rates fell but federal revenues rose to $1.032 trillion in 1990 from $517 billion in 1980.
Taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans facing the highest marginal tax rates increased every year during the 1980s expansion. Meanwhile, the share of total income taxes paid by the top 1% rose to 25% in 1990 from 18% in 1981. The wealthiest 5% of Americans saw their tax share rise to 44% from 35%. The surge in revenues was the result of prosperity that was largely spurred by tax-rate cuts. The increase in government deficits during that period, on the other hand, was due to higher federal spending.
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation that cut the top income tax rate to 35% from 39.6% and cut taxes on capital gains, too. Federal tax revenues surged by a record $780 billion from 2003-07, when the housing bubble collapsed. And once again, the rich paid more tax, not less. The share of taxes paid by the top 1% rose to 41% in 2007 from 35% in 2003. Tax payments by millionaires doubled from 2003 to 2007 because there were more millionaires and their before-tax incomes rose rapidly.
It is also true that when Bill Clinton raised tax rates in the 1990s, the economy boomed and the share of taxes paid by the rich increased. But the otherwise depressive effect of higher tax rates was counteracted by the lighter burden of government on the private sector—federal spending declined to 18% of GDP in 2000 from 22% in 1993.
A cut in spending is the economic equivalent of a cut in taxes now, or later. This point is effectively conceded by Mr. Obama demanding that his spending and borrowing binge of the past four years must be paid for by a giant increase in taxes over the next decade.
Some liberals acknowledge these fiscal facts of life but argue that tax revenues from the wealthy increased simply because the rich got richer. And so they did. But the economic growth that was touched off by lower tax rates, particularly in the 1960s and 1980s, also benefited middle-class incomes and living standards. If Mr. Obama has his way and raises tax rates on upper-income groups, it will slow the economy, and everyone will lose.
Mr. Moore is a member of the Journal's editorial board and the author of "Who's the Fairest of Them All?: The Truth About Opportunity, Taxes, and Wealth in America" (Encounter, 2012).

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