The Other Myth About Taxes, Revenues and Deficits

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We spent some time this morning talking about the myth of the always applicable Laffer curve and the supply-sideristas who always claim that tax cuts will be off-set by revenues from greater economic productivity. But we’re not Alan Greenspan—who famously doesn’t think it’s his job to think about how his comments on economic matters are perceived. So we don’t want our lack of enthusiasm for the great Republican myth to be construed as support for the great Democratic myth.
Perhaps you haven’t heard much about the great myth that seems to be the animating economic idea behind the Democratic party at the moment. You’ve heard the myth in various forms, of course, but it is rarely presented in terms on which it can be identified, analyzed and critiqued. Instead, it’s presented as nothing other than the obvious truth.
To put it succinctly, the myth is that increases in tax rates and higher tax revenues reduce budget deficits. Like the supply side faith, this one begins with a kernel of truth—that, all things being equal, higher revenues would reduce budget deficits—and then warps it into a poisonous lie. The mischief comes from the fact that all things are never equal, and there is little evidence that higher revenues results in lower deficits.
What is particularly not equal here is government spending. The myth of deficit reducing revenues depends on something that is patently untrue: the assumption that the demand for government spending is inelastic. In other words, when the government collects more revenues it tends to spend more.
What truly limits government spending is the size of the budget deficit. Or, more precisely, the political tolerance for budget deficits. It is the size of the deficit that is fixed, not the level of government spending. When you grow revenue, you grow spending, and the budget deficit chugs along.
This is not to say that it is impossible to reduce budget deficits. We’ve reduced them in the past, and even achieved something like a surplus at times. But this has been an achievement in politics—a political demand for lower deficits that overcame the demand for more spending—and not a function of revenue collection.
So before deciding that Republican proposals for tax cuts are irresponsible and Democratic proposals for tax hikes are responsible—that is, deficit reducing—ask yourself whether or not you think the demand for government spending is likely to increase or decrease when the government receives that added revenue.