The Effect of Individual Income Tax Rates on the Economy, Part 7: 1988 – 2010

by Mike Kimel

[UPDATE: Graphic title corrected below. h/t Eric Whitaker]

This post is the seventh in a series that looks at the relationship between real economic growth and the top individual marginal tax rate. The first looked at the period from 1901 to 1928, the second from 1929 to 1940, the third from 1940 to 1950, the fourthh looked at 1950 – 1968, and the fifth from 1968 to 1988. Because the Reagan era is so pivotal in the American psyche, it was also covered again in the sixth post, which looked at the period from 1981 to 1993. This post will look at the period from 1988 to the present.

Before I begin, a quick recap… both the 1901 – 1928 period and the 1929 – 1940 failed to show the textbook relationship between taxes and growth. In fact, it seems that for both those periods, there was at least a bit of support for the notion that growth was faster in periods of rising tax rates than in periods when tax rates were coming down. It is worth noting that growth from 1933 to 1940 was generally quite a bit faster than at any other peacetime period since data has been available, both on average and for individual years. Not remotely what people believe, but that’s what it is.

In the 1940 – 1950 period, we did observe slower economic growth following a tax hike and faster economic growth followed a tax reduction. However, that happened when the top marginal tax rate was boosted above 90%.

Interestingly enough, though the so-called “Kennedy Tax Cuts” are often used as one of the prime exhibits on the benefits of cutting taxes, a look at the 1950 – 1968 period yields no such conclusion. Growth rates were already rising before the tax cuts occurred in 1964 and 1965, reached a peak when the tax cuts took place, and started shrinking immediately afterwards. The other period that is always pointed to as evidence that tax cuts spur growth is the Reagan years, which showed up in the 1968 – 1988 and the 1981-1993 posts. It turns out that put into context, the Reagan years produced one year of rapid but not particularly extraordinary growth a few years after tax cuts began. That’s it. In fact, its worse than that… during the Reagan Bush 1 years, aside from that one good year, growth tended to shrink as tax rates were slashed.

Real GDP figures used in this post come from Bureau of Economic Analysis. Top individual marginal tax rate figures used in this post come from the IRS. As in previous posts, I’m using growth rate from one year to the next (e.g., the 1980 figure shows growth from 1980 to 1981) to avoid “what leads what” questions. If there is a causal relationship between the tax rate and the growth rate, the growth rate from 1980 to 1981 cannot be causing the 1980 tax rate. Let me stress this point again as I’ve been getting people e-mailing me to tell me I’ve got the growth rates shifted a year. That is correct, and is being done on purpose (and is shown on the graph labels). To avoid questions of causality, the growth rate in year X used in this post is the growth rate from year X to year X+1. And when I say “to avoid questions of causality” – you’d be amazed at how many people write me when I don’t do this and insist that sure, higher tax rates seem to be correlated with faster growth, but that’s because when growth is faster governments feel more willing to charge higher tax rates.

So here’s what the period from 1988 to the present looks like [update: Graphic Title Corrected; h/t Eric Whitaker)

Once again, the data fails to show anything resembling the old “lower taxes = faster growth” story. In fact, once again, it kind of looks like things go the other way. The two biggest dips in the graph occur when tax rates are at low points (28% and 35%). The highest tax rates also coincide with the fastest overall growth. But no doubt next week’s post looking at the next period will be the one that finally shows what everyone believes is there. Oh wait, we’ve run out of years.

Now, I’m sure someone will bring up the fact that there was a tech boom and the internet in the late 1990s. And no doubt there was some of that. But that doesn’t explain why only once did the graphs appear to show that cutting tax rates correlates with faster economic growth, and that one time occurred in the middle of WW2 during what was essentially a command economy when tax rates were above 90%. Talk about a special case. Conversely, most of the other graphs that we’ve seen in this series have not shown any relationship between tax rates and economic growth. And then there were a few, such as those showing the Reagan era, that seem to at least suggest that faster growth was more likely when tax rates were higher. None of this matches what we hear in the liberal (ha ha) media. None of this matches what I see in econ textbooks. It doesn’t match what I read in economics journals. But anyone, and I mean anyone, can do these graphs. Not sure many people can replicate Barro.

Next post in the series… what it all means.

As always, if you want my spreadsheets, drop me a line. I’m at my first name which is mike and a period and my last name which is kimel (note that I’m not from the wealthy branch of the family that can afford two “m”s – make sure you only put one “m” in there) at gmail period com.

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