The Effect of Individual Income Tax Rates on the Economy, Part 4: 1950 – 1968
by Mike Kimel
This post is the fourth 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. This week we look at 1950 – 1968.
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. 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%.
There were also a few other findings that might be surprising given the poor acquaintance Americans have with data. For example, the so-called Roaring 20s were a period in which the economy was often in recession. The New Deal era, on the other hand, coincided with some of the fastest economic growth rates this country has seen since reliable data has been kept. Additionally, rather than leading to faster economic growth, the economy actually slowed, a lot, during World War 2.
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 [link fixed]. 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.
Now that the preliminaries are done, if I was following the same pattern I followed in other posts I’d post a graph showing real GDP growth rates and tax rates. But this time I’m going to hold off on that graph for a few more paragraphs. Instead, I want to discuss an extremely pervasive myth about the period, and how that affects our understanding of economic of the era. The myth involves the so-called Kennedy Tax Cuts. Ask most economists and they’ll tell you: the economy was in the doldrums until Kennedy cut taxes from 91% to 70%. After that shot in the arm, growth took off like a shot. There is a second myth, but it is more confused: the myth of the idyllic 1950s. That one says that there was rapid growth in the 1950s because the US had little economic competition, what with the rest of Free World haven’t been destroyed during World War 2. It doesn’t reconcile that well with the Kennedy tax cut myth since, of course, for the Kennedy tax cuts to pull the economy out of the doldrums caused by a 91% tax rate, the economy has to be in the doldrums rather than idyllic when tax rates are 91%.
So let’s look at what happened. The graph below shows growth rates for the period. (I’m not including tax rates quite yet… that comes later.)
Well, growth rates in the 1950s weren’t steady. There were a lot of ups and downs. During three years in the 1950s, growth rates equaled or exceeded those in Reagan’s best year. But it was also a period in which in which there were two recessions (and two more between 1945 and 1950, and another one in 1960) and the economy actually shrunk in two different years. The 1950s can’t be characterized as idyllic nor as the doldrums.
Now, there is a point in the graph that seems consistent with the idea that Kennedy did something that was a game changer. Kennedy took office in January 1961, while the economy was going through the downward part of the cycle we had seen repeated since 1950. And then… instead of the economy continuing on its downward trajectory, growth picked up and accelerated (with one blip), staying (mostly) above 5% through about 1965. LBJ of course, took office when JFK was shot on November 22, 1963 so in this version of history, presumably, the end of the Kennedy boom came about when LBJ started inflicting socialism on us. The only fly in that ointment to that story, of course, is that while hitting the same growth rate as Reagan achieved in his best ever year was not uncommon in the 1950s when the top marginal tax rate was 91%, it stopped happening after JFK.
Which is all well and good, except for one detail apparent in the graph below which shows both the growth rate and the tax rate:
As figure 2 shows, the cut in the top marginal rate occurred in 1964 (91% to 77%) and 1965 (77% to 70%). Yes, the Kennedy tax cuts were pushed through by LBJ after Kennedy was dead, and growth rates had already been fast and getting faster for several years before they occurred. Worse, real growth in the 1960s reached their peak – the acceleration that had begun years earlier all of a sudden came to a halt – when the tax cuts occurred. For the remainder of LBJ’s term, growth remained strong, but not as strong as it had been earlier. For instance, the average of the annual growth rates of the 1961 to 1962, 1962 to 1963, and 1963 to 1964 years when tax rates were 91% was 5.41%. The average from 1966 to 1967, 1967 to 1968, and 1968 to 1969, after the tax rates were dropped was 3.49%. (Yes, I know, in his last year LBJ raised tax rates back to 75.25%, but even then it was well below the 91% before the tax cuts.)
This is not, repeat, remotely consistent with the myth I keep hearing about the Kennedy tax cuts.
So far in this series… it seems the evidence has been at least weakly against the idea that tax cuts lead to faster economic growth in the 1901 – 1928, 1929 – 1940, and 1950 – 1968 periods. The 1940 – 1950 period does seem to behave consistently with that notion, though it is worth noting that it happened when tax rates were above 90%. Next post in the series: 1968 – 1980.
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.
Mike Kimel – “So far in this series… it seems the evidence has been at least weakly against the idea that tax cuts lead to faster economic growth in the 1901 – 1928, 1929 – 1940, and 1950 – 1968 periods.”
It is clear that the main post analysis of taxation from 1960 to 1968 is serioiusly inadequate. The sole focus on upper income marginal tax rates is misleading if performing comprehensive tax analysis for a given period of economic performance.
There were many significant tax code changes that impacted economic performances from 1961-1970. Read this basic summary:
Tax Policy & the 1960s:
Another Look At the Kennedy Tax Cuts
Major Enacted Tax Legislation, 1960-1969
Note as well that both periods of measurement in the main post graphs end in 1969, not 1968.
“Note as well that both periods of measurement in the main post graphs end in 1969, not 1968. “
Incorrect. Reread the paragraph that begins “Real GDP figures used in this post…” Note that the identical paragraph appears in two previous posts, and only doesn’t figure in the first post in the series because Real GDP data wasn’t available. Get used to the approach as I’m using it through the remainder of the series. If I didn’t use this approach I’d once again have people giving me #$@% about growth rates leading taxation.
“The sole focus on upper income marginal tax rates is misleading if performing comprehensive tax analysis for a given period of economic performance.”
If you’re curious, the correlation between the top and bottom marginal rates between 1950 and 1968 was 96.9%. That is to say, a change in the top rate tended to be matched by a proportional change in the bottom rate. When Rockefeller’s tax rates went down, so did his janitor’s.
As to other effects… sure, it all figures into tax burdens. And I’ve done the posts on tax burdens. This time I’m doing the posts on tax rates. No post can cover everything.
Your sole focus on top marginal tax rates doesn’t begin to explain what happened to economic performance during the 1960s. Your approach is absurd in light of what other tax codes occurred and what impact those changes had on the economic performances during the 1960s. It’s outlined in the summary document that I identified.
As far as I can determine, you really don’t get it when it comes to matter of analyzing all tax code changes during a given period of economic performance.
Pretending that only changes in top marginal rates of taxation resulted in the economic growth during a given period is a joke. That doesn’t begin to explain what really occurred and the 1960s serve as a good example of that point.
As I keep stating, I can only look at so many things in one post. I’ve looked at the effect of overall changes in the tax burden on growth. On occasion, I’ve even looked at the effect of the change in one or another law. Here I’m looking at tax rates. If I looked at everything this post would be 60,000 words long and illegible.
The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people who insist that when JFK cut marginal tax rates, it caused an economy that was in the doldrums to take off like a rocket. You can wander on down to the Heritage Foundation or the NR or even quite a few econ departments, not to mention the RNC, and find people who will tell you that. If you don’t think its legitimate to check that claim that is so widely believed, that’s your prerogative.
The approach is not “absurd”. If nothing else it shows that having high marginal tax rates and heavily taxing corporations – companies often paid as much in taxes as they recorded as profit – can actually result in higher growth rates. Sure, there may have been other tweaks to the tax code, but we have empirical data showing that the knee jerk “don’t tax the job creators” garbage is just that. High taxes may be annoying to the wealthy, but they do not have negative impact in the economy.
P.S. There are lots of good sound reasons that high taxes on the wealthy would increase economic growth if you think of it as forced spending.
A caution. This post doesn’t look at corporate taxes.
I never raised the matter of Heritage and other organizations making whatever claims. Besides, a careful review of many such claims if sufficiently detailed reveals references or footnote statements that acknowledge tax code changes during the 1960s also included other taxation reductions and increases. Regardless, I am not trying to support any lopsided claims. Instead, I am looking the big picture of all tax code changes.
I questioned one of your statements: “So far in this series… it seems the evidence has been at least weakly against the idea that tax cuts lead to faster economic growth in the 1901 – 1928, 1929 – 1940, and 1950 – 1968 periods.”
I stand by my original post. You have not challenged any statements from the first reference that I cited. If you can challenge any statements, have at it. I doubt that you can provide a sound factually based challenge. You’re more than welcome to try.
I find it odd that you lumped the 1950s and 1960s together in your analysis. The differences in economic performance and tax code changes are significant. I don’t believe it makes much sense from a policy or economic analysis perspective to roll them together.
The tax code changes during the 1960s had significant impacts on the economic performance of that period. The first group of recommended changes focused on businesses, followed by individual tax rates, and FICA tax increases. By 1968, the U.S. was in a serious bind with regard to its balance of payments and gold reserves as well as mounting war costs. The result was the passage of the first of two 10% tax surcharges which was followed by another the next year. The tax surcharges had a negative impact on consumer expenditures, and increased the resistance to the Vietnam war. Why anyone would ignore the tax surcharges in such an analysis also makes no sense when discussing taxation changes.
The bottom line is simple. Trying to ignore or conveniently dismiss the cumulative group of tax decreases and tax increases that occurred during the 1960s and focus solely on individual income tax marginal rates makes no sense in terms of the reality of what occurred. The resulting tax decreases and credit availability drove the U.S. economy to the edge of demand outstripping supply which led to inflation concerns. It’s unlikely that the U.S. Government could have pushed the envelope much further without serious economic consequences including further growth in fiscal deficits and gross federal debt overall.
The policies of the 1960s were critically important for changes that occurred during later decades, and not all such policies and tax code changes were beneficial for the fiscal health of the nation or national government, which explains why some tax code changes were undone. But whenever one says that the tax reductions didn’t lead to more economic growth, I conclude that the individual isn’t as well read as one should be to make such a sweeping claim. The U.S. economy could not have handled much more economic growth without serious negative consequences. Government policies including taxation code changes drove the economy to the upper limit of safe economic growth. I don’t understand why or how anyone would challenge that point without pressing a political agenda as opposed to a close examination of policy and economic outcomes.
The 1960s deserve far more attention from the economic blogs than has been evidenced during the last seven years. I expect some of that […]
Kaleberg – “If nothing else it shows that having high marginal tax rates and heavily taxing corporations – companies often paid as much in taxes as they recorded as profit – can actually result in higher growth rates.”
Try increasing federal taxation on U.S. corporations exporting goods and services and see what happens. Your whole idea will go up in a quick flash at that point.
Then try to explain to the leadership of a non-exporting U.S. corporation why it should pay higher federal tax rates than a U.S. exporting corporation.
Pelosi previously recommended shifting to VAT taxation for corporations. The purpose was increase U.S. federal revenues while also improving the competitiveness of U.S. exporting corporations.
U.S. corporate taxation rates eventually will decrease, not increase. The corporate taxation base may be broadened due to elimination of some tax credits and writeoffs, but the taxation rates on corporations will not be increased.
Mike does debunk the myth that the growth of the 1960s was spurred by the reduction of individual income tax top rates. Other variables had to do that, including some that commenters have mentioned when they seem to unwittingly support Mike’s conclusion. However, the cuts in 1964 and 1965 might have helped to sustain the good times by postponing and weakening the small recession that began after the 1968 election. I do not think this would be inconsistent with his data or hypothesis regarding the bivariate relationship between gdp growth rates and the top marginal individual tax rate.
“ I do not think this would be inconsistent with his data or hypothesis…”
Correct. I cannot rule that out. I would say this… remember the series of posts I wrote on the quadratic relationship between tax rates and growth. They tended to spit out a growth maximizing top marginal tax rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 55% to 65%. Assuming that is correct, then moving closer to the 55% to 65% range should, all else being equal, help sustain growth… though the sentences beginning with For the remainder of LBJ’s term…” in the post don’t seem to show that. I guess that’s part and parcel of the “all else being equal.” Alternatively, the growth maximizing rate can change over time. That of course isn’t inconsistent with the notion you brought up, though.
Fine. Let’s play oit your way. You keep mentioning the surcharge. What exactly did you want me to acknowledge? Does it occur to you that perhaps if you clicked on the link to the IRS table in the post you might spot footnotes 20 and 21 which would tell you that the surcharge is built into the highest marginal rate. (You keep insisting on reading footnotes and that everyone follow every one of your links. You might try doing it yourself before you sit here and play gotcha.)
What else would you like me to do to perform a “serious analysis?” Look at changes to FICA? The post has a purpose – to address claims that lower marginal individual income tax rates lead to faster economic growth. Those, by the way, aren’t my claims. But they are widely believed. If you don’t think addressing widely believed claims is relevant, that’s your prerogative, but this is my hobby and I get to address other people’s claims if I want to do it. You want the post repurposed? Fine, I’ve written plenty of posts with plenty of purposes. But this one is intended to look at a certain claims and not others. Period.
You tell me I lumped the 1950s with the 1960s and you wouldn’t have done it. That’s fine. But the post for the 1950s would look awfully boring because you can’t look at the variation in tax rates without variations in tax rates. So what would you have me do? Discuss nonexsistent changes in tax rates that didn’t occur in the 1950s?
Besides, including the 1950s provided a segue into the Kennedy tax cut. The story is… Kennedy cut taxes. Its a bullshit story, but even to present that story you have to compare it to what came before.
Was there anything else?
President Kennedy’s Economic Development Plan
The differences of the fiscal and taxation policies between the 1950s and 1960s couldn’t be more stark.
U.S. Senator John Kennedy ran for President in 1960, telling voters that it was time to “get the economy moving again”.
President Kennedy’s election set the stage for initiatives that would bolster economic growth. President Kennedy outlined in detail his economic development plan in a speech before the Economic Club of New York on December 14, 1962.
President Kennedy’s economic development plan was challenged by some of his advisors who preferred increasing government spending. Kennedy stayed the course, supporting a full array of tax cuts prior to his assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963.
Kennedy’s package of tax cuts was approved by the Congress in 1962 and 1964.
These are the tax acts passed during the 1960s.
Revenue Act of 1962
Investment Tax Credit. Established 7% investment tax credit.
Information Reporting. Required information reporting to government for interest and dividend payments.
Revenue Act of 1964
Individual Tax Rates. Reduced individual tax rates (top rate dropped from 91% to 70%).
Corporate Tax Rates. Reduced top corporate tax rate from 52% to 48%.
Corporate Estimated Tax Payments. Phased-in acceleration of corporate estimated tax payments through 1970.
Minimum Standard Deduction. Created minimum standard deduction of $300 + $100/exemption (total $1,000 maximum).
Tax Adjustment Act of 1966
Corporate Estimated Tax Payments. Accelerated scheduled acceleration of corporate estimated tax payments.
Revenue and Expenditure Control Act of 1968
Individual Tax Surcharge. Created temporary 10% income tax surcharge on individuals through 6/30/69.
Corporate Tax Surcharge. Created temporary 10% income tax surcharge on corporations through 6/30/69.
Excise Taxes. Delayed scheduled reduction in telephone and auto excise taxes.
Tax Reform Act of 1969
Personal Exemption. Phased-in increase in personal exemption amount from $600 to $750.
Investment Tax Credit. Repealed investment tax credit.
Minimum Standard Deduction. Increased minimum standard deduction from $300 plus $100 per capita (total maximum $1,000) to $1,000.
Standard Deduction. Phased-in increase in percentage standard deduction from 10% to 15%.
Income Tax Surcharge. Temporarily extended income tax surcharge at 5% annual rate through 6/30/70.
Minimum Taxes. Established individual and corporate minimum taxes.
Tax Rate Schedule. Established new tax rate schedule for single taxpayers.
Excise Taxes. Delayed scheduled reduction in telephone and auto excise taxes.
Maximum Tax Rate. Lowered maximum tax rate on earned income from 70% to 50%.
Federal receipts exceeded estimates for 1964-1967 by $23.6 billion. Federal tax revenues from individuals earning $100,000 – $500,000 decreased to $1,740 million in 1962 from $1,970 in 1961 and then reversed course, rising to $1,890 million in 1963, $2,220 million in 1964, and $2,752 million in 1965. Federal tax revenues from individuals earning $500,000 – $1 million decreased from $297 million in 1961 to $243 million in 1962, held steady at $243 million in 1963, increased to $306 million in 1964, and increased to $408 million in 1965. Federal tax revenues from those earning over $1 million decreased to $311 million in 1962 from $342 million in 1961, increased to $326 million in 1963, increased to $427 million in 1964, and increased to $603 million in
President Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam war and increased […]
The Kennedy Economic Development Plan – In President Kennedy’s Own Words
U.S. Senator John Kennedy ran for President in 1960, telling voters that it was time to “get the economy moving again”. He was serious.
President Kennedy’s election set the stage for initiatives that would bolster economic growth. President Kennedy outlined his economic development plan in a speech before the Economic Club of New York on December 14, 1962.
Kennedy told the audience:
“But a leading nation, a nation upon which all depend, not only in this country but around the world, cannot afford to be satisfied, to look back, or to pause. On our strength and growth depends the strength of others, the spread of free world trade and unity, and continued confidence in our leadership and our currency. The underdeveloped countries are dependent upon us for the sale of their primary commodities and for aid to their struggling economies. In short, a prosperous and growing America is important not only to Americans, it is — as the spokesman for 20 Western nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as he stressed this week — of vital importance to the entire Western World.
“In the last two years we have made significant strides. Our gross national product has risen eleven percent, while inflation has been arrested. Employment has been increased by one-point-three million jobs. Profits, personal income, living standards — all are setting new records. Most of the economic indicators for this quarter are up and the prospects are for further expansion in the next quarter. But we must look beyond the next quarter, or the last quarter, or even the last two years. For we can and must do better, much better than we’ve been doing for the last five-and-a-half years.
“This economy is capable of producing, without strain, 30 to 40 billion [dollars] more than we are producing today. Business earnings could be seven to eight billion higher than they are today. Utilization of existing plant and equipment could be much higher — and, if it were, investment would rise. We need not accept an unemployment rate of five percent or more, such as we have had for 60 out of the last 61 months. There is no need for us to be satisfied with a rate of growth that keeps good men out of work and good capacity out of use.
“The Economic Club of New York is, of course, familiar with these problems. For, in this state, the rate of insured unemployment has been persistently higher than the national average, and the increases in personal income and employment have been slower here than the nation as a whole. You have seen the tragedy of chronically depressed areas upstate, of unemployed young people — and I think this might be one of our most serious national problems, unemployed young people, those under 20. One out of four are unemployed — particularly those in the minority groups, roaming the streets of New York and our other great cities — and others on relief at an early age, with the prospect that in this decade we will have between seven and eight million school dropouts, unskilled, coming into the labor market, at a time when the need for unskilled labor is steadily diminishing. And I know you share my conviction that, proud as we are of its progress, this nation’s economy can and must do even better than it has done in the last five years. Our choice, therefore, boils down to one of: doing nothing, and thereby risking a widening gap between our actual and potential growth in output, profits, and employment — or taking […]
The Kennedy Economic Development Plan – In President Kennedy’s Own Words
“But what concerns most Americans about a tax cut, I know, is not the deficit in our balance of payments but the deficit in our federal budget. When I announced in April of 1961 that this kind of comprehensive tax reform would follow the bill enacted this year, I had hoped to present it in an atmosphere of a balanced budget. But it has been necessary to augment sharply our nuclear and conventional forces, to step up our efforts in space, to meet the increased cost of servicing the national debt and meeting our obligations — established by law — to veterans. These expenditure increases, let me stress, constitute practically all of the increases which have occurred under this administration, the remainder having gone to fight the recession we found in industry — mostly through the Supplemental Unemployment Compensation Bill — and in agriculture.
“We shall, therefore, neither postpone our tax cut plans nor cut into essential national security programs. This administration is determined to protect America’s security and survival, and we are also determined to step up its economic growth. And I think we must do both.
“Our true choice is not between tax reduction, on the one hand, and the avoidance of large federal deficits on the other. It is increasingly clear that no matter what party is in power, so long as our national security needs keep rising, an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget — just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits. Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions, and any new recession would break all deficit records.
“In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now. The experience of a number of European countries and Japan have borne this out. This country’s own experience with tax reduction in 1954 has borne this out. And the reason is that only full employment can balance the budget, and tax reduction can pave the way to that employment. The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.
“I repeat: our practical choice is not between a tax-cut deficit and a budgetary surplus. It is between two kinds of deficits: a chronic deficit of inertia, as the unwanted result of inadequate revenues and a restricted economy, or a temporary deficit of transition, resulting from a tax cut designed to boost the economy, increase tax revenues, and achieve, I believe — and I believe this can be done — a budget surplus. The first type of deficit is a sign of waste and weakness; the second reflects an investment in the future.
“Nevertheless, as Chairman Mills of the House Ways and Means Committee pointed out this week, the size of the deficit is to be regarded with concern, and tax reduction must be accompanied, in his words, by “increased control of the rises in expenditures.” This is precisely the course we intend to follow in 1963.
“At the same time as our tax program is presented to the Congress in January, the federal budget for fiscal 1964 will also be presented. Defense and space expenditures will necessarily rise in order to carry out programs which are demanded and are necessary for our own security, and […]
The Kennedy Economic Development Plan – In President Kennedy’s Own Words
The full speech is available here:
John F. Kennedy
Address to the Economic Club of New York
delivered 14 December 1962
Try this link for the table: www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/histab23.xls Not sure why it isn’t coming up in the post.
The fact that I’m putting the 1950s and 1960s together in the same graph doesn’t mean I’m implying they’re the same. Its called compare and contrast. You may recall I did that in posts 1-3 in this series.
I don’t understand where you see oddball slams against Kennedy’s development plan in the post. I pointed out that the growth began to pick up in a way that contrasted with the 1950s pattern when JFK took office and not when LBJ cut taxes and you read that as a slam against JFK? How is that a slam against JFK?
With all due respect, it seems to me you’ve got some idea of what I’ve written that has nothing to do with what I intended to write. Now, here’s my suggestion. Ask yourself – are other people interpreting what I wrote as a slam against JFK? Are other people under the impression that the piece equates 1950s economic policies with 1960s economic policies? And what does a careful answer to those two questions imply?
Here’s the problem with JFK’s speech – given its forward looking it can’t explain the first two years of JFK’s growth, and the pattern was already was set in 1961 and 1962.
You want to know what JFK did on the tax side that contributed to that growth? I had that post already.
Read his special message to Congress in April 1961: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8074#axzz1XAmK61Rc
Subtract off what wasn’t accomplished over the next few months. Or you can simply zero in on Section V. See, there’s the stuff that can (and did) happen fast, because it could be enacted by executive branch whenever it chose.
“If nothing else it shows that having high marginal tax rates and heavily taxing corporations can actually result in higher growth rates.”
I do not come to that same conclusion! Correlation is not Causation, and very few individuals and corporations have ever paid the rate they are designated for due to loopholes, breaks, incentives, cheating, and offshoring.
So explain to me why it is that on my office desk top I show at least one additional comment than I do on my home machine, from which I am making this coment. The last comment above is from Kimel and time stamped 2 days ago, 8:08:10 AM. Very strange.