The Laffer Curve, Part III
Jude Wanniski
July 8, 2006

 

In this third lesson on the Laffer Curve, Jude Wanniski explores how the Curve has worked throughout history. The first part of this essay ran last week.

Polyconomics Staff

Memo To: SSU Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Taxes, Revenues and the "Laffer Curve" (conc.)
Date: 2/25/2005

This is the third and last of three lessons on the Laffer Curve. This lesson is the last half of an essay I wrote in June 1978 as an adaptation of Chapter VI of my book, The Way the World Works, published in April of '78. The first part ran in last week's Lesson #5.

I was still Associate Editor of at the time, but just barely. I resigned on June 6 when it became clear I could not avoid a conflict of interest in writing the paper's economic editorials and at the same time advise political candidates who wanted to run on these ideas and were seeking my counsel. The concept of the Curve as illustrating the law of diminishing returns on tax rates provided the intellectual foundation to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency. At the time this essay was written, the average top marginal income-tax rate around the world was between 65% and 75%. The average today is closer to 35%, with no country in the world that I know of imposing rates higher than 60%. In 1978, for example, the top rate in England was 96% and today it is 40%.

In most of the developing world the top income-tax rates themselves are not excessive, but as we will see later in this semester, the income thresholds at which the rates are encountered are much too low and remain the chief cause of the poverty in those countries. The former Communist countries are enjoying rapid growth rates as a result of following the lessons of the Laffer Curve. An editorial in today's WSJournal, "Flat-Tax Model," notes the economic boom in Slovakia, which went with a 19% flat tax, and experienced "A Laffer Curve effect of rising tax revenues."

Remember the following was written in 1978, with an example about the cigarette tax in New York City that seems especially quaint today.

* * * * *

Taxes, Revenues and the Laffer Curve (conc.)
"Cracking down"

Another timeless remedy of governments that find revenues failing in the face of rising tax rates is to increase the numbers and powers of the tax collectors. Invariably, this method further reduces the flow of revenues to the treasury. Yet even with a thousand-year history of failure, the policy of "cracking down" on tax evasion remains a favorite of modern governments. Here is Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, on why such policies are doomed from the start:

Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state. A tax may either take out or keep out of the pockets of the people a great deal more than it brings into the public treasury in the four following ways.

First, the levying of it may require a great number of officers, whose salaries may eat up the greater part of the produce of the tax, and whose perquisites may impose another additional tax upon the people.

Secondly, it may obstruct the industry of the people, and discourage them from applying to certain branches of business which might give maintenance and employment to great multitudes. While it obliges the people to pay, it may thus diminish, or perhaps destroy, some of the funds which might enable them to do so.

Thirdly, by the forfeitures and other penalties which these unfortunate individuals incur who attempt unsuccessfully to evade the tax, it may frequently ruin them, and thereby put an end to the benefit which the community might have received from the employment of their capitals. An injudicious tax offers a great temptation to smuggling. But the penalties of smuggling must rise in proportion to the temptation. The law, contrary to all the ordinary principles of justice, first creates the temptation, and then punishes those who yield to it; and it commonly enhances the punishment too in proportion to the very circumstances which ought certainly to alleviate it, the temptation to commit the crime.

Fourthly, by subjecting the people to the frequent visits and odious examination of the tax-gatherers, it may expose them to much unnecessary trouble, vexation, and oppression; and though vexation is not, strictly speaking, expense, it is certainly equivalent to the expense at which every man would be willing to redeem himself from it.

Adam Smith's point about smuggling may now seem obscure. After all, smuggling was something that went on in the 18th century, wasn't it? Consider the following excerpts from a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, which urged New York State and New York City to reduce their combined cigarette tax from 26 to 10 a pack:

Through our browsings in the United States Tobacco journal we have learned of estimates that half the cigarettes smoked in New York City are smuggled in from North Carolina, where the tax is 2 a pack. State Senator Roy M. Goodman, a Manhattan Republican, says the state and city are losing $93 million a year in this fashion. The smugglers load 40-foot trailers with 60,000 cartons purchased legally at $2.40 each and peddle them in the city via the organized crime network for $3.75, which is $1.25 or more below legitimate retail.

Mr. Goodman recommends a one-year suspension of the city's 8-a-pack tax in order to break up the smuggling, plus an increase in the state enforcement field staff to 250 from the current 50, plus five years in jail for anyone caught smuggling 20,000 cartons or more. Last year only nine smugglers were jailed, each for a few months, with the common penalty $10 or $15.

If Mr. Goodman's solution were adopted, at the end of the year the smugglers would be back, and the state would have a bigger bureaucracy. More smugglers would be caught, more judges and bailiffs and clerks would have to be hired, more jails would have to be built and more jailers hired. The wives and children of the jailed smugglers would go on welfare.

Cutting the tax to 10 avoids all that. It immediately becomes uneconomic to smuggle. The enforcement staff of 50 can be assigned to more useful work, the state saving $1 million on that count alone. The courts would be less clogged with agents and smugglers, and the taxpayers would save court costs, as well as the costs of confining convicted smugglers and caring for their families.

The state and city would appear to face a loss of $50 million or $60 million in revenues, but of course smokers would now buy their cigarettes through legitimate channels and the 10 a pack would yield about as much in revenues as 26 a pack yields now. But that's not all. Legitimate dealers would double their cigarette sales, earning higher business profits and personal income that the city and state then taxes.

And don't forget the impact on the millions of cigarette smokers who would save 16 a pack. At a pack a day, that's $58.40 per year. At average marginal tax rates, a smoker has to earn more than $80 before Federal, state, and city taxes are deducted to get that amount. He can thus maintain his or her standard of living on $80 less in gross wage demands per year, which means it becomes economic for the marginal employer to do business in New York, increasing the number of jobs of all varieties and reducing cost and tax pressure on social services.

Among other benefits, the industrious smugglers would have to find legitimate employment. It might be argued that they would he thrown on the welfare rolls. But it we know New York City, they are already on the welfare rolls, and would be forced to get off once they have visible jobs.

The Finance Office of New York City, unwilling to take the advice of either Adam Smith or The Wall Street Journal, simply rejected the idea that lowering rates would produce expanded revenues. But Adam Smith's advice was not even taken in England at the time he tendered it. The theory was not tested until 1827, and then only by accident, by an Act of Parliament. Oddly enough, the incident in question involved tobacco smuggling. Stephen Dowell gives the following account in A History of Taxation and Taxes in England:

The consumption of tobacco had failed to increase in proportion to the increase in the population. A curious circumstance had happened as regards the duty on tobacco. In effecting the statutory rearrangement of the duties in the previous year, the draughtsman of the Bill, in error, allowed one fourth of the duty to lapse in July. Unconsciously he had accomplished a master stroke, for his reduction in the duty was followed by a decrease in smuggling so considerable as to induce [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Robinson to allow his [budget] surplus, estimated at about 700,000, to go to continue the reduction thus unconsciously effected.

The Politburo of the Soviet Union has the same problem as the Finance Office of New York City: It also rejects the idea behind the "Laffer curve." The greatest burden to Soviet economic development is Soviet agriculture. Roughly 34.3 million Soviet citizens, out of a total population of 250 million, are engaged in producing food for the nation -- and there is never enough. The United States, by contrast, employs only 4.3 million workers in food production, out of a total population of 200 million, generating an annual surplus for export equivalent to one-fourth the entire Soviet output. The drain on the Soviet economy is not only the low productivity of the farm sector. Because there are always shortages, and the state puts farm goods on the market at regulated prices rather than using the market system to allocate what is available, Soviet citizens spend billions of hours annually waiting on lines. If food were produced in plentiful quantities, it could still be allocated through regulated prices in conformance with Soviet ideology, but most of the lines would disappear, and the talents and energies of the urban work force would not be wasted in long lines.

The real source of this problem is the high marginal tax rates exacted on the state's collective farms. The state provides land, capital, housing, and other necessities on its collectives. It also permits the workers to keep 10 percent of the value of their production. The marginal tax rate is thus 90 percent. In agriculture, a small expenditure of effort might yield, say, 100 units of production; but twice the effort might be required for 150 units, and four times the effort for 200 units. The worker on the collective thus faces a progressive tax schedule so withering that any incentive to expend anything beyond a minimal effort is lost. With minimum work, he gets land, capital, housing, and other necessities, as well as 10 units of output. By quadrupling his effort (not necessarily physical effort, but perhaps increased attentiveness to details), he gets the same services and only 10 more units of output.

Meanwhile, however, the peasants on the collective farms are also permitted to tend private plots, the entire output of which is theirs to keep. The tax rate on these private plots is zero. Here is the result, as detailed by Hedrick Smith in The Russians:

Twenty-seven percent of the total value of Soviet farm output -- about $32.5 billion worth a year -- comes from private plots that occupy less than 1 percent of the nation's agricultural lands (about 26 million acres). At that rate, private plots are roughly 40 times as efficient as the land worked collectively. . . .Peasants farm their own plots much more intensively than they do collective land.

Ultimately, the Communist ideal is to have this last embarrassing but necessary vestige of private enterprise wither away as industrialized state farming grows in scale and output. Nikita Khrushchev, in spite of rural roots, pursued that end vigorously and earned the enmity of the peasantry. He cut the size of private plots to a maximum of half an acre and made life difficult for the farm market trade. I was told by Russian friends that Ukrainian peasants became so irate that they stopped selling eggs as food and made paint out of them.

Under Brezhnev things have improved. The maximum plot went back up to an acre and measures were taken to improve farm market operations. Soviet figures show the private farm output grew nearly 15 percent from 1966 to 1973.

In terms of the "Laffer curve," what Khrushchev did by reducing the size of the private plots from one acre to one-half acre was to increase the marginal tax rate of the system from point C to point A. This was undoubtedly a major cause of his political downfall. On the other hand, Brezhnev moved the marginal tax rate of the system back to point C, increasing output and revenues to the previous levels. This was an "economic miracle" of minor dimensions, but it has undoubtedly contributed heavily to Brezhnev's durability as a political leader.

The politics of the "Laffer Curve"

The "Laffer curve" is a simple but exceedingly powerful analytical tool. In one way or another, all transactions, even the simplest, take place along it. The homely adage, "You can catch more flies with molasses than with vinegar," expresses the essence of the curve. But empires are built on the bottom of this simple curve and crushed against the top of it. The Caesars understood this, and so did Napoleon (up to a point) and the greatest of the Chinese emperors. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew it well; the arguments for union (in The Federalist Papers) made by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay reveal an understanding of the notion. Until World War I -- when progressive, taxation was sharply increased to help finance it -- the United States successfully remained out of the "prohibitive range."

In the 20th century, especially since World War I, there has been a constant struggle by all the nations of the world to get down the curve. The United States managed to do so in the 1920s, because Andrew Mellon understood the lessons of the "Laffer curve" for the domestic economy. Mellon argued that there are always two prices in the private market that will produce the same revenues. Henry Ford, for example, could get the same revenue by selling a few cars for $100,000 each, or a great number for $1,000 each. (Of course, Ford was forced by the threat of competition to sell at the low price.) The tax rate, said Mellon, is the "price of government." But the nature of government is monopolistic; government itself must find the lowest rate that yields the desired revenue.

Because Mellon was successful in persuading Republican Presidents -- first Warren G. Harding and then Calvin Coolidge -- of the truth of his ideas the high wartime tax rates were steadily cut back. The excess-profits tax on industry was repealed, and the 77-percent rate on the highest bracket of personal income was rolled back in stages, so that by 1925 it stood at 25 percent. As a result, the period 1921-29 was one of phenomenal economic expansion: G.N.P. grew from $69.6 billion to $103.1 billion. And because prices fell during this period, G.N.P. grew even faster in real terms, by 54 percent. At the lower rates, revenues grew sufficiently to enable Mellon to reduce the national debt from $24.3 billion to $16.9 billion.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent global depression occurred because Herbert Hoover unwittingly contracted the world economy with his high-tariff policies, which pushed the West, as an economic unit, up the "Laffer curve." Hoover compounded the problem in 1932 by raising personal tax rates almost up to the levels of 1920.

The most important economic event following World War II was also the work of a finance minister who implicitly understood the importance of the "Laffer curve." Germany had been pinned to the uppermost ranges of the curve since World War I. It took a financial panic in the spring of 1948 to shake Germany loose. At that point, German citizens were still paying a 50-percent marginal tax rate on incomes of $600 and a 95-percent rate on incomes above $15,000. On June 22, 1948, Finance Minister Ludwig Erhard announced cuts that raised the 50-percent bracket to $2,200 and the 95-percent bracket to $63,000. The financial panic ended, and economic expansion began. It was Erhard, not the Marshall Plan, who saved Europe from Communist encroachment. In the decade that followed, Erhard again and again slashed the tax rates, bringing the German economy farther down the curve and into a higher level of prosperity. In 1951 the 50-percent bracket was pushed up to $5,000 and in 1953 to $9,000, while at the same time the rate for the top bracket was reduced to 82 percent. In 1954, the rate from the top bracket was reduced again, to 80 percent, and in 1955 it was pulled down sharply, to 63 percent on incomes above $250,000; the 50-percent bracket was pushed up to $42,000. Yet another tax reform took place in 1958: The government exempted the first $400 of income and brought the rate for the top bracket down to 53 percent. It was this systematic lowering for unnecessarily high tax rates that produced the German "economic miracle." As national income rose in Germany throughout the 1950s, so did revenues, enabling the government to construct its "welfare state" as well as its powerful national defense system.

The British empire was built on the lower end of the "Laffer curve" and dismantled on the upper end. The high wartime rates imposed to finance the Napoleonic wars were cut back sharply in 1816, despite warnings from "fiscal experts" that the high rates were needed to reduce the enormous public debt of 900 million. For the following 60 years, the British economy grew at an unprecedented pace, as a series of finance ministers used ever-expanding revenues to lower steadily the tax rates and tariffs.

In Britain, though, unlike the United States, there was no Mellon to risk lowering the extremely high tax rates imposed to finance World War I. As a result, the British economy struggled through the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, the British government again made the mistake of not sufficiently lowering tax rates to spur individual initiative. Instead, the postwar Labour government concentrated on using tax policy for Keynesian objectives -- i.e., increasing consumer demand to expand output. On October 23, 1945, tax rates were cut on lower-income brackets and surtaxes were added to the already high rates on the upper-income brackets. Taxes on higher incomes were increased, according to Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton, in order to "continue that steady advance toward economic and social equality which we have made during the war and which the Government firmly intends to continue in peace."

From that day in 1945, there has been no concerted political voice in Britain arguing for a reduction of the high tax rates. Conservatives have supported and won tax reductions for business, especially investment-tax income credits. But while arguing for a reduction of the 83-percent rate on incomes above 20,000 (roughly $35,000 at current exchange rates) of earned income and the 98-percent rate on "unearned income" from investments, they have insisted that government first lower its spending, in order to permit the rate reductions. Somehow, the spending levels never can be cut. Only in the last several months of 1977 has Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, spoken of reducing the high tax rates as a way of expanding revenues.

In the United States, in September 1977, the Republican National Committee unanimously endorsed the plan of Representative Jack Kemp of New York for cutting tax rates as a way of expanding revenues through increased business activity. This was the first time since 1953 that the GOP had embraced the concept of tax cuts! In contrast, the Democrats under President Kennedy sharply cut tax rates in 1962-64 (though making their case in Keynesian terms). The reductions successfully moved the United States economy down the "Laffer curve," expanding the economy and revenues.

It is crucial to Western economic expansion, peace, and prosperity that "conservative" parties move in this direction. They are, after all, traditionally in favor of income growth, with "liberals" providing the necessary political push for income redistribution. A welfare state is perfectly consistent with the "Laffer curve," and can function successfully along its lower range. But there must be income before there can be income redistribution. Most of the economic failures of this century can rightly be charged to the failure of conservatives to press for tax rates along the lower range of the "Laffer curve." Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford were timid in this crucial area of public policy. The Goldwater Republicans of 1963-64, in fact, emphatically opposed the Kennedy tax-rate cuts!

If, during the remainder of this decade, the United States and Great Britain demonstrate the power of the "Laffer curve" as an analytical tool, its use will spread, in the developing countries as well as the developed world. Politicians who understand the curve will find that they can defeat politicians who do not, other things being equal. Electorates all over the world always know when they are unnecessarily perched along the upper edge of the "Laffer curve," and will support political leaders who can bring them back down.