May 24, 2024

Economix Blog: Bruce Bartlett: Keynes and Keynesianism


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

Before the recent brouhaha about John Maynard Keynes fades from memory, I’d like to make a few final comments about Keynesian economics.

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When I began studying economics in the early 1970s, the term “Keynesian” was already losing its luster. In fact, one can date the precise moment when it became passé: Jan. 4, 1971. On that day, President Richard Nixon gave a joint interview to several television journalists. After the cameras were off, he made on offhand comment to Howard K. Smith of ABC News that he was “now a Keynesian in economics.” The New York Times reported this statement in a brief article on Jan. 7, 1971.

The article says Mr. Smith was taken aback by Nixon’s statement, because Keynes was viewed as being well to the left, politically and economically, and Nixon was viewed as an arch-conservative. Mr. Smith said it was as if a Christian had said, “All things considered, I think Mohammad was right,” referring to the prophet who founded Islam.

The Times’s economics columnist Leonard Silk quickly noted the significance of Nixon’s remark and said the president was actually carrying out Keynesian policies at that moment. His budget for the next fiscal year, which would be released in a few weeks, would be “expansionary,” Nixon had said in his television interview. Instead of aiming for budgetary balance in nominal dollar terms, Nixon said he would aim to balance the budget on a “full employment” basis.

This statement was really no less controversial than the one Nixon made about Keynesian economics. Conservatives viewed it as a license to run budget deficits forever. The idea, now called the “cyclically adjusted deficit,” is to separate the share of the budget deficit resulting from a downturn in the economy, which automatically raises spending and reduces revenue, from its “structural” component, which is a function of the basic nature of the budget itself.

The point of looking at the deficit on a cyclically adjusted basis, which the Congressional Budget Office calculates regularly, is to avoid cutting spending that is only temporarily high and will fall automatically as the economy expands, or raising taxes that will automatically rise. Such actions would exacerbate the economic downturn.

According to the C.B.O., the economic downturn has increased the budget deficit by about 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product annually since 2009. It also calculates that if the economy were operating at its potential based on its productive capacity – what used to be called “full employment,” a term now in disuse among economists – G.D.P. would be $1 trillion larger this year.

Conservatives still don’t like calculating the deficit any way except literally. All adjustments are assumed to be tricks to make it look smaller, they believe. But back in 1971, having a Republican president talk about an expansionary budget policy and balancing the budget on a full employment basis was radical stuff indeed.

The irony, of course, is that Keynesian economics, which had dominated macroeconomic thinking since the war, was already dying. For decades it had been under intellectual assault by economists associated with the University of Chicago known as “monetarists.” Their most well-known spokesman was Milton Friedman, who argued against the Keynesians’ focus on fiscal policy – federal spending and taxing policy – and their inattention to monetary policy, which is conducted by the Federal Reserve.

As it happens, Friedman had said in 1965 that “we’re all Keynesian now” in the Dec. 31 issue of Time magazine. He later complained that his quote had been taken out of context. His full statement was, “In one sense, we are all Keynesian now; in another, nobody is any longer a Keynesian.” Friedman said the second half of his quote was as important as the first half.

But it wasn’t only those on the right, such as Friedman, who were abandoning Keynes; so were those on the left such as the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, an early and energetic supporter of Keynesian economics. In July 1971, he said that Keynes was obsolete because big business and big labor so controlled the economy that Keynesian economics didn’t work.

Galbraith said that it was “sad that Mr. Nixon has proclaimed himself a Keynesian at the very moment in history when Keynes has become obsolete.”

By 1976, it was common to hear world leaders denigrate Keynesian economics as primarily responsible for the problem of inflation. That year, Prime Minister James Callaghan of Britain, leader of the left-wing Labor Party, gave a speech to a party conference that repudiated the core Keynesian idea of a countercyclical fiscal policy. It only worked, he said, by injecting higher doses of inflation that eventually led to higher unemployment.

The following year, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, of West Germany’s left-wing Social Democratic Party, likewise repudiated Keynesian economics. The German economy, he said, had avoided inflation by resisting the temptation to implement countercyclical fiscal policies during economic downturns. “The time for Keynesian economics is past,” Mr. Schmidt explained, “because the problem of the world today is inflation.”

On his blog last week, Paul Krugman took me to task for misconstruing the generality of Keynesian theory. My point was that policy makers in the early postwar era routinely accepted the idea that Keynesian stimulus was justified whenever the economy wasn’t doing as well as they wanted.

I acknowledge that this view derived mainly from economists who called themselves Keynesians rather than Keynes himself. He was, in fact, a strong opponent of inflation who would have opposed many “Keynesian policies” of the 1950s and 1960s, which contributed to the problem of stagflation in the 1970s that ultimately discredited those policies.

Economists and policy makers mostly forgot that Keynes prescribed budget surpluses during economic upswings to offset the deficits that he correctly advocated during downturns. In his 1940 book, “How to Pay for the War,” he advocated balancing the budget over the business cycle.

I think Milton Friedman was right that in a sense we are all Keynesians and not Keynesians at the same time. What I think he meant is that no one advocates Keynesian stimulus at all times, but that there are times, like now, when it is desperately needed. At other times we may need to be monetarists, institutionalists or whatever. We should avoid dogmatic attachment to any particular school of economic thought and use proper analysis to figure out the nature of our economic problem at that particular moment and the proper policy to deal with it.

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Today’s Economist: Bruce Bartlett: What People Think About Taxes


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform — Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

For most people, the sum total of their opinion about taxes is very, very simple: they hate them — not just the tax payment, but the act of paying taxes: pulling together the information needed to do one’s tax return, filing it, worrying about being audited for some small error and so on.

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These attitudes are confirmed in a new compendium of public opinion on taxes published by the American Enterprise Institute. The editors, Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, tell us:

In 75 years of surveys, we can find no instance in which more than a tiny percentage of Americans said the amount they paid in taxes was too low. In most polls, pluralities or majorities say the amount is too high.

But the data do suggest that the percentage of people who think their taxes are too high has declined over time. Until the early 2000s, that figure was commonly in the three-fifths to two-thirds range, but it has since trended down to about 50 percent. Conversely, the percentage of people saying their taxes are about right has risen to where in some polls it sometimes exceeds the percentage saying that taxes are too high.

Conservatives like to argue that the greatest unfairnesses of the tax code are that the wealthy are taxed at higher rates and that close to half of those who file income tax returns have no tax liability. But polls indicate that most people believe that the greatest unfairness in the tax system is that the wealthy do not pay their fair share.

A poll in April 2003 sponsored by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government found that 57 percent of people believed that high-income families paid less than their fair share. A December 2011 Pew poll found the same percentage saying so. By contrast, it found that only 11 percent of people found that the amount of federal taxes they themselves paid was what bothered them the most, with 28 percent naming the complexity of the tax system.

Possibly the greatest dissatisfaction with the tax system is not with taxes per se, but the widespread feeling that the money is simply wasted. The American Enterprise Institute compendium shows that the percentage of people who believe that the government wastes a lot of their money has risen over time. Recent polls put the percentage in the 70 percent to 80 percent range, almost twice what it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

When asked what percentage of all federal spending is wasted, a variety of polls routinely put the figure around half. People also believe that wasteful spending has risen over time and that they themselves get little if any value from the taxes they pay. Overwhelmingly, people say that how their taxes are spent bothers them more than the amount they pay.

Not surprisingly, people prefer the idea of paying less in taxes and getting less from government over the idea of paying more in taxes and getting more services from government. It’s hard to see how this could be otherwise given the distribution of federal spending. As the chart below from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the vast bulk of it goes to national military programs that no one actually sees, programs for the elderly and poor, or interest on the debt. Programs that average people might see in their own lives, such as education or transportation, are a tiny fraction of spending. Even over a lifetime, most people expect to get back less from government than they pay in taxes.

2012 Figures from the Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2014 Historical Tables, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

In terms of tax reform, people remain sympathetic to the idea of a flat tax despite their general sympathy for progressivity and the idea that government should actively narrow the distribution of income.

Almost everyone thinks the federal tax system is too complicated and in need of major overhaul. In principle, people are willing to give up deductions in return for lower rates, but when questioned about specific deductions they usually support the big ones. An April 2011 Gallup poll found 60 percent to 70 percent of people opposing elimination of the home mortgage deduction, the deduction for state and local taxes or the deduction for charitable contributions, either to reduce the deficit or in return for lower tax rates.

Politically, Republicans and those with high incomes tend to hate taxes and doing their taxes more than Democrats and those with low incomes. According to a new Pew poll, 60 percent of Republicans say they hate doing their taxes compared with 46 percent of Democrats; 63 percent of those with incomes over $75,000 hate doing their taxes compared with 50 percent of those with incomes below $30,000.

It’s undoubtedly the case that one’s decision to identify with the Republicans or Democrats in the first place has a lot to do with taxes.

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Economix Blog: Bruce Bartlett: The Politics of the 14th Amendment and the Debt Limit


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

In 2011, Republicans in Congress drove the nation to the very brink of defaulting on the national debt. During that debate, a number of conservatives argued that default was no big deal — that the debt was so terrible that default was a reasonable option to be considered. Although few Republicans agreed with this position, probably all agreed with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, that the debt limit was a hostage worth ransoming to force President Obama to surrender to their demands.

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The most recent debt-limit extension was enacted in January and expires on May 19. On March 12, Senator McConnell signaled that he again planned to hold it hostage to Republican demands that programs to aid the poor and elderly be slashed.

In a March 13 interview with the radio host Sean Hannity, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said repeal of the Affordable Care Act might be the ransom that will have to be paid for raising the debt limit. “Do you want to risk the full faith and credit of the United States government over Obamacare?” he said. “That’s a very tough argument to make.”

In 2011, a number of respected legal scholars asserted that a little-known provision of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution essentially invalidated the debt limit. That provision states:

Sec. 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Other scholars contended that this constitutional provision was archaic, that it related to factors specific to the post-Civil War period and had no present-day relevance. On the contrary, I believe a careful review of the circumstances surrounding enactment of the 14th Amendment shows a great deal of similarity to those today.

Such a review was recently done by Franklin Noll, a historian who is a consultant to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and posted on the Web site of the Social Science Research Network.

Mr. Noll points out that there was strong support for repudiating the Civil War debt among Democrats, who were closely aligned with the Confederate South. They were angered that Congress had explicitly repudiated all the Confederate debt, and had refused to compensate slave owners for freeing their valuable slaves, and Southerners had no desire to help pay the Union’s debts.

One problem for Republicans was that the 13th Amendment abolished the clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a man for the purpose of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. The ironic result was to increase the South’s representation in the House. The 11 states of the Confederacy saw their representatives rise to 73 in 1870 from 61 in 1860. They would also have 22 of the Senate’s 74 seats.

It was feared that readmission of the Southern states, together with Democrats from the north, would provide enough votes to prevent passage of legislation to fund the debt. Hence Republicans believed it was essential to have constitutional protection for the national debt.

The forces of repudiation found strong support in the departing President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee whom Abraham Lincoln put on the Republican ticket in 1864 in a spirit of unity to save the Union. In his last State of the Union address, on Dec. 9, 1868, Johnson contended that the cost of the debt was so high that repudiation was justified. He declared:

This vast debt, if permitted to become permanent and increasing, must eventually be gathered into the hands of a few, and enable them to exert a dangerous and controlling power in the affairs of the government. The borrowers would become servants to the lenders, the lenders the masters of the people. We now pride ourselves upon having given freedom to 4,000,000 of the colored race; it will then be our shame that 40,000,000 of people, by their own toleration of usurpation and profligacy, have suffered themselves to become enslaved, and merely exchanged slave owners for new taskmasters in the shape of bondholders and tax gatherers.

Johnson proposed that the Treasury cease paying interest on a large portion of the debt and instead use that money to retire the debt. “The lessons of the past admonish the lender that it is not well to be over-anxious in exacting from the borrower rigid compliance with the letter of the bond,” he said.

Supporters of repudiation, however, had two big political problems to overcome. First, much of the Civil War debt was owned by average people. Historically, financial institutions had bought almost all the Treasury’s bonds, but the amount of bonds needed to be sold during the war required creation of a mass market for Treasury securities.

Second, the debt was closely identified in the public mind with the war itself. As Mr. Noll explains: “The wartime debt became inextricably entwined with the patriotism and moral purpose of the Civil War. To attack the public debt was therefore an attack on the wartime sacrifices and the righteousness of the war to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.”

For this reason, people were willing to bear a much heavier burden of taxation than existed before the war, making the promises of tax relief from debt repudiation fall on deaf ears.

The purpose of the debt provision of the 14th Amendment was to say that national debt was beyond the realm of politics. In the words Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor: “It was stated in broad terms in order to prevent future majorities in Congress from repudiating the federal debt to gain political advantage, to seek political revenge or to try to disavow previous financial obligations because of changed policy priorities.”

Republican threats to hold the debt limit hostage to their agenda today present precisely the sort of political situation contemplated by the authors of the 14th Amendment.

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Today’s Economist: Bruce Bartlett: Wealth, Spending and the Economy


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

The Federal Reserve Board last week released the latest data on national wealth. Economists were gratified to see that the net worth of Americans is very nearly back — less of a tenth of 1 percent — to where it was before the 2007 crash. At the end of that year and at the end of 2012, net national wealth was just over $66.1 trillion. The rising stock and housing markets are the primary reasons, but so is the decline in debt, which is down $822 billion since 2007.

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This generally good news, however, masks the fact that the benefits of rising wealth have not been equally shared. As one can see in the table, which is based on gross assets, there has been a significant change in the composition of assets. Much more is now held in the form of such financial assets as stocks and bonds and much less in nonfinancial assets, principally home equity.

Federal Reserve Board

Obviously, this has important distributional implications because the average middle-class family has the bulk of its wealth tied up in its home. According to the Fed, the gross value of household real estate is $5 trillion below its precrash peak: $17.7 trillion in 2012 compared with $22.7 trillion in 2006.

Depressingly, the gross value of household real estate is up only about $1.4 trillion over the last year despite a 7.3 percent increase in home prices, according to the widely followed Case-Shiller Index. The nation will need to do that well annually for another three years before beleaguered homeowners are back to where they were in 2006 in terms of housing wealth.

Obviously, those lucky or smart enough to be in the stock market have reaped the bulk of wealth gains. These have gone overwhelmingly to the wealthy. According to the New York University economist Edward N. Wolff, corporate stock constitutes just 3.1 percent of the net wealth of the middle class (defined as the middle three wealth quintiles), excluding pension accounts, with two-thirds of their wealth in home equity. (Raw data are from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.)

But for the ultrawealthy (defined as the top 1 percent), home equity accounts for only 9.4 percent of their wealth, with stocks accounting for 25.4 percent. The not-quite-rich (defined as the next 19 percent of households below the top 1 percent) are also heavily invested in stocks, which constitute 14.9 percent of their wealth, with 30.1 percent in home equity.

These data have important macroeconomic consequences, because household wealth and its composition affect people’s work, saving and consumption.

According to a generally accepted rule of thumb, consumers spend 3 to 5 cents from every $1 increase in wealth. Thus the $10 trillion decline in household net wealth from 2007 to 2009 took $300 billion to $500 billion in annual spending out of the economy, enough to reduce the gross domestic product by 2.1 percent to 3.5 percent in 2008 and 2009 – more than sufficient to account for the length and depth of the recession.

But recent research suggests that the negative impact of declining wealth may even be greater because people react differently to changes in housing wealth than they do to changes in financial wealth. They also react differently to declines in wealth than they do to increases in wealth.

The latest research – by the economists Karl E. Case, John M. Quigley and Robert J. Shiller – shows a $1 decline in housing wealth reduces consumption by 10 cents per year, whereas a $1 increase in housing wealth raises spending just 3.2 cents. This suggests that homeowners will spend $500 billion less this year than they would if home prices were at their 2006 level.

By contrast, changes in stock-market wealth have a much smaller effect on spending. Consumption rises or falls about 2.5 cents for each $1 change in stock market wealth. Therefore, the $4 trillion increase in financial wealth from 2011 to 2012 will add only about $100 billion to spending this year.

The decline in wealth among those nearing retirement has been especially stressful, with many forced to work years longer than they planned. At the same time, there are fewer job opportunities for those in their 50s and early 60s. This has forced many to burn through savings put aside for retirement faster than they planned, while others will need to save more to compensate for declines in asset values, which will reduce their ability spend even if the housing and stock markets continue to rise.

The decline in wealth may have long-lasting consequences as well, by reducing bequests to the next generation. Given that younger workers are already having a harder time saving and investing than their parents’ generation, in part because of crushing student debts, the depletion of their parents’ wealth could leave many with no inheritances that might have helped fill the gap.

While a rising stock market is good news, its impact is limited because few Americans own much stock. Those who have been lucky enough to benefit are increasing their spending and thus raising economic growth, but there aren’t enough of them. Most Americans need the housing market to rise considerably more before their finances are restored. That will be several more years, even if current positive trends continue.

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Today’s Economist: Bruce Bartlett: One Recession Cost Is Lower Social Security Benefits


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

On Sunday, Catherine Rampell of The New York Times reported on the economic difficulties of those in their 50s and early 60s suffering from high unemployment and decimation of their retirement savings by the recession. Many will be forced to take Social Security benefits as soon as they turn age 62. Unfortunately, they may be risking unnecessary poverty in old age as a consequence.

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In 2011, 59 percent of those claiming Social Security for the first time were between the ages of 62 and 64, as shown in this figure from a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Social Security Administration, 2012 Annual Statistical Supplement

Historically, the normal retirement age has been 65, but life expectancy has risen over time. In 1940, a man age 65 could expect to live an additional 12.7 years, a woman 14.7 years. Longevity for men at age 65 increased to 17.6 years by 2009 and for women to 20.3 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (see Table 22).

Despite rising longevity, Congress created an option for early retirement at age 62 in 1961. It doesn’t appear that a great deal of thought was given to the long-term consequences of the decision. Contemporary reports say Congress was primarily concerned about unemployment among those approaching age 65 and viewed early retirement as a short-run stimulus measure.

According to C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, creation of early retirement for Social Security had the unfortunate effect of changing workers’ expectations about the appropriate age at which to cease working. This has reduced lifetime productivity, taxes and retirement savings because workers spent fewer total years working.

Yet according to the 1962 Social Security Trustees report (see Page 6), the budgetary cost of allowing people to retire at age 62 was zero.

The reason is that workers did not receive full benefits at age 62, but 20 percent less than they would get if they waited until age 65. That was thought to be an actuarially fair adjustment so that whether one retired at age 62 or age 65, one received approximately the same aggregate lifetime Social Security benefits.

As the normal retirement age has increased from age 65 to 67, based on legislation enacted in 1983, the same actuarial adjustment has been made, as shown in the table.

Social Security Administration

Thus there is a huge financial price to be paid for drawing Social Security benefits early and an enormous payoff for delaying the decision to claim benefits. Unfortunately, I think many workers have a “use it or lose it” attitude, incorrectly thinking their benefits will be bumped up when they reach the full retirement age or ignorant that their benefits rise when receipt of them is delayed.

The fact is that the lower benefits people get by retiring early continues for their lifetime.

Another cost of taking Social Security before the normal retirement age is limiting the amount of earned income one may receive. Because of something called the earnings test, retirees lose $1 of benefits for every $2 of earnings they receive above $15,120 – equivalent to a 50 percent marginal tax rate on an annual income barely above the minimum wage. There is no loss of benefits for those above the normal retirement age.

What many people do not realize is that the same actuarial adjustment shown in the table continues past the normal retirement age. That is, one’s benefits continue to rise every month that one delays taking them until age 70. Those born in 1943 or later receive 8 percent more benefits a year for every year they wait to draw Social Security benefits past the full retirement age. This is called the delayed retirement credit.

People retiring at age 66 this year would get their full benefit. But if they wait until age 70, they would get 32 percent more. Social Security benefits are thus 57 percent higher at age 70 than at age 62.

The delayed retirement credit is an extraordinarily good deal – where else can one get a guaranteed 8 percent annual return these days? The lower interest rates are, the better deal it is.

Many people learn about the delayed retirement credit only after they have chosen to draw Social Security benefits, and they incorrectly believe they cannot go back. In fact, the Social Security Administration allows people to repay the benefits they have received, in effect resetting the clock.

This is not an option for most people, who lack the large lump-sum of cash they would need even if they knew it would pay off. But for someone who has the cash and simply made a mistake in drawing benefits too early, the payoff can be large, according to Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University.

To be sure, many people in physically demanding jobs need early retirement, and some who are jobless have no choice but to take them the minute they qualify. But many can afford to wait, perhaps to age 70, before drawing Social Security benefits. Those who draw them too early risk extreme poverty in old age if they outlive their savings or are simply missing an easy way of increasing their retirement assets at a time when low interest rates make it hard for people to obtain interest income.

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Today’s Economist: Bruce Bartlett: When Tax Cuts Were a Tough Sell


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

Fifty years ago this week, on Jan. 24, 1963, John F. Kennedy sent a special message to Congress on tax reduction and tax reform. Enacted the following year by Lyndon B. Johnson, the legislation cut the top federal income tax rate to 70 percent from 91 percent and the bottom rate to 14 percent from 20 percent. Ironically, it later became the template for Republican tax policy.

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Those who don’t know the history probably assume that the tax cut was a slam-dunk for Kennedy, something that was overwhelmingly popular. In fact, a big tax cut was highly controversial because at that time Republicans actually cared about the deficit and recognized that tax cuts would increase it. This view was shared by the large bloc of conservative Southern Democrats then in Congress and the general public as well.

For example, on Dec. 14, 1960, before Kennedy was inaugurated, Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., Democrat of Virginia and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, warned Kennedy against even thinking about a big tax cut, given the deficit situation. According to an Associated Press report published in The New York Times, Senator Byrd told Kennedy that a tax cut “would be the worst thing we could do.”

A July 1962 Gallup poll asked the American people, “Would you favor or oppose a cut in federal income taxes at this time, if a cut meant that the government would go further in debt?” Only 19 percent of people supported a tax cut, even though the high World War II-era tax rates were still in place; 72 percent were opposed.

Even among those who said that their taxes were too high, only 31 percent supported a tax cut if it would add to the deficit; 61 percent were opposed.

However, in mid-1962, Kennedy was concerned that the economy was not growing enough and that this would endanger his re-election in 1964 unless some action were taken. His economic advisers, under the influence of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, advocated an intentional increase in the deficit to stimulate aggregate demand.

But they were divided about the best way to do it. John Kenneth Galbraith, who had tutored Kennedy in economics at Harvard and was serving as ambassador to India, argued in favor of an increase in public spending to deal with unmet social needs. Kennedy rejected this advice because it would never pass Congress and because he was worried about inflation and growing pressure on the dollar from abroad.

Kennedy’s other economists favored a temporary tax cut to put money into peoples’ pockets. This course had been recommended in a 1961 report from Paul A. Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kennedy endorsed the idea at a June 7, 1962, news conference, but he remained concerned about both the politics and economics of this approach.

On Aug. 6, 1962, Kennedy met with Representative Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Mr. Mills suggested that the president consider a permanent tax rate reduction rather than a temporary one, which would be viewed as an election ploy. This would satisfy the desire of Keynesian economists to stimulate demand, and in a way that would be hard for conservatives to oppose.

On Aug. 10, 1962, Kennedy met with his economic advisers and they endorsed this approach. We know what transpired at these meetings because Kennedy secretly taped them. They were published in 2001.

Kennedy’s Jan. 24 message got the ball rolling. Using rhetoric that could easily have been spoken by Ronald Reagan two decades later, Kennedy said:

As I have repeatedly emphasized, our choice today is not between a tax cut and a balanced budget. Our choice is between chronic deficits resulting from chronic slack, on the one hand, and transitional deficits temporarily enlarged by tax revision designed to promote full employment and thus make possible an ultimately balanced budget.

Kennedy even made a “Laffer curve” case that the economic stimulus would be so great that it would offset much of the estimated revenue loss:

Once this tax brake is released, the base of taxable income, wages, and profits will grow – and a temporary increase in the deficit will turn into a permanent increase in federal revenues. The purpose of cutting taxes, I repeat, is not to create a deficit but to increase investment, employment and the prospects for a balanced budget.

Largely forgotten to history is that Kennedy also favored tax reforms to offset some of the estimated revenue loss. The most important of these would have been to tax all unrealized capital gains at death. Then, as now, unrealized capital gains held until death are never taxed; heirs treat the property as if it were purchased for a price equal to its value at the time of death, no matter how large the amount or how wealthy the decedent. This is an unjustified loophole that tax reformers still object to.

Kennedy’s tax plan was exactly what Republicans today recommend, but they opposed it strenuously at the time. The Republican members of the Ways and Means Committee unanimously opposed it, saying, “It is morally and fiscally wrong, and will do irreparable damage to the Republic.”

When the tax cut came up for a final vote in the House of Representatives on Sept. 25, 1963, only 48 Republicans supported it; 126 voted against it. Nevertheless, it passed by a vote of 271 to 155.

The prospects for the tax cut in the Senate were always far more dicey. A conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats had essentially controlled that body since the late 1930s, and they put budget balance ahead of tax reduction.

It is probably only because of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and the strenuous efforts of Johnson, who had led the conservative coalition in the 1950s as Senate majority leader, that the tax cut passed the Senate. Even so, 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted against its final passage on Feb. 7, 1964.

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Today’s Economist: Bruce Bartlett: Mitt Romney, Carried Interest and Capital Gains


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

The issue of Mitt Romney’s taxes continues to be a political liability for him. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that 36 percent of registered voters have a more negative opinion of him because of the issue, up from 27 percent in January, compared with 6 percent who have a more positive view.

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As I have discussed previously, the two years of returns Mr. Romney has been willing to release, for 2010 and 2011, show that he paid much lower effective federal income tax rates in both years than his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, whose income was 85 percent to 90 percent lower than Mr. Romney’s in those years.

A key reason for Mr. Romney’s low tax rate is that a very substantial amount of his income comes from capital gains – 51 percent in 2011 and 58 percent in 2010. Capital gains, no matter how large, are taxed at a maximum rate of 15 percent, whereas wage income can be taxed as much as 35 percent by the income tax plus taxes for Medicare and Social Security. The latter two are not assessed on capital gains.

Significantly, much of Mr. Romney’s capital gains income achieved this treatment through a special tax loophole called carried interest. According to recently released documents, executives at Bain Capital, where Mr. Romney made the bulk of his estimated $250 million fortune, saved $200 million in federal income taxes and another $20 million in Medicare taxes because of the carried interest loophole.

The way the loophole works relates to the peculiar method in which money managers are compensated. Typically, they receive a fee of 2 percent of the gross assets under management, much of which comes from employee pension funds, plus 20 percent of any increase in value.

Thus, on $1 billion of assets the managers would automatically get $20 million that would be taxed as ordinary income. If the assets increased 10 percent to $1.1 billion, they would get another $20 million. For tax purposes, this additional $20 million would be treated as a capital gain and taxed at 15 percent.

The theory is that the money managers effectively become part owners of the assets they manage as a result of the fee structure. Critics contend that the distinction between the 2 percent and 20 percent fees is purely artificial — that in reality all their compensation should be treated as ordinary income and taxed as such.

Among the sharpest critics of carried interest is Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado. In a Sept. 4 post on DealBook, he explains that the New York attorney general’s office is looking into the issue, seeking to determine whether money managers have been illegally converting their 2 percent management fees into lower-taxed capital gains.

The New York Times recently commented in an editorial that while the carried interest loophole is unjustified, the core problem is lower tax rates on capital gains generally. Said The Times, “As long as income from investments is taxed at a lower rate than income from work, there will be no stopping the search for ways, legal or otherwise, to pay the lower rate.”

The view that capital gains should be treated as ordinary income for tax purposes is one that is widely shared by liberal tax reformers. They got their wish, briefly, from 1987 to 1990 because Ronald Reagan agreed to raise the tax rate on capital gains to 28 percent from 20 percent in return for a reduction in the top rate on ordinary income to 28 percent from 50 percent, as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

There are three big problems, however, with taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income. First, even if that were the case, capital gains would still be treated more beneficially, because the taxes only apply to realized gains. Those that are unrealized would remain untaxed. Investors needing cash could simply borrow against their assets to minimize their taxes, rather than selling and realizing a capital gain.

To equalize the taxation of capital gains and ordinary income, it would be necessary to tax unrealized gains. In theory, all increases in net wealth should be taxed annually, according to the economists Robert M. Haig and Henry C. Simons. But a 1920 Supreme Court case, Eisner v. Macomber, held that only realized gains could be taxed.

As long as a taxpayer decides when or if to realize gains for tax purposes, that is a very valuable loophole even if gains are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. For one thing, a taxpayer can easily match gains with losses to avoid having net taxable gains. And, of course, capital gains would still avoid the 15.3 percent payroll tax, which applies only to wage income.

Second, there is a problem with inflation insofar as capital gains are concerned. Many academic studies have shown that a considerable portion of realized capital gains simply represent inflation, rather than real increases in purchasing power.

While theoretically capital gains could be indexed for inflation, it would be very complicated. For one thing, it is not clear what the appropriate price index should be. For another, there is the problem of also indexing losses. Historically, Congress has felt that simply excluding a certain percentage of capital gains from taxation was a better way to compensate for inflation.

Third, it is a fact of life that those with great wealth are the principal beneficiaries of the capital gains tax preference, and they exercise influence in our political system far out of proportion to their numbers. They will pressure both parties relentlessly to restore a lower tax rate on capital gains and eventually they will be successful. Keep in mind that two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, signed cuts in the capital gains rate into law.

In short, it is a pipe dream to believe that eliminating the capital gains preference is the key to fixing the carried interest loophole. It can and should be addressed by treating carried interest as ordinary income, without requiring that all capital gains be taxed as ordinary income.

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Economix Blog: Bruce Bartlett: The Balanced Budget Amendment Delusion


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of the coming book “The Benefit and the Burden.”

This week the House of Representatives will take up a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. An idea that has been kicking around for ages, it has never overcome the hurdle of needing a two-thirds approval vote in both houses of Congress. (After which it would not require the president’s signature but would need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states to take effect.)

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

The concept of balancing the budget annually is a bad idea but not an unreasonable one. However, the idea of mandating a balanced budget through the Constitution is dreadful. And the proposal that Republican leaders plan to bring up is, frankly, nuts.

The Founding Fathers took the necessity of balancing the federal budget to be self-evident – with no need to mandate it because economic circumstances severely constrained the government’s ability to spend more than taxes covered.

The memory of the hyperinflation of the War of Independence was fresh, and people were rightly concerned that deficits would lead to the printing of money to cover budgetary shortfalls, restarting inflation. Moreover, the domestic capital market was virtually nonexistent during the early years of the republic, and all Americans were wary of borrowing from abroad unless absolutely necessary.

Consequently, the budget was usually balanced for the nation’s first 150 years, except during wartime, and strenuous efforts were made to pay down the debt as soon as hostilities ended. This budgetary norm didn’t change until the 1930s, when economic stagnation and widespread deprivation made balancing the budget impossible. Also, the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes became popular and argued that large deficits would be necessary to restore growth.

Conservatives view the adoption of Keynesian economics as original sin, opening the door to a vast expansion of government. Instead of being paid for with politically unpopular tax increases or spending cuts, new spending programs were to a large extent financed with seemingly costless deficits. The economist James Buchanan called this “fiscal illusion.”

He had a point. We would have less spending if its tax cost was fully apparent. If people knew their taxes would go up or they would lose government benefits whenever spending increased, we would have a lot less spending.

Unfortunately, conservatives intentionally destroyed the remnants of the implicit balanced budget constraint in the 1970s so they could cut taxes without having to cut spending at the same time. Finding enough spending cuts to pay for big tax cuts would have doomed their efforts, so they concocted a theory, “starve the beast,” to maintain a fig leaf of fiscal responsibility.

Under this theory, deficits are intentionally created by tax cuts, which puts political pressure on Congress to cut spending. Thus, cutting taxes without cutting spending became the epitome of conservative fiscal policy. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

We gave starve-the-beast theory a test during the Reagan administration, but as I have shown previously, when push came to shove, Reagan was always willing to raise taxes rather than allow deficits to get out of control.

We gave starve-the-beast theory another test during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. They both raised taxes and, according to the theory, this should have caused spending to rise, because tax increases feed the beast. But they didn’t. Spending as a share of the gross domestic product fell to 18.2 percent in 2000 from 22.3 percent in 1991, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

We gave starve-the-beast theory another test during the George W. Bush administration. Taxes were slashed, but spending rose – again, the exact opposite of what the theory said should have happened. The economist Bill Niskanen asserted that the result was not surprising because the Republican position on taxes effectively reduced the tax cost of spending.

Nevertheless, conservatives like Grover Norquist insist that starve-the-beast theory works, which is why they relentlessly push for still more tax cuts despite the obvious failure of previous tax cuts either to stimulate economic growth or restrain spending, and oppose even the most trivial tax increases no matter how big the deficit.

Historically, one problem conservatives had with a straightforward balanced budget requirement was a concern that it might lead to tax increases. It would also make further tax cuts more difficult to achieve.

Today, most conservatives support a constitutional requirement that will only restrain spending but make tax increases effectively impossible, while continuing to permit tax cuts regardless of the deficit. This is the essence of the “balanced budget” amendment that Republicans plan to vote on.

The amendment reported by the House Judiciary Committee in June would limit federal spending to 18 percent of “economic output” (whatever that is) without a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate and would require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. The latter requirement is even more stringent than it appears because it applies to the full membership of both houses, not just the percentage of those present and voting. Taxes, on the other hand, can be cut with a simple majority vote.

Space prohibits a full discussion of all the technical problems with this poorly drafted amendment. A July 8 report from the Congressional Research Service does a good job of going through some of them.

These include the fact that gross domestic product is nowhere defined in law, nor could it be because it is a continually evolving concept; 18 percent of G.D.P. is a totally arbitrary figure that couldn’t be achieved this year even with the abolition of every federal program other than Social Security, Medicare, national defense and interest on the debt, because the deficit is twice as large as total nondefense discretionary spending.

Outlays would actually have to be well below 18 percent of G.D.P. in practice because future spending is held to 18 percent of the previous fiscal year’s G.D.P., and there is no practical way of enforcing the amendment through the federal courts. For more details, see my July 11 article in Tax Notes magazine.

The truth is that Republicans don’t care one whit about actually balancing the budget. If they did, they would want to return to the policies that gave us balanced budgets in the late 1990s.

The crucial one was higher taxes, which virtually all Republicans opposed in 1990 and 1993, and budget controls that prevented tax cuts unless offset dollar-for-dollar with cuts in entitlement programs, which Republicans abandoned in 2002 so they could cut taxes without constraint.

Of course, no Republican favors such policies today. They prefer to delude voters with pie-in-the-sky promises that amending the Constitution will painlessly solve all our budget problems.

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As an MSNBC Host, Sharpton Is a Hybrid Like No Other

Two TV sets hung from the wall: one tuned to “Hardball,” the other to CNN. A procession of producers — he has six on staff — whisked through to give him updates on their segments. Just before he rose for his makeup session, he turned to his executive producer. “Let’s not forget,” Mr. Sharpton said, casually employing the TV vernacular, “to put that Ron Paul sound bite in the D-block.”

Only days before, a more familiar version of Mr. Sharpton was on display: at one of his weekend rallies at the House of Justice, a power-lifter’s gym turned headquarters in Harlem. Dressed in shirtsleeves, using preacherly tones, he opened, as he always does, with his protest mantra — “No justice! No peace!” — and then went on to talk about Denise Gay, the Brooklyn woman shot and killed this month, possibly by the police. At the rally’s end, a choir appeared. Mr. Sharpton, 57, soloing at times, joined them in “Amazing Grace.”

His ascension to MSNBC’s 6 p.m. anchor slot signifies yet another episode in the long-running, much-debated drama called “The Transformation of Al Sharpton”: from the street-level firebrand who made his name supporting Tawana Brawley in 1988 to a political candidate (twice for Senate, once each for president and mayor of New York) to the Twitter posting, Facebooking, radio-show-hosting modern media figure.

His recent venture into television has attracted the expected condemnations — all of which have missed how unusual MSNBC’s decision really was.

Many polarizing former office holders — Sarah Palin, Eliot L. Spitzer — have been given TV platforms, but Mr. Sharpton is not a former anything. He remains an activist: he is planning to march on Washington next month to call for jobs (an event he expects to cover on his show) and has already done segments on another project, winning the release from death row of a Georgia laborer, Troy Davis, convicted — wrongfully, Mr. Sharpton says — of killing a policeman.

As construed by MSNBC, Mr. Sharpton will be a hybrid TV personality, a journalist-participant of sorts, both a maker and a deliverer of the news. “We are breaking the mold,” said Phil Griffin, the network’s president. “Anything he does on the streets, he can talk about on air — we won’t hide anything.”

Though this arrangement may be journalistic, said Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of media at Northeastern University, it is probably not journalism. Its proper name, Professor Kennedy said, is talk-show hosting.

“Maybe a talk-show host shouldn’t have to follow the entire code of ethics for a journalist,” Professor Kennedy said, “but he shouldn’t be able to run roughshod and function as pure political activist. “

Lingering in the background is the case of Keith Olbermann, the former MSNBC anchor who left the network this year after being suspended for writing checks without approval to political campaigns. NBC’s professional standards bar on-air talent from making donations without managerial consent and from endorsing candidates. But what about rallying at the Lincoln Memorial? Or leading a march across the Brooklyn Bridge?

Naturally omnivorous, Mr. Sharpton has always been a blender of unlikely elements (hair by James Brown, rhetoric by the Baptists) and now his blending will combine the advocate’s megaphone with the anchor’s teleprompter — a unique bit of alchemy that Mr. Sharpton says can be accomplished without an alteration of his message. The other day, in his new corporate office in Midtown, he said his model for this crossover act was, as always, Mr. Brown.

“In the last 15 years of James Brown’s life, he wasn’t just playing the Apollo, but he was still singing the same songs,” Mr. Sharpton said. “So how do you go from the Apollo stage to Lincoln Center and still remain authentic? How do you translate soul to a Lincoln Center crowd?”

Long before Mr. Griffin approached him this year with the idea of replacing Cenk Uygur, the acting 6 o’clock anchor, Mr. Sharpton had been a frequent MSNBC guest. There was a two-month tryout over the summer, after which an offer was made.

His ratings have so far been encouraging, network officials say. His audience (about 630,000 people a night) is up 4 percent over Mr. Uygur’s and he occupies the No. 2 slot for cable news in the 6 o’clock hour, behind “Special Report,” a competing show on Fox News. (The network won’t disclose what it is paying him, but a source close to Mr. Sharpton puts the figure at about $500,000 a year.)

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Economix Blog: Bruce Bartlett: Should Democrats Play by Republican Rules?


Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul.

It’s the nature of complex phenomena to have multiple causes and origins. It’s simplistic to say that a war, revolution or economic collapse can be explained by a single factor. It’s the job of analysts to sift among potential sources, assign weights to particular ones and thus try to understand the nature of such phenomena.

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

For momentous developments like the fall of Rome or the Industrial Revolution, the analysis may literally go on forever, with our understanding continually reshaped by subsequent history and perspective.

However, in real time, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until a consensus or even a dominant view has developed. In fact, we often don’t have time to do anything except rely on gut instincts derived from experience, theory, conjecture, ideology and a wide variety of other influences.

For those who lack the time, knowledge or education to think deeply about events as they happen, political parties and movements provide predigested ideas, perspectives and remedies.

Unfortunately, people are sometimes led astray by those they trust for insights, information and solutions to problems. This may result from corruption or mendacity, rigidity of thought, simple error or ignorance. And it’s human nature for people and organizations to be reluctant to acknowledge mistakes and to have an almost unlimited capacity to rationalize and force facts and theories to conform to their self-interest.

In the case of the Great Recession or mini-depression that we have been experiencing for almost four years, the best economists in the country are still divided on its cause and cure. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they are deeply polarized, with virtually no overlap among the competing camps in terms of analysis or remedies.

At the risk of oversimplification, one side sees government as the cause of all that has gone wrong in the economy and therefore believes that scaling back government intervention is necessary to improve the situation. That means reducing taxes, deregulation and spending cuts.

The other side thinks that the complex causes for the crisis are not necessarily related to the required response, which can be determined by examining the facts of the situation — high unemployment, nonexistent inflation and extraordinarily low interest rates, among other things.

This camp believes that the problems created by the crisis can be addressed by monetary and fiscal policy — much the way a doctor may save an ill patient by aggressively treating his symptoms even without knowing the precise cause of the ailment.

In broad terms, these dueling perspectives happen to conform to the basic philosophies of the two major parties. Republicans are predisposed to blame government for every problem regardless of the circumstances, and Democrats tend to view government as necessary to deal with economic and social problems.

One reason people join political parties is to save themselves the time and work of researching and thinking about issues. They are too busy with their jobs, their families and all the other things that occupy the time and attention of average people.

And even in the Internet age, it is hard to find the information and analysis necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. It’s vastly easier to just accept one party’s perspective and assume it is correct.

What parties and movements do when an issue comes along that requires them to take a position or presents opportunities to advance their agenda is to sort the possible causes and prospective cures put forward into those that are sympathetic to their program and philosophy and those that are not. Those that are sympathetic are deemed to be correct; those in conflict are deemed incorrect.

Obviously, there are serious problems with this approach, which members of both parties follow. Mistakes are easily made and incorrect positions established that may make matters worse rather than better. These positions may be held so dogmatically that their supporters feel that coercion is justified in forcing people to accept their point of view or that violence is an appropriate response to resist policies whose validity they question.

Thankfully, elections and democracy offer peaceful methods for resolving political conflict. And historically a sufficiently large number of Americans have been willing to withhold judgment until the facts are determined with some degree of certainty, and to be persuaded by logic and evidence, rather than immediately aligning themselves with a particular ideological or partisan political approach.

But without correct information and good leadership, it may not be possible for the rational, reality-based community to exercise influence, and control will necessarily default to one of the extremes.

Right now, it is clear that the right side of the political spectrum is dominant. Virtually all policy debate these days is based on the premise that the conservative position is at least valid. For example, we have heard for months from Republicans that government regulation is a major, if not the primary, factor holding back economic expansion and employment growth.

Just last week, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, posted a memo to House Republicans detailing specific regulations whose repeal would create jobs.

Mr. Cantor offered no analysis or evidence that abolishing these regulations would do anything to raise real growth of the gross domestic product or to reduce unemployment. The Republicans to whom the memo was addressed don’t need any evidence, because they are predisposed to believe that government regulation always holds back economic growth and job creation. That’s why they became Republicans in the first place.

So overwhelming is the Republican view that on Friday President Obama withdrew an Environmental Protection Agency regulation, widely supported by scientists as essential to air quality, because its economic burden is deemed to be unaffordable at this time.

Of course, we can’t be sure whether the regulation would have reduced jobs or if its withdrawal will lead to illnesses by people who would have otherwise remained in good health. All we know is that in the cost-benefit calculation, Mr. Obama considered the costs to be decisive.

His supporters will argue that Mr. Obama made the right call based on the facts of the case, but no doubt political factors also weighed on his decision. And those factors have been heavily shaped by the reality that much of the public has been swayed by the oft-repeated Republican charge that government is the enemy of progress.

In a courtroom, justice requires that both sides be equally well represented. If one doesn’t do its job properly, the jury cannot be blamed for a wrong result. If Democrats are going to accept Republican premises, they shouldn’t be surprised if a majority of people eventually conclude that Republicans ought to be in charge of government policy.

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