I am about to venture slightly out of my usual comfort zone, monetary theory, history, and policy to talk about taxes. You guessed it, March is almost gone, and I still haven’t filed my income tax returns. But that’s not what I am going to write about. I am going to discuss an article by Eduardo Porter (“The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates’) in today’s New York Times Business Section which caught my eye. Porter gives a good summary of the sea change in tax policy that was inspired by a brash young economist with a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago working in the Nixon and then Ford Administration in the early 1970s. His name was Arthur Laffer. Porter tells the (apocryphal?) story of how Laffer drew his immortal curve for his bosses (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — once upon a time able public servants!) on a cocktail napkin showing that any feasible amount of tax revenue could be generated by two tax rates (one high and one low) except for the maximum total revenue achievable only by a unique rate. The Laffer curve became the inspiration for what became known as supply-side economics. Despite enduring much ridicule, the Laffer curve became the central plank in the platform on which Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980. Cutting taxes became the unifying principle on which almost all Republicans could agree, becoming the central pillar of conservative and eventually Republican orthodoxy. It was not always so. Barry Goldwater voted against the Kennedy across-the-board tax cuts of 1963. His vote against tax cuts, cuts supported by his chief opponent for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller — the object of conservative revulsion and outrage to this day — did not evoke so much as a peep of protest by conservatives when Goldwater was carrying the conservative torch in his epic campaign for the GOP nomination.
But as Porter points out, it’s not just conservative and Republican views on taxes that have changed. There was bipartisan support for cutting rates in 1986 when the top marginal rate was cut to 28%. Although Democrats consistently want to raise the top marginal rate, President Obama has not proposed raising the top marginal rate even to 40%, 10% below the 50% top rate under the Reagan tax cuts of 1981.
Why this sea change since the 1960s in views about top marginal rates? Obviously, tax cutting has proved itself to be politically popular, and that may be all the explanation necessary to account for the change in the political consensus about how high marginal tax rates can be raised. But Porter also notes that there was an important economic component in support for keeping tax rates low.
For 30 years, any proposal to raise taxes had to overcome an unshakable belief that higher taxes inevitably led to less growth. The belief survived the Clinton administration, when taxes rose and the economy surged. It survived George W. Bush’s administration, when taxes were cut yet growth sagged.
Porter cites new research suggesting that the scope for tax increases is really a lot greater than had been thought. Not only could the government “raise much more tax revenue by sharply raising the top tax rates paid by the richest Americans, but it could do so without slowing economic growth.” To support this idea, Porter cites a recently published paper by Emmanuel Saez and Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond. They argue that raising the top marginal rate to 80% would NOT cause revenue to fall if the loopholes available to the rich were closed. One obvious problem with that proposal is that the rich have a huge incentive to spend money lobbying against any increase in rates that is accompanied by closing loopholes and against any closing of loopholes not accompanied by a reduction in rates. Guess what? Spending money on Congress works, so don’t hold your breath waiting for tax rates to rise while loopholes are closed. But Saez and Diamond also estimate that even without closing loopholes the top marginal rate could be increased to 48% before any further rate increases would reduce revenue.
Moreover, in another study Saez, Slemrod and Giertz found that although the rich would respond to increases in marginal rates by trying to shelter more of their income, doing so would not cause economic growth to slow down. Porter explains:
That’s because a lot of what the rich do does not, in fact, generate economic growth. So if they reduced their effort in response to higher taxes, the economy wouldn’t suffer.
The arguments are not the mainstream view. Some economists really dislike them. And they are not absolutely airtight. The calculations rely on estimates about how higher tax rates would discourage the rich from working or investing over a couple of years at most. But we know little about how they might affect long-term decisions, like whether to become a brain surgeon or a hedge fund manager. We do know that in countries with higher tax rates, like France, people work fewer hours than in the United States.
Is there any way of explaining why raising top marginal rates to very high levels would not cause a loss of real income? Here’s an idea. The era of low marginal tax rates in the US has been associated with a huge expansion in the US financial sector. Wall Street has consistently been paying the highest salaries and giving the largest bonuses ever since the 1980s, attracting the best and the brightest from each year’s new crop of grads from our elite colleges and universities. What has been the social payoff to this expansion of finance? I am not so sure. Over a century ago, Thorstein Veblen wrote his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, followed some years later by his essay “The Engineers and the Price System.” He distinguished between engineers who actually make things that people use and financiers who simply make investments on behalf of the leisure class, adding no value to society. This was a vulgar distinction, premised on the unwarranted assumption that finance is unproductive simply because it generate no tangible physical product. On that criterion, Veblen would have ranked pretty low as a contributor to social welfare. Mainstream economists felt pretty comfortable dismissing Veblen because he was presuming that only physical stuff can be valuable.
However in 1971, Jack Hirshleifer, one of my great teachers at UCLA, wrote a classic article “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity.” The great insight of that article is that the private value of information, say, about what the weather will be tomorrow, is greater than its value to society. The reason is that if I know that it will rain tomorrow, I can go out today and buy lots of cheap umbrellas (suppose I live in Dallas during a drought), and then sell them all tomorrow at a much higher price than I paid for them. The example does not depend on my having a monopoly in umbrellas; I sell every umbrella that I have at the rainy-day market price for umbrellas instead of the sunny-day price. The gain to me from getting that information exceeds the gain to society, because part of my gain comes at the expense of everyone who sold me an umbrella at the sunny-day price but would not have sold to me yesterday had they known that it would rain today.
Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero), because the gains from obtaining slightly better information are mainly obtained at some other trader’s expense. There is a net gain to society from faster adjustment of prices to their equilibrium levels, and there is a gain from the increased market liquidity resulting from increased trading generated by the acquisition of new information. But those gains are second-order compared to gains that merely reflect someone else’s losses. That’s why there is clearly overinvestment — perhaps massive overinvestment — in the mad quest for information.
So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is – then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.
UPDATE 9:39PM EDST: I left out “not” (now in CAPS) in between “would” and “cause to fall” in the fourth sentence of the paragraph beginning with “Porter cites.”
UPDATE 9:46PM EDST: I revised the final sentence of the same paragraph which had been unclear.