Cross-posted at the Angry Bear blog.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Professor David Cohen’s class on the US Presidency in the Political Science department at the University of Akron.
My talk was structured around three questions involving some extremely simple recent economic history. None of the questions were trick questions.
The questions appear below.
Question 1. From 1980 to 1992, the top marginal tax income tax rate was:
-70% in 1980
-69.125% in 1981
-50% from 1982 – 1986
-38.25% in 1987
-28% from 1988 – 1990
-31% in 1991 and 1992
Given this pattern, which of the two graphs that follows do you expect shows the growth rate in real GDP over that period?
Figure 1 Option A
Option A: A few years after the first tax cuts, there was one year of unusually strong growth. Subsequent growth slowed a lot, and continued slowing as tax rates fell further.
Figure 1 Option B
Option B: The more tax rates were cut, the faster the economy grew. And then Bush I broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” promise and the economy slowed again.
The following is the list of eight year administrations since 1929:
-FDR (1933 – 1941)
-Truman (1945 – 1953)
-Ike (1953 – 1961)
-JFK/LBJ (1961 – 1969)
-Nixon/Ford (1969 – 1977)
-Reagan (1981 – 1989)
-Clinton (1993 – 2001)
-Bush 2 (2001 – 2009)
(FDR’s first 8 years are included, but the War years are left out. Also, Truman took over a few months into the term.)
It turns out that the degree to which each administration cut the tax burden (i.e., current tax receipts/GDP) during its first two years in office seems to strongly affect the growth rate in real GDP in the subsequent six years in office. (E.g., the amount by which Reagan cut the tax burden from 1980, Carter’s last year in office, to 1982 seems to strongly affect the annualized growth rate in real GDP from 1982 to 1988.)
Which of the following two graphs do you think best explains the relationship that was observed between the change in the tax burden in the first two years of the administration and the subsequent growth in real GDP over the remaining six years?
Figure 2 Option A
Option A: Administrations which reduced tax burdens early on enjoyed rapid growth later. Administrations which increased tax burdens early had poor growth later.
Figure 2 Option B
Option B: Administrations which lowered tax burdens early on suffered through poor growth later. Administrations which raised tax burdens early had strong growth later.
Reaganomics involved cutting taxes and reducing regulation. The New Deal (for our purposes, not including World War 2 years) involved tax hikes and increased government control over the economy. Which of the following two graphs shows the growth rate in Real GDP over the Reagan and FDR years?
Figure 3 Option A.
Option A. Growth was faster under Reagan than under FDR.
Figure 3 Option B.
Option B. Growth was faster under FDR than under Reagan
1. Option A: A few years after the first tax cuts, there was one year of unusually strong growth. Subsequent growth slowed a lot, and continued slowing as tax rates fell further.
2. Option B: Administrations which lowered tax burdens early on suffered through poor growth later. Administrations which raised tax burdens early had strong growth later.
3. Option B. Growth was faster under FDR than under Reagan. Quite a bit faster, in fact.
By the way… in each of the questions, the data for both options A and B was “real.” Its just the wrong answer, in each case, the growth rates did not match the taxes for any given year, but rather were sorted in order to fit the story line that everyone seems to believe. Also, for Question 2, I could have used the first year, the first three years, the first four years, the first six years, or the first seven years rather than the first two years of the administration v. the remaining years of growth and gotten similar graphs. Using the tax change for the first five years v. the annualized change in growth fro the subsequent three years shows almost no correlation whatsoever. My guess is that’s the outlier, given every other combination shows a recognizable story.
Its also worth noting… the three questions I picked are not “gotcha” questions or special cases. They’re central to the macroeconomic theory that has prevailed in the United States for the past few decades, and which American economists have managed to sell to the rest of the developed world since about 1990. The Reagan tax cuts are usually presented as exhibit A that tax cuts “work.” But I could have used Exhibit B (the so-called Kennedy tax cuts) instead. It wouldn’t have made a difference. The second question is an attempt to show how policies affect the economy the entire time they are in effect. Essentially, all the data available since the BEA began computing GDP is there, except the Hoover years, the Bush 1 years, the Carter years, and WW2. The third question compares what are often referred to as the worst economic policies this country enacted in the past 100 years to what are often referred as the paragon of economic policies in the same period.
I’m sad to say I’m confident most economics professors in the United States would get the three questions wrong. I’m also sad to say, I think it is no more possible to explain the US economy without knowing these facts than it is to produce a useful theory of the solar system assuming turtles all the way down.
And since most economics professors wouldn’t get it right, that’s what they’ve been teaching. I would venture to guess, in fact, that a student at, say U of Chicago or George Mason University (to use the flagships for two of the more popular “schools of thought”) is more likely to get these questions wrong after taking an economics course than before. And now, after a few decades, its now popular wisdom and the foundation of our economy. If you’ve been wondering what caused The Great Stagnation and the mess we’re in now, look no farther.
As always, if anyone wants my spreadsheets, drop me a line. I’m at my first name (mike) period my last name (kimel – one m only!!) at gmail.com.