Tuesday, November 25, 2008

That voodoo that they do so poorly

A miniature version of Jonathan Chait's introduction to the history of voodoo economics was published in the New Republic about a year ago. Print it out and read it side by side with your 401K statement. (hat tip: Balloon Juice)

from the New Republic: Feast of the Wingnuts

This piece is adapted from Jonathan Chait's book, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, which (was) published ... by Houghton Mifflin.

American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane. The scope of their triumph is breathtaking. Over the course of the last three decades, they have moved from the right-wing fringe to the commanding heights of the national agenda. Notions that would have been laughed at a generation ago--that cutting taxes for the very rich is the best response to any and every economic circumstance or that it is perfectly appropriate to turn the most rapacious and self-interested elements of the business lobby into essentially an arm of the federal government--are now so pervasive, they barely attract any notice.

The result has been a slowmotion disaster. Income inequality has approached levels normally associated with Third World oligarchies, not healthy Western democracies. The federal government has grown so encrusted with business lobbyists that it can no longer meet the great public challenges of our time. Not even many conservative voters or intellectuals find the result congenial. Government is no smaller--it is simply more debt-ridden and more beholden to wealthy elites.

It was not always this way. A generation ago, Republican economics was relentlessly sober. Republicans concerned themselves with such ills as deficits, inflation, and excessive spending. They did not care very much about cutting taxes, and (as in the case of such GOP presidents as Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford) they were quite willing to raise taxes in order to balance the budget. While many of them were wealthy and close to business, the leaders of business themselves had a strong sense of social responsibility that transcended their class interests. By temperament, such men were cautious rather than utopian.

Over the last three decades, however, such Republicans have passed almost completely from the scene, at least in Washington, to be replaced by, essentially, a cult.

All sects have their founding myths, many of them involving circumstances quite mundane. The cult in question generally traces its political origins to a meeting in Washington in late 1974 between Arthur Laffer, an economist; Jude Wanniski, an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal; and Dick Cheney, then-deputy assistant to President Ford. Wanniski, an eccentric and highly excitable man, had until the previous few years no training in economics whatsoever, but he had taken Laffer's tutelage.

His choice of mentor was certainly unconventional. Laffer had been on the economics faculty at the University of Chicago since 1967. In 1970, his mentor, George Shultz, brought him to Washington to serve as a staffer in the Office of Management and Budget. Laffer quickly suffered a bout with infamy when he made a wildly unconventional calculation about the size of the 1971 Gross National Product, which was far more optimistic than estimates elsewhere. When it was discovered that Laffer had used just four indicators to arrive at his figure-- most economists used hundreds if not thousands of inputs--he became a Washington laughingstock. Indeed, he turned out to be horribly wrong. Laffer left the government in disgrace and faced the scorn of his former academic colleagues yet stayed in touch with Wanniski, whom he had met in Washington, and continued to tutor him in economics.

Starting in 1972, Wanniski came to believe that Laffer had developed a blinding new insight that turned established economic wisdom on its head. Wanniski and Laffer believed it was possible to simultaneously expand the economy and tamp down inflation by cutting taxes, especially the high tax rates faced by upper-income earners. Respectable economists-- not least among them conservative ones--considered this laughable. Wanniski, though, was ever more certain of its truth. He promoted this radical new doctrine through his perch on The Wall Street Journal editorial page and in a major article for The Public Interest, a journal published by the neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol. Yet Wanniski's new doctrine, later to be called supply-side economics, had failed to win much of a following beyond a tiny circle of adherents.

That fateful night, Wanniski and Laffer were laboring with little success to explain the new theory to Cheney. Laffer pulled out a cocktail napkin and drew a parabola-shaped curve on it. The premise of the curve was simple. If the government sets a tax rate of zero, it will receive no revenue. And, if the government sets a tax rate of 100 percent, the government will also receive zero tax revenue, since nobody will have any reason to earn any income. Between these two points--zero taxes and zero revenue, 100 percent taxes and zero revenue--Laffer's curve drew an arc. The arc suggested that at higher levels of taxation, reducing the tax rate would produce more revenue for the government.

At that moment, there were a few points that Cheney might have made in response. First, he could have noted that the Laffer Curve was not, strictly speaking, correct. Yes, a zero tax rate would obviously produce zero revenue, but the assumption that a 100-percent tax rate would also produce zero revenue was, just as obviously, false. Surely Cheney was familiar with communist states such as the Soviet Union, with its 100 percent tax rate. The Soviet revenue scheme may not have represented the cutting edge in economic efficiency, but it nonetheless managed to collect enough revenue to maintain an enormous military, enslave Eastern Europe, fund ambitious projects such as Sputnik, and so on. Second, Cheney could have pointed out that, even if the Laffer Curve was correct in theory, there was no evidence that the U.S. income tax was on the downward slope of the curve--that is, that rates were then high enough that tax cuts would produce higher revenue.

But Cheney did not say either of these things. Perhaps, in retrospect, this was due to something deep in Cheney's character that makes him unusually susceptible to theories or purported data that confirm his own ideological predilections.


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