Voodoo Economics Revisited

WASHINGTON, DC – Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington are suddenly falling over themselves to agree on the need for major tax cuts – affecting not just middle-class Americans, but also very rich people (both living and when they die). Does this sudden outbreak of the long-desired bipartisan consensus indicate that a new, stronger America is just around the corner?

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. What we are seeing is agreement across the aisle on a very dangerous approach to public finance: a continuation and extension of what President George H.W. Bush memorably called “voodoo economics.” Its consequences are about to catch up with America, and the world.

Bush was competing with Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1980. Reagan suggested that tax cuts would pay for themselves, i.e., actually raise revenue – a notion that became known as “supply side” economics. There’s nothing wrong with worrying about the disincentive effect of higher taxes, but the extreme version put forward by Reagan did not really apply to the United States. When you cut taxes, you get lower revenue, which means a bigger budget deficit.

To be sure, no serious people are claiming the full Reagan effect today – partly because the Congressional Budget Office has kept everyone honest by showing in detail that the tax cuts will increase the deficit by close to $900 billion. But there is a broader Reagan-type reasoning at work here: unemployment is high, the economy is not growing fast enough, and we “need a fiscal stimulus.” For those who generally like lower taxes, of course, this, too, is wishful thinking.