Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Steaming Pile by Any Other Name: Horse and Sparrow Economics

For several weeks now, I have been Tweeting and Facebooking the hell out of something called 'horse and sparrow economic theory' because it is at once so evocative and so descriptive of the bill of goods that has been supply side policy since the Reagan administration. 'Supply side economics' was a term adopted to replace what was, at the time, the more pejorative term, 'trickle down economics'. In either case, the theory was that if you cut taxes for the wealthy they would have more money to save, and part of that savings would be invested in new technology and new productive capacity, which would create new jobs and lift the economy as a whole. In other words a little governmental largess for the wealthiest Americans would eventually trickle down to benefit everyone.
For a while it seemed to work that way. Reagan had inherited an economy that wasn't just stagnant, it was also inflationary. They called it 'stagflation', and while there were lots of theories as to what caused it at the time, it was doggedly resistant to any measures adopted to get out of it. Reagan's solution was across-the-board income tax cuts coupled with a massive increase in defense spending. The math didn't work of course, and Reagan's budget director, David Stockton, got into trouble for saying as much in an interview with Vanity Fair at the time.
Reaganomics, as it came to be called in the press, relied on something called the Laffer Curve to sell the plan. What the Laffer Curve purported to show was that if you lowered tax rates, total tax revenue would actually go up because the taxes saved by individuals and businesses would lead to higher income through investments and thus higher absolute taxes although at a lower rate. This turned out not to be true, and Reagan suddenly had a revenue problem. His spending was going through the roof even though he touted spending cuts, and his tax receipts were taking a nose dive. Turns out you can't arm a nation to the teeth without spending money, and arms to protect us from Soviet missiles that didn't fly straight cost a lot more than food for the poor.
Alan Greenspan, tapped by Reagan to chair a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security, instead fixed Reagan's revenue problem with subterfuge. Purporting to put Social Security back on sound financial footing, he raised Social Security taxes. The additional tax revenues filled federal coffers by effectively reversing Reagan's income tax cuts for middle and lower income wage earners. This was a huge regressive shift in the total tax burden—lightening the load for the rich and increasing the burden for the poor.
Reagan was happy to borrow the Social Security receipts to fund the arms race. He got the Soviets to spend themselves into the poor house, but the apparently serendipitous collapse of the Soviet Union may have created as many problems as it solved. Reagan once famously called the accounting sleight of hand 'revenue enhancement'. For the middle class taxpayers upon whom the burden fell, Reagan's use of the term 'enhanced' is the moral equivalent of using 'enhanced interrogation techniques' to describe torture.
Eventually stagflation went away. Supply side advocates like to point to Reagan's apparent success to sell 'enhanced' trickle down policies today. I would argue that since Reagan actually raised taxes, increased spending, and more than doubled the deficit, supply side philosophy had little to do with the improved economy. A much better case could be made for increased spending as the best way to kick-start a stalled economy.
This is just too Keynesian to be embraced by conservatives though. They are all still firm believers in the supply side formula, even though it has never really worked...not even for Ronald Reagan who is its patron saint. After thirty years, the legacy of supply side policy-making is clearly bubbles, busts, and bailouts. It is time to go back to calling supply side theory by the name it started with—' Horse and Sparrow'. It goes like this: if you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.
When the sparrows get tired of the steady diet of the horse's leavings, we will finally see what 'Angry Birds' really look like.

1 comment:

Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you like and what you don't. Information, encouragement, criticism--I don't care. A day where I don't learn something new is a day lost to me.