The Myth that Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves Is Back



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Our report on Paul Ryan’s most recent budget notes that it includes a package of specific tax cuts but claims to maintain current law revenue levels, without specifying how. Our report assumes tax expenditures would have to be limited, as all of Ryan’s previous budget plans propose explicitly, to offset the costs of his tax cuts.

It is possible that Ryan doesn’t believe he would have to make up all of those costs, because he might believe that at least some of his tax cuts pay for themselves. In other words, Ryan might rely, at least partly, on “supply-side” economics.

One of the main ideas behind supply-side economics is that reducing tax rates will unleash so much productivity and investment and so much growth in incomes and profits that the tax collected on those increased incomes and profits will make up for the revenue loss from the reduction in tax rates.

The section of Ryan’s budget plan on tax reform cites, and is nearly identical to, a letter from Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and the Republican members of his committee explaining that they seek a tax reform that would “lead to a stronger economy, which would create more American jobs and higher wages. More employment and higher wages would lead to higher tax revenues which would simultaneously address both the nation's economic and fiscal reforms.” The letter goes on to say that they “will continue to oppose any and all efforts to increase tax revenue by any means other than through economic growth.”

Having Failed to Win the Argument Over the Income Tax Cuts and Capital Gains Tax Cuts, Supply-Siders Now Turn to Corporate Tax Cuts

Of course, if there was any possibility that we could actually get more revenue by paying less in taxes, we would all support that. The idea is so appealing that many lawmakers cling to it despite overwhelming evidence that it’s wrong.

Anti-tax lawmakers and pundits have tried to use the supply-side argument for several different types of tax cuts.

For example, the George W. Bush administration had the Treasury investigate whether or not the Bush income tax cuts would pay for themselves, and the Treasury reported back that, sadly, they would not.

To take another example, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal has been obsessed for several years with the idea that income tax breaks for capital gains (if not other types of personal income tax cuts) pay for themselves. But the evidence shows that revenue from taxing capital gains rises and falls with the stock market and the overall economy, not changes in tax policy.

And yet another example is the apparent campaign underway now to convince Congress and the public that cuts in the corporate tax rate pay for themselves. On the same day as Ryan released his budget plan, the Tax Foundation released a report claiming that reductions in corporate tax rates pay for themselves. Two days earlier, Arthur Laffer, the leading proponent of “supply-side” economics, made the same argument in a U.S.A. Today column. (See ITEP's critiques of Laffer's other work as junk economics.)

The Tax Foundation report is particularly telling. The Tax Foundation explains that their “dynamic” estimates assume that changing the corporate tax rate affects the economy. But stop and think about what this means exactly. They are essentially feeding assumptions into a model and then reporting the result.

The effect of taxes on the economy is complicated, especially when you consider that taxes fund public investments (like infrastructure and education) that enhance economic growth by enabling businesses to profit.

The Tax Foundation has fed their model assumptions about the effects of taxes on the economy and assumptions about how significant those effects are. If they assumed that cutting corporate tax rates had a negative impact or only a small positive impact on the economy, then their model would conclude that these tax cuts do not pay for themselves. But they assume a large positive impact on the economy, and their model therefore concludes that such tax cuts do pay for themselves.   

Some Members of Congress Seek “Dynamic Scoring” for Tax Proposals

It is unclear that proponents of supply-side economics will be any more successful with corporate income tax cuts than they have been with other types of tax cuts. But there is a real danger because anti-tax lawmakers often demand that Congress’s process of estimating the revenue effects of tax proposals be altered to take supply-side economics into account.

In other words, some lawmakers demand that the revenue estimating process assume that tax cuts cause economic growth, which can in turn offset at least part of the revenue loss — meaning tax cuts can at least partially pay for themselves.

Using this type of “dynamic scoring,” as it is often called, would be particularly manipulative. For one thing, even if we believed that tax cuts putting money into the economy boosts growth enough to partially offset the costs, then it’s equally logical to assume that spending cuts taking money out of the economy would reduce growth enough to limit the amount of deficit reduction they achieve.

But of course Paul Ryan and Dave Camp, who are championing a budget plan that includes massive spending cuts, do not suggest that the estimating process be altered to assume that such effects on the economy limit the amount of savings achieved. These are not the type of “dynamic” effects they have in mind.

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