Taxes Don't Lie

by: Calafia Beach Pundit

As far as I can tell, the debate over the U.S. economy's health and growth - or lack thereof - still rages. I've argued since late 2008 that the recovery would be a sub-par recovery, mainly due to excessive government spending and inflationary/uncertain monetary policy. (See more references to a sub-par recovery here.) I've consistently argued that even though the economy would likely experience a disappointingly slow recovery, it would nevertheless be a better recovery than the market was expecting, and that would be good for equities. Both of those forecasts have been vindicated, even though I thought we'd see growth of 3-4%, and instead we've seen growth of only 2.1% since the recovery began about 5 years ago.

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Meanwhile, there is no shortage of (mostly Keynesian) economists, notably Paul Krugman, arguing that the recovery has been weak because government spending stimulus was insufficient. Lately, there have been a growing number of economists arguing that the recovery has been weak because of a significant decline in government spending. To me the Keynesian arguments are weak, because they all cheered the passage of the ARRA in early 2009, one of the most significant expansions of federal spending in generations. Yet regardless of whether federal spending increased or declined relative to GDP, real growth has been pretty steady at about 2-2.5% on average for the past 5 years. You can see this in the graphs above: despite a gigantic increase in federal spending relative to GDP in 2009, and a huge, subsequent decline in spending relative to GDP, real economic growth since 2009 has been a pokey 2-2.5% throughout. We had a similar decline in spending relative to GDP in the 1990s (though it never went so high as it did in 2009), yet economic growth averaged a solid 4% per year the latter half of the 1990s, thanks in part to lower tax rates.

As a supply sider, I don't see the logic behind the theory that more government spending is stimulative and less is restrictive. How can taking money from those who are working and giving it to those who aren't create a bigger economic pie? It creates perverse incentives, for one thing. And it also channels the economy's scarce resources into the less-productive sectors of the economy. True economic growth only comes about when scarce resources are utilized in a more productive manner. I think the massive amounts of deficit-funded spending we've seen since 2008 are one of the main reasons the economy has been so weak. Bigger government is not better. With spending now having shrunk to historic norms relative to GDP, I'm tempted to say that growth has a chance of picking up.

Be that as it may, it still appears that the debate today centers around the question, Is the economy growing? I think the evidence of growth is significant, even though growth is sub-par. But one sure way to tell if we're growing and prospering is to look at tax receipts. Tax receipts don't lie: they are driven by incomes and profits and the number of people working.

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As the graph above shows, federal revenues have been rising for over 4½ years. Annual federal revenues are up by almost $1 trillion from their recession lows. They are up $365 billion from their pre-recession high, for a gain of 13.7%. Most of the gain has come from individual income taxes (including capital gains taxes) and payroll taxes. That is powerful testimony to the fact that the economy is generating more jobs, higher incomes, and higher profits. Corporate taxes probably would have contributed a lot more if our corporate profits tax weren't so high, since more and more companies appear to be avoiding the repatriation of their foreign profits. These days the government is earning 35% on lots of nothing, when instead it could be earning, say, 10-15% on $500 billion or more (of repatriated profits) per year if we had the wisdom to reduce our corporate tax rate.

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And in any event, as the graph above shows, federal revenues today as a % of GDP are almost exactly equal to their post-war average. Imagine how much higher they might be if this had been a robust recovery with lower and flatter tax rates!

It's the weakest recovery ever, but it is nevertheless a recovery. Taxes don't lie. And it could be a much stronger recovery if tax rates and transfer payments were reined in.