Examining Hauser's Law

by: Eddy Elfenbein

In Tuesday’s WSJ, David Ranson has a bizarre article expounding on, what he calls, Hauser’s Law, which is named in honor of economist Kurt Hauser. The law states: “No matter what the tax rates have been, in postwar America tax revenues have remained at about 19.5% of GDP.”

The article includes this nifty chart:

Zubin Jelveh goes off on the chart because it implies that the variation in marginal rates have zero impact on the bottom line. It’s true that other taxes besides income taxes have played an increasingly significant role in U.S. tax policy. But what I understood Hauser’s Law to mean is that none of that matters. The tax code will always produce the same amount.

I’m fairly sympathetic to rules like Hauser’s Law. Especially with social sciences, I tend to believe that there situations where no matter what the rules are, they’ll produce the same results. (Some of you may recall Elfenbein’s 17th Law, which states that U.S. GDP growth has been remarkably stable over the last 40 years and about 3.1%.)

The problem I have with Hauser’s Law is that it doesn’t seem to include state and local taxes, which should raise the bar by quite a lot. Also, why should we look to the nation as a whole? To find out if there’s an upper limit, I think we should look at what state has the highest rate. For that matter, perhaps we should look at foreign countries.

While tax revenues may have been fairly stable over the past 50 years, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t generate more if we wanted to.