Lessons from the Great Depression and One of the Biggest Tax Hikes in U.S. History

by: Mark J. Perry

The chart above shows the highest marginal individual income tax rates from 1925 to 1945, using data from the IRS. The highest income tax rate was increased from 25% in the early 1930s, to 63% in 1932, and then to 79% in 1936. If you want to turn a recession into a depression with perverse fiscal policy, there's probably no better, more effective way to accomplish that outcome than by more than tripling marginal tax rates from 25% to 79% in the face of an economic slowdown. Talk about an "economic buzzkill"....

Perhaps the new administration and Congress should seriously reconsider whether 2009 would really be a good time to raise taxes. If you want to turn an economic slowdown into a recession, or an average recession into a severe recession, or a severe recession into a depression, raising taxes would surely help make that happen. It surely helped turned the recession of 1929-1933 into the Great Depression.

The chart above shows the increases in the lowest marginal tax bracket between 1929 and 1940, which for all years applied to taxable income between $0 and $4,000. Starting from .375% in 1929, the lowest rate tripled to 1.125% in 1930, and then increased again by more than 3.5 times to 4% in 1932, for a total increase of more than 10 times.

In dollars, the income taxes payable on $4,000 of income increased from $15 to $160 between 1929 and 1932, a 10.667 time increase. In today's dollars that would be like a tax increase of more than $2,315, from $240 in 1929 to $2,555 in 1932, on income in today's dollars of about $64,000 (using the BLS Inflation Calculator here).

The increase in the lowest individual income tax rate from 1.125% in 1931 to 4% in 1932 would be equivalent to a $1,837 annual increase in today's dollars for someone reporting $4,000 of income in 1932 (equivalent to $64,000 today), from $718 in 1931 to $2,555 in 1932, whopping 255% tax increase in just one year! Even for someone reporting taxable income of only $1,000 in 1932 (equivalent to $16,000 today), the increase in tax liability would have been 255% in just one year.