Monday, September 3, 2007


TNR has a great story on how a few crank economic theories became GOP dogma. These grafs are particularly illuminating:

That fateful night, [Wall Street Journal editor Jude] Wanniski and [economist Arthur] Laffer were laboring with little success to explain the new theory to [Dick] Cheney. Laffer pulled out a cocktail napkin and drew a parabola-shaped curve on it. The premise of the curve was simple. If the government sets a tax rate of zero, it will receive no revenue. And, if the government sets a tax rate of 100 percent, the government will also receive zero tax revenue, since nobody will have any reason to earn any income. Between these two points--zero taxes and zero revenue, 100 percent taxes and zero revenue--Laffer's curve drew an arc. The arc suggested that at higher levels of taxation, reducing the tax rate would produce more revenue for the government.

At that moment, there were a few points that Cheney might have made in response. First, he could have noted that the Laffer Curve was not, strictly speaking, correct. Yes, a zero tax rate would obviously produce zero revenue, but the assumption that a 100-percent tax rate would also produce zero revenue was, just as obviously, false. Surely Cheney was familiar with communist states such as the Soviet Union, with its 100 percent tax rate. The Soviet revenue scheme may not have represented the cutting edge in economic efficiency, but it nonetheless managed to collect enough revenue to maintain an enormous military, enslave Eastern Europe, fund ambitious projects such as Sputnik, and so on. Second, Cheney could have pointed out that, even if the Laffer Curve was correct in theory, there was no evidence that the U.S. income tax was on the downward slope of the curve--that is, that rates were then high enough that tax cuts would produce higher revenue.

But Cheney did not say either of these things. Perhaps, in retrospect, this was due to something deep in Cheney's character that makes him unusually susceptible to theories or purported data that confirm his own ideological predilections. (You can almost picture Donald Rumsfeld, years later, scrawling a diagram for Cheney on a cocktail napkin showing that only a small number of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq.) In any event, Cheney apparently found the Laffer Curve a revelation, for it presented in a simple, easily digestible form the messianic power of tax cuts.

The birth of the Laffer Curve isn't a new story by any means, but I don't think anyone has ever drawn a parallel between it and Cheney's role in Iraq before.

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