There are two schools of thought about the Reagan tax cuts. The conventional conservative view: They spurred investment, entrepreneurship, and real economic growth, helping to resuscitate the post-Carter economy, and, by doing so, they paid for themselves. The conventional liberal view: They were an ill-considered product of starve-the-beast ideology and produced crippling deficits, inaugurating a new era of fiscal irresponsibility only briefly transcended during the golden years of the Clinton presidency.
Here’s a different take: They never happened.
Properly understood, there were no Reagan tax cuts. In 1980 federal spending was $590 billion and in 1989 it was $1.14 trillion; you don’t get Reagan tax cuts without Tip O’Neill spending cuts. Looked at from the proper perspective, we haven’t really had any tax cuts to speak of — we’ve had tax deferrals. Reagan and his congressional allies had an excuse in the considerable person of Speaker O’Neill. But George W. Bush and the concurrent Republican majorities in both houses of Congress didn’t manage to cut spending, either. Part of that was circumstances — 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the subprime meltdown — but part of it was the fact that a poorly applied supply-side analysis has infantilized Republicans when it comes to the budget. They love to cut taxes but cannot bring themselves to cut spending: It’s eat dessert first and leave the spinach on the table.
There is some evidence that this is both bad politics and bad policy. Many conservatives were disheartened by the Republican spending excesses of 2001–06, and abandoned the GOP in the elections of 2006 and 2008. And you may have noticed that our parks and public spaces are from time to time filled with rowdy tea-party demonstrators hollering for Washington to drop anchor post-haste on the USS Appropriations, which is nonetheless steaming on at a nauseating clip. Spending cuts are always popular in theory and detested in practice, but the deficit is now truly terrifying, and, fortunately for Republicans, it is owned by Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Our gross national debt is about 80 percent of GDP today and will be nearly 100 percent by 2012. If the government applied any sort of reasonable accounting standard to its future liabilities — if it were taking the same write-downs on Social Security and Medicare that the Fortune 500 are taking on Obamacare — then our real liabilities would far exceed GDP. It’s ugly, and the numbers suggest that we aren’t going to grow our way out of it: Despite all those pro-growth tax cuts, our deficits continue to grow faster than our economy. That’s been especially true during the Great Recession, but even during periods of strong economic growth, there has been nothing to indicate that our economy is going to grow so fast that it will surmount our deficits and debt without serious spending restraint. This should be a shrieking klaxon of alarm for conservatives still falling for happy talk about pro-growth tax cuts and strategic Laffer Curve optimizing.
Some people are more sensible about that Laffer Curve talk. Laffer, for instance. Arthur Laffer, whose famous (and possibly apocryphal) back-of-the-napkin diagram launched supply-side tax policy, readily concedes that the growth effects of tax cuts are oversold in the political debate. “Does every tax cut pay for itself? No. I think Irving Kristol wrote that, once — and then did a pretty good job of arguing for it. But if some guy running for Congress in Clayton County, Texas, says all tax cuts pay for themselves, what do we want to do? Go after him with a shotgun? Sure, they’re going to cite me, and there’s very little I can do about it. But there’s the same amount of ignorance on the other side, ignoring the economic feedback effects of tax cuts.”