Monday, November 29, 2010

The Laffer Curve

I found this very detailed article on The Laffer Curve when I was looking up tax cuts and Reagan among other things over the weekend. This is from The Heritage Foundation. There you can read the full article in detail, and see other graphs and pictures on how it was used and worked during the Reagan and Bush #2 years and the early origins using tax cuts during the Kennedy years when cutting taxes actually created wealth and jobs. It is very detailed and makes a lot of sense. It's pretty basic too. At 0%, you get Zero revenue. At 100%, you get Zero revenue. There are also many sites out there that have articles on "debunking" The Laffer Curve, but history has shown and proven, that this simple economic model has worked and can continue to if applied for future generations.

The story of how the Laffer Curve got its name begins with a 1978 article by Jude Wanniski in The Public Interest entitled, "Taxes, Revenues, and the 'Laffer Curve.'"1 As recounted by Wanniski (associate editor of The Wall Street Journal at the time), in December 1974, he had dinner with me (then professor at the University of Chicago), Donald Rumsfeld (Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford), and Dick Cheney (Rumsfeld's deputy and my former classmate at Yale) at the Two Continents Restaurant at the Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C. While discussing President Ford's "WIN" (Whip Inflation Now) proposal for tax increases, I supposedly grabbed my napkin and a pen and sketched a curve on the napkin illustrating the trade-off between tax rates and tax revenues. Wanniski named the trade-off "The Laffer Curve."

I personally do not remember the details of that evening, but Wanniski's version could well be true. I used the so-called Laffer Curve all the time in my classes and with anyone else who would listen to me to illustrate the trade-off between tax rates and tax revenues. My only question about Wanniski's version of the story is that the restaurant used cloth napkins and my mother had raised me not to desecrate nice things.
The Historical Origins of the Laffer Curve

The Laffer Curve, by the way, was not invented by me. For example, Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim philosopher, wrote in his work The Muqaddimah: "It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments."

Theory Basics

The basic idea behind the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues is that changes in tax rates have two effects on revenues: the arithmetic effect and the economic effect. The arithmetic effect is simply that if tax rates are lowered, tax revenues (per dollar of tax base) will be lowered by the amount of the decrease in the rate. The reverse is true for an increase in tax rates. The economic effect, however, recognizes the positive impact that lower tax rates have on work, output, and employment--and thereby the tax base--by providing incentives to increase these activities. Raising tax rates has the opposite economic effect by penalizing participation in the taxed activities. The arithmetic effect always works in the opposite direction from the economic effect. Therefore, when the economic and the arithmetic effects of tax-rate changes are combined, the consequences of the change in tax rates on total tax revenues are no longer quite so obvious.

Figure 1 is a graphic illustration of the concept of the Laffer Curve--not the exact levels of taxation corresponding to specific levels of revenues. At a tax rate of 0 percent, the government would collect no tax revenues, no matter how large the tax base. Likewise, at a tax rate of 100 percent, the government would also collect no tax revenues because no one would willingly work for an after-tax wage of zero (i.e., there would be no tax base). Between these two extremes there are two tax rates that will collect the same amount of revenue: a high tax rate on a small tax base and a low tax rate on a large tax base.

The Laffer Curve itself does not say whether a tax cut will raise or lower revenues. Revenue responses to a tax rate change will depend upon the tax system in place, the time period being considered, the ease of movement into underground activities, the level of tax rates already in place, the prevalence of legal and accounting-driven tax loopholes, and the proclivities of the productive factors. If the existing tax rate is too high--in the "prohibitive range" shown above--then a tax-rate cut would result in increased tax revenues. The economic effect of the tax cut would outweigh the arithmetic effect of the tax cut.

Read more here on The Heritage Foundation's site.

1 comment:

Gdolan said...


These videos from Dan Mitchell are a quick introduction to the Laffer Curve, I thought they may be a good contribution to the discussion:

Part 1 -
Part 2 -
Part 3 -