Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bush tax cuts and economic growth

In 2001 and 2003, former U.S president George W. Bush signed Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act (EGTRAA) and Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (JGTRAA). EGTRAA reduced personal income tax rates, increased child tax credit, decreased estate tax and introduced a various range of tax-favored retirement savings plans. In 2003 when EGTRAA was enacted, the Congress cut the top capital gains tax rate from 20 percent to 15 percent while the individual dividend tax rate was reduced from 35 percent to 15 percent.

Bush tax cuts are set to expire in 2011. Hence, a bold increase in marginal tax rates is expected. David Leonhardt recently asked whether the Bush tax cuts were good for economic growth amid the fact that under Bush administration, the U.S economic growth was the lowest since the World War II. Eight years of Bush administration were known for the largest expansion of federal government spending compared to the six preceding presidents. In eight years, President Bush increased discretionary federal outlays by 104 percent compared to 11 percent increase under President Clinton.

Under Bush tax cuts, the reduction in personal income tax rates was imposed across all income brackets. Tax Policy Center estimated that extending Bush tax cuts in 2011 would increase the after-tax income across all income quintiles but it differed substantially. For instance, the increase in after-tax income in the lowest quintile would represent 12.19 percent of the increase in after-tax income of the highest quintile. The average federal tax rate would decrease by 2.5 percentage points. The reduction in average federal tax rate would be the most significant for top 1 percent and 0.1 percent cash income percentile, -3.8 percentage points and -4.4 percentage points respectively. Assuming the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the average federal tax rate, which includes indvidual income tax rate, corporate income tax rate, social security, Medicare and estate tax, would be substantially lower compared to Obama Administration's FY2011 Budget Proposal. The increase in the average federal tax rate would be roughly proportional across the cash income distribution. The federal tax rate would increase by 1 percentage point for the lowest quintile and 3.1 percentage point for the top quintile. The federal tax rate would for earners in top 1 percent of cash income distribution would increase by 4.2 percentage point. The chart shows the distribution of average effective tax rates and current law and current policy of Bush tax cuts not assumed to expire in 2011. The current proposal would increase the effective tax rate across all income quintiles. The highest increase (3.3 percentage points) would hit the earners in top 20 percent of income distribution.

Effective Tax Rates: A Comparison
Source: Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Microsimulation Model

The expiration of the Bush tax cuts would substantially increase the effective tax burden across the cash income distribution. Recently, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that letting the Bush tax cuts expire would create a net gain of $22 billion in economic activity. Hence, allowing high-income tax cuts expire would, on impact, result in a net gain of $42 billion in economic activity which is about five times the economic stimulus from extending high-income tax cuts.

The years of the Bush administration were earmarked by the escalation of federal government spending both in absolute and relative terms. The growth in federal government spending was driven mostly by discretionary defense spending while non-discretionary federal outlays increased as well. Since 2001, the federal government spending in the Bush administration increased by 28.8 percent with a 35.7 percent growth in non-defense discretionary spending. The growth of the federal government under Bush administration was the highest since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. The Independent Institute compared the growth of federal government spending from Lyndon B. Johnson onwards.

Letting the Bush tax cuts expire would probably not impose a negative effect on small businesses since less than 2 percent of tax returns in the top 2 income brackets are filed by taxpayers reporting small business. William Gale contends that the Bush tax cuts significantly raised the government debt. The economic consequences of the 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were detrimental. William Nordhaus estimated that the total cost of war in Iraq between 2003 and 2012 could exceed $1 trillion in 2002 dollars considering unfavorable and protracted cost scenario. To a large extent, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added substantially to the increase in government spending. However, even after excluding defense outlays from the spending structure, the increase in non-defense discretionary spending exceeded the growth of the federal government spending by 5.6 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of federal subsidy programs increased from 1,425 to 1,804 - a 26 percent increase compared to 21 percent increase during Clinton years.

The Bush tax cuts failed to result in a Laffer curve effect mostly because they were implemented alongside a bold and significant increase in federal government spending. Had a substantial reduction in government spending been enforced, the tax cuts would not place should an enormous weight in the growth of federal debt. Higher federal debt would inevitably ponder the structural fiscal imbalance. Since debt interest payments would increase, a combination of tax cuts and spending growth would stimulate investment demand, creating an upward pressure on interest rates, especially during the economic recovery when the difference between potential output and real output is expected to diminish.

Critics of the Bush tax cuts often claim that cuts amassed a growing fiscal deficit. However, in 2007, the fiscal deficit stood at 1.2 percent of the U.S GDP while in 2009, the deficit increased to 9.9 percent of the GDP as a result of $787 billion fiscal stimulus from Obama Administration. Since tax cuts were enacted in 2001 and 2003 respectively, something else is to blame for the deficit.

U.S Federal Debt: Long-Term Forecast
Source: Office of Budget and Management; author's own estimate

The main premise of the economic policy of the Bush administration had been a significant increase in federal government spending. Spending policies were mostly aimed at covering the growing cost of the Iraqi war. In addition, domestic non-defense outlays on social security and domestic priorities grew significantly, creating an upward pressue on federal debt. The growth of entitlments such as Social Security and Medicare poses a serious long-term risk regarding the sustainability of federal government spending. In the upper chart built a simple forecasting framework to estimate the long-run level of U.S federal government debt as a percent of the GDP. Surprisingly, time trend accounts for 85 percent of the variability of the share of federal debt in the GDP. A more robust framework would include the lagged dependent variable and several regressors in the set of explanatory variables to increase the share of variance explained by independent effects of regressors. The results indicate that by 2020, the federal debt could easily reach the 90 percent thresold.

The growing stock of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are central to understanding the looming pressure on federal budget to tackle the challenges of ageing population and demand for health care. The tax cuts imposed by the Bush administration reduced average federal tax rates across quintiles in cash income distribution. However, tax cuts were no supplemented by the reduction in federal government spending. Consequently, the growth of federal government spending increased future interest debt payments and failed to take into account the long-term pressure of Medicare and Social Security on federal budget set. Extending the Bush tax cuts would be superior to letting them expire. But lowering tax burden should nevertheless be comprehended by the reduction in federal government spending.