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Reagan Economist: Why GOP Should Stop Invoking Reaganomics

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Bruce BartlettBruce Bartlett on why Reagan’s Tax Policy is wrong for today’s economic problems.

Judging from the [GOP] candidates’ tax proposals, they seem to believe that the most Reagan-like candidate is the one with the biggest tax cut. But, as the person who drafted the 1981 Reagan tax cut, I think Republicans misunderstand the premises upon which Reagan’s economic policies were based, and why those policies can’t — and shouldn’t — be replicated today.

I was the staff economist for Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) in 1977, and it was my job to draft what came to be the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which Reagan endorsed in 1980 and enacted the following year. Kemp and Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.) proposed cutting tax rates across the board by about a third, lowering the top rate from 70 percent to 50 percent and reducing the bottom rate from 20 percent to 8 percent. (Though when the Reagan tax cut was enacted in 1981, the bottom rate was reduced to 11 percent.)

While our aim was to increase growth and employment, we were intent on doing so in a way that did not exacerbate inflation, which was the nation’s top problem at that time.

Here’s the money quote:

When comparing Reagan’s policies with Republican proposals today, several things stand out. Inflation is low now. We are not looking at “bracket creep” or sharply rising taxes, as we were in the late 1970s. The top income tax rate is 35 percent, half the rate Reagan inherited. And federal revenue is at a 60-year low of about 15 percent of GDP, compared with a post-World War II average of about 18.5 percent.

These differences are essential to understanding why Reagan’s policies worked when they did — and why they are not appropriate today.

All of the evidence tells us that the economy’s fundamental problem today is not on the supply side but the demand side. According to a recent study by Credit Suisse, two-thirds of the difference in growth at this point in the business cycle, compared with previous cycles, is due to slower consumer spending. And low inflation — as well as widespread unemployment, vast stocks of unsold houses, empty factories and other indicators — tells us that money is tight, not loose, as was the case in the late 1970s.

“Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight,” economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1997. Yet, absurdly, Republicans continually berate the Federal Reserve for being too easy; some even insist, insanely, that the United States should return to the gold standard, even though it was a key cause of the Great Depression.

Because inflation and interest rates are low, Fed policy is constrained today in ways it was not in the early 1980s. Back then, the Fed could bring down the federal funds rate to a little less than the inflation rate and create negative real rates, thus stimulating borrowing, investment and consumption. It can’t do that now because it can’t reduce market interest rates below zero.

Economic conditions are entirely different today than they were in Reagan’s era, and different conditions demand different policies. Those who say otherwise are simply engaging in cookie-cutter economics — proposing whatever was popular and seemed to work once, without regard to changing circumstances.

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Written by Valerie Curl

February 7, 2012 at 9:48 AM

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