I just saw links to two older pieces by Austan Goolsbee that are relevant now. The first I found from James Pethokoukis’ 7 things you need to know about Austan Goolsbee as CEA chair, and that is his New York Times editorial: Is the New Supply Side Better Than the Old? He takes on Martin Feldstein directly in the editorial, and points out three arguments that the new Supply Siders use and why they are wrong (my bold):
All the major Republican candidates have called for extending the Bush tax cuts indefinitely, and several advocate several hundred billion dollars in additional high-income cuts — on the grounds that this would help the economy grow.
The Republicans have not been shy about claiming the old mantle of supply-side economics, proclaiming that tax cuts will pay for themselves by getting people to work harder or to start their own companies…
Professor Feldstein, head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, is perhaps the godfather of modern public-sector economics and is often cited as a potential Nobel laureate…As he put it in a 2006 interview published in a magazine of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, when you raise top marginal rates, “it shows up as lower taxable income.” He added: “A reduction in taxable income, whether it occurs because I work less or because I take my compensation in this other form, creates the same kind of inefficiency.”
But for all the renewed interest in supply-side ideas, the politicians espousing these views have missed three important points that have come out of the continuing academic debate.
First, the impact of high-income tax cuts depends on how much additional income a person can keep. When President John F. Kennedy cut top marginal rates to 70 percent from 91 percent, take-home pay more than tripled for these taxpayers, to 30 percent from 9 percent. That is a big difference. By contrast, letting the Bush tax cuts expire so top rates rise to 39.6 percent in 2011 from 35 percent, cutting the take-home share to 60.4 percent from 65 percent, hardly seems the stuff of tax revolution.
Second, other research has shown that the new supply-side movement missed a fundamental shift over the last 30 years — the dramatic, disproportionate rise in the compensation of high-income people. The new supply-siders have confused this shift with the impact of tax cuts….
But the data also show that incomes at the top have been growing rapidly regardless of what happened to tax rates. In the four years after the increase in top marginal rates in 1993, average salaries grew 18.7 percent among the top 1 percent of earners and less than 0.1 percent for the bottom 90 percent.
Seeing the same pattern when taxes rose as when they fell indicates that tax cuts weren’t responsible. It suggests that cuts for high-income taxpayers likely gave windfalls to those whose incomes were already rising sharply because of broader market forces.
Third, recent research has documented that much of what the new supply-side economics attributed to tax cuts was really just the relabeling of income. Sometimes the increase in personal income was matched by an equal and opposite decrease in corporate income. At other times, increases in personal income turned out to be a result of corporate executives shifting the timing of their year-end compensation from a high-tax year to a low-tax year.
Shifts like these have nothing to do with supply-side economics. The academic debate continues, but thus far, the new Laffer curve has looked more like a fleeting figment of economic imagination.
If anyone can hold the line on not extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest 3% of Americans it’s someone whose academic work and popular writing has found that “the new Laffer curve has looked more like a fleeting figment of economic imagination.”
He also wrote an editorial, very typical of the time, that risky, explosive subprime loans were great for the economy because people were obviously income smoothing. How can you tell people were income smoothing? Because they were taking out risky, explosive subprime loans!
And this study shows that measured this way, the mortgage market has become more perfect, not more irresponsible. People tend to make good decisions about their own economic prospects. As Professor Rosen said in an interview, “Our findings suggest that people make sensible housing decisions in that the size of house they buy today relates to their future income, not just their current income and that the innovations in mortgages over 30 years gave many people the opportunity to own a home that they would not have otherwise had, just because they didn’t have enough assets in the bank at the moment they needed the house.”
This was very typical of elite economic thinking, and I hope Goolsbee, like many, feel a bit of egg on their face for this kind of exaggerated talk about how “perfect” the subprime market was chugging along. Here he is defending the Consumer Financial Protection Agency:
He’s using language that I think 2007 Goolsbee would be comfortable with if he was aware of the amount of fraud (on both ends) and off-selling of risk that was going on in the subprime securitization market.
As a side note, reading that editorial reminded me of my long-time interest in consumption smoothing as a theoretical tool: is it performative or normative? When Milton Freidman introduced the idea in 1957 he wrote: “The permanent income component is not to be regarded as expected lifetime earnings… It is to be interpreted as the mean income at any age regarded as permanent by the consumer unit in question, which in turn depends on its horizon and foresightedness.” It was a sneak attack on Keynesian thought, not a guide to assume that people are always thinking 10 years out on their mortgages versus their earnings. But should people be income smoothing as a normative issue? If they take on excessive debt should we de facto assume it is because of income smoothing?