When he was running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan used to ask his audiences, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If they were tired of high gas prices, double-digit inflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis, then voters should choose him over the incumbent, Jimmie Carter.
Reagan’s primary domestic policy aim was to shrink the size of government by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation. If only the government would get out of the way, so the theory went, the private sector could flourish. Although Democrats haven’t always gone along with this agenda, Republicans have had their way often enough to bring about a new era of low taxes and limited government. Even Bill Clinton agreed that the era of Big Government was over. Despite all the talk about how Donald Trump is somehow less Republican or less conservative than his predecessors, his tax, spending and regulatory proposals are right out of the Reagan playbook.
Now that almost forty years have passed since the “Reagan revolution,” we may well ask, “Are we better off than we were forty years ago?” I would like to make a modest contribution to an answer by looking at some of the macroeconomic indicators I have been discussing in recent posts. In order to make it easier to compare statistics across the years, I will express the various indicators as shares of gross national income (GNI) when discussing income, or as shares of gross domestic product (GDP) when discussing expenditures. The difference between GNI and GDP is relatively small and should not create any confusion in this discussion. (See my previous discussion of macroeconomic indicators, especially part 2 and part 3.)
National income can go to pay taxes, to consume goods and services, or to save, as expressed in the equation GNI = T + C + S. Tax cuts increase the disposable income available for consumption and saving. Generally, more of that increase goes into consumption than into saving. Since consumption is the largest component of GDP, tax cuts raise what is spent on production. That effect includes a multiplier effect as the increased GDP creates additional income and consumption.
[One technical note: In the national accounting system, the T stands for taxes net of transfer payments, which are payments from the government to its citizens. Payroll deductions for Social Security are taxes and count toward T, but Social Security checks are transfer payments and count against T. The “tax cuts” discussed here could include some increases in transfer payments, but those too would increase disposable income.]
Before the Reagan election in 1980, taxes had been taking about 17-20% of national income. That includes all kinds of taxes—income, sales, payroll, property—and all payers, personal or corporate. Congress passed substantial tax cuts during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and most recently Donald Trump. The national tax rate dropped from about 18% to 16% by the end of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1992); then to 14% by the end of George W. Bush’s first term (2004). Then came the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package, which lowered taxes briefly to 10% of national income. Now the rate is 12%, which reflects the economic recovery and some initial effects of the Trump tax cuts.
The rate of consumption has risen accordingly, whether calculated as a percentage of GNI or of GDP. It was running about 60-61% of GDP before 1980, but it is up to 69% now. That is well above the rate of most wealthy countries. It reflects the fact that we have become a relatively low-tax nation, with a high priority on the purchase of private goods and services.
Some of that increased consumption has gone into imported goods. We were running small trade surpluses in the 1960s, but the higher price of oil helped produce trade deficits in the 1970s. In the era of lower taxes since 1980, imports have grown dramatically. The trade deficit as a percentage of GDP peaked before the global financial crisis of 2007, but has settled back to about 3% recently.
The federal tax cuts have also made the tax code less progressive, so that the wealthy have benefited more than the middle class. Lower taxes give business owners and managers more incentive to claim a higher share of profits for themselves, since the government lets them keep more of their gains. The distribution of both pre-tax and after-tax income has become more unequal during these years.
Another goal of Reaganomics was to reduce government spending. That meant especially domestic spending, since military spending was to be kept high. That task proved to be more difficult and contentious.
Although cutting taxes and cutting spending may seem to go together in a program to shrink the size of government, they are quite different matters. Spending changes can actually have a bigger effect on GDP than tax changes, and the effect tends to be in the opposite direction. That’s because government spending has a direct positive effect on GDP. It counts as spending on productive economic activity. Then, by affecting income, it has multiplier effects on consumption as well. Spending cuts lower GDP, other things being equal. Tax cuts raise GDP, but only indirectly through the disposable income that goes into domestic spending rather than spending on imports or saving for the future.
Recall the equation: GDP = C + I + G + NX.
(Gross Domestic Product = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports)
Government spending is a component of GDP. But taxes only effect GDP through their indirect effects on consumption and net exports.
That means that if Americans are willing to incur an additional $100 billion in the annual deficit, increasing spending has a lot to be said for it instead of cutting taxes. The overall effect on GDP should be greater, and the mix of public and private benefits may add to the quality of life. Cutting taxes increases spending on private goods, but raising spending provides public goods (that’s what government spends on) and private goods too (through the effect on income and consumption).
In any case, Republicans wanted to shrink government, not expand it, and they had some success in cutting domestic spending. Before 1980, government spending was running at 21-24% of GDP, but now it is down to 17%. (Part of that drop, but only part, is a consequence of using percentages to measure the changes. If one component of GDP increases its percentage share, others must go down, other things being equal. Here C went up and G went down, but neither change was just a mathematical adjustment to the other.) We know from the increased deficit that taxes have been cut more than spending. And since consumption has risen substantially, it’s safe to say that the big tax cuts increased GDP more than the spending cuts lowered it.
Saving and investment
Another goal of Reaganomics was to increase saving and private sector investment. Tax cuts would give people more money to save as well as consume, and strong consumer demand would encourage the investment of those savings in business expansion. Economic growth should remain strong, since the rising investment component of GDP would offset the falling government component.
Some of the consequences of fiscal policy flow from well-established economic principles, such as lower taxes—>higher disposable income—>higher consumption. But higher investment does not automatically follow from lower taxes. It depends on whether businesses find the economic demand sufficient to justify expansion. For example, airlines will meet the demand for more air travel by filling empty seats before they will invest in new planes. Businesses invest more when they anticipate a strong market for their expanded production.
I do not see in the macroeconomic indicators a surge of saving or investment since 1980. Before then, saving was running at about 19-22% of national income, while investment was in the range of 16-18% of GDP. Reaganomics got off to an auspicious start, with saving up to almost 23% and investment up to 20% by the end of Reagan’s first term. But since then, saving and investment have generally been no higher than they were before. Saving is now at 19% of GNI, and investment is at 17%.
I’m not sure why the desired surge of investment did not occur, but here are a few possibilities. Some of the increased consumer demand has gone to support foreign production, which made domestic expansion less necessary. The Federal Reserve has also been very quick to ward off inflation by raising interest rates whenever rising demand started to push up prices. Higher interest rates discourage borrowing for business expansion. And although new technologies have been emerging, how to utilize them productively and profitably in a largely service economy has remained a question.
The economy consists of three sectors, each with its own financial balance resulting from inflows and outflows. They are the government sector, the domestic private sector, and the external (foreign) sector.
Ever since the Roosevelt administration engaged in massive deficit spending to combat the Depression and fight World War II, government has experienced more budget deficits than surpluses. Before 1980, deficits were running about 2-4% of national income. Since 1980, deficits of 4% or more have been common, except during the Clinton presidency, which ended in a small surplus. The deficit rose again in the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, first because of the Bush tax cuts, and then because of the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package. The deficit was 9% of national income in 2012, but is down to 5% now.
As I discussed in my post on sectoral accounting, one sector’s deficit is another sector’s surplus. When the government experiences an income shortfall by spending more than it receives, some other sector must experience an income surplus by receiving more than it spends. Before 1980, that other sector was the domestic private sector. Households and businesses were saving more than they spent either on consumption or investment in real assets, with the difference showing up as financial assets. But since the 1980s, we have had a balance of trade deficit (and a current account deficit, which is the balance of trade adjusted for other financial flows between countries). Now about two-fifths of our government deficit winds up as surplus dollars in the hands of foreigners. By running such a large deficit, government is enabling both Americans and foreigners to accumulate financial assets.
While our government has been enabling the accumulation of private financial assets for some time, it used to do it in a more egalitarian way, through public-sector job creation, wages and the expansion of public goods. Now we do relatively less of that, and more with tax cuts aimed at corporations and the wealthy. That’s another reason why the distribution of income has become more skewed.
Gross domestic product
To summarize the changes in component shares of GDP, the consumption share is up sharply, government spending is down, investment has remained about the same, and net exports have fallen as the trade deficit has worsened. In the era of Reaganomics, we have been relying primarily on tax cuts to grow the economy instead of on public spending, business investment, or global demand for our products.
How much growth has our fiscal policy helped to achieve? I used data on real (inflation-adjusted) GDP to compute the cumulative growth for two different periods, 1945-1980 and 1980-2016 (the last year in that data series). Then I calculated the annual growth rate that would yield, when compounded, the cumulative result.
For 1945-1980, GDP grew 191%, which implies an annual rate of 3.1% compounded.
For 1980-2016, GDP grew 159%, which implies an annual rate of 2.7% compounded.
This confirms what others have reported, that growth in the Reaganomics era has been on average slower than in the previous postwar era.
This slower growth has also come with other costs: some neglect of public goods and services such as infrastructure repairs, a larger national debt, a larger trade deficit, and greater inequality.
With regard to the inequality, Piketty has argued that slower growth itself contributes to it, since workers rely on economic growth for real wage increases. Big investors rely more on the rate of return on capital. As the rate of growth falls farther below the rate of return on capital, the share of income going to capital rather than labor goes up. This is in fact what has been happening, a trend Piketty describes as a “drift toward oligarchy.” I think the drift toward economic oligarchy is related to the current threat to democracy, of which Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are only one manifestation.
Government fiscal policy is by no means entirely to blame for sluggish growth. Factors such as slower population growth, an aging population and the difficult transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy are also involved. But going forward, we do need to think about what combination of public and private initiatives can help.
We have probably gone about as far as we can go with tax cuts as the way to prop up a struggling economy. And government spending cuts without tax cuts would almost certainly be worse. The question for economists and policymakers today is how to make the best use of government spending to give the economy what it really needs. Among the things it needs are enhancements to human capital to keep up with changing job requirements, development of cleaner energy sources, and a twenty-first-century infrastructure. And as Modern Monetary Theory advocates, creating public jobs for anyone who wants them is one of the most direct ways of boosting national output and income.
The anti-government philosophy that has dominated the Reaganomics era has outlived its usefulness. I think that Republicans will either have to change their tune, or tone down the anti-government chorus so that new music can be heard. Democrats need to convince voters that their proposals serve the common good and not just the needs of particular constituencies. Warrenomics anyone?