Laffer and Moore Get It Wrong

Art Laffer and Steve Moore are widely considered to be the foremost economists of the libertarian movement. They are praised and raised to the skies, lauded and quoted widely. In Laffer’s case, it is in many ways merited. He did a fantastic job getting the Reagan administration to agree to a sweeping tax reform.

Since then, though, as I have shown in my four-part series on tax and spending reform, his theory has lost its steam.

Tax cuts don’t work anymore. I wish they did, but they don’t. The evidence is irrefutable.

But it gets worse than that. Not only do tax cuts don’t work, but these two fine gentlemen are selling this ineffective medicine as a means to pay for the welfare state. In short: cut taxes, and we can afford socialism.

Yes, that’s right. Art Laffer and Steve Moore make this case. In their book Trumponomics they explain that higher growth will pay for our socialist welfare state:[1]

One underappreciated dividend from this higher permanent pedestal of economic growth is that, if Trump succeeds, it will help largely solve the long-term funding crisis of Social Security and Medicare. With 3 percent economic growth, up from the 1.8 percent predicted by the Social Security and Medicare actuaries, the compounding effect over 50 years means more than $50 trillion of revenues into Medicare and Social Security trust funds, largely dissolving the funding shortfalls of these programs – and perhaps leaving them in long-term surplus, not deficit.

That’s it. Cut taxes, get more growth, and we can continue to use two thirds of the federal budget to take from Pete and give to Paul.

This paragraph is also the closest that Laffer and Moore get to even discussing government spending. They have a non-committal passage on pages 99-100 about how nice it would be if people didn’t get more in welfare than they get working a minimum-wage job, but they have absolutely no ideas on how to approach that problem with tangible reform ideas.

I have actually proposed a welfare reform that would do what Laffer and Moore are dreaming about. If Steve Moore had shot me an email, I could have shared my plan with him (again). If the original version is not palatable, I have an updated model from 2012, published on SSRN in 2013, that I originally developed for a presidential campaign.

The problem, of course, is that spending reform is hard work. It is quite a bit harder than to propose and lobby for tax cuts. Spending reform quickly runs into a fire storm of criticism from the left: do you really want to take away Medicare from this grandma and Medicaid from that poor family? Are you cruel and cold-hearted?

My reform circumvents that problem. In other words, the big obstacle to spending reform is not the design of workable solutions – it is the lack of courage among the layers of libertarians. Courage to propose workable reforms. Courage to convince Congressional Republicans to think anew.

Courage to go against the mainstream.

Laffer and Moore lack that courage. The closest they get to discussing actual, actionable spending reform is a quick, positive mention of the Penny Plan. As I recently demonstrated, this plan is entirely unworkable. Why? Because it keeps all the welfare-state promises intact. It rests on the premise that government can provide everything it has said it will provide, only do so more efficiently.

As my numbers show, that is wholeheartedly impossible. The only option is to reform away the promises – to return them to the private sector and get government out of economic redistribution altogether.

Laffer and Moore steer clear of that one. Their solution is a dreamy comment about how higher growth would eliminate the budget deficit and perhaps even let the welfare state run a surplus.

This is the neoconservative approach to the welfare state. It is close to what Irving Kristol, William F Buckley Jr. and others talked about when they discussed the American welfare state. Like Laffer and Moore, the neocons of the 20th century firmly believed that the welfare state should be preserved, but that it should be run a bit more efficiently than it would be under socialist management.

In the 21st century model, this neoconservative dream relies on yet more tax cuts to generate yet more economic growth. I hate to be the Grinch that stole Christmas, but the facts on the ground speak a different language. First, consider Figure 1, which reports 715 pairs of observations of government revenue as share of GDP, and GDP growth. The numbers are from 29 European countries from the period 1996-2019 (with limited availability from some countries). These observations are then organized in deciles based on the tax-to-GDP ratio, with average tax ratios and growth rates for each decile:

Figure 1: Growth and government in Europe

Source of raw data: Eurostat

The bigger government gets, the more sluggish the economy grows. The same economic mechanisms that work in Europe, work here as well.

But wait – didn’t I just say that this is tax revenue as share of GDP? Exactly. But what if we cut taxes? Doesn’t that move us up the blue function?

No, it doesn’t. Laffer and Moore want to keep spending as usual (assuming that they realize what will happen in Congress when the Penny Plan starts pinching away big chunks of our entitlement programs) which means that the welfare state will not get smaller. It will continue to grow. Therefore, government spending will continue in the bracket of 37-40 percent of GDP. If we are going to balance the budget, we need to collect the same share of GDP in taxes, fees and charges.

Since the size of the welfare state remains unchanged, all that the Laffer-Moore growth strategy will accomplish is a redistribution of the tax burden.

But wait: if GDP grows, then the denominator grows. That means the welfare state may not shrink in terms of dollars, but it certainly declines are share of GDP, right?

No, it doesn’t. As I explained in my book The Rise of Big Government, our welfare state has a built-in mechanism that automatically grows its size as GDP grows. It is called the “relative definition of poverty” and states that people are entitled to government benefits, cash and in-kind, when their income is at a certain percentage of median household income. Since GDP growth means that median household income grows, so does the eligibility threshold for welfare-state benefits.

In short: the more the economy grows, the bigger the welfare state gets. Therefore, if Laffer and Moore got what they wanted, their sought-after surge in tax revenue would be chasing welfare-state spending like the rabbit that tried to race the turtle and never caught up with him.

To solve this problem, you need to redefine the ideological nature of the welfare state.

Then, of course, there is the problem with economic planning. Government does not operate under the free-market price mechanism. It uses a different value unit, one that is directly derived from Marxist labor-value theory. Therefore, the allocation of resources under government is neutral, even hostile, to economic growth.

I elaborate on this problem in my forthcoming book Socialism or Democracy: The Fateful Question for 2024. Until it is out this winter, we will simply note that the bigger government gets, the larger a share of the economy is put under growth-hostile administration. There is simply less economic activity out there that can produce the growth that Laffer and Moore depend on.

Simple arithmetic, in other words. I am surprised that two guys as smart as Steve Moore and Art Laffer did not figure this out.

Structural spending reform, folks. Nothing else works.

[1] Moore and Laffer: Trumponomics. All Points Books (2018).