As most analysts predicted, Reagan’s massive $749 billion supply-side tax cuts in 1981 quickly produced even more massive annual budget deficits. Combined with his rapid increase in defense spending, Reagan delivered not the balanced budgets he promised, but record-setting debt. Even his OMB alchemist David Stockman could not obscure the disaster with his famous “rosy scenarios.”
Forced to raise taxes 11 times to avert financial catastrophe, the Gipper nonetheless presided over a tripling of the American national debt to nearly $3 trillion. By the time he left office in 1989, Ronald Reagan more than equaled the entire debt burden produced by the previous 200 years of American history. It’s no wonder that three decades after he concluded “the supply-siders have gone too far,” former Arthur Laffer acolyte and Reagan budget chief David Stockman lamented:
[The] debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.
The history of the Bush years, too, shows that the arc of the Laffer Curve is short but bends toward fiscal catastrophe. After Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt, George W. Bush nearly doubled it again.
Inheriting a federal budget in the black and a CBO forecast for a $5.6 trillion surplus over 10 years, Bush quickly set about dismantling the progress made under Bill Clinton. In 2001, Bush signed a $1.4 trillion tax cut, followed by another $550 billion round in 2003, the first war-time tax cut in modern American history. (It is more than a little ironic that Paul Ryan at the time called the tax cuts “too small” because he believed the estimated surplus Bush would later eviscerate would be even larger than predicted.) In keeping with Republican orthodoxy that “tax cuts pay for themselves,” Bush confidently proclaimed:
“You cut taxes and the tax revenues increase.”
As it turned out, not so much.
Federal revenue did not return to its pre-Bush tax cut level until 2006. As a share of American GDP, tax revenues peaked in 2000—that is, before the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Analyses in 2010 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure and if made permanent, over the next decade would cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP, and the stimulus—combined. By the time he shuffled out of the Oval Office in January 2009, Bush bequeathed a $3.5 trillion budget and a $1.2 trillion annual deficit to his successor, Barack Obama.
Republican leaders were warned, but they persisted. “It’s not the marginal tax rates,” future House Speaker John Boehner declared in 2010, “That’s not what led to the budget deficit.”
“The revenue problem we have today is a result of what happened in the economic collapse some 18 months ago.
We’ve seen over the last 30 years that lower marginal tax rates have led to a growing economy, more employment and more people paying taxes.”
Of course, Boehner was wrong. But that’s not all he was wrong about it. In 2009, the future House Speaker sang from the GOP hymnal on the estate tax:
“People who aren’t wealthy, who may have built up value in land over generations and many family farms find themselves in situations where they’ve got to sell the farm in order the pay the taxes.”
Fast forward to 2016. In the run-up to the Iowa Caucus, GOP front-runner Donald Trump was making precisely the same—and equally incorrect—point. “We are going to get rid of the estate taxes that are making the farmers sell their farms,” Trump declared, adding:
“It is a very bad thing, and it is killing people in Iowa. I know that for a fact.”
Needless to say, Trump didn’t know that for a fact. Neither did George W. Bush, who in 2001 told Hawkeye State farmers pretty much the same thing.
As the numbers show, Trump’s lie about the estate tax is no more true now than when Dubya uttered it almost 15 years ago. The facts, as CBPP has helpfully documented, are these:
Only roughly 20 small business and small farm estates nationwide owed any estate tax in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Those 20 estates owed just 4.9 percent of their value in tax, on average.
In April 2001, President Bush sold his plan to eliminate the estate tax this way. “To keep farms in the family, we are going to get rid of the death tax.” Two months later, Bush returned to Iowa to declare victory for his plan, which over time would lower the tax rate while raising the wealth threshold before the levy would even apply:
”I heard somebody say, ‘Well, you know, the death tax doesn’t cause people to sell their farms,’ ” he added. ”I don’t know who they’re talking to in Iowa.”
But as the New York Times added in response:
Maybe Harold and Lilla Barrett, the heads of the family whose 1,300 acres of farmland Mr. Bush was visiting. When Mr. Barrett was asked by reporters if he had ever known someone forced to sell a family farm in order to pay estate taxes, Mr. Barrett, 80, said that he had not. Mrs. Barrett added that she did not think many children these days really wanted to go into farming.
As it turned out, neither Hawkeye State farmers nor researchers could name a single farmer forced to sell his or her land due to the federal estate tax. As David Cay Johnston, among the nation’s leading journalists when it comes to tax issues, concluded almost 15 years ago:
Almost no working farmers do, according to data from an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 1999 returns that has not yet been published. Neil Harl, an Iowa State University economist whose tax advice has made him a household name among Midwest farmers, said he had searched far and wide but had never found a farm lost because of estate taxes. “It’s a myth,” he said.
Even one of the leading advocates for repeal of estate taxes, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it could not cite a single example of a farm lost because of estate taxes.
The only thing that’s changed since 2001 is that estate tax applies to even fewer family fortunes now. The individual exemption from the so-called “death tax” has risen from $675,000 to $5.43 million, while the statutory tax rate has dropped from 55 to 40 percent. (The effective rate is now only about 17 percent.) Back then, only 2 percent of all estates had to pay the tax. Now, the figure is only less than 2 in 1,000. As TPC noted, only 20 family farms and small businesses in the entire United States of America are affected. All told, CBPP estimates, just 5,400 families nationwide—and only 60 in Iowa—will owe money as a result of the federal estate tax.
But while the supposed “death tax” has virtually zero impact on small businesses and family farms in Iowa or anywhere else, its elimination would be very painful for the U.S. Treasury and America’s charities. As the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other analysts have repeatedly documented, lowering or ending the estate tax would reduce contributions to charity by the wealthy. And killing the tax outright, as House Republicans voted to eventually do, would cost the United States Treasury more than $250 billion within 10 years.
Last week, Iowa Republican GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley raised eyebrows with his insulting comments about who does—and doesn’t—pay the estate tax. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley sneered at over 99 percent of his constituents, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” Earlier this year, Sen. Grassley delivered a more traditional, if still wrong, assessment of the impact of estate tax on this state. The 40 percent levy on personal estates larger than $5.5 million ($11 million for a couple) hurt his beloved Hawkeyes:
“The federal estate tax may force family members to liquidate to pay the death tax. It’s harder than ever for families to pass down the family-run farm or business from one generation to the next. The death tax creates financial hardship for family businesses to survive and thrive.”
But as the Des Moines Register reported in an article eerily similar to the New York Times’ debunking of President Bush in 2001, it simply isn’t so.
The estate tax applies to around 5,000 taxpayers across the entire country each year, and very few of them come from Iowa. Of the Iowans subject to the tax, only a fraction are actually farmers, and a vanishingly small number of them face a tax bill requiring them to sell off farmland or other assets.
According to IRS data from 2016, just 682 tax filers in the entire country who owed estate taxes owned any farm assets. That represents about 13 percent of the 5,219 estate tax returns in which taxes were owed.
And even that figure likely overstates the number of primarily farm operations subject to the tax. A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service projects that just 65 farm estates annually across the U.S. face an estate tax liability. Less than a quarter of these, the congressional report finds, have insufficient cash to pay their tax bills…
Kristine Tidgren, the assistant director of the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University, said she’s not aware of any Iowa estates forced to sell land since the estate tax exemption was raised to its current level in 2012. “I haven’t come across any examples of an Iowa family that had to sell the farm to pay the estate tax,” Tidgren said. “I don’t think the current estate tax system threatens family farmers.”
By this point, it should be abundantly clear that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves and that the estate tax does not brutalize small businesses and family farms. But what this GOP tax plan does, as Reagan and Bush’s did before, is to unleash oceans of red ink. And for Republicans whose intention is to “starve the beast” of government or “drown it in a bathtub,” forcing Uncle Sam to slash spending is a feature, not a bug.
Take, for example, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Launched in 1997, the popular program provides health care coverage to 9 million children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. But with both chambers of Congress due to deliver $1.5 trillion tax cut giveaway to the gilded-class, Republican elder statesmen like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch argued that Uncle Sam simply can’t afford to spend $14 billion on American children:
“Nobody believes more in the CHIP program than I. I invented it. We’re gonna do CHIP. There’s no question about it in my mind, and it’s gotta be done the right way. The reason CHIP’s having trouble is we don’t have any money anymore.”
Sadly for the Horrible Mr. Hatch, he felt differently, when George W. Bush was president of the United States and money had to be found not for children, but for the GOP’s most loyal voting age group: senior citizens. When Bush wanted $400 billion for his completely unfunded Medicare Part D prescription drug program just months after securing his half-trillion dollar cut in investment tax rates, Sen. Hatch had no problem with putting the entire tab on the nation’s credit card. Asked in December 2009 about his opposition to the fully-funded Obamacare program, Hatch explained his hypocrisy this way:
Six years ago, “it was standard practice not to pay for things,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question.” His 2003 vote has been vindicated, Hatch said, because the prescription drug benefit “has done a lot of good.” [Emphasis added.]
Of course, Obamacare has done a lot of good and, as forecast, hasn’t added to the national debt. Certainly, CHIP has done a lot of good, too. But now Uncle Sam can’t afford it, the GOP insists, because he needs to spend the kids’ health care money on subsidies for energy companies, tax breaks for “pass-through” businesses, and deductions for owners of private jets.
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell’s right-hand man, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, is saying what Republicans always say when they get mugged by fiscal reality. Confronted by estimates from the CBO and JCT that the Republicans’ “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” will generate at least $1 trillion in new red ink over the decade—even after GOP-friendly assumptions about economic growth, Sen. Cornyn proclaimed simply:
“I think it’s pretty clear they’re wrong.”
Alas, it’s the poor craftsman who blames his tools. After all, Republicans from Reagan, Dole, and Bush to McCain, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and his economic brain trust have said “tax cuts pay for themselves.” The ones who got elected were proved wrong by the plain history and simple math. All have been repeatedly embarrassed by the overwhelming consensus of economists. (In a recent survey by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, all 38 economists agreed that the U.S. national debt will be higher a decade after passage of the GOP TCJA. As former Obama administration economist Austan Goolsbee put it:
Moon landing was real. Evolution exists. Tax cuts lose revenue. The research has shown this a thousand times. Enough already.
Republicans don’t have to take an Obama guy’s word for it. They could just listen to Keith Hall, the man Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell installed as their hand-picked choice to be director of the Congressional Budget Office. As Hall put it in August 2015:
“No, the evidence is that tax cuts do not pay for themselves. And our models that we’re doing, our macroeconomic effects, show that.”
As for voters, they should probably just follow the wisdom of the last Republican President who promised multi-trillion-dollar tax cuts would pay for themselves. As President Bush told Nashville schoolchildren, teachers, and parents on Sept. 17, 2002:
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee…I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, ‘Fool me once, shame on … shame on you. Fool me… You can’t get fooled again!'”