The Right Opinion

Brass Oldies

By Thomas Sowell · Oct. 26, 2010

Classic songs from years past are sometimes referred to as “golden oldies.” There are political fallacies that have been around for a long time as well. These might be called brass oldies. It certainly takes a lot of brass to keep repeating fallacies that were refuted long ago.

One of these brass oldies is a phrase that has been a perennial favorite of the left, “tax cuts for the rich.” How long ago was this refuted? More than 80 years ago, the “tax cuts for the rich” argument was refuted, both in theory and in practice, by Andrew Mellon, who was Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s.

When Mellon took office, there was a large national debt, the economy was stagnating, and tax rates were high, though the tax revenues were still not enough to cover government expenditures. What was Mellon’s prescription for getting out of this mess? A series of major cuts in the tax rates!

Then as now, there were people who failed to make the distinction between tax rates and tax revenues. Mellon said, “It seems difficult for some to understand that high rates of taxation do not necessarily mean large revenue for the Government, and that more revenue may often be obtained by lower rates.”

How can that be? Because taxpayers change their behavior according to what the tax rates are. When one of the Rockefellers died, Mellon discovered that his estate included $44 million in tax-exempt bonds, compared to $7 million in Standard Oil securities, even though Standard Oil was the source of the Rockefeller fortune.

For the country as a whole, the amount of money tied up in tax-exempt securities was estimated to be three times as large as the federal government’s expenditures and more than half as large as the national debt.

In short, huge amounts of money were not being invested in productive capacity, such as factories or power plants, but was instead being made available for local political boondoggles, because this money was put into tax-exempt state and local bonds.

When tax rates are reduced, investors have incentives to take their money out of tax shelters and put it into the private economy, creating higher returns for themselves and more production in the economy. Andrew Mellon understood this then, even though many in politics and the media seem not to understand it now.

Mellon was able to persuade Congress to lower the tax rates by large amounts. The percentage by which tax rates were lowered was greater at the lower income levels, but the total amount of money saved by taxpayers was of course greater on the part of people with higher incomes, who were paying much higher tax rates on those incomes.

Between 1921 and 1929, tax rates in the top brackets were cut from 73 percent to 24 percent. In other words, these were what the left likes to call “tax cuts for the rich.”

What happened to federal revenues from income taxes over this same span of time? Income tax revenues rose by more than 30 percent. What happened to the economy? Jobs increased, output rose, the unemployment rate fell and incomes rose. Because economic activity increased, the government received more income tax revenues. In short, these were tax cuts for the economy, even if the left likes to call them “tax cuts for the rich.”

This was not the only time that things like this happened, nor was Andrew Mellon the only one who advocated tax rate cuts in order to increase tax revenues. John Maynard Keynes pointed out in 1933 that lowering the tax rates can increase tax revenues, if the tax rates are so high as to discourage economic activity.

President John F. Kennedy made the same argument in the 1960s – and tax revenues increased after the tax rates were cut during his administration. The same thing happened under Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. And it happened again under George W. Bush, whose tax rate cuts are scheduled to expire next January.

The rich actually paid more total taxes, and a higher percentage of all taxes, after the Bush tax rate cuts, because their incomes were rising with the rising economy.

Do the people who keep repeating the catch phrase, “tax cuts for the rich” not know this? Or are they depending on your not knowing it?

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7 Comments

b stone said:

My vote goes to Thomas Sowell for president, after years of reading his commentaries, I have yet to find one wrong........

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 8:54 AM

g.wegmann said:

Unfortunately, Dr. Sowell, for the last forty years with the dumbing down of our primary and secondary education, and the mass media becoming the "mouth piece" for the progressive secularists. The increase in public employees and the increase in the dependancy class has produced a fertile ground for lies like "tax the rich and we will get out of this economic mess" have fallen on fertile ground!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 9:41 AM

MIResident in Michigan said:

There's hope - I recently got my father-in-law to agree/admit/understand that corporations do not pay taxes.After that he actually went to several Tea Party meetings! So I think I have one former Democrat thinking the right way!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 10:37 AM

John said:

Tottaly agree. High tax rates only make people sequester their money. Healthy or rising tax revenues do not just depend on a dollar amount that is initially invested. Tax revenues rise systematically as those dollars are spent over and over again. So as the rate of dollar turnover increases so does everybody's income and hence, tax revenues. EVERYBODY wins in a case like this. NOBODY wins when tax rates are high. Government's job should be to use historical data to determine the tax rate threshold that above which inhibits taxpayer spending and below which encourages taxpayer spending and produces maximal tax revenues. And then set the rates at a level that maximizes income and therefore, tax revenues.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 11:49 AM

Tommy E. Workman said:

Why is it I an old retired Navy Chief can understandthe logic behind tax cuts and rising revenue and a Harvard grad can not. Someone wasted a lot of money on an education and did not receive one.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 12:49 PM

usafcraig said:

Mr Sowell states "Between 1921 and 1929, tax rates in the top brackets were cut from 73 percent to 24 percent." We all know that the stock market crashed in October 1929. I can see people saying that the tax cuts caused the crash. It should be stated that the tax cuts DID NOT cause the crash but possibly speculation and the fear of a possible crash reinforced by public officials and the media.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 12:57 PM

Clarence E. DeBarrows said:

Chief Workman: The answer to your question is that you live a plebeian existence in the real world, whereas select ivy leaguers and other elites exist, by and large, in a rarefied, privileged, world where laws that are immutable for we mere mortals do not apply. We just aren't capable of understanding. Barney Frank could probably explain it better.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 1:15 PM