Four Magic Tricks for Aspiring Fiscal Conservatives

Politicians who advertise themselves as “fiscal conservatives” sometimes campaign on crowd-pleasing pledges to cut taxes while simultaneously reducing budget deficits.  These are difficult promises to deliver on in practice, since the budget deficit equals government spending minus tax revenue.

Aspiring fiscal conservatives may be interested in learning four innovative tricks that are commonly used by American politicians who like to promise what seems impossible.   Each of these feats has been perfected over three decades or more.  Indeed they first acquired their colorful names in the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency:

1. The “Magic Asterisk”
2. “Rosy Scenario”
3. The Laffer hypothesis
4. The “Starve the Beast” hypothesis.

As shop-worn as these four conjuring tricks are, voters and journalists continue to fall for them. Thus they remain useful equipment in the repertoire of the fiscal conservative.

The first term was coined by Reagan’s Budget Director, David Stockman.  Originally it was an act of desperation, because the numbers in the 1981 budget plan didn’t add up.  “We invented the ‘magic asterisk’:  If we couldn’t find the savings in time – and we couldn’t-we would issue an IOU. We would call it ‘Future savings to be identified.’” [p.124]   Since that time the Magic Asterisk has become a familiar device in the American policy arena.   Recent examples include the recommendation of the Simpson-Bowles commission to cut real spending growth by precise amounts, without saying where.   US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has done the same in his spending plan.   [In his first debate with President Obama however, he finally identified one specific cut: the government’s slice of the cost of public television – which is less than 1% of 1% of the federal budget, though most voters are under the illusion that it is far greater.]   Another current application of the Magic Asterisk is Romney’s plan to eliminate enough tax expenditures to make up the revenue lost by cutting marginal tax rates by 20% (which is $5 trillion in revenue), while steadfastly refusing to say what tax expenditures he would eliminate.

As Election Day nears, the pressure on a candidate to get more specific grows.  The conjurer is thus forced to go to Trick Two:  since he can’t find enough tax loopholes to eliminate, he must claim that what he meant by closing the revenue gap was that stronger economic growth will bring in the added revenue.   The most popular magician’s assistant of all time makes her encore on the stage.  Murray Weidenbaum, Reagan’s first Council of Economic Advisers Chairman, deserves the credit for originally dreaming up Ms. Rosy Scenario, “perhaps my most lasting legacy” [p.57].  The Reagan Administration in its early years forecast 5% income growth (twice the long-run average), in order to imply in its projections a boost to revenues big enough to make up for its many tax cut measures [p.93-97].   Since then candidates of every party have made use of Rosy’s talents.

Indeed official growth forecasts are systematically overly optimistic in almost all of a sample of 33 countries, contributing to overly optimistic budget forecasts.   European governments are particularly biased.

In the Republican primaries last year, candidate Tim Pawlenty assumed a 5 per cent growth rate to make his own plan work.   He was all but laughed out of the race.  Mitt Romney probably can’t get away with this sleight-of-hand either.   The press asks, “Why should we believe that the growth rate will magically accelerate just because you become president?   Where will this GDP come from?   It sounds like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.”  Right on cue, it is time for Trick 3.

Trick 3 is the famous Laffer Hypothesis.   This is the proposition, identified with “supply side economics,” that reductions in tax rates are like magic beans:  they stimulate economic growth a lot — so much so that total tax revenue (the tax rate times income) goes up rather than down.   One might think that the Romney campaign would never resurrect such a hoary and discredited trick.  After all, two of his main economic advisers, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, both have textbooks in which they say that the Laffer Hypothesis is incorrect as a description of US tax rates.  Mankiw’s book, in its first edition, even called its proponents “charlatans.”  But the historical record is that each Republican presidential candidate since Reagan has had good economic advisers who disavow the Laffer Hypothesis.  Yet time and again the president (or candidate), and his vice president (or running mate) and his political aides read from a script that relies on the Laffer logic (Appendix I). They are the ones who make the policy if the candidate wins, not the academic economist.   (George W. Bush had these same two top economic advisers in his first term, Hubbard and Mankiw, when he cut taxes and transmogrified a record surplus into a record deficit.)

Trick 4, “Starve the Beast,” typically comes later, if and when the president is elected, has enacted his tax cuts, and discovers that smoke and mirrors don’t work against hard fiscal reality. He can’t find enough spending to cut (Magic Asterisk has disappeared up the conjurer’s sleeve); the acceleration in GDP is nowhere to be seen (Rosy Scenario has vanished in thin air); and tax revenues have not grown (no rabbit in the Laffer hat).   The audience is now told that losing tax revenue and widening the budget deficit was the plan all along.  The performer explains that the deficit is all the fault of congress for not cutting spending and that the only way to tame the beast is raise the budget deficit because “Congress can’t spend money it doesn’t have.”  This trick never works either, of course.  Congress can in fact spend money it doesn’t have, especially if the “conservative” president has been quietly sending it budgets every year that call for that.

By the time the crowd realizes it has been had, the confidence man has pulled off the greatest trick of all:  yet another audience who came to see the deficit shrunk instead leaves the theater with the deficit bigger than when it came in.

References
Jeffrey Frankel, 2008, “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper 221, September.
–2011, “Over-optimism in Forecasts by Official Budget Agencies and Its Implications,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy vol.27, no. 4, 536-562. NBER WP 17239; Summary in NBER Digest.
David Stockman, 1986, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (Harper & Row).
Murray Weidenbaum, 2005, Advising Reagan: Making Economic Policy, 1981-82 (Washington Univ., St.Louis).

[A version of this column appeared earlier at Project Syndicate, which has the copyright.  Comments can be posted there.]

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