The question, then, is what kind of cut can put people back to work quickly?
The last 30 years offer some pretty good answers
. For one thing, a permanent reduction in tax rates focused on the affluent — along the lines of those 2001 Bush tax cuts — does little to lift growth in the short term. An across-the-board, one-time cut — like the one that Mr. Bush signed in 2008 or that Mr. Obama signed last year — does more.
But the most effective tax cut for putting people back to work quickly is one that businesses and households get only if they spend money
. Last year’s cash-for-clunkers program was an example. So was a recent bipartisan tax credit for businesses that hired workers who had been unemployed for months. Perhaps the broadest example is a temporary cut in the payroll tax for businesses, which reduces the cost of employing people.
Any of these steps would increase the budget deficit, obviously. But relative to the multitrillion-dollar, Medicare-driven, long-term deficit, a temporary tax cut costing a couple of hundred billion dollars isn’t significant. The more pressing problem today, by far, is the weak economy.
The great historical lesson of financial crises is that governments are usually not aggressive enough in responding. That was Japan’s mistake in 1990s, Herbert Hoover’s in the early 1930s and even Franklin Roosevelt’s in the mid-1930s.
In 2008 and 2009, political leaders looked as if they had learned this lesson. In 2010, they seem to have forgotten it.
Sometime in the next four months, Congress will have to decide what to do about Mr. Bush’s original tax cuts, because they are set to expire Dec. 31. Most Democrats favor extending the cuts for households making less than $250,000 a year. Republicans want to make all the cuts permanent, including those for households making more than $250,000.
Republicans argue that a permanent cut in tax rates is the best form of stimulus. Allowing any of the Bush cuts to expire, John Boehner, the top House Republican, said in a speech last week laying out the party’s economic agenda, is “a recipe for disaster.”
As theories go, this isn’t a bad one. You can certainly imagine how a tax increase on the affluent could hurt the economy or how a tax cut for them would lift growth. Theories aside, though, consider what has actually happened in the last three decades.
Mr. Bush signed his original tax cut in June 2001, when the economy had been losing jobs for four months. It then shed jobs for two more years. In the decade that followed the tax cut, economic growth was slower than in any decade since World War II.
If the goal is short-term stimulus, even Ronald Reagan’s much-lauded 1981 tax cut doesn’t appear to have worked. After he signed it, the economy lost jobs for 16 straight months. It didn’t start gaining jobs until after he had raised taxes, to reduce the deficit, in late 1982.
What explains this pattern? Tax rates matter
, but people don’t make most decisions based primarily on their marginal tax rates. Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts were just not powerful enough to overcome the economic headwinds at the time.