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5 February 2002

Our current howler (part I): Cut men

Synopsis: Cattle, bring yourselves in by the barn. Bruce Bartlett has something to tell you!

Revenue ambuscade
Bruce Bartlett, The Washington Times, 2/4/02

As readers know, there is simply no spin-point—no matter how foolish—the talk-show right won’t feed to the cattle. On Monday, one iconic spin-point was blown apart in the Washington Times by conservative budget maven Bruce Bartlett.

You’ve heard the claim a thousand times. Cutting tax rates increases revenues, the talk-show right’s cattle proclaim. And they usually cite the Reagan tax cuts as their primo example. Across the country, conservative talkers toss this feed to the herd every day of the week. Anyone who has ever discussed budget matters on talk radio has surely heard this spin-point recited. When the cattle get riled, they’re eager to say that lower tax rates produce extra revenue.

On its face, of course, this makes no sense. Consider the tax cuts proposed by Candidate Bush in the 2000 campaign, for example. Bush proposed lowering the marginal rate—39.6 percent—down to 33 percent. But if lowering tax rates produces more revenue, why would he stop at 33? Why reduce rates to 33 percent when he could reduce them to 32 percent instead? And why stop at 32 percent when you could just lower rates to 30 percent, or to 20? Obviously, Bush’s proposals made no sense if the talk-show right’s spin-point is accurate. If lower tax rates produce extra revenue, Bush’s proposals made no sense at all.

Duh. This favorite bit of cattle feed is a simple piece of talk-show agitprop—a bale of hay the talk-show right loves to throw down to the herd. Bartlett, the conservative budget maven, put some plain talk in the Times:

BARTLETT: Contrary to popular mythology, the Reagan administration never made any claim that the 1981 tax cut would pay for itself.

Bartlett is too polite to say so, of course, but the "popular mythology" to which he refers is the crackpot spin of the talk-show right. What really went on in the early 80s when President Reagan lowered tax rates? Writing in slightly jumbled prose, Bartlett tossed these mots in too:

BARTLETT: U.S. taxes have never been so high, in 1981 or any other time, that an across-the-board rate cut would lead to such an outpouring of economic output, and such a diminution of tax evasion and avoidance, that there would be no loss of revenue.

Read that with care. Tax rates were not so high, in 1981, that rates could be cut without loss of revenue. And in fact, the Reagan administration never said there would be no revenue loss. But cattle, don’t believe us—listen to Bartlett. He spoke about various agencies’ revenue estimates at the time of the Reagan cuts:

BARTLETT: Every revenue estimate ever put out by the [Reagan] Treasury Department or [Reagan] Office of Management and Budget was based on the same methodology used for years before. They all showed large revenue losses that were in line with independent analyses. For example, the CBO, then under Democratic control, had virtually identical estimates of expected federal revenues, including the tax cut, as did the Reagan administration.

Read that passage again, herd members. The Reagan admin, like the Democratic CBO, predicted large revenue losses. These accurate words belong to Bartlett, the Washington Times’ regular budget columnist.

Cattle, did you know that Rush and his various ilk have been playing you all these years? As Bartlett explains, conservative economists have never claimed that you get more future revenue if you cut tax rates. What they have claimed is quite different: they have claimed that you don’t lose as much future revenue as a "static" analysis would predict. Specifically: If you cut tax rates by 20 percent, you won’t lose 20 percent of future revenue. But as Bartlett notes, you will lose substantial revenue all the same. For better or worse, a 33 percent tax rate will produce less revenue than a 39.6 percent tax rate will do.

Cattle, let’s spell out one of the many ways you’ve been played by your cowboy talk-show hosts. Here is what happened because of the Reagan rate cuts. When Reagan cut rates in the early 80s, revenues kept going up anyway. That happened for a very good reason; it happened because revenues always go up. Revenues go up for several reasons. Revenues go up because of inflation. Revenues go up because of population growth. Revenues go up because of productivity gains. But those future revenues were substantially less than they would have been if the Reagan rate cuts hadn’t happened. As Bartlett explains in this piece, revenues in the 80s would have been higher if Reagan had left rates alone.

That doesn’t mean the rate cuts were bad. It doesn’t mean that Reagan was wrong. But cattle, when Rush and the gang start throwing you feed, try to remember what Bruce Bartlett told you. And ask yourselves this—ask yourselves why it is you keep mooing and lowing when Rush tells you things that are wrong.

Next: Finally, Andrew Sullivan critiques Paul Krugman on the merits. Maybe he should go back to the character attacks.


The Daily update (2/5/02)

King of the herd: Is there a more cattle-like fellow on the face of the earth than the current reinvention of Andrew Sullivan? In reviewing the Super Bowl halftime show, he voiced his pleasure to see a culturally left group like U2 supporting the U.S. position in the war against terrorism. But he also managed to notice that one part of the show was rank, tasteless, trashy, corrupt, vile:

SULLIVAN: At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable at the sight of cheering, grinning pop-fans going wild beneath a huge graphic detailing the names of those killed by the terrorist murderers of September 11. The tone was off, don’t you think? But then, I guess, cultures in transition will likely have their fair share of incongruous moments. Is patriotism possible without occasional vulgarity? In the real world, probably not. But one can dream.

Imagine! Imagine dragging out the names of the dead while "pop-fans" cheered, drank their Bud and rocked on! Sullivan couldn’t quite bring himself to see how repulsive this spectacle was. But he did—on his own—allow himself to be "a little uncomfortable." He "couldn’t help" it, he confessed.

But then, the cattle began to stir—and Sullivan changed his line, quickly. "A reader makes a good point," he said, "about the odd spectacle of screaming rock fans and a full-screen obit for 9/11." Here was the reader’s presentation:

SULLIVAN’S READER: Just a thought on [your] uneasiness about the scroll of the dead of September 11th during the Super Bowl halftime show. At first, I was not only uneasy, I was disgusted. I thought it was a beautiful gesture to scroll these names, and then the crowd started cheering, and U2 egged them on. And then I was even more disgusted when they cut the list short. (around the late Cs if I recall) But then a friend of mine made a comment—The Super Bowl was THE target last night. If a terrorist could have attacked anywhere in the world, that would have been the crown jewel. And all of the thousands present knew that. Their cheering was a taunting, a recognition that the terrorists will not stop them from enjoying a game and a show, and a tribute, though not solemn, to the people who died. They cheered because they would not let the terrorists stop them. They cheered in spite of, not in support of, terror. Though I’m still a little uneasy on the whole idea of the scroll, that explanation made me feel a lot better about it.
"He has a point, doesn’t he?" Sully said.

Well no, he doesn’t have a point—except in that part of the cattle-world that is now so sold on Daddy’s War that even the iconic tastelessness of the NFL has to be somehow wished away. Sullivan’s cattle are now running so hard that they can’t even admit what everyone knows—that the NFL is a gang of cretins; that Budweiser is a beer house, not a temple; that Bono behaved like a preening, self-satisfied old fool; and that the "pop-fans" at the halftime show were not cheering to taunt the terrorists. (Just imagine believing that part!) And Cattle One—Sullivan himself—had to jump in line with the herd. But then, Sullivan long ago walked away from the citizen’s obligation to stand and judge. Instead, he’s been running as hard as he can in Daddy’s herd. And now his open pandering has reached the point where he can’t even voice a little peep about Budweiser’s use of the dead to sell one more case of their beer.

By the way, sports fans, Tom Brady is from San Mateo County, just a few miles south of Johnny Walker’s Marin. Puzzling, isn’t it? Sullivan’s "weird science" is stood on its head when a Blue Kid can show such strong values!