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Friday, March 30, 2007

Pro Growth Liberal: Tax “Cuts”: Fill My Mug and Pass the Popcorn

PGL at Angry Bear reminds Greg Mankiw that tax cuts don't pay for themselves:

Tax “Cuts”: Fill My Mug and Pass the Popcorn, by PGL: Greg Mankiw provides this parable about tax policy:

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing. The fifth would pay $1. The sixth would pay $3. The seventh would pay $7. The eighth would pay $12. The ninth would pay $18. The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59. So, that's what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. "Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20." Drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

Let me interject something here from Greg's post. The story goes on and after the price cut:

[T]he bar owner ... proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay [after the 20% reduction]. And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings. "I only got a dollar out of the $20," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man," but he got $10!" "Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a dollar, too. It's unfair that he got ten times more than I!"

"That's true!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!" "Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison. "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up. ... And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. ...

Back to PGL:

Greg continues with this parable, which can also be found here, commenting on the distribution of this alleged tax cut. I guess this is supposed to be a comment on the 2001 tax cut but there’s something missing here. In the real world, we did not get a tax cut – only a tax shift. Yes, government spending did not decline so somebody will have to pay more in taxes someday.

So let’s finish his parable by assuming that the owner raised the price of the munchies such as popcorn and the beer nuts. One cannot talk about talk about the distribution of the change in tax policy without bringing in the total picture. Yet, we often see our conservative friends implicitly denying that either sales taxes or employment taxes (or both) will have to be increased. Of course, this is one of many myths that get created when one falls for the free lunch fallacy that permeates Republican discussions of fiscal policy.

Hey bartender – pour me another pint and give me some more popcorn. It’s all free – right?

I'll note too that the fact that the owner can cut 20% off the bill and still make a profit ought to raise some eyebrows among the patrons - that's no small amount of monopoly power. In a competitive market, the owner could not do this. In addition, this is not how we analyze the general equilibrium effects of change in the burden of taxes after a tax change. Even with partial equilibrium analysis, when taxes are increased the customers will not face 100% of the burden, the burden is shared between the owner and the customers. In the opposite direction, when taxes are cut, the reduced burden is shared as well. That's missing from this analysis.

As to Greg's the main point, questions about the equity of tax cuts, the other thing missing is what taxes pay for. Making the good in the story beer (i.e. something we could do without) and then allowing the same quantity to be purchased at a lower price is not a parable that relates to government spending. Unlike this made-up story with it's made-up resentments, taxes fund government services - something must be given up when taxes are cut, or taxes must be raised in the future as PGL notes. In the case where programs must be cut, if it's essential social programs, then I hope that people do raise questions of basic equity. Cutting estate taxes when we cannot afford pre-school programs for disadvantaged children would be a much better parable for Greg to tell. We could point fingers at the disadvantaged and call them whiners for asking if paying for estate tax-cuts by not fully funding programs such as these is fair - but I suspect we won't hear that story.

    Posted by on Friday, March 30, 2007 at 11:03 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (17)

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