Tax Policy during the Kennedy Administration

“Tax Policy during the Kennedy Administration” shows what happened to average and marginal tax rates. Marginal tax rates were very high at the time—much greater than in the present day. At high levels of income, more than 90 cents of every additional dollar had to be paid to the government in taxes. Consequently, average tax rates were also high: an individual with taxable income of $100,000 (a very high level of income back then) had to pay about two thirds of that amount to the government. The Kennedy tax cuts reduced these tax rates. Even after the tax cut, the marginal and average tax rates both increased with income. In other words, the tax system still redistributed income across households. But when we compare 1963 and 1964, we see that the marginal tax rate did not increase as rapidly under the new tax policy. Therefore, this channel of redistribution was weaker under the new tax policy.

Figure 12.5 Tax Policy during the Kennedy Administration The charts show the impact of the Kennedy tax cut. Part (a) highlights how the marginal tax rates for households changed from 1963 to 1964, and part (b) shows the impact on average tax rates. Source: Department of the Treasury, IRS 1987, “Tax Rates and Tables for Prior Years” Rev 9-87 For their policy to be successful, Kennedy’s advisors had to ask and then answer a series of questions. How big a tax cut should they recommend? How long should it last? What would be the effect on government revenues? What would be the effect on real GDP and consumption? Economists working in government today confront exactly the same questions when contemplating changes in tax policy. Questions such as these epitomize economics and economists at work. Looking back at this experiment with almost half a century of hindsight, we can ask additional questions. How well did these policies work in terms of achieving their goal of economic stabilization? What actually happened to consumption and output? Was the tax policy successful? The Kennedy economists needed a quantitative model of economic behavior: a formalization of the links between their policy tools (tax rates) and the outcomes that they cared about, such as consumption and output. Using the aggregate expenditure model, they wanted to know how big a change in real GDP they could expect from a given change in the tax rate. To use the model to study income taxes, we need to add some theory about how spending responds to changes in taxes. Accordingly, we study the effects of income taxes on household consumption and then discuss how changes in consumption lead to changes in output. Although we are using a historical episode to help us understand the effect of taxes on the economy, this chapter is not intended as a lesson in economic history. Variations of this same model are still used today to analyze current economic policies. Indeed, in response to the economic crisis of 2008, many countries around the world cut taxes in an attempt to stimulate their economies. By studying the experience of the early 1960s, we gain insight into a critical part of macroeconomics: the linkage between consumption and output. Having said that, economics has advanced significantly since the 1960s, and the state-of-the- art analysis for that time seems oversimplified today. Modern economists think that the policy advisers in the 1960s neglected some key aspects of the economy. Their insights were not wrong, but they were incomplete. Our understanding of the economy has evolved since Tobin, Solow, and Heller designed the nation’s tax policy. Household Consumption We begin by studying the relationship between consumption and income. We first develop some ideas about how households make consumption decisions, and, on the basis of those ideas, we make some predictions about what we expect to happen when there is a cut in taxes. We then examine the evidence from the Kennedy tax cut. Income, Consumption, and Saving In microeconomics, we study how a consumer allocates incomes across a wide variety of products. Microeconomists interested in studying, say, the market for ice cream examine how households choose between ice cream and other products that are close substitutes, such as frozen yogurt, and between ice cream and other products that are complements, such as hot fudge sauce. When studying microeconomics, however, we focus on choices for goods made at a particular point in time. Macroeconomics has a different emphasis. It emphasizes the choice between consumption and saving. Instead of thinking about the consumption of ice cream today versus frozen yogurt today, we study the choice between consumption today and consumption in the future.

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