Joseph Steelman
As the end of the year draws nearer, the expiration of tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 also begins to creep over the horizon. As this happens, our federal government continues to spend what seems to be an infinite line of credit. Recent financial and health care reforms bring with them cost estimates that undoubtedly understate true costs. The same can be said about unemployment extensions.

The egregious amount of deficit spending is leaving taxpayers with a sizable bill. The federal government would like the "rich" (those that make more than $200,000 in pre-tax income) to pay a higher proportion of that bill, making them the lucky recipients of a tax rate increase. The politics of the tax cuts have already begun. It seems like an impossible task for Washington to divorce the economics from the politics. At this point in history I’m betting that that those individuals and families in the highest tax brackets will certainly see a tax increase come January.

The president recently said, “There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts. Period.” But, as Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal points out, “Raising taxes to cut the deficit is a bailout for the spenders.”

I’m beginning to think that an effective training regimen for politicians would include an undergraduate degree in linguistics.

Maybe I am missing something. Maybe classical microeconomics has become outdated and doesn’t adequately reflect decisions in the real world anymore. Maybe the nuance of their arguments is too much for me. Or maybe they’re wrong.

Economists have been developing mathematical equations since the days of Adam Smith, attempting to ascribe reality to a system of variables that can be changed and tweaked to more accurately reflect what economists empirically see. The problem with these equations is that they are not reality. That being the case, it is best to avoid needless complication.

Someone best illustrated this to me using the game of billiards as an analogy. Hitting the cue ball into the eight ball in an effort to send the eight ball into a corner-pocket requires skill and accuracy. Ricocheting the cue ball off the rail into the three ball which then will kiss the nine ball on its way into the two ball which will subsequently fall into the pocket is an entirely different problem. The more complex the system gets, the more accuracy is required, and initial mistakes are magnified further down the line.

Intertemporal decision making can be a complex problem to study, but most of the world makes such decisions intuitively — we are all practicing economists. The amount available for future consumption is future income plus savings plus the amount of interest earned on savings. If savings are negative, the person is borrowing and must pay back the amount borrowed plus the interest in the second period. This has the effect of reducing future consumption.
Future Consumption: P2C2 = M2 - M2t + S + iS

This means that today’s purchases change tomorrow’s parameters.
Current Consumption: P1C1 = M1 - M1t - S

Reality is an integration of these two equations. We do it constantly, and instantaneously most of the time. Income (M1 & M2) is a function of spent spent in leisure and work, and wages. People often decide how much they will work based on how much they plan to consume and how long it will take them to achieve the desired amount of income for that consumption (this also allows income to implicitly represent labor decisions in these micro equations).

Enter government, with a budget constraint that looks very similar. What is different is that the government doesn’t have to make labor decisions; it makes taxing decisions, and consumes through expenditures.
Government Expenditures: p1E1 = MG + S

Government Revenue: MG = M1t (this form represents an income tax)

Taking from the income produced by others is the government’s only real source of revenue. This has two very obvious implications: 1) Taxation has an obvious impact on private consumption decisions, because it subtracts from real income (this also affects savings and consumption patterns, both now and later); and, 2) tax rates and government expenditure choices signal to the public the likely outcome of future taxation and expenditure decisions. This model of the aggregate economy suggests that eliminating the tax cuts will have deleterious effects on output and employment.

For some reason, Keynesian economists believe they have the power to affect the M1 variable in this equation on a massive scale. The government is just adding pool balls to the equation. When the government decides to increase expenditures, it also has to increase revenue, by increasing the tax rate (t) now or in the future (after borrowing). This will have a negative effect on personal income, which translates to a decrease in personal consumption. The government has also decided to implement a progressive income tax structure. This means that, as M1 increases, so does t. Because people tend to make decisions based on marginal welfare at their original consumption pattern, the last unit of consumption is roughly equal to the leisure that a person gives up to work that extra little bit so they can afford that last bit of consumption. With a progressive income tax, or an increase in the tax rate on any person, production is decreased at a marginal rate. When this happens to 300 million people at the same time, we begin to see problems.

The opponents of tax cuts often ask: What is the difference between swelling the public sector and cutting taxes, in terms of the federal government's deficit? The answer is that they have different compensation structures and lead to different production decisions. Public money doesn’t force firms (whether they are public firms, or private firms contracted by the government) to make marginal decisions that maximize efficiency. Unfortunately, this means that public money is attached to inefficiency margins for anyone accepting it. Raising taxes therefore has a double whammy effect: Private production slows based on marginal decisions, and when it is converted to public money, it integrates inefficiency into each dollar.

Does this sound like a good prescription for an ailing economy?

About the Author

Joseph Steelman