Austrian economics, economic growth and the Laffer curve

Gerard Jackson

It was 1962 when Jack Kennedy stated that “it is a paradoxical that tax rates are too high and tax revenues too low”. In other words, high taxes were retarding investment and output, thus keeping the American standard of living lower than it would otherwise be. It was this belief that motivated the 1963 tax cuts. The result was a surge in investment. From 1959 to 1963 only 27.8 per cent of what is termed ‘investment’ went to business and 38.5 per cent to real estate. In 1967, thanks to the cuts, the proportion going to business had jumped to 58.6 per cent while the amount going to real estate had dropped to 11.2 per cent and the demand for labour jumped. In addition, revenue from the income tax rose from $48.7 billion in 1964 to $68.7 billion in 1968. (The Kennedy’s tax cuts were enormous and, as a proportion of national income, about twice as large as the Bush cuts).

But from whom did Kennedy obtain his wisdom on the value of tax cuts? Keynesians, that’s who. Prominent among these was Walter Heller who believed that tax cuts could increase tax receipts. As he himself said:

The upsurge of tax revenues flowing from economic expansion would finance higher levels of local, state, and Federal spending than we would have had without the tax cuts stimulus…1

The positive economic response to the Kennedy tax cuts proved that you cannot have a dynamic economy if venture capital is penalised, entrepreneurial mobility severely restricted and the rewards of successfully satisfying consumers’ needs are heavily taxed. In 1969, for example, President Nixon raised the capital gains tax from 28 per cent to 49 per cent. Result: revenue from the tax dropped sharply with realised gains from the sale of capital assets diving by 34 per cent, and the stock issues of struggling companies collapsing from about 500 in 1969 to precisely four in 1975. High-tech companies in Silicon Valley were hit particularly hard.

So why did President Nixon make this mistake? He had been assured by Treasury economists that their economic model predicted that the tax would raise $1.1 billion in the first year and then $3.2 billion a year until 1975. The only thing that the Treasury model proved, apart from the fact that these models are useless, is that taxes do affect behaviour.

In 1978 Congress for once did the sensible economic thing and slashed capital gains taxes, resulting in the supply of venture capital exploding. By the start of 1979 a massive commitment to venture capital funds had taken place, rising from a pathetic $39 million in 1977 to a staggering $570 million at the end of 1978. Tax collections on long-term capital gains, despite the dire predictions of big-spending critics of cuts, leapt from $8.5 billion in 1978 to $10.6 billion in 1979, $16.5 billion in 1983 and $23.7 billion in 1985.

By 1981 venture capital outlays had soared to $1.4 billion and the total amount of venture capital had risen to $5.8 billion. In 1981 the maximum tax rate on long-term capital gains was cut to 20 per cent. This resulted in the venture capital pool surging to $11.5 billion. Astonishingly enough — to conventional economists that is — venture capital outlays rose to $1.8 billion in the midst of the 1982 depression. This was about 400 per cent more than had been out-laid during the 1970s slump. In 1983 these outlays rose to nearly $3 billion. Compare this situation to the period from 1969 to the 1970s which saw venture capital outlays collapse by about 90 per cent. All because of Nixon’s ill-considered capital gains tax. But then Nixon — unlike so many journalists — never professed to know anything about economics.

In 1982 the US General Accounting Office sampled 72 companies that had been launched with venture capital since the 1978 capital gains tax cut. The results were startling. Starting with $209 million dollars in funds, these companies had paid $350 million in federal taxes, generated $900 million in export income and directly created 135,000 jobs. The figure below illustrates the Laffer curve. The vertical axis is the tax rate and the horizontal axis is tax revenue while point A is the optimum tax. When the tax rate exceeds point A tax revenues fall. It follows, therefore, that any movement back to point A will increase revenues.

laffercurve

The actual basis of the Laffer curve is the knowledge that if you want more of something then reduce the cost of producing it. In this case it is not really tax revenues that we want to increase but investment. Investment is fuelled by savings. Hence capital gains taxes strike at savings and investment which in turn slow downs economic growth.

From this we can deduce that capital gains taxes are also transaction taxes. Where they are levied on the sale of assets, e.g., shares, they have the effect of reducing the number of transactions because this is a legal and easy way of avoiding the tax. Try to imagine for a moment what would have happened to economic growth in nineteenth century England if, for example, investors had been punitively taxed for trying to move their investments from canal companies to railway and coal companies.

Now this brings us to figure 1 which describes a production structure. This concept is used by the Austrian school of economics to help explain the fundamental operations of an economy and how savinging and investment shape it. Each rectangle is a stage of production and the steps between the stages represent the price margins for each stage2.

stagesofproduction1

This approach stresses two important facts for Austrian economics: a) the crucial importance of time in production and b) and that production occurs in stages. Now it is important to stress these two facts because the majority of economists adhere to the Clark-Knight treatment of capital that views it as a permanent and self-maintaining fund3. They also assume that production and consumption occur simultaneously instead of occurring through time.

It will be noted that figure 1 has 7 stages. Let us assume that the government abolishes capital gains taxes. The first effect will be to widen the price margins. The differences between the new price margins and the old ones are capital gains. Now capital gains are profits. When these emerge it is an indication that factors of production are undervalued in relation to the value of their products. This means that it now profitable for capitalists to employ more and more factors of production until the capital gains have been competed away.

The result is a longer and wider capital structure as represented by figure 2. We can now see that the new capital structure is far more productive than the old one. Gross savings — which by definition includes spending on intermediate goods — has also increased. So long as this business spending is maintained the capital structure will not shorten. It should be plain enough that in a free market the amount of gross savings depends on decisions made by capitalists. There is nothing permanent or automatic about the capital structure or entrepreneurial decision-making. (This is why politicians need to be educated on the nature of gross savings).

stagesofproductionprices

The lengthening and widening of the capital structure is what happened in nineteenth century Britain to an enormous degree. For example, We can see from the chart above that general prices peaked in 1872 and then began a long decline, falling from 150 to about 70, a drop of some 53 per cent. Whichever way one looks at it this was a remarkable achievement. It was period that saw a steady increase in both money wages and real wages even as the population increased significantly. Of particular interest is government spending which in 1841 was 11 per cent of GDP but only 9 per cent in 1890. However, a halving of prices doubles purchasing power, so in real terms government spending rose significantly during that period.4

Nevertheless, none of the above directly tells us how the Laffer curve generates so much revenue. This brings us to the dangerous fallacy of the stable price level, according to which a stable price level indicates the absence of inflation. For the price level to remain stable it is argued that monetary expansion must equal the growth in output5. In plain English, monetary policy must be manipulated in away that offsets the beneficial effects of increased productivity.

Therefore, as the cut in capital gains taxes stimulate investment and production and exert a downward pressure on prices monetary policy increases the money value of the increased output thereby countering the downward pressure on prices created by increased productivity. The expanding money supply accelerates the growth in tax revenues. Paradoxically, this monetary policy can offset to a certain degree the beneficial effects of capital gains taxes6.

It should be obvious that this is an argument against monetary manipulation and not cuts in capital gains taxes. Furthermore, the British experience clearly demonstrates that even in the absence of an ‘accommodating’ monetary policy the government would still eventually raise its spending in real terms which would compensate for any reduction in revenue due to cutting capital gains taxes7.

Regarding I need to emphasise a couple of points here. Firstly, the complexity of the production structure is far too great for anyone to comprehend. Even in the case of a single product there could be hundreds if not thousands of stages of production as the following quote from Hayek explains:

What is no less important is that, in the course of the lengthening of the process, the stream of operations leading up to a given product will as a rule be split up into many branches and sub-branches. And it may be that, long before the first move is made to produce the actual material from which the product is to be made, work is being taken in hand to provide some auxiliary material or tool which will be needed later to convert the raw material into the final product. At each stage of the process from the raw material to the finished product the main stream will be joined by tributaries which in some cases may already have run through a much longer course than the main stream itself. But all these activities, many of which may be carried on at the same time at different places, have to be regarded as part of the same process, and have to be taken into account when we talk about its length. The series of operations which are required in order to provide the fuel or lubricant, and the tools or machines which are needed for turning the raw material into the finished product, are just as much part of the process of production of the good as the operations performed on the raw material8

When speaking of tax cuts promoting growth one must always bear in mind the effects of regulation. A stage can be reached where the regulatory burden has become so onerous that it virtually negates the positive effects of tax cuts. Additionally, those who advocate cuts always assume the absence of severe politically-created uncertainty. It was not the case under Roosevelt and it is not the case under Obama.

Note: The production structure diagram is not meant to suggest that the structure can, in physical terms, expand its length indefinitely. Therefore the lengthening of investment periods does not always necessitate additional stages of production. In some cases it merely requires the replacement of existing stages with more advanced but more time consuming stages consisting of capital combinations embodying improved or new technologies. The extent to which this happens determines the extent which it affects capital combinations in other parts of the capital structure9. For reasons of space I made only a passing reference to the role monetary policy can play in shaping the capital structure. Hayek did, however, deal with this problem in tabulated form6.

*  * * * *

1Cited in A. James Meigs’ Money Matters: Economics, Markets, Politics, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972, p. 38).

2This analysis was pioneered by William Stanley Jevons, Theory of Political Economy, 4th edition Augustus M Kelley & Millman, Inc. 1957, pp. 229-235) . Knut Wicksell also used a structure of production approach with a time dimension in Lectures on Political Economy, Augustus M. Kelley Publishers 1977, pp. 151-153.

3John Bates , Clark Essentials of Economic Theory, The Macmillan Company, 1924, pp. 18-19 and p. 29.

4H. S. Ferns, The Disease of Government, Maurice Temple Smith, 1978

5According to the thinking of the Austrian school of economics a monetary-induced reduction in the rate of interest expands the demand for credit to fund projects which become malinvestments. In addition, the Austrians stress that money is not and cannot be neutral.

6Friedrich von Hayek, Profits, Interest and Investment, Augustus M Kelley Publishers, 1975, pp. 199-263.

7very few economists know that nineteenth Britain was actually on a quasi-gold standard. The amount bank credit always greatly exceeded gold reserves. It was the deviations from the gold standard principle that caused recurring financial crises.

8Friedrich von Hayek, Prices and Production, Augustus M. Kelley, 1967 and The Pure Theory of Capital, The University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 74-5.

9Ludwig von Lachman, Capital and Its Structure, Sheed Andrews and McMeel Inc., 1978

6 thoughts on “Austrian economics, economic growth and the Laffer curve”

  1. I think I can see how this fits in with investment and gross savings but the hayek quot shows he complex Austrian capital theory must be.

  2. If this stuff is sound then it looks like it has very important consequences for economic policies. But I think attempts to get any politician interested is a waste of time.

  3. Sarahs right about the politicians. I know for a fact that there staffers tend to be awful. There is no chance of any of them seeing the significance of this material.

  4. I spent a lot of years in manufacturing and that experience supports the Austrians stage of production view of the economy.

  5. I am still trying to get my head around this stuff. This Austrian capital thing seems to puts a different persective on government spending and taxes.

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