by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Tim Kaine repeated a new economic theory brought to the national stage by Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate: that the Bush tax cuts of 2003 somehow caused the Great Recession.
In advancing this assertion, neither Clinton nor Kaine mentioned government-subsidized housing (the traditional conservative explanation for the Great Recession) or excessive financial leverage on Wall Street (the traditional liberal explanation). Indeed, their argument is new, and it needs to be fact-checked.
First, with respect to theory, no mainstream school of economic thought — Keynesian, classical, or monetarist — supports the view that tax relief can create recessions in the short-run.
The Keynesian view argues that deficit-financed tax cuts such as those passed in 2003 under Bush should provide stimulus to the economy by encouraging spending. Tax cuts provide such stimulus through boosting post-tax incomes, thus giving people more money to spend, which creates more economic activity and income for others. This idea is what is traditionally known as the Keynesian fiscal multiplier, and it was a fundamental motivation of the 2009 stimulus package. It’s an idea the Clinton-Kaine theory about the Great Recession rejects.
Many economists further argue that tax cuts which benefit the poor and middle-class deliver a bigger jolt to the economy, since such poorer individuals tend to spend a higher fraction of their incomes. The Bush tax cuts of 2003 slashed rates for all tax brackets, but even if they had been geared solely to the rich, Keynesian theory would suggest that they would produce a stimulative impact on the economy, although a significantly diminished one.
The classical and monetarist views argue that only permanent reductions in taxes have a positive impact on wealth in the long-run. The Bush tax cuts expired after eight years, so classical and monetarist economists could debate whether they count as a temporary fiscal shock or not. But neither school believes that tax cuts have a negative effect on economic activity. (It’s important to note that income and wealth inequality are a separate matter.)
The only plausible economic theory that could support the Kaine-Clinton argument is that deficit-financed tax cuts create recessions by expanding public debt to the point of fiscal insolvency, as happened in Greece. But that’s not what happened in the Great Recession of 2008–2009.