March 01, 2004

Tax Cuts Do What?
Why it's important for economists to combat public ignorance.

Thomas Sowell on the importance of educating the general public on basic economics:

Some years ago, the distinguished international-trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati was visiting Cornell University, giving a lecture to graduate students during the day and debating Ralph Nader on free trade that evening. During his lecture, Prof. Bhagwati asked how many of the graduate students would be attending that evening's debate. Not one hand went up.

Amazed, he asked why. The answer was that the economics students considered it to be a waste of time. The kind of silly stuff that Ralph Nader was saying had been refuted by economists ages ago. The net result was that the audience for the debate consisted of people largely illiterate in economics and they cheered for Mr. Nader.

Prof. Bhagwati was exceptional among leading economists in understanding the need to confront gross misconceptions of economics in the general public, including the so-called educated public. Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman and Gary Becker are other such exceptions in addressing a wider general audience, rather than confining what they say to technical analysis addressed to fellow economists and their students. By and large, the economics profession fails to educate the public on the basics, while devoting much time and effort to narrower and even esoteric research.


Sometimes the fallacies are based on something as simple as a failure to define terms accurately. Everyone has heard the claim that a high-wage country like the U.S. loses jobs to low-wage countries when there is free trade. When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect a decade ago, there were dire predictions of "a giant sucking sound" as American jobs were drawn away, to Mexico especially.
In reality, the number of jobs in the U.S. increased by millions after Nafta went into effect, and the unemployment rate fell to low levels not seen in years. Behind the radically wrong predictions was a simple confusion between wage rates and labor costs.

Wage rates per unit of time are not the same as labor costs per unit of output. When workers are paid twice as much per hour and produce three times as much per hour, the labor costs per unit of output are lower. That is why high-wage countries have been exporting to low-wage countries for centuries. An international study found the average productivity of workers in the modern sector of the Indian economy to be 15% of that of American workers. In other words, if you paid the average Indian worker one-fifth of what you paid the average American worker, it would cost you more to get the job done in India.


International trade has no monopoly on economic illiteracy. One of the apparently invincible fallacies of our times is the belief that President Reagan's tax cuts caused the federal budget deficits of the 1980s. In reality, the federal government collected more tax revenue in every year of the Reagan administration than had ever been collected in any year of any previous administration. But there is no amount of money that Congress cannot outspend. Here again, the confusion is due to a simple failure to define terms.
What Mr. Reagan's "tax cuts for the rich" actually cut were the tax rates per dollar of income. Out of rising incomes, the country as a whole--including the rich--paid more total taxes than ever before.