Supply Side Economics - A discussion of supply side economics, it's correlation with Reaganomics, and it's justification for tax cuts. reaganomics, supply side economics, republican economics, tax cut justifications, corporate welfare Supply Side Economics - Reaganomics and the case for tax cuts. Supply Side Economics

Supply-side economics is a school of macroeconomic thought which emphasizes the "supply" part of supply and demand. The central concept of supply-side economics is Say's Law: "supply creates its own demand," the idea that one must sell before one can afford to buy. Therefore good economic policy encourages increased production, versus attempts to stimulate demand — this is the fundamental dispute between classical, supply-side economics and Keynesian economics or demand side economics. Supply-side economics is often conflated with trickle down economics. Supply-side economics was popularised in the 1970s by the ideas of Robert Mundell, Arthur Laffer, and Jude Wanniski. The term was coined by Wanniski in 1975.

In 1978 Jude Wanniski published The Way the World Works in which he laid out the central thesis of supply-side economics and detailed the failure of high tax-rate progressive income tax systems and U.S. monetary policy under Keynesians in the 1970s. Wanninski advocated lower tax rates and a return to some kind of gold standard, ala the 1944-1971 Bretton Woods System.

In 1983, economist Victor Canto, a disciple of Arthur Laffer, published The Foundations of Supply-Side Economics. This theory focuses on the effects of marginal tax rates on the incentive to work and save, which affect the growth of the "supply side" or what Keynesians call potential output. While the latter focus on changes in the rate of supply-side growth in the long run, the "new" supply-siders often promised short-term results.

Supply-side economics developed during the 1970s of the Keynesian dominance of economic policy, and in particular the failure of demand management to stabilize Western economies in the stagflation of the 1970s, in the wake of the oil crisis in 1973.

It drew on a range of non-Keynesian economic thought, particularly the Austrian school, e.g. Joseph Schumpeter and monetarism.

As in classical economics, monetarism proposed that production or supply is the key to economic prosperity and that consumption or demand is merely a secondary consequence. Early on this idea had been summarised in Say's Law of economics, which states: "A product is no sooner created, than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value." John Maynard Keynes, the founder of Keynesianism, summarized Say's Law as "supply creates its own demand." He turned Say's Law on its head in the 1930s by declaring that demand creates its own supply. However, Say's Law does not state that production creates a demand for the product itself however, but rather a demand for "other products to the full extent of its own value." More simply, it is only after we "produce" and have income to spend that we can "demand."

The supply-siders were influenced strongly by the idea of the Laffer curve, which states that that tax rates and tax revenues were distinct -- that tax rates too high or too low will not maximize tax revenues. Supply-siders felt that in a high tax rate environment, lowering taxes to the right level can raise revenue by causing faster economic growth. They pointed to the tax cuts of the Kennedy administration and the high rates of the Hoover and Nixon administrations in justification.

This led the supply-siders to advocate large reductions in marginal income and capital gains tax rates to encourage allocation of assets to investment, which would produce more supply (Jude Wanniski and many others advocate a zero capital gains rate). The increased aggregate supply would result in increased aggregate demand, hence the term "Supply-Side Economics".

Furthermore, in response to inflation, supply-siders called for indexed marginal income tax rates, as monetary inflation had pushed wage earners into higher marginal income tax brackets that remained static; that is, as wages increased to maintain purchasing power with prices, income tax brackets were not adjusted accordingly and thus wage earners were pushed into higher income tax brackets than tax policy had intended.

Supply-side economics has been criticised as essentially politically conservative. Supply-side advocates claim that they are not following an ideology, but are reinstating classical economics.

However, some economists see similarities between supply-side proposals and Keynesian economics. If the result of changes to the tax structure is a fiscal deficit then the 'supply-side' policy is effectively stimulating demand through the Keynesian multiplier effect. Supply-side proponents would point out, in response, that the level of taxation and spending is important for economic incentives, not just the size of the deficit.

Critics of supply-side economics such as Paul Krugman claim that 'supply-side economics' was always a smokescreen for politically-motivated tax cuts. They point to Reagan-era Director of the Office of Management and Budget David Levinson's admission that supply-side doctrine of across-the-board tax cuts embodied in centerpiece legislation commonly known as the Kemp-Roth Tax Cut "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top [marginal income tax] rate". The administration justified such changes in socioeconomic terms with the argument that benefits would "trickle down" to poorer Americans. This conservative political argument in favor of supply-side policy is not part of supply-side thought however. For example, Jude Wanniski argued for lower tax rates to increase tax revenues and increase production, something favored by political conservatives, but also argued that redistribution of income through taxation was essential to the health of the polity -- anathema to political conservatives.

Marx and Smith

Both supply-siders and their opponents have been keen to claim the mantles of thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and Adam Smith. Jude Wanniski has claimed both as supply-side thinkers due to their advocacy of a gold monetary standard and more specifically their focus on the agents of production in an economy. Barton Biggs, chief investment strategist of Morgan Stanley, described Wanniski's book about supply-side economics, The Way the World Works, as the "most important" economic book published since Marx's writings.

Supply-side vs. Monetarism & New Classical Economics

Supply-side supporters disagreed with monetarist Milton Friedman and neoclassicist Robert Lucas Jr. by arguing that cutting tax rates alone would be sufficient to grow GDP, lift tax revenues and balance the budget.

Friedman, however, retained a more conventional monetarist view, believing that while tax cuts were on the whole desirable, money supply was the crucial variable.

Supported by the powerful editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, seconded by the Washington Times, supply-side economics became a force in public policy starting in the early 1980s.


In the United States commentators frequently equate supply-side economics with Reaganomics. The fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan were largely based on supply-side economics. During Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, the key economic concern was double digit inflation, which Reagan described as "Too many dollars chasing too few goods", but rather than the usual dose of tight money, recession and layoffs, with their consequent loss of production and wealth, he promised a gradual and painless way to fight inflation by "producing our way out of it". Switching from an earlier monetarist policy, Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, began a policy of tighter monetary policies such as lower money supply growth to break the inflationary psychology and squeeze inflationary expectations out of the economic system. Therefore, supply-side supporters argue that "Reaganomics" was only partially based on supply-side economics. However, under Reagan, Congress passed a plan that would slash taxes by $749 billion over five years. As a result, Jason Hymowitz cited Reagan — along with Jack Kemp — as a great advocate for supply-side economics in politics and repeatedly praised his leadership.

Critics of "Reaganomics" claim it failed to produce much of the gains Laffer and other supply-siders had promised. Krugman later summarised the situation: "When Ronald Reagan was elected, the supply-siders got a chance to try out their ideas. Unfortunately, they failed." Although he credited supply-side economics for being more successful than monetarism which he claimed "left the economy in ruins", he stated that supply-side economics produced results which fell "so far short of what it promised," describing the supply-side theory as "free lunches". Krugman and other critics point to increased budget deficits during the Reagan administration as proof that the Laffer Curve is wrong. Supply-side advocates respond by pointing out this is a conflation of revenues and expenditures--the Laffer Curve says nothing about budgets (an arithmetic operation, the sum of revenues and expenditures) but only speaks to revenues. They would point to the sizable increase in tax revenues under Reagan (Table 1) as proof that moving down the Laffer Curve from a prohibitively high rate to a more appropriate, lower rate does increase revenues. On the other hand, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP actually decreased during Reagan's tenure. Another key point, though, is that what the government then does with those increased revenues is a separate political question, and thus supply-siders argue that their tax policy prescriptions are distinct from budget expenditure prescriptions--supply-siders are focused on how to maximize production, not advocating how best to consume.

It has been contended by some supply-side critics that the argument to lower taxes to increase revenues was a smokescreen for "starving" the government of revenues and who hoped that the tax cuts would lead to a commensurate drop in government spending. However, this did not turn out to be the case; Paul Samuelson called this notion "the tape worm theory — the idea that the way to get rid of a tape worm is stab your patient in the stomach". Supply-side advocates like Wanniski counter that social and fiscal conservatives who supported the supply-side prescription on tax policy for this reason were misguided and did not understand the Laffer Curve.

Fiscal policy theory

Supply-side economics holds that increased taxation steadily reduces economic trade between economic participants within a nation and that it discourages investment. Taxes act as a type of trade barrier or tariff that causes economic participants to revert to less efficient means of satisfying their needs. As such higher taxation leads to lower levels of specialization and lower economic efficiency. The idea is said to be illustrated by the Laffer curve. (Case & Fair, 1999: 780, 781).

Crucial to the operation of supply-side theory is the expansion of free trade and free movement of capital. It is argued that free capital movement, in addition to the classical reasoning of comparative advantage, frequently allows an economic expansion. Lowering tax barriers to trade provides to the domestic economy all the advantages that the international economy gets from lower tariff barriers.

Supply-side economists have less to say on the effects of deficits, and sometimes cite Robert Barro’s work that states that rational economic actors will buy bonds in sufficient quantities to reduce long term interest rates. Critics argue that standard exchange rate theory would predict, instead, a devaluation of the currency of the nation running the high budget deficit, and eventual "crowding out" of private investment.

According to Mundell "Fiscal discipline is a learned behavior." To put it another way, eventually the unfavourable effects of running persistent budget deficits will force governments to reduce spending in line with their levels of revenue. This view is also promoted by Victor Canto.

The central issue at stake is the point of diminishing returns on liquidity in the investment sector: Is there a point where additional money is "pushing on a string"? To the supply-side economist, reallocation away from consumption to private investment, and most especially from public investment to private investment, will always yield superior economic results. In standard monetarist and Keynesian theory, however, there will be a point where increases in asset prices will produce no new supply, that is where investment demand will outrun potential investment supply, and produce instead, asset inflation, or in common terms a bubble. The existence of this point, and where it is should it exist, is the essential question of the efficacy of supply-side economics.

Monetary policy theory

Supply-siders advocate that monetary policy should be based on a price rule. The aim of monetary policy should be to target a specific value of money irrespective of the quantity of money that must be created or withdrawn by the central bank to achieve this target. This contrasts with monetarism's focus on the quantity of money, and Keynesian theory's emphasis on real aggregate demand. The important difference is that to a monetarist the quantity of money, specifically represented by the money supply is the crucial determining variable for the relationship between the supply and demand for money, while to a Keynesian adequate demand to support the available money supply is important. Keynes famously remarked that "money doesn't matter".

This is an area where supply-side theory has been particularly influential. Under macroeconomic theory, the general level of price was based on the strict increase in price of a basket of goods. Under supply-side theory, the rate of inflation should be based on the substitutions that individuals make in the market place, and should take into account the improved quality of goods. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, under Presidents of both American political parties, shifts were made in the calculation of the broadly followed measure of inflation the "Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers", or CPI-W, which reflected supply-side ideas on substitution. The argument for factoring in goods quality was not accepted, which has led supply-side economists to claim that the real CPI is actually between .5% and 1% lower than the stated rate.

This area represents one of the points of contention between conservative economic theorists who argue for a quantity of money theory of inflation, including Austrian economics, many strict gold standard economists and traditional monetarists, and supply-side theorists. According to the increases in money supply during the 1990s, the real rate of inflation must be higher than is currently stated. These economists argue that the cost of housing is understated in the CPI-W, and that the inflation rate should be between .5% and 1% higher. It is for this reason that many central bankers, investment analysts and economists follow the GDP deflator which measures the total output of the society and the prices paid for all goods, not merely consumer goods.

Typically, supply-siders view gold as the best unit of account with which to measure the price of fiat money, which is defined as a money supply not directly limited by specie or hard assets. Hence the purest supply-siders are in general advocates of a gold standard. However the reverse is not true; many gold standard advocates are harsh critics of supply-side economics.

Supply-side economists assert that the value of money is purely dictated by the supply and demand for money. In fiat money system the government has a legislated monopoly on the supply of base money. Hence it has complete control over the value of money. Any decline in the value of money (or appreciation) is hence viewed as the result of errant central bank policy.

U.S. monetary and fiscal experience

Supply-side economists seek a cause and effect relationship between lowering marginal rates on capital formation and economic expansion. The supply-side history of economics since the 1960s hinges on the following key turning points:

The 1960s

The Kennedy tax cuts which reduced marginal rates are believed by supply-side economists to be responsible for the 1960s prosperity. The more generally accepted political stand among supply-side detractors is that the tax program of 1963, by reducing the incentives to shelter income, reduced economic distortion. For example, while the theoretical top bracket rate was originally 90%, in practice no one paid this rate, using various loopholes and deductions to avoid paying.

The 1970s

In 1971, President Nixon ended the Gold standard in the U.S. In 1971, President Nixon ended the Gold standard in the U.S.

In 1971, Richard Nixon ended the convertibility of the US dollar into gold, which meant the end of the Bretton Woods system. Commodity prices, including oil and gold particularly, which had been rising steadily in response to the dollar glut, spiked upwards. The supply-side explanation for this event is that taxation on investment had depleted the incentive to capital investment either in new sources of materials or in substitute goods, which when combined with eroding confidence in the U.S. dollar cause it to be rapidly devalued. Many supply siders agree with gold investors in saying that the value of commodities remained constant and that it was the dollar that devalued.

At the same time the Mundell-Fleming model of currency flows gained greater credence when it was codified into a single set of equations, and became increasingly influential in neo-liberal economics. The argument for a floating currency regime had first been adopted by Friedman, but supply-side economists such as Wanniski typically argued that exchange rates should be fixed relative to gold. Mundell was the author of the influential view that it was Johnson's budget deficits that were the cause of inflationary pressure. However, as Lester Thurow pointed out, the standard model of inflationary pressure shows that Johnson's peak year of deficits would have created only a small upward pressure, that instead it was persistent American trade deficits through the 1960s which had a greater effect on the imbalance between the value of the U.S. dollar and the gold to which it was, in theory, convertible.

Robert Mundell believes Nixon's failure to cut taxes in the early 1970s to be the cause of stagflation, his argument being that the incentive for individuals to invest was reduced to below zero. Measuring the S&P 500 in inflation-adjusted terms, the stock market lost half of its value between the market peak of 1972 and its bottom in 1982, with money seeking better returns in real estate and commodities instead. The argument from the supply-side point of view then goes on to state that the cuts in capital gains tax rates that were part of the 1981 tax package returned incentives to invest. The Keynesian point of view is that after a long bear market, money had fled from stocks and was set to return, once the expectation of inflation had been reduced. Neither of these two arguments fully accounts for the rise of equities over the course of the "long Bull Market" of 1982-2000.

The importance of this argument needs to be seen in light of the effects of the inflation of the late 1970s, where credit became constricted, as interest rates rose rapidly, and the number of borrowers who could qualify for even standard mortgages fell. Inflation acted as a tax on wage increases, because the highly progressive income tax system of the time meant that more and more households suffered from "bracket creep" - in which a wage increase would be reduced in value by the increased taxes collected. The effects of inflation produced, in 1980, a strong political consensus for a change in basic policy.


Ronald Reagan made supply-side economics a household phrase, and promised an "across the board" reduction in income tax rates and an even larger reduction in capital gains tax rates. (Case & Fair, 1999: 781, 782). When vying for the Republican party presidential nomination for the 1980 election, George H.W. Bush derided Reagan's supply-side policies as "voodoo economics". However, later he seemed to give lip service to these policies to secure the Republican nomination in 1988, and is speculated by some to have lost in his re-election bid in 1992 by allowing tax increases. (See: "Read my lips: No new taxes.")

Supply-side economics was critiqued from the right as well, for example hard gold standard advocates, such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute, have argued that there is no such thing as a dollar, merely a specific quantity of gold. Therefore, according to this view, the entire central bank mechanism which supply-side economics advocates is a needless fiction which creates anomalies in the price of commodities. In their view, the central problem was that the United States needed to reassert a hard gold standard first, and this would force the necessary reductions in expenditures.

The centrepiece of the supply-side argument is the economic rebound from the 1980-1982 double dip recession, combined with the continued fall in commodity prices. The "across the board" tax cuts of 1981 are seen as the great motivator for the "Seven Fat Years". Critics of this view point out that the "rebound" from the "Reagan Recession" of 1981-1982 is exactly in accordance with the "disinflation" scenario predicted by IS/LM models of the late 1970s: essentially that the increases in fed funds rates squeezed out inflation, and that federal budget deficits acted to "prime the pump". This model had been the basis of Volcker's federal reserve policy.

In 1981, Robert Mundell told Ronald Reagan that by cutting upper bracket taxation rates, and by lowering tax rates on capital gains, national output would increase so much that tax revenues would also increase. Mundell claimed that the economic expansion would also mop up excess liquidity and bring inflation back under control. After the tax cuts were implemented, nominal revenues quickly returned to and ultimately surpassed previous levels. While revenues dropped as a share of GDP, supply-siders note they intended for this fall to happen, since cutting tax rates would preclude a rise in taxes collected relative to national income.

The question of whether the tax cuts proved Mundell's predictions correct has sparked much debate between supply-siders and mainstream economists. While nominal revenues rebounded after the tax cuts, mainstream economists note that comparing nominal tax collections over time fails to take into account inflation. By converting tax revenues from nominal to real terms, these economists have shown that tax revenues did not surpass their 1981 levels until 1987.


Critics of supply-side economics pointed to the lack of academic credentials by movement leaders such as Jude Wanniski and Robert Bartley to imply that the theories were bankrupt. Mundell in his Nobel Prize lecture countered that the success of price stability was proof that the supply-side revolution had worked. The continuing debate over supply-side policies tends to focus on the massive federal and current account deficits that have accumulated in the U.S. since 1980, although the Laffer Curve only predicts revenue increases and has nothing to do with government spending.

After the emergence of supply-side economics, several economists using supply-side theory began advocating a flat-tax system. While generally associated with conservative politics, such as former Presidential candidate Steve Forbes, flat-tax systems based on Value-Added Taxes have been proposed by liberal economists and by at least one Democratic Presidential Candidate.(citation needed)

The paradigm of a tax system which rewards investment over consumption was accepted across the political spectrum, and no plan not rooted in supply-side economic theories has been advanced in the United States since 1982 (with the exception of the Clinton tax cuts of 1993) which had any serious chance of passage into law. In 1986, a tax overhaul, described by Mundell as "the completion of the supply-side revolution" was drafted. It included increases in payroll taxes, decreases in top marginal rates, and increases in capital gains taxes. Combined with the mortgage interest deduction and the regressive effects of state taxation - it produces closer to a flat-tax effect. Proponents, such as Mundell and Laffer, point to the dramatic rise in the stock market as a sign that the tax overhaul was effective, although they note that the hike in capital gains may be more trouble than it was worth.

The 1990s

Supply-siders blame the 1991 recession on the Federal Reserve, and argue that Clinton's tax increases, since they did not change marginal capital gains tax rates, left the supply-side nature of the 1986 tax bill in place. Similarly, supply-side economists have argued that since the early phases of the massive tax breaks of George W. Bush's first two years were based on credits and not cuts in marginal rates, they did not act to stimulate the economy, although the effect on individual income remains the same.

More generally, traditional economists point to the "overhang" of deficits from the Reagan era, the S&L bailout, the effects of a ballooning federal budget deficit, the defense budget cuts which began in earnest in 1989, and the expectation of a lack of continued fiscal discipline as the source of the recession. These arguments blame the legacy of Democratic Deficits forced upon Reagan, rather than deficits created by Reagan's own administration. Critics of supply-side economics often argue the inflated government deficits that accompanied the arrival of supply-side economics are of greater concern than the economic and stock market success of supply-side theory.

A Trojan Horse

Stronger critiques of supply-side economics dismiss the entire project as a complete failure which is a trojan horse for reducing marginal tax rates on upper income brackets. These critiques are found in Samuel Bowles' work, which argues that real productivity fell under supply-side taxation regimes on a unit-worker basis. Paul Krugman of Princeton called supply-side economics "Peddling Prosperity" and dismissed it as being unworthy of serious economists in a 1994 book written for the general audience. Since Krugman's early work was in international currency areas, the very theory for which Mundell received his Nobel Prize, his criticism was drawn in specifically sharp terms.

These criticisms point to the explosion in deficits and the conversion of price volatility to currency volatility as proofs that supply-side economics does not work. Supply-side defenders counter that the theory was never designed to consider government spending, and therefore cannot be blamed for this outcome. They also counter that tax revenues and the economy grew under supply-side policy, as predicted and that the Laffer Curve worked as advertised.

In 2003, the Wall Street Journal declared the debate over supply-side economics to have ended "with a whimper" after extensive modelling performed by the Congressional Budget Office failed to support supply-side policies. It was also suggested that Dan Crippen may have lost his chance at reappointment as head of the CBO for failing to support supply-side inspired dynamic scoring.

Supply-side economics in popular culture

Supply-side economics have been discussed and critiqued in books, songs and films. The social activist and cartoonist Dan Perkins (who writes under the pen name Tom Tomorrow) has repeatedly criticised the theory in his weekly cartoon This Modern World.

It was also mentioned by Ben Stein in the popular 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Comedian and author Al Franken lampoons Supply Side Economics in his 2004 book "Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," in a comic book style chapter illustrated by Don Simpson (cartoonist) entitled The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus.

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