Lower Corporate Taxes Have Not Led to Higher Real Wages

A recently released report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) claims that cutting the headline corporate income tax rate from the current 35% to 20% would lead to a jump in the real incomes of American households by a minimum of $4,000 a year and possibly by as much as $9,000.  Others have criticized those forecasts for a variety of reasons, and Larry Summers has called the estimates “absurd”.

Indeed, they are absurd.  One way to see this is by looking at the historical evidence.  This is not the first time the US would cut its corporate tax rates.  Did such cuts in the past then lead to a jump in real wages?  As the chart above suggests, the answer is no.  This blog post will discuss that evidence, as well as other issues with the CEA analysis prepared under (and it appears largely by) its new chair Kevin Hassett.  But first some background on the CEA and its new chair, and what this recent incident portends for the Council and its previous reputation for professionalism.

The Council of Economic Advisers has, until now, been a highly respected office in the White House, set up to provide the president with objective and professional economic advice on the key economic issues of the day.  The Council was established in 1946 during the Truman administration, and has had as its chair and its members many illustrious and well-respected economists.  A number later received the Nobel Prize in Economics and similar awards.  While the CEA can be and has been political at times (it is located in the Office of the President, after all), it has had an able staff who were expected to provide professional assessments of the issues as a service to the president.  Many came on leave from academic posts.  As an example of the type of staff they could draw, both Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, then young and rising economists, were on the Council staff in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration.

The current chair is Kevin Hassett.  Trump did not nominate someone to the position until April, and Hassett took up his post (following Senate approval) only on September 13.  Prior to this post, Hassett was perhaps best known for co-authoring (with James K. Glassman) the 1999 book titled “Dow 36,000”, in which he forecast the Dow Jones Industrial Average would reach 36,000 by 2002 and certainly no later than by 2004.  In the event, the Dow never exceeded 11,750 (in January 2000) and dropped to 7,200 in October 2002, as the Bush administration’s first recession took hold.

Hassett has now, as one of his first official acts, released a formal CEA study that claims that if the Trump Tax Plan were enacted, with the headline corporate income tax cut from 35% to 20%, household incomes in the US would rise by a minimum of $4,000 per year, and possibly by as much as $9,000.  Larry Summers has termed it “dishonest, incompetent, and absurd”, and other economists have been similarly scathing.

The study really is pretty bad, and must be an embarrassment to the CEA staff. The report starts (Figure 1) with a chart that shows average real wage growth over the last several years (2013 to 2016) among the 10 OECD member countries with the highest statutory corporate income tax rates, as compared to that for the 10 OECD members with the lowest rates.  Between 2013 and 2016 (but essentially just in 2015) the wage growth was higher by a few percentage points in the set of OECD countries with the lower tax rates.  But the 10 OECD member countries with the lowest corporate tax rates were mostly countries from Central and Eastern Europe (Estonia, Latvia, and so on to Slovenia).  They were starting from lower wage rates than in the richer countries, and benefited as they opened up to globalization and in particular to the EU markets.  It is difficult to see how this simplistic correlation tells us much about what would happen if the US cut its corporate income tax rate.

Hassett then quantifies his estimate of the dollar gains per household by citing a number of obscure articles (several of which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal) to come up with estimates of possible elasticities (explained below) that relate how much household incomes would rise if corporate taxes were cut.  He concludes this review by asserting that an elasticity in the range of -0.16 to -0.33 would be reasonable, in his view.  The -0.16 figure came from a study from 2009 published in the “Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review”.  That is not exactly a prestigious journal.  And the -0.33 figure came from a 2007 paper that was presented at a conference, and does not appear to have ever been published.

An elasticity of -0.16 means that if the corporate tax rate were cut by 1% (not 1 percentage point, but rather by actually 1%, e.g. from 35% to 34.65%), then real wages would rise by 0.16%.  A 10% cut in the corporate tax rates (e.g. 35% to 31.5%) would lead, according to this assumption, to real wages rising by 1.6%.  And a cut in the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 20% (a 43% fall), as proposed in the Trump tax plan, would raise real wages by 6.9% under this assumption.  Hassett then applies this to the wage portion of household incomes to arrive at his calculated gain of $4,000 per household.  And the $9,000 gain is based on assuming an elasticity of -0.33.

There are numerous problems with this analysis, starting with the assumption that correlations are the same as causation.  There is also a question of what correlations are relevant.  The study that came up with the -0.33 elasticity, for example, looked at correlations across a panel of 50 countries.  It is not clear that such correlations would be of much relevance to judging the impact on real wages of a change in the US on corporate tax rates, as real wages across such a range of countries are driven by many factors (including, not least, the level of development).  And the -0.16 elasticity came from a study that examined correlations between real wages and corporate tax rates across the different states of the US.  But labor is mobile across US states, as is capital, plus the range of variation (state to state) in corporate tax rates is relatively modest as state taxes are relatively modest in size.  And indeed, it is not even clear how many companies actually pay the headline corporate income tax rates on the books, as states routinely grant them special tax holidays and other favors in order to try to get them to move to their states.

One would have thought that the most interesting investigation as to whether changes in corporate income taxes would matter in the US to real wages, would have been to see what actually happened in the US when such rates were cut in the past.  The fact that Hassett ignored this obvious question in the new CEA report is telling.  And there have indeed been earlier changes in the corporate tax rate, most notably (in recent decades) in 1987/88, following from the Tax Reform Act of 1986 during the Reagan administration.

The impact (or rather the lack of it) can be seen in the chart at the top of this post.  As had been discussed in earlier posts on this blog, real wages have been stagnant in the US (for the median wage earner) since around 1980.  The chart at the top of this post is an update of one prepared for a post from February 2015 that looked at the proximate causes of stagnant wages over this period, despite growth of real GDP per capita of more than 80% over the period.  While real GDP per capita is now 82% above what it was at the start of 1979, real wages (as measured by real median weekly earnings of full-time workers) are just 5.7% above where they were at the start of 1979.  Furthermore, the current “peak” of 5.7% growth can all be attributed to growth in the period since mid-2014, as the economy finally approached full employment levels in the later years of the Obama administration (having been held back by government spending cuts from 2010), with this carrying over into 2017.

The top corporate tax rate on profits was cut from 46% in the years up through 1986, to 40% in 1987 and then to just 34% in 1988 and thereafter to 1993 (when it was raised to the current level of 35%).  Did the cuts in 1987/88 lead to a sharp jump in real wages?  There is no indication of that at all in the chart.  Indeed, real wages fell by close to 6% between late 1986 and 1990, and then stayed at close to that low level until they started to rise some in the mid to late 1990s.  And there is no indication that the small increase in the corporate tax rate in 1993 to 35% led to wages then declining – indeed, they started to rise a few years later.

Based on this, one might come to the conclusion that a cut in corporate tax rates will lead to a fall (not an increase) in real wages, as seen following the 1987/88 cuts.  And also that a modest rise in the tax rate (such as in 1993) would lead to a gain in real wages a few years later.  But I would not claim this.  Rather, I would say that real wages and corporate tax rates are simply not closely linked to one another.  But for Hassett and others to claim that cuts in corporate taxes will lead to a significant jump in real wages, the exact opposite outcome following the 1987/88 cuts needs to be explained.

The CEA report was badly done, and must be an embarrassment to the professional staff there who certainly know better.  And as Larry Summers remarked in his blog post:  “Considering all this, if a Ph.D student submitted the CEA analysis as a term paper in public finance, I would be hard pressed to give it a passing grade.”