The argument that the near-doubling of revenues during Reagan's two terms proves the value of tax cuts is an old argument. It's also extremely flawed. At 99.6 percent, revenues did nearly double during the 80s. However, they had likewise doubled during EVERY SINGLE DECADE SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION! They went up 502.4% during the 40's, 134.5% during the 50's, 108.5% during the 60's, and 168.2% during the 70's. At 96.2 percent, they nearly doubled in the 90s as well. Hence, claiming that the Reagan tax cuts caused the doubling of revenues is like a rooster claiming credit for the dawn.

Furthermore, the receipts from individual income taxes (the only receipts directly affected by the tax cuts) went up only 91.3 percent during the 80's. Meanwhile, receipts from Social Insurance, which is directly affected by the FICA tax rate, went up 140.8 percent. This large increase was largely due to the fact that the FICA tax rate went up 25% from 6.13 to 7.65 percent of payroll. Hence, the claim that the doubling of TOTAL revenues proves the effectiveness of tax cuts is including revenues which resulted from a tax hike to prove the effectiveness of a tax cut. This seems like the height of hypocrisy.

Hence, what evidence there is suggests there to be a correlation between lower taxes and LOWER revenues, not HIGHER revenues as suggested by supply-siders. There may well be valid arguments in favor of tax cuts. But higher tax revenues does not appear to be one of them.


The argument that the near-doubling of revenues during Reagan's two terms proves the value of tax cuts is an old argument. It's also extremely flawed. The growth of receipts by source, outlays, and GDP over every 8-year period since 1940 is shown in the graph and tables at recgro03.html. As can be seen in the first table, total receipts increased 75.84 percent from 1980 to 1988. However, this was the slowest 8-year growth rate since a 75.62 percent growth in total receipts from 1963 to 1971. Of course, these results are likely skewed by the high inflation that occurred during the 70's. Hence, it makes more sense to look at the "real" growth rates, that is, the growth rates corrected for inflation. The second table shows that the real growth rate from 1980 to 1988 was 20.72%. The 8-year growth rates increased in the following years to a high of 33.11% from 1983 to 1991. However, the real growth rate of total receipts reached higher highs of 38.15% in 1971 to 1979 and 57.02% from 1992 to 2000.

Another serious flaw in the doubling of revenues argument is that it looks at all revenues. The FICA tax rate increased from 6.13 percent in 1980 to 7.51 percent in 1988. To include an increase in revenues gained through a tax hike in order to argue in favor of tax cuts would be the height of hypocrisy. Hence, we need to look only at revenues obtained from individual income taxes. According to the second table, the real growth in individual income tax receipts was 12.84% from 1980 to 1988 and 13.80% from 1981 to 1989. These were the lowest growth rates of any of the 55 8-year spans from 1940 to 2002 except for four. These four 8-year spans were 1952 to 1960 (9.12%), 1953 to 1961 (7.72%), 1968 to 1976 (11.61%), and 1969 to 1977 (3.28%). The highest real growth rate was 78.55% from 1992 to 2000, following the 1993 tax hike.

Hence, the evidence is that the Reagan tax cuts DECREASED revenues over what they would have been, at least over the short (8-year) term. The only remaining argument in favor of the Reagan tax cuts, at least from a revenue point of view, would seem to be that they permanently raised the level of the GDP, thus bringing in slightly higher revenues far into the future. According to the graph and second table, the GDP reached a high 8-year growth rate of 34.3% from 1982 to 1990. However, the GDP seems to have reaching a similar high about every ten years over the past several decades. It reached a high of 41.57% from 1958 to 1966, 29.20% from 1971 to 1979, and 32.58% from 1992 to 2000. Hence, these figures don't provide any strong evidence that the Reagan tax cuts permanently affected the GDP one way or the other.


The Office of Tax Analysis of the U.S. Treasury Department has put out a paper titled Revenue Effects of Major Tax Bills. The following estimate of the revenue effects of all major tax bills enacted under Reagan is taken from Table 2 of that document:


                                                        Number of
                                                    years after enactment     First
                                                  --------------------------   2-yr   4-yr
Tax bill                                            1      2      3      4      avg    avg
------------------------------------------------  ----------------------------------------
Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981...............  -1.21  -2.60  -3.58  -4.15  -1.91  -2.89
Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982   0.53   1.07   1.08   1.23   0.80   0.98
Highway Revenue Act of 1982.....................   0.05   0.11   0.10   0.09   0.08   0.09
Social Security Amendments of 1983..............   0.17   0.22   0.22   0.24   0.20   0.21
Interest and Dividend Tax Compliance Act of 1983  -0.07  -0.06  -0.05  -0.04  -0.07  -0.05
Deficit Reduction Act of 1984...................   0.24   0.37   0.47   0.49   0.30   0.39
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985.......   0.02   0.06   0.06   0.06   0.04   0.05
Tax Reform Act of 1986..........................   0.41   0.02  -0.23  -0.16   0.22   0.01
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987.......   0.19   0.28   0.30   0.27   0.24   0.26
TOTAL...........................................   0.33  -0.53  -1.63  -1.97  -0.10  -0.95

Source: OTA Working Paper 81, Table 2, Office of Tax Analysis, U.S. Treasury Department,
        online at http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/tax-policy/library/ota81.pdf

The above table shows that Reagan's initial tax cut in 1981 was estimated to have a large negative effect on revenues. This is apparent in the graph titled "Receipts and Selected Tax Rates" at recsrc.html which shows a sharp drop in individual income tax revenues from 1982 to 1984. This drop was arguably a major motivation for the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984, both of which had a positive effect on revenues and helped to stabilize them. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 (which cut the top marginal rate from 50 to 28 percent), however, appeared to have only a slight effect on revenues. How could this be? The answer lies in looking more closely at the provisions in the two tax bills. Following are the provisions listed by the Treasury document for the 1981 tax bill:

Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981

  1. phased-in 23% cut in individual tax rates; top rate dropped from 70% to 50%
  2. accelerated depreciation deductions; replaced depreciation system with ACRS
  3. indexed individual income tax parameters (beginning in 1985)
  4. created 10% exclusion on income for two-earner married couples ($3,000 cap)
  5. phased-in increase in estate tax exemption from $175,625 to $600,000 in 1987
  6. reduced Windfall Profit taxes
  7. allowed all working taxpayers to establish IRAs
  8. expanded provisions for employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs)
  9. replaced $200 interest exclusion with 15% net interest exclusion ($900 cap) (begin in 1985)

As can be seen, all of the provisions are effectively tax cuts. On the other hand, following are the provisions listed by the document for the 1986 tax bill:

Tax Reform Act of 1986

  1. reduced individual income tax rates (top rate 28%) and repealed capital gains exclusion
  2. repealed investment tax credit
  3. lowered corporation income tax rates; top rate lowered to 34 percent
  4. increased personal exemption amount from $1,080 to $2,000
  5. set uniform capitalization rules for manufacturing or construction
  6. increased standard deduction from $3,670 to $5,000 (joints)
  7. limited deduction for nonbusiness interest
  8. repealed second earner deduction
  9. limited passive losses
  10. established income limits on use of IRAs for taxpayers covered by pensions
  11. revised corporate minimum tax
  12. repealed sales tax deduction for individuals
  13. set 2-percent floor on miscellaneous itemized deductions

As can be seen, a number of these provisions are effectively tax hikes, offsetting the additional cuts in the tax rates. Those provisions include items 2, 7 through 10, 12, 13, and the second half of item 1 (repeal of the capital gains exclusion). That is likely the major reason why revenues did not fall further. In any case, this shows that the top marginal rate does not always tell the whole story about the level of individual income taxes.


I have done very little analysis of the effect of the Kennedy tax cut on revenues. From the little I've done, the data seems inconclusive. Real income tax revenues did go up 67% from 1961 to 1969. However, the top marginal rate went briefly up to 77 percent in 1969. In addition, real income tax revenues went up just 3.28% over the next 8 years despite the fact that the top marginal rate went back down to 70 percent.

In any case, it's important to note that the Kennedy tax cut reduced the top marginal rate from 91% to 70%. Reagan went on to reduce it from 70% to 50% in 1981 and from 50% to 28% in 1986. A marginal rate of 91% seems exceptionally high, at least by today's standards. Hence, it would seem possible that Kennedy's tax cut was beneficial, at least in reducing this oppressive top marginal rate but that Reagan's tax cuts took the marginal rates to a level where the negative effects far outweighed any positive effects.

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