George Will Hails JFK's 70 Percent Income Tax Rate

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 21 2013 11:11 AM

George Will Hails JFK's 70 Percent Income Tax Rate

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You know who else liked 70% tax rates?

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

George Will has a very curious column about John F. Kennedy's tax and fiscal policies that remarkably fails to tell us what tax rate JFK favored:

As president, JFK chose as Treasury secretary a Republican Wall Street banker, C. Douglas Dillon, who 30 years after the assassination remembered Kennedy as “financially conservative.” Kennedy’s fiscal policy provided an example and ample rhetoric for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts. Kennedy endorsed “a creative tax cut creating more jobs and income and eventually more revenue.” In December 1962, he said:
The federal government’s most useful role is . . . to expand the incentives and opportunities for private expenditures. . . . [I]t is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.”
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In case you're wondering, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Kennedy tax cut proposal into law after JFK's death the top marginal income tax rate was brought all the way down to 70 percent. Corporate rates were also lowered down to 48 percent. That doesn't sound all that conservative to me.

Or, rather, I suppose the fact that Will would think it's conservative highlights what's wrong with the way conservatives think about tax policy. From the my perspective the idea is to have the right tax rate and the striking thing about JFK's top marginal rate is that it's (a) very high than today's standards, but (b) close to the rate prescribed by some recent provocative research on optimal taxation from Emannuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. For Will, there's no question of getting tax rates right. It's only a question of getting them higher or lower. So the important thing about Kennedy is that he wanted the top rate to be lower than it had been previously, rather than that he wanted it to be 70 percent. Fair's fair, but what's really amazing about Will is that he can't even see that liberals would see it this way. In his mind, liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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