Political Animal


September 25, 2011 10:40 AM The right’s misplaced love of JFK tax cuts

By Steve Benen

Bill O’Reilly repeated a familiar refrain to go after President Obama’s plan to increase taxes on the wealthy in 2013, relying on President Kennedy’s tax cuts in 1962 to make a misleading historical point.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is urging President Obama to follow President John F. Kennedy’s footsteps and propose lowering taxes for the rich to spur economic growth. […]

“[I]n 1962, President Kennedy proposed a big tax cut for the rich in order to stimulate the economy and encourage investment. And the rates have been moderating ever since.” [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 9/22/11]

This comes up from time to time. It’s a little game the right plays to make it seem as if tax cuts are, or at least were, a bipartisan approach to economic growth. Given the spectacular failures of the Bush-era tax breaks, it’s tempting to think even the most stubborn Republican hack would give up and move on, but apparently that’s not the case.

So, let’s set the record straight. When Kennedy cut taxes, he lowered the top marginal tax from 91% to 65%. Many congressional Republicans opposed his plan at the time, citing concerns that the treasury couldn’t afford such a tax break — the Republican Party used to be quite serious about fiscal responsibility, but it’s been a half-century — but Kennedy proceeded anyway because the higher rates, instituted during World War II, were no longer necessary.

Also at the time, the country had very little debt — Eisenhower, thankfully, kept taxes high throughout the 1950s — almost no deficit. Fiscal conditions, obviously, are far different now.

Keep in mind, unlike contemporary GOP policy, Kennedy’s plan distributed “peace dividends” broadly across the wage spectrum. As the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation explained at the time, the bottom 85% of the population received 59% of the benefits of JFK’s tax cut. The top 2.4% received 17.4% of the tax cut, and the top 0.4% received just 6% of it.

Those on the right who see themselves as descendents of the Kennedy policy are either deeply confused or they assume you won’t bother to learn the truth.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • berttheclock on September 25, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Sean Hannity has been using this argument for years. Of course, he, also, refuses to believe any taxes were ever raised during the Reign of Reagan.

  • c u n d gulag on September 25, 2011 11:00 AM:

    "...are either deeply confused or they assume you wonít bother to learn the truth."

    To sum it up in two words - THEY'RE LYING!!!

  • hells littlest angel on September 25, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Kennedy's a beloved figure. I'm surprised right-wingers haven't started claiming he was a Republican.

  • martin on September 25, 2011 11:16 AM:

    I propose Obama submit a proposal to "lower" the tax rates to those of the Kennedy years.

  • Tom Marney on September 25, 2011 11:21 AM:

    Cutting taxes from too high to about right helps the economy.

    Cutting taxes from about right to too low hurts the economy.

    Cutting taxes from too low to way too low hurts the economy even worse.

    Raising taxes from too low to about right helps the economy.

    There, was that so difficult?

  • Tony Greco on September 25, 2011 11:29 AM:

    Sorry, Steve, but your second to last paragraph sounds just a bit disingenuous. The Kennedy tax cut distributed benefits "broadly," as you say, but you wouldn't have been able to say "evenly," would you? You're bragging that the top 0.4% received "just" 6% of the benefits, while the top 2.4% , 17.4%? A more disinterested assessment would say that the Kennedy tax cuts were also skewed to benefit the affluent, although perhaps not as grossly as those of their Republican successors.

  • Skip on September 25, 2011 11:33 AM:

    Dear President Obama,
    Do you really want to see Bill O'Reilly wearing a suit from J.C.Penney's? Don't worry about the rest of us, we're used to middle-class squalor. You do whatever it takes to SAVE THE RICH FIRST.

    Now that is a bumper sticker I actually would put on my economy base model commuter car with pride.

  • Ron Byers on September 25, 2011 11:34 AM:

    The Republicans are engaged in what I consider a sign of stupidity. Kennedy's policy might have been the right policy for the time, but that doesn't make it the right policy for all time. To the Republicans every problem is solved by one solution. A hammer is a handy tool, but it isn't the right tool if you want to drive a screw. On the other hand a screwdriver is a lousy hammer. I have both in my tool kit along with a lot of other devices. Why do Republicans limit themselves to one tool? It is just stupid.

  • DAY on September 25, 2011 11:45 AM:

    There's a graph out there that show our debt was pretty flat following the end of WWII- until 1980, when it began its steady climb toward the heavens. Any moment now it will hit Reagan in the ass- assuming he's up there. . .

  • berttheclock on September 25, 2011 11:57 AM:

    @Ron Byers, in addition, it depends on the skills of those using such tools. Put a hammer in my hand and it becomes a great instrument for soft demolition, but, never allow me near any fine finish carpentry with a hammer.

  • Anonymous on September 25, 2011 12:02 PM:

    This is why you can't argue with conservatives: they don't take even their own arguments seriously.

    Take the Laffer Curve. If you accept certain assumptions, and ones that form the core of classical liberal economics, it makes perfect sense. I don't agree with those assumptions but there are dozens of Nobelists who would tell me I was an idiot for not, so it is not like it is crazy to buy in to them. But the Laffer Curve is just that, a curve and suggests there is an optimal point at which incentives balance out with tax burden to maximize revenue. Which in turn suggests an empirical examination of where that rate should be: FDR to Ike 91%, JFK to Carter 65%, Reagan's various rates, Clintons 39.5%, W's 35%? Are we overtaxing or undertaxing? But the Right doesn't see it that way, the concept that Kennedy's cuts put us closer to the sweet spot on the Laffer Curve and that Reagan's cuts took us away is alien to them, a positive effect of a cut isn't an endorsement of the RESULT but of the PROCESS. Which if in fact your actual intended result is different from the stated one isn't a problem. For the Right tax cuts are the point and hence the solution to every problem however stated.

    I like to compare this to St. Anselm's and Descartes similar presentation of the Ontological Proof of the Existence of God. And whether you find the arguments convincing, the are certainly 'elegant' in the scientific sense. On the other hand it is not like either man would have worked through the logic and empirically come to the opposite conclusion. But at least each was willing to do the hard work necessary to justify sincere beliefs, you can't accuse either of sophistry.

    Lets just say modern conservative thinkers ain't no St. Anselm. Instead they only know enough to recite the Catechism, that is in the same basic position as a Catholic kid at First Communion. Which isn't a knock on six year olds, there is a reason why we call such things 'childlike faith'. But you think we could expect more from self-styled public intellectuals like George Will and Charles Krauthammer. Well no.

  • biggerbox on September 25, 2011 12:06 PM:

    So, then, we can say Bill O'Reilly is in favor of us setting the top rate to 65%?

    Sounds good. Let's go!

  • Old Uncle Dave on September 25, 2011 12:06 PM:

    The rich are the ones benefiting from war - let them pay for it!

  • Sean Scallon on September 25, 2011 1:13 PM:

    And Barry Goldwater opposed it.

  • DenverRight on September 26, 2011 1:59 PM:

    "...a little game the right plays to make it seem as if tax cuts are, or at least were, a bipartisan approach...So, letís set the record straight. When Kennedy cut taxes, he lowered the top marginal tax from 91% to 65%. Many congressional Republicans opposed his plan at the time...the Republican Party used to be quite serious about fiscal responsibility..."

    So, SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT, the Revenue Act of 1964 (the heart of the Kennedy tax plan, which reduced top marginal rates from 91% to 70%), received support from the left AND THE RIGHT. The large majority of Republicans voted TO PASS the Act in Feb, 1964: 64% support from Repubs in the Senate, 61% from Repubs in the House. So their calls for lower tax rates have been HISTORICAL as well as contemporary. Nice attempt at deception, Mr. Benen!

    And note, even higher support among Democrats in the 1964 Congress! 83% in the Senate, 85% in the House. Whatever happened to those tax-cutting Democrat idealogues?

  • Jim Price on September 28, 2011 3:05 PM:

    Anonymous is right about the Laffer Curve -- there's a tax rate that maximizes revenues. JFK's cuts raised revenues. Reagan's cuts raised revenues. Bush's cuts raised revenues. If we're really interested in increasing tax receipts, we should keep cutting rates until revenues actually go down.