Apolitical technicians working in an ahistorical profession. What are the odds of a happy ending?
The graphic above summarizes the U.S. top marginal income tax rate from 1913 (the year the 16th Amendment was ratified by the states) to 2021. One clear takeaway is that for the vast bulk of the 20th century, the wealthy paid much higher taxes.
As the graphic suggests, however, that changed with the election of Ronald Reagan, whose inaugural address launched an ideological revolution with a simple and memorable message: “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Reagan Inaugural Address (Jan 21, 1981). Thus, with the public’s consent, top marginal tax rates were slashed throughout the 1980s. At the 1988 Republican Convention, George H.W. Bush (Reagan’s VP) spoke the words, “read my lips: no new taxes,” which helped him defeat Michael Dukakis in the general election. See Lily Rothman, “The Story Behind George H.W. Bush’s Famous ‘Read My Lips, No New Taxes’ Promise,” Time, Dec 1, 2018. Yet, the political mood of the late 1980s was also strongly anti-deficit. In 1990, when Congress enacted pay-as-you-go rules for federal budgeting, Bush, who was saddled with a massive Saving & Loan bailout, agreed to increase the top marginal rate from 28% to 31% — an act that arguably ended his political career. See Howard Gleckman, “Reading President Bush’s Lips,” Tax Policy Center, Dec 5, 2018.
Since the early 1990s, much of the electorate has enjoyed the political stability and relative economic prosperity of the “End of History” era, which is a reference to Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay and 1992 book.
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