When he was running for office in 2008, Barack Obama, in a primary debate with Hillary Clinton, received the following question from Charlie Gibson of ABC News:
MR. GIBSON: You have… said you would favor an increase in the capital gains tax. As a matter of fact, you said on CNBC, and I quote, “I certainly would not go above what existed under Bill Clinton, which was 28 percent.”
It’s now 15 percent. That’s almost a doubling if you went to 28 percent. But actually Bill Clinton in 1997 signed legislation that dropped the capital gains tax to 20 percent.
SENATOR OBAMA: Right.
MR. GIBSON: And George Bush has taken it down to 15 percent.
SENATOR OBAMA: Right.
MR. GIBSON: And in each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?
It was surprising but refreshing to see this level of economic savvy from Charlie Gibson. He was right on the money. A lower tax rate on a higher volume of revenue brings in more money than a higher tax rate on a lower volume of revenue. If the capital gains tax were raised to 100 percent, it would be just like raising airplane ticket prices to a million bucks a head. The high price would bring in no money, because no one would be stupid enough to buy a ticket – or take a capital gain – when the system was so punitive.
So here was Obama’s answer:
SENATOR OBAMA: Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness. We saw an article today which showed that the top 50 hedge fund managers made $29 billion last year – $29 billion for 50 individuals. And part of what has happened is that those who are able to work the stock market and amass huge fortunes on capital gains are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries. That’s not fair.
Obama did not dispute Gibson’s point. But he didn’t care. The overriding principle is fairness, so he was willing to raise the capital gains tax. Even if it cost the government money to do it!
This makes no sense. A secretary’s paycheck isn’t going to get any bigger if the boss has to pay more in capital gains tax. In fact, it is quite the opposite, since that boss now has fewer resources to reinvest into the business. Yet Obama was interested in raising taxes not to get more money for the government, but solely to punish the rich.
He continued, trying to temper his remarks but still digging himself deeper into his hole:
SENATOR OBAMA: And what I want is not oppressive taxation. I want businesses to thrive and I want people to be rewarded for their success. But what I also want to make sure is that our tax system is fair and that we are able to finance health care for Americans who currently don’t have it and that we’re able to invest in our infrastructure and invest in our schools.
If you want money for “investments,” don’t raise the taxes and squelch off government revenue!
Incredibly, Gibson manages to call him on this.
MR. GIBSON: But history shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up.
To which Obama lamely responded:
SENATOR OBAMA: Well, that might happen or it might not.
And the sun might rise tomorrow or it might not. And United Airlines might have lots of planes full of people paying a million dollars a ticket. One cannot repeal the law of supply and demand, no matter how “fair” you want to remake the world.
In fact, the amount of revenue as a percentage of GDP collected from taxes remains remarkable stable, regardless of where the rates are. So if lower rates can bring in just as much revenue as higher rates, lower tax rates should be the default position for all actions by the federal government.