The right’s misplaced love of JFK tax cuts

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.