Ever hear of the Great Depression of 1920? No, me either. Do you know why? Because the recession that began shortly after World War I ended never deepened and never became “great” (as though any depression is great). There is a history lesson in that story that our leadership in Washington should keep in mind today.
As the United States, and the world, came out of World War I, the economies of the warring powers had been cranked up to full production to meet wartime demands. Suddenly, in 1918, the Armistice was announced, and within a year, troops began returning to civilian life. The influx of millions of soldiers worldwide introduced sudden unemployment, and thousands of farmers came back to farms that were already at or near full capacity, causing farm prices to fall. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson’s hand-picked successor, James Cox, the newspaper magnate from Dayton, Ohio, ran on a platform of reducing America’s wartime debt through a policy of maintaining Wilson’s outrageously high wartime tax rates.
The Progressive President Wilson had been in office when the Income Tax Amendment was passed—a story in itself. While the goal of the Progressives who favored an income tax was first and foremost wealth redistribution (not raising money to run the government), the income tax itself was largely sold to the American people on two major positive features. First, its rates were (by current standards) ridiculously low. Most people paid no income taxes at all, the bottom bracket paid only about 1%, and the very richest Americans paid only 6% (today, many states have higher income tax rates than that!). As a Vegas comedian would say, “What’s not to like?”
But it only took Wilson a couple of years of war to jack up the top rates to an astounding 73% (near confiscation) and hike the bottom rate to 25%.
Now for a little sidebar: how often have you heard that “World War II got us out of the Great Depression?” Probably more times than you can count. What is often forgotten is that when your very survival is at stake, as it was from 1941 to 1945, people will submit to most anything—rationing, confiscatory tax rates, muzzling of civil liberties. This is laudable and natural. But it is wholly unnatural and oppressive for a government to seek to maintain wartime tax levels and intrusions on civil liberties in peacetime. Hence, to return to our story, Wilson “got away” with the outrageously high tax rates during the war because . . . it was a war! Once the threat was over, however, Americans expected their country back.
Cox’s opponent, Warren Harding, also of Ohio, ran on a platform of returning the country to its pre-war “normal” economy and freedoms. While he didn’t explicitly endorse a tax cut, voters rightly inferred that’s what he meant, and sent him to the White House instead of Cox. In perhaps his shrewdest move, Harding asked Pittsburgh millionaire Andrew Mellon to be the Secretary of the Treasury. When Mellon told him he “didn’t want the job,” Harding knew he had the right guy. Mellon finally gave in, and immediately studied the recession, which was severe.
Various estimates of the 1920-1921 recession suggest that Gross National Product fell anywhere from 2.4% to a whopping 6.9%. Estimates of unemployment put the rate at between 7% and 8%. Interestingly, while most economists correctly identify the issue of returning troops as a “shock,” few note that the extremely high tax rates dragged the economy down faster than “Bernie” behind the boat (reference to “Weekend at Bernies,” if you haven’t seen it).
Mellon performed a review of another phenomenon: even though Wilson’s boys consistently pushed up tax rates, the relative return from those rates fell steadily. Without knowing it, Mellon had come up with an early version of the “Laffer Curve,” which says that at a certain point, raising taxes will result in less revenue to government, because people will silently revolt and either cease work or go into the black market. Mellon convinced Harding to ask Congress for a radical tax cut. Of course, many in government opposed. In a stunner, the New York Times of 1909 had actually warned that “when men get in the habit of keeping themselves to the property of others, they cannot easily be cured of it.” Harding died in office, but his successor, the great Calvin Coolidge, remained committed to steeply reducing tax rates. Mellon, Harding, and Coolidge succeeded in reducing the top rate from 73% to 25%, and the bottom rate from 25% to 5%. There are two observations one can make: a) that’s an astounding drop, and all three men are to be commended, and b) it was still many times higher than the pre-war rates!
Nevertheless, the economy quickly recovered. Unemployment rates fell, down to 5%, then 4%, then finally, in 1926, to 1.6% according to one study. Even more shocking, the share of taxes paid by the rich . . . skyrocketed. Those earning over $50,000 (a “supermillionaire” back then) had only paid 45% of the total taxes when the rates were sky-high, but after the Mellon cuts paid 62%. Those in the “Bill Gates” category of “so-rich-they-wouldn’t-pick-up-a-$100-bill-on-the-sidewalk” rich ($100,000 at the time), saw their share of taxes paid almost double, from 28% to 51%.
We call what happened next the “Roaring ‘20s,” because the economy absolutely went nuts. Average Americans came to own cars, radio, have appliances and the electricity to power them (electricity use rose by almost 300% between 1899 and 1929), telephones, and a myriad of other products once considered luxuries. Ford’s Model T, once considered revolutionary for its low cost and simplicity, now was out; General Motors, with its different car line for every income class was in. And they say tax cuts don’t work? Tell that to the Americans of the Roaring ‘20s.”
Professor of History, University of Dayton
co-author, A Patriot’s History of the United States