Bruce Bartlett: “Starve the Beast” ... where the metaphor comes from

Roundup: Talking About History

[Bruce Bartlett is a syndicated columnist. He was formerly a staff economist to Congressman Jack Kemp, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury Department.]

In recent years, one of the most common metaphors for using tax cuts to discipline government spending has been “starve the beast.” The idea is that if revenues are unilaterally reduced, this reduction will lead to a higher budget deficit, which will force legislators to enact spending cuts. Thus, using tax cuts to bring about spending cuts has been called “starving the beast.” The budgetary experience of recent years, in which Congress has enacted large tax cuts and large spending increases at the same time, has caused some former supporters of the starve-the-beast idea to reconsider their view. However, the metaphor remains a powerful one. In this article, I trace the origins and development of the idea and the reasons why it rose to prominence not just among policymakers, but among professional economists as well.

The earliest reference I have seen to the phrase starve the beast appeared in a Washington Post article one hundred years ago. The author, Charles Edward Barnes (1907), used it literally to refer to intentionally starving an animal. In Barnes’s account, an Indian had captured a tiger in a pit and needed to get it into a cage so that it could be transported and sold. The tiger had no desire to enter the cage, so the Indian simply starved it until it entered the cage to get some food that had been placed there. Here, “starve the beast” is a variation of the old carrot-and-stick idea.

The oldest expression I have found of the notion that tax cuts will hold down government spending comes from economist John Kenneth Galbraith. In the early 1960s, on leave from Harvard, he was serving President John F. Kennedy, whom he had tutored there, as ambassador to India. Despite being far from Washington, Galbraith remained keenly interested in economic policy debates in the United States, especially the debate over cutting taxes to give the economy a Keynesian boost. On a trip to the United States in June 1962, he first heard about the administration’s plans for a big tax cut and argued strenuously against it, even going so far as to tell Kennedy himself that it was a bad idea. In his diary, Galbraith wrote that his main concern was that “lower tax revenues will become a ceiling on spending” (1969, 381). As an administration appointee, Galbraith had to keep his reservations about the tax cut private. In 1965, however, he was back at Harvard and free to speak his mind publicly. On February 24, testifying before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, he said: “I was never as enthusiastic as many of my fellow economists over the tax reduction of last year. The case for it as an isolated action was undoubtedly good. But there was danger that conservatives, once introduced to the delights of tax reduction, would like it too much. Tax reduction would then become a substitute for increased outlays on urgent social needs. We would have a new and reactionary form of Keynesianism with which to contend” (Joint Economic Committee 1965, 13). Galbraith was prescient. At the time, most conservatives adamantly favored a balanced budget in any circumstances. In Congress, Republicans for the most part opposed the Kennedy tax cut for this reason.1 However, as Galbraith anticipated, they would eventually come to change their view of this matter.

The earliest recent use I have seen of the precise term starve the beast as it relates to the budget appeared in a Wall Street Journal news story in 1985. Reporter Paul Blustein quoted an unnamed White House official as lamenting that not enough had been done to cut spending during the Reagan administration. “We didn’t starve the beast,” the official said. “It’s still eating quite well—by feeding off future generations.”...

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