THE ENORMOUS flows of money into IRA accounts, racing the April 15 deadline, may possibly be signaling an increase in Americans' savings. But it's more likely to mean merely that the usual level of savings is on the move to new places better sheltered from taxation. While most economists believe that in principle a higher savings rate would be healthy for the country, most of them--including those who serve the administration--would prefer to see consumers spend rather than save at the present moment. The economic recovery will need more help from retail sales. The anxiety over low spending, and the silence about saving, is a measure of the distance that events have departed from the original Reagan strategy.
The need to raise the savings rate was one of the strongest arguments in favor of the big Reagan tax cuts. Lower tax rates, the theory held, would encourage people to save on a scale sufficient to finance a great surge of industrial development. There would be savings on such a scale, according to the more enthusiastic versions of the theory, that there was no need to worry about financing any modest budget deficit that might result from lower taxes. But things haven't worked out that way.
Last year Americans saved 6.5 percent of their personal income after taxes. That was about the same as the year before, and a little more than in 1980. But it was a good deal less than in the middle 1970s. So far, there's no sign that the tax changes have affected people's saving habits at all. Whatever justification history may eventually find for the tax cuts, an immediate and powerful response in savings isn't going to be one of them. On the contrary, the strongest argument for going ahead with the third stage of the cut next July is the familiar Keynesian one that it will lift consumers' spending in a weak economy that needs it.
The whole episode suggests that manipulation of the tax code isn't a terribly effective way of changing most people's habits in managing their personal money. It works beautifully in the business sector, where funds are handled by professionals using the tax system's incentives to increase returns. But people very frequently have other values to follow in disposing of their own incomes. As for saving, the tax code still discriminates sharply against savings by providing deductions for the interest on money borrowed while taxing the interest earned on money tucked away. The real significance of the IRA is that it provides a modest but useful precedent for reducing that discrimination.