Trickle-down economics is a colloquial term for supply-side economic policies. In recent history, the term has been used by critics of supply-side economic policies, such as "Reaganomics". Whereas general supply-side theory favors lowering taxes overall, trickle-down theory more specifically advocates for a lower tax burden on the upper end of the economic spectrum. Empirical evidence shows that the proposition is regressive and has never managed to achieve all of its stated goals as described by the Reagan administration.
Major examples of Republicans supporting what critics call "trickle-down economics" include the Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. In each of the aforementioned tax reforms, taxes were cut across all income brackets, but the biggest reductions were given to the highest income earners, although the Reagan era tax reforms also introduced the earned income tax credit which has received bipartisan praise for poverty reduction and is largely why the bottom half of workers pay no federal income tax. Similarly, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 cut taxes across all income brackets, but especially favored the wealthy.
The term "trickle-down" originated as a joke by humorist Will Rogers and today is often used to criticize economic policies that favor the wealthy or privileged while being framed as good for the average citizen. David Stockman, who as Ronald Reagan's budget director championed Reagan's tax cuts at first, later became critical of them and told journalist William Greider that "supply-side economics" is the trickle-down idea:
It's kind of hard to sell 'trickle down,' so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really 'trickle down.' Supply-side is 'trickle-down' theory.— David Stockman, The Atlantic
Political opponents of the Reagan administration soon seized on this language in an effort to brand the administration as caring only about the wealthy. Some studies suggest a link between trickle-down economics and reduced growth, and some newspapers concluded that trickle-down economics does not promote jobs or growth, and that "policy makers shouldn't worry that raising taxes on the rich [...] will harm their economies".
History and usage
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
Humorist Will Rogers jokingly advised in a column in 1932:
This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They [Republicans] didn't start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn't know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow's hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.
William J. Bennett wrote:
Humorist Will Rogers referred to the theory that cutting taxes for higher earners and businesses was a "trickle-down" policy, a term that has stuck over the years.
Presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman wrote:
The philosophy that had prevailed in Washington since 1921, that the object of government was to provide prosperity for those who lived and worked at the top of the economic pyramid, in the belief that prosperity would trickle down to the bottom of the heap and benefit all.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that the first known use of "trickle-down" as an adjective meaning "relating to or working on the principle of trickle-down theory" was in 1944 while the first known use of "trickle-down theory" was in 1954.
After leaving the presidency, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson alleged "Republicans [...] simply don't know how to manage the economy. They're so busy operating the trickle-down theory, giving the richest corporations the biggest break, that the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket."
Although "trickle-down" is commonly mentioned in reference to income, Arthur Okun has used it to refer to the flow of the benefits of innovation, which do not accrue entirely to the "great entrepreneurs and inventors," but trickle down to the masses. More precisely, William Nordhaus, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, estimates that innovators can capture only an extremely low 2.2 percent of the total surplus from innovation. Circling back to income "trickle-down", the surplus from innovation can take the form of gains in real wages, which are spread throughout the economy, according to Nobel laureate economist Paul Romer. In particular, economist William Baumol argues that "the bulk of the unprecedented and widespread rise in the developed world's living standards since the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred without the revolution's innovations."
Speaking on the Senate floor in 1992, Senator Hank Brown (R-Colorado) said: "Mr. President, the trickle-down theory attributed to the Republican Party has never been articulated by President Reagan and has never been articulated by President Bush and has never been advocated by either one of them. One might argue whether trickle-down makes any sense or not. To attribute to people who have advocated the opposite in policies is not only inaccurate but poisons the debate on public issues."
Economist Thomas Sowell consistently argues that trickle-down economics has never been advocated by any economist, writing in a 2014 column:
Let's do something completely unexpected: Let's stop and think. Why would anyone advocate that we "give" something to A in hopes that it would trickle down to B? Why in the world would any sane person not give it to B and cut out the middleman? But all this is moot, because there was no trickle-down theory about giving something to anybody in the first place. The "trickle-down" theory cannot be found in even the most voluminous scholarly studies of economic theories — including J.A. Schumpeter's monumental History of Economic Analysis, more than a thousand pages long and printed in very small type.
Sowell has also written extensively on trickle-down economics and opposes its characterization firmly, citing that supply-side economics has never claimed to work in a "trickle-down" fashion. Rather, the economic theory of reducing marginal tax rates works in precisely the opposite direction: "Workers are always paid first and then profits flow upward later – if at all."
In a study of "zombie ideas", political scientists Brainard Guy Peters and Maximilian Lennart Nagel describe trickle-down economics as the most enduring "zombie idea" in American politics. By zombie idea, they refer to ideas which have been unsuccessful at achieving intended goals, yet still survived in public policy discourse.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that "trickle-down economics" had been tried before in the United States in the 1890s under the name "horse-and-sparrow theory", writing:
Mr. David Stockman has said that supply-side economics was merely a cover for the trickle-down approach to economic policy—what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: 'If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.'
Galbraith claimed that the horse-and-sparrow theory was partly to blame for the Panic of 1896. While running against Ronald Reagan for the Presidential nomination in 1980, George H. W. Bush had derided the trickle-down approach as "voodoo economics". In the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate Ross Perot also referred to trickle-down economics as "political voodoo". In the same election during a presidential town hall debate, Bill Clinton said:
What I want you to understand is the national debt is not the only cause of [declining economic conditions in America]. It is because America has not invested in its people. It is because we have not grown. It is because we've had 12 years of trickle-down economics. We've gone from first to twelfth in the world in wages. We've had four years where we’ve produced no private-sector jobs. Most people are working harder for less money than they were making 10 years ago.
Overall, there is ample empirical support for and against tax cuts as means of spurring economic growth. In a 2012 study in the National Tax Journal, Canadian economist Bev Dahlby & Ergete Ferede found that "a higher provincial statutory corporate income tax rate is associated with lower private investment and slower economic growth. Our empirical estimates suggest that a 1 percentage point cut in the corporate tax rate is related to a 0.1-0.2 percentage point increase in the annual growth rate."
Analysis published in 2012 by the Congressional Research Service found that reductions in top tax rates were not correlated with economic growth but were associated with income inequality. The CRS later withdrew the analysis after Senate Republicans objected to its findings and wording.
A 2012 study by the Tax Justice Network indicates that wealth of the super-rich does not trickle down to improve the economy, but it instead tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a negative effect on the tax bases of the home economy.
A 2015 paper by researchers for the International Monetary Fund argues that there is no trickle-down effect as the rich get richer:
[I]f the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth.
A 2015 report on policy by economist Pavlina R. Tcherneva described the failings of increasing economic gains of the rich without commensurate participation by the working and middle classes, referring to the problematic policies as "Reagan-style trickle-down economics," and "a trickle-down, financial-sector-driven policy regime."
In 2016, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote that the post-World War II evidence does not support trickle-down economics, but rather "trickle-up economics" whereby more money in the pockets of the poor or the middle benefits everyone.
A 2017 IMF paper found that " (i) Personal income tax (PIT) cuts stimulate growth but the supply side effects are never large enough to offset the revenue loss from lower marginal tax rates; (ii) PIT cuts do “trickle-down” the income distribution: tax cuts stimulate demand for non-tradable services which raise the wages and employment prospects of low-skilled workers even if the tax cut is not directly incident on them; (iii) A revenue neutral tax plan that reduces PIT for middle-income groups, raises the consumption tax, and expands the Earned Income Tax Credit can have modestly positive effects on growth while reducing income polarization; (iv) The growth effects from lower income taxes are concentrated in non-tradable service sectors although the increased demand for tradable goods generate positive spillovers to other countries; (v) Tax cuts targeted to higher income groups have a stronger growth impact than tax cuts for middle income households".
A 2020 study by economist Anil Kumar of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that "The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 is the most extensive overhaul of the U.S. income tax code since the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Existing estimates of TCJA’s economic impact are based on economic projections using pre-TCJA estimates of tax effects. Following recent pioneering work of Zidar (2019), I exploit plausibly exogenous state-level variation in tax changes and find that an income tax cut equaling 1 percent of GDP led to a 1 percentage point higher nominal GDP growth and about 0.3 percentage point faster job growth in 2018."
A 2019 study in the Journal of Political Economy found contrary to the claims of trickle-down theory that "the positive relationship between tax cuts and employment growth is largely driven by tax cuts for lower-income groups and that the effect of tax cuts for the top 10 percent on employment growth is small."
A 2020 working paper by London School of Economics and Political Science researchers compared the results of countries that passed tax cuts in a specific year with those that did not, over a five decade period from 1965 to 2015 in the 18 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It found that contrary to the claims of trickle-down theory, tax cuts for the rich had no "significant effect on employment or economic growth". They found no evidence that the cuts induced "labour supply responses" from high-income individuals (i.e. "lead to more hours of work, more effort, etc.") that boosted economic activity. They did find evidence of a "sizable" increase in income inequality. "Major tax cuts for the rich increase the top 1% share of pre-tax national income in the years following the reform. The magnitude of the effect is sizeable; on average, each major reform leads to a rise in top 1% share of pre-tax national income of 0.8 percentage points."
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
In New Zealand, Labour Party Member of Parliament Damien O'Connor has called trickle-down economics "the rich pissing on the poor" in the Labour Party campaign launch video for the 2011 general election. In a 2016 presidential candidates debate, Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of supporting the "most extreme" version of trickle-down economics with his tax plan, calling it "trumped-up trickle-down" as a pun on his name. In his speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28, 2021, US President Joe Biden stated that "trickle-down economics has never worked."
- A rising tide lifts all boats
- Austerity (21st century economic meaning)
- Classical economics
- Economic inequality
- Keynesian economics
- Laffer curve
- Matthew effect
- Neoclassical economics
- Palace economy
- Post-scarcity economy
- Progressive tax
- Supply-side economics
- Trickle-up effect
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Trickle-down economics|
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- On trickle down economics, by Thomas Sowell
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