Trickle-down economics

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Ronald Reagan's economic policies, dubbed "Reaganomics", included large tax cuts and were characterized as trickle-down economics. In this picture, he is outlining his plan for the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 from the Oval Office in a televised address, July 1981

Trickle-down economics, also known as trickle-down theory or the horse and sparrow theory, is the economic proposition that taxes on businesses and the wealthy in society should be reduced as a means to stimulate business investment in the short term and benefit society at large in the long term. 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 targets taxes on the upper end of the economic spectrum.[1][2] Empirical evidence shows that the proposition has never managed to achieve its stated goals.[3][4][5][6]

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:[7][8]

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.[citation needed] Some studies suggest a link between trickle-down economics and reduced growth, and a 2020 study which analyzed 50 years of data 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".[4][9][3] Trickle-down economics has been widely criticized, particularly by left-wing, centre-left and moderate politicians and economists, but also some right-wing politicians[citation needed].

History and usage[edit]

William Jennings Bryan, who criticized trickle-down theory in his Cross of Gold speech in 1896

In 1896, Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan described the concept using the metaphor of a "leak" in his Cross of Gold speech:[10][11]

"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."[12]

Humorist Will Rogers jokingly advised in a column in 1932:[13]

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.[14]

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[15] while the first known use of "trickle-down theory" was in 1954.[16]

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."[17]

Although "trickle-down" is commonly mentioned in reference to income, it has been used by economist Arthur Okun 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.[18] More precisely, Nobel prize economist William Nordhaus estimates that innovators are able to capture only an extremely low 2.2 percent of the total surplus from innovation.[19] 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 prize economist Paul Romer.[20] 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."[21]

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."[22]

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 loathes its characterization, 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."[23][24]


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.[25]


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.[26] While running against Ronald Reagan for the Presidential nomination in 1980, George H. W. Bush had derided the trickle-down approach as "voodoo economics".[27] In the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate Ross Perot also referred to trickle-down economics "political voodoo".[28] 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.[29]

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.[30]

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.[4]

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."[31]

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.[32]

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."[5]

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."[6]


In 2013, Pope Francis referred to "trickle-down theories" in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium with the following statement (No. 54):

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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Amadeo, Kimberly (April 29, 2017). "Why Trickle Down Economic Works in Theory But Not in Fact". The Balance.
  2. ^ Crouse, Eric R. (2013). The Cross and Reaganomics: Conservative Christians Defending Ronald Reagan. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 31. ISBN 9780739182222.
  3. ^ a b Craig Stirling (December 16, 2020). "Fifty Years of Tax Cuts for Rich Didn't Trickle Down, Study Says". Bloomberg.
  4. ^ a b c Era Dabla-Norris; Kalpana Kochhar; Nujin Suphaphiphat; Frantisek Ricka; Evridiki Tsounta (June 15, 2015). Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. International Monetary Fund. Retrieved June 25, 2015.
  5. ^ a b Zidar, Owen (October 30, 2018). "Tax Cuts for Whom? Heterogeneous Effects of Income Tax Changes on Growth and Employment" (PDF). Journal of Political Economy. 127 (3): 1437–1472. doi:10.1086/701424. ISSN 0022-3808. S2CID 158844554. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 2, 2018. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  6. ^ a b Hope, David; Limberg, Julian (December 2020). "The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich" (PDF). International Inequalities Institute. London School of Economics and Political Science. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  7. ^ "The Education of David Stockman" Archived December 27, 2020, at the Wayback Machine by William Greider
  8. ^ William Greider. The Education of David Stockman. ISBN 0-525-48010-2
  9. ^ "In the Real World of Work and Wages, Trickle-Down Theories Don't Hold Up". The New York Times. April 12, 2007. Archived from the original on November 12, 2020. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  10. ^ Wilson, Thomas Frederick. 1992. The Power "to Coin" Money: The Exercise of Monetary Powers by the Congress. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe. p. 172. ISBN 0873327942
  11. ^ Baker, Andrew, David Hudson, and Richard Woodward. 2005. Governing Financial Globalization: International Political Economy and Multi-Level Governance. London; New York: Routledge. p. 26. ISBN 9780203479278
  12. ^ Bryan's "Cross of Gold" Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses Archived September 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine,
  13. ^ "Will Rogers on "trickle up" economics". WiredPen. January 30, 2015. Archived from the original on May 10, 2017. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  14. ^ Bennett, William J. (2007). America: The Last Best Hope. Harper Collins. p. 78. ISBN 1595551115.
  15. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online edition) entry for "trickle-down." Archived April 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Accessed September 17, 2010.
  16. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online edition) entry for "trickle-down theory." Archived April 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Accessed September 17, 2010.
  17. ^ Janos, Leo. "The Last Days of the President". Archived from the original on July 1, 2013. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  18. ^ Okun, Arthur M. (1975). Equality and Efficiency, the Big Tradeoff. Brookings Institution. pp. 46–47. ISBN 9780815764762.
  19. ^ Nordhaus, William D. (April 2004). "Schumpeterian Profits in the American Economy: Theory and Measurement". National Bureau of Economic Research. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
  20. ^ Romer, Paul (February 1, 1994). "New goods, old theory, and the welfare costs of trade restrictions" (PDF). Journal of Development Economics. 43 (1): 5–38. doi:10.1016/0304-3878(94)90021-3. ISSN 0304-3878. S2CID 28772407.
  21. ^ Baumol, William J. (July 1, 2010). The Microtheory of Innovative Entrepreneurship. Princeton University Press. p. 80. ISBN 9781400835225. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved September 17, 2020.
  22. ^ Hank Brown. Congressional Record, March 24, 1992.
  23. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 1, 2020.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. ^ "Trickle Down" Theory and "Tax Cuts for the Rich" Archived September 24, 2012, at WebCite.
  25. ^ Peters, Brainard Guy; Nagel, Maximilian Lennart (2020). "Zombie Ideas: Why Failed Policy Ideas Persist". Cambridge University Press. p. 8. doi:10.1017/9781108921312. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved November 28, 2020.
  26. ^ Galbraith, John Kenneth (February 4, 1982) "Recession Economics Archived December 27, 2020, at the Wayback Machine." New York Review of Books Volume 29, Number 1.
  27. ^ "Reagonomics or 'voodoo economics'?". BBC News. June 5, 2004. Archived from the original on August 29, 2017. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
  28. ^ "The Living Room Candidate - Commercials - 1992 - Trickle Down". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  29. ^ "Bill Clinton Won 1992 Town Hall Debate By Engaging With One Voter". Huffington Post. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved March 16, 2017.
  30. ^ Heather Stewart (July 21, 2012). "Wealth doesn't trickle down – it just floods offshore, research reveals". The Guardian. London. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  31. ^ Tcherneva, Pavlina (March 2015). "When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats: Trends in US Income Inequality" (PDF). Levy Economics Institute. Bard College. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 3, 2015. Retrieved November 25, 2016.
  32. ^ Stiglitz, Joseph E. (2016). "Inequality and Economic Growth". Rethinking Capitalism. Wiley-Blackwell: 134–155. doi:10.7916/d8-gjpw-1v31.
  33. ^ "Evangelii Gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World". Archived from the original on August 11, 2015. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
  34. ^ Chapman, Kate (October 28, 2011). "Labour campaign video harks back to history". Retrieved October 5, 2016.
  35. ^ Jacob Pramuk (September 26, 2016). "Clinton: Trump would cut taxes for the rich in 'trumped up' trickle down economics". CNBC. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved September 17, 2017.
  • Mkilema, F. (2018). Trickle down economics Vs. Middle-out economics

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]