The ‘trickle-down’ effect

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Sunday, 5 April 2015 18:30 by 2353

Next time a conservative politician or acquaintance tells you that tax cuts for the better off will help the state or nation’s economy, you might want to have ‘the discussion’.

Tax cuts for the better off is part of a theory of economics known as ‘trickle-down’ that seeks to prove that if the tax cuts are given to the better off, they will spend more, increasing the demand for goods and services to the direct benefit of the economy as well as the government’s tax revenue. So we’re all on the same page — here is a ‘trickle-down theory’ definition:

An economic idea which states that decreasing marginal and capital gains tax rates — especially for corporations, investors and entrepreneurs — can stimulate production in the overall economy. According to trickle-down theory proponents, this stimulus leads to economic growth and wealth creation that benefits everyone, not just those who pay the lower tax rates.

Probably the best known example of this theory around the world has been the Reagan Presidency in the United States. In the early 1980’s, he cut the top tax rate by 20%! Most conservative governments have also implemented similar cuts in the past although, to be fair, not of the same magnitude. Conservatives will also tell you that government spending should be reduced to an absolute minimum and the government’s budget should balance. Forbes (an American business publication) as recently as 2013 has been arguing that while it finds the term ‘trickle-down theory’ objectionable, it is a valid theory that has worked in the past. According to the article, the term was coined —

… by Democrats in the 1980s as a way to attack President Reagan’s economic policy combination of tax rate cuts and some relaxation of federal regulations. They needed a catchy, easy-to-remember zinger to fire at Reagan; a line that would keep their voting base angry.

The article goes through all the usual conservative talking points: small government is less of a drag on the economy; people need work rather than infrastructure such as schools and transportation; the better off are the ones that create wealth; that Obama is to blame and so on. It finishes with this:

What poor people should want is more freedom and more growth, so they will have better opportunities. The deceptive “trickle-down economics” notion was crafted to take advantage of their ignorance about the way the world works. Perhaps one day the pitiable Americans who now cheer when politicians who masquerade as their friends denounce “trickle-down economics” will realize that the massive federal Leviathan is their enemy.

While I take the point that the term ‘trickle-down theory’ may have been coined by a member of the Democratic Party in the US and it does have more ‘zing’ than ‘supply-side economics’, the fact is that the theory is all about those who are better off supporting the economy and the government reducing its influence. The conservatives have their own ‘zinger’ name for the theory as well — ‘Reaganomics’. Regardless of the name you want to give it, the theory suggests that benefits of tax cuts to the better off are supposed to flow to those that are less well off. If that isn’t trickling down, what is?

The other argument is that the reduction in regulation assisted Americans to find jobs — and contribute to the economy. While to an extend it did, the majority of the Reagan era was during a time in the world’s economic history when the economy was chugging along nicely thank you very much. It could also be argued that the seeds for the current social and economic woes in the USA were sown in that era where personal wealth was a far greater concern than the common good.

Seems it’s all cut and dried then, doesn’t it? US and Australian conservatives still call for a return to ‘supply-side’ or ‘trickle-down’ economics (depending on your point of view), citing amongst other justifications, Reagan’s success in 1981 in reversing the US recession.

Reagan’s tax cuts are claimed to be the event that ended the recession of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in the USA. But what is (conveniently) forgotten is that he increased government spending by 2.5% at the same time. Government spending also stimulates the economy. Therefore the most cited example of the benefits of this economic theory doesn’t stack up, as there were other influences at the time. Despite later increasing taxes for the better off, Regan also tripled the US Federal deficit from 1981 to 1989 — hardly the action of a government reducing influence in the economy. George Bush (the elder) also increased taxes despite a ‘no tax increases’ promise.

Recently the Huffington Post reported on the success on the Governor of the US state of Minnesota (Mark Dayton) and his remarkable turnaround of the state’s economy. The full article is here and the highlights are that when he took office in 2011, he inherited a deficit of US$6.2 billion and 7% unemployment. In 2015, Governor Dayton handed down a budget surplus of $1 billion that he has pledged to spend on transportation and education. Unlike nations, US (and Australian) states do not issue their own currency, so balanced budgets are considerably more important than at the federal level.

Dayton is an interesting person. He has been in politics for some time but considered to be a terrible ‘retail’ politician. According to Mother Jones:

An heir to the Target retail fortune, Dayton, 68, has ploughed tens of millions of his own money into his campaigns, but it still hasn't come easy. He swallows his words in a rush, speaking in almost-unintelligible mumbles and frequently losing track of his point as he rambles on unrelated tangents. "He's not a terribly articulate guy," says Larry Jacobs, chair of the University of Minnesota's public policy school. "He's not a smooth talker; he struggles to give a smooth public speech." At public events, Dayton hunches his shoulders, which makes him appear shorter than his 5-foot-10 frame, and often appears to be trying to disappear into the crowd. No one wonders whether he'll seek national office someday. He's not the leader of the free world — he's your dad, struggling to make small talk with you and your friends after you get home from school.

So how did Dayton do it? Well you could say he threw the ‘supply-side theory’ out the window. Not only did he raise taxes on the highest earners in Minnesota; he increased the basic wage in the state to $9.50 an hour. Mother Jones reports:

Republicans went berserk, warning that businesses would flee the state and take jobs with them.

The disaster Dayton's GOP rivals predicted never happened. Two years after the tax hike, Minnesota's economy is booming. The state added 172,000 jobs during Dayton's first four years in office. Its 3.6 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country (Wisconsin's is 5.2 percent), and the Twin Cities have the lowest unemployment rate of any major metropolitan area. Under Dayton, Minnesota has consistently been in the top tier of states for GDP growth. Median incomes are $8,000 higher than the national average. In 2014, Minnesota led the nation in economic confidence, according to Gallup.

Scott Walker is the Republican Governor of Wisconsin — the neighbouring state to Minnesota — and a potential Republican Presidential Nominee in 2016. For decades, the two states have been comparable in a number of social and economic criteria. In the past few years, it seems that the ‘unlikely politician’ in Minnesota is outperforming his counterpart in Wisconsin according to a number of sources including Minnesota Public Radio and Econbrowser. Walker was also the subject of a ‘recall election’ in 2012, when in excess of 500,000 Wisconsin voters petitioned for Walker’s removal from office. He won the subsequent re-election — only after allegedly receiving considerable financial support from outside the state. CBS News in the US is reporting there are some potential problems with the morals and ethics of how Scott Walker manages his fundraising. Never the less, Walker is seen as a conservative hero by legislating to remove considerable negotiating power from the public service unions in Wisconsin and other US states as detailed in this article from The New York Times . Walker is now claiming that his ‘success’ with unions gives him the experience to deal with Islamic State (when he becomes a Republican President in 2016 you would have to assume). Fighting with unions and reducing public services are not unknown in Australia under the current federal government or its predecessors. Dayton has announced that his current term will be his last — and yes, he did have to wait until the ‘stars aligned’ to actually perform what is considered to be a remarkable recovery.

Australia’s newly appointed (in January 2015) Treasury Secretary, John Fraser, has gone ‘on the record’ claiming that ‘Reaganomics’ had some positive effects. Gareth Hutchens, writing for Fairfax media (link above) suggests that the view of Fraser is somewhat different to Martin Parkinson and Ken Henry — the previous two Treasury Secretaries. Given that Parkinson and Henry demonstrated their credentials during the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath, Fraser has some large shoes to fill.

It is fair to suggest that there will be economists discussing the benefits of ‘trickle-down economics’ for years to come. However, Governor Dayton has clearly demonstrated that trying to make society more equitable by increasing the basic wage and taxing those that can afford to fund the services will not only improve the state’s bottom line, it will improve the quality of life enjoyed by all its citizens, then when the ‘payoff’ comes, services such as education and transportation can be improved using government funding. It seems there is a better way than the frequent calls for ‘tax cuts for the well-off’.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have seemingly been joined at the hip economically and socially for a considerable period of time. Governor Dayton has improved the living conditions of those in his state, reduced unemployment and is now funding improvements to transportation and education using methods that are certainly not supported by Australia’s Treasury Secretary Fraser or Treasurer Hockey. Governor Walker cannot replicate the success of Dayton (or Reagan for that matter) using ‘traditional’ conservative economic measures in neighbouring Wisconsin; accordingly the citizens of that state are falling behind their ‘long time equals’ who live over the border in Minnesota.

So next time you hear the call for tax cuts, austerity and ‘small government’; why don’t you think about Minnesota’s Mark Dayton and have ‘the discussion’ about a better way instead?

What do you think?

About 2353

Welcome to ‘the discussion’ we have to have. 2353 provides plenty to discuss in this piece on ‘trickle-down’ economics and the alternative approach — that seems to be more successful. The piece is particularly timely as Hockey released the government’s taxation discussion paper last Monday.

Next week, on a similar theme, Ken discusses ‘How the economic rationalists tried to steal our hearts and minds’, which looks at how the economic rationalist approach was trying to change not just our economy but our basic Australian values.