Bookblogging: Trickle down Part 1

I’m pushing hard now to finalise a draft of my book-in-progress,

It’s currently titled Zombie Economics:Undead Ideas that Threaten the World Economy. The title is pretty much locked in, but the subtitle is still open for change if anyone has any suggestions. You can read the first few chapters (not quite an up-to-date draft) at wikidot.

The chapter I’m working on now is Trickle-Down Economics, which seems a fairly soft target after the challenge of presenting a critique of the “micro foundations” approach to macroeconomics. But, there are still plenty of difficulties starting with the point that, of course, no-one espouses Trickle-Down Economics under that name. On the other hand, while the view that pro-rich policies will benefit everyone in the long run is widely held, I don’t know of a good general term that describes it.

Anyway here’s the opening section. As always, comments and criticism much appreciated.

Refuted doctrines

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Trickle down

Most labels are pejorative, and much of the time, ideas can be identified only by the labels attached to them by their opponents. So it is with the question of whether policies of income redistribution help or harm the poor in the long run. The claim that redistribution policies actually harm those they are intended to benefit and that reducing taxes on the rich would ultimately benefit the poor has long been derided as ‘trickle down economics’ (the phrase is widely attributed to humorist Will Rogers, and dated back to the 1930s). A more recent take on trickle-down is that of satirical magazine the Onion, which traces the process by which Reagan’s tax cuts and defense spending trickled down over two decades to produced the promised outcome ‘in the form of a $10 bonus, to Hazelwood, MO car-wash attendant Frank Kellener.’ Supporters of the claim return the favor, criticising advocates of redistribution as ‘class warriors’ who practise the ‘politics of envy’.

The ‘trickle down’ idea been summed up, more positively, in the aphorism ‘<a href=””>a rising tide lifts all boats</a>’ attributed to John F Kennedy, and a favorite of Clinton advisers such as <a href=””>Gene Sperling</a> and <a href=”″>Robert Rubin</a>. (It should be noted that this phrase is also used in the context of debates over free trade and over the effects of macroeconomic expansion. While it generally implies that we should focus on expanding aggregate income without too much concern over distribution, it is less sharply focused than the ‘trickle down’pejorative.

One important version of ‘trickle down’ economics is the ‘supply-side’ school of economics which came to prominence in the 1980s. The extreme claims made by some supply-siders, summed up in the so-called ‘Laffer curve’ threw this school into disrepute. However, more moderate versions of the same claims, referred to using such terms as ‘dynamic efficiency’, came to be widely accepted by mainstream economists, during the years of the Great Moderation.



Regardless of nomenclature, the near-universal prosperity of the postwar boom seemed to constitute a refutation of trickle down economics every bit as decisive as the refutation of pre-Keynesian economics by the disappearance of mass unemployment. Throughout the developed world, the growing prosperity of the years after 1945 was accompanied by reductions in income inequality and a softening of the differences between classes.

The experience of the US in particular was striking. Emerging as the unchallenged economic leader of the world after 1945, US firms were in a position to pay manual workers at rates that propelled them into the middle class. And the middle class itself grew and prospered to an extent that seem to portend the end of class conflict and even the end of class itself. The American middle class enjoyed living standards that outstripped, in many respects, the best that had been enjoyed by the rich in any other time and place.

All of this was achieved under policies that are, in retrospect, hard to believe were ever politically possible. Income taxes, a relative novelty at the time, were steeply progressive, with top marginal rates often exceeding 90 per cent. Inheritances were similarly heavily taxed, while ordinary people benefited from a variety of new welfare measures, such as the Social Security system in the US, which provided against the risks of old age, unemployment and ill-health.

Economic historians call the resulting period of high equality The Great Compression. It arrived with surprising suddenness as a result of the New Deal and World War II.Pasted Graphic.tiff

Pasted Graphic_1.tiff

The Great Compression ended as suddenly as it began. From the early 1980s onwards, the gains in equality were reversed. This occcurred partly as result of the changes in the distribution of market incomes. Profits grew at the expense of wages and the distribution of wages became more equal. Changes in market income were reinforced by public policy. The steeply progressive income tax rates of the postwar era were replaced by flat tax systems, with maximum rates of 40 per cent or less. Initially, and to some extent even today, these measures were presented as providing tax relief to the ‘middle class’, an elastic term but one that is typically taken to include families with incomes ranging from the median to the 90th percentile of the income distribution or sometimes even higher. Increasingly, however, tax reductions were focused on those in the top 10 per cent of the income distribution.

The pattern set by the United States in the 1980s, was followed, to a greater or lesser degree by other English-speaking countries as they embarked on the path of market liberalism. The most striking increases were in the United Kingdom under the Thatcher government where the Gini coefficient (a standard statistical measure of inequality) rose from 0.25, a value comparable to that of Scandinavian social democracies to 0.33, which is among the highest values for developed countries. New Zealand started a few years later, but experienced even more radical reforms, cutting the top marginal rate of income tax from 66 percent in 1986 to 33 percent by 1990. Unsurprisingly, this pushed the Gini index from an initial value 0.26 to 0.33 by the mid 1990s. Ireland, Canada and Australia all followed a similar path. The main EU countries resisted the trend to increased inequality through the 1980s and 1990s, but recent evidence suggests that inequality may be rising there also.



As inequality increased, so did the demand for theoretical rationalisations of policies benefitting the wealthy, and in particular for reductions in taxation. A variety of ideas of this kind were put forward under the banner of ‘supply-side economics’.

The term ‘supply-side economics’ dates back to the 1970s, when it was popularized by Jude Wanniski, then an associate editor for the Wall Street Journal, and later an economic advisor to Ronald Reagan. Wanniski, a colorful figure, did not let his lack of academic credentials deter him from taking on big names in the economics profession including not only Keynes and his followers but Milton Friedman. [1]

The central idea of supply-side economics followed directly from the negative conclusions of new classical economics regarding the possibility of successful demand management. If, as the new classical school believed, such demand-side policies were bound to be ineffectual or counterproductive, the only way to improve economic outcomes was to focus on the supply side, that is, to increase the productive capacity of the economy. Although many different policies (improved education, for example) might be advocated as ways to improve productivity, Wanniski focused on the kinds of policies favored by economic liberals, such as reduced regulation and lower income taxes.

Wanniski started the process with his ‘Two Santa Claus’ theory of politics. This was the idea that, in a contest between one political party (the Democrats, in the US) favoring higher public expenditure, and another (the Republicans) favoring lower spending, the high-spending party would always win. Hence, the correct political strategy for conservatives was to campaign for tax cuts, without worrying too much about budget deficits. Any problems with budget deficit would be resolved by the higher growth unleashed by improved incentives and reduced regulation.

This idea was taken much further at a famous lunch meeting between Wanniski, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and University of Southern California economist Arthur Laffer. These four, relatively obscure figures at the time, were to play a central, and disastrous, role in the economic and political events of the next thirty years. Everyone knows the story of how Laffer drew a graph on a napkin, illustrating the point that tax rates of 100 per cent would result in a cessation of economic activity and therefore yield zero revenue. Since a tax rate of zero will also yield zero revenue, there must exist some rate of taxation that yields a maximum level of revenue. Increases in tax beyond that point will harm economic activity so much that they reduce revenue.

Wanniski christened this graph the ‘Laffer curve’, but as Laffer himself was happy to concede, there was nothing original about it. It can be traced back to the 14th century Arabic writer Ibn Khaldun, and Laffer credited his own version to the nemesis of supply-side economics, John Maynard Keynes. And while few economists had made much of the point, that was mainly because it seemed to obvious to bother spelling out.

What was novel in Laffer’s presentation was what might be called the Laffer hypothesis, namely that the US in the early 1980s was on the descending part of the curve, where higher tax rates produced less revenue.

Unfortunately, as the old saying has it, Laffer’s analysis contained a mixture of correctness and originality. The Laffer curve was correct but unoriginal. The Laffer hypothesis was original but incorrect.

More sophisticated economic liberals could also see that the Laffer hypothesis represented something of an ‘own goal’ for their side. If the debate over tax policy turned on whether tax cuts produced higher revenue, and were therefore self-financing, the advocates of lower taxes were bound to lose, at least in policy circles where empirical evidence was taken seriously. Embarrassingly for their more sophisticated allies, supply-siders made, and continue to make, obviously silly arguments.

Fairly typical is the claim that, despite cutting taxes, Ronald Reagan doubled US government revenue, a claim made by commentators like Sean Hannity, and derived from the work of rightwing thinktanks such as the Heritage Foundation. Leaving aside the fact that revenues did not in fact double under Reagan (the Heritage institute figures add in some of the first Bush presidency, such claims ignore the fact that tax revenues, and the cost of providing any given level of government services, rise automatically with inflation, population growth and increases in real wages. Even with cuts in tax rates, revenues are bound to rise over time as the nominal value of national income increases.

For the Laffer hypothesis to be supported, tax cuts would have to increase revenue more rapidly than would be expected as a result of normal income growth. In fact, as the US Office of Management and Budget reported , “Income tax receipts grew noticeably more slowly than usual in the 1980s, after the large cuts in individual and corporate income tax rates in 1981.” (Quoted by CBPP


The dynamic trickle down hypothesis

Mainstream market liberals were generally disdainful of the ‘voodoo economics’ of the Laffer hypothesis. But they nonetheless accepted to the central postulate of trickle-down economics, namely, that policies favorable to the wealthy will, in the long run, produce benefits for everyone, compared to the alternative of progressive taxes and redistributive social welfare policies. Rather than rely on the simplistic, and easily refuted, Laffer hypothesis, market liberals claimed that the trickle-down effect would work through so-called ‘dynamic’ effects of free-market reforms, and particularly tax reforms.

As with other economic terms, such as ‘efficiency’, the appeal of this argument depended, in large measure on conflating the ordinary language meaning and connotations of ‘dynamic’ with the technical economic meaning. In technical terms, ‘dynamic’ effects are those realised over time, as the capital stock in an economy varies. But in political discussion, it is easy to slide from this use into rhetoric about dynamism, sclerosis and so forth.

The crucial distinction between the two is that while dynamic effects, in the technical sense, can raise or lower the level of national income in the long run, they do not, in standard economic models, affect the long-term rate of economic growth, which depends ultimately on productivity. Standard economic analysis suggests that the adoption of tax policies more favorable to owners of capital will increase savings and investment, and therefore raise the level of national income in the long run. This idea formed the basis of a number of ‘dynamic scoring’ exercises aimed at estimating the effects of the Bush tax cuts of 2001. Supporters of the Laffer hypothesis hoped that these exercises would show tax cuts paying for themselves in the long run.

Dynamic scoring analyses typically found some positive effects on capital accumulation, but they were too small, in terms of their effect on incomes and tax revenues to offset the cost of the initial costs. The most optimistic study, undertaken by Greg Mankiw, former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors and Matthew Weinzierl found that, assuming that the conditions of the standard neoclassical model were satisfied, dynamic effects would offset about 17 per cent of the initial cost of a cut in taxes on labor income and about 50 per cent of the cost of a cut in taxes on capital income.

However, as subsequent analysis showed, these results depended critically on technical assumptions about how the tax cut was initially financed. Mankiw and Weinzierl assumed that tax cuts are associated with expenditure cuts sufficient to maintain budget balance, and that these expenditure cuts do not create any additional market failures (that is, that the expenditure in question was a pure transfer). Eric Leeper and Shu-Chun Susan Yang examined the case when, as actually happened with the Bush tax cuts, the cuts were initially financed by higher debt. In this case, it turns out that dynamic effects can actually increase the initial cost of a tax cut.

A further difficulty was that, since the increased income was the result of additional savings, it could not, in economic terms, be regarded as a pure economic benefit. The relevant measure of economic benefit, netting out costs from benefits, is the change in the present value of consumption, which is typically much smaller than the final change in income – even for large tax cuts, the net dynamic benefit is rarely more than one per cent of national income. The same point may be made in terms of the effects on the government budget. Even if tax cuts eventually generated enough extra revenue to match the annual cost of the cuts (and of course they never do!) the budget would still be in long-term deficit because of the need to service the debt built up in the transitional period.

The implications for the trickle-down hypothesis are even worse. Under standard assumptions about the way the economy works, all the benefits of additional investment go to investors (or those whose savings finance the investment). That is, cutting taxes for the rich may lead them to save and invest more, thereby making themselves still richer, but there is no reason to expect any benefit for the rest of the community, except to the extent that the cost of the original tax cut is partially defrayed.

Finally, and most importantly of all, the neoclassical model used to derive estimates of dynamic benefits implicitly incorporates the efficient markets hypothesis. The extra investment generated by more favorable tax treatment is supposed to be allocated efficiently so as to produce sustainable long-term economic growth. Until the financial crisis the experience of countries that followed this logic and cut taxes on capital income appeared to bear out this view. Iceland, Ireland and the Baltic States among others, experienced rapid economic growth as a result of high domestic investment and strong capital inflows.

But the economic crisis proved that this apparent success was built on sand. Much of the extra investment went into real estate, or into speculative ventures that collapsed when the bubble burst. Having cut taxes drastically, governments were left with inadequate financial resources to convince (now-cautious) investors that their bonds were a safe investment.

[1] He was later to become one of the first commentators to suggest, correctly, that Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ had been found and destroyed by the UN weapons inspection process.

14 thoughts on “Bookblogging: Trickle down Part 1

  1. Not a comment on the trickle down passage, but on the subtitle :

    Zombie Economics: The ideas that ate the brains of the world financial system


  2. JQ notes “The claim that redistribution policies actually harm those they are intended to benefit and that reducing taxes on the rich would ultimately benefit the poor has long been derided as ‘trickle down economics’”

    This is actually very similar to the philosophies underpinning workchoices style labour market de-regulation. The idea that if the company makes more profit essentially by getting a more flexible labour force (which is just a redistribution of profit from worker to employer anyway) then it will invest more and it will trickle into more jobs.

    Well workers spend money too and their spending also makes jobs.

    So which trickle is more useful? One Duck spending or 300 ducklings spending?

    We saw how well that went here because of Howard. We know there are imbalances in negotiating power between the employer and the employee for the majority. The hirer / worker negotiation is not situated on a level playing field to start with and workchoices made it even more unbalanced. Trickle down is the same. We gave it long enough and its made things worse in terms of growing inequality and growing inequities in the labour force in many industrialised nations. The trickle to multinationals is evident and that trickle can then be employed to bully nationals in developing nations for their labour or resources, who have even less bargaining power or it can be used to grow more powerful and form concentrated markets (Coles / Woolies) to then appropriate more of the now lower income of the weaker worker with cartel like price rises.

    Its a take that will weaken many economies over time, while a few grow even more wealthy. Thats all it is.

  3. Another great read that provides an in-depth historical analysis of the terminology. It’s ideal for economic illiterates like me. Needless to say, I’ll be buying the book when it comes out.

  4. there’s a book, which I saw on Amazon a few years ago but never actually read, that crunches the international statistics and comes out with no evidence for the Laffer hypothesis working anywhere. wish I could remember the name of the book, has anyone heard of it?

  5. This is an extremely minor point… but I would avoid lumping Ireland in with the other English speaking countries when you’re talking about the 80s in the context of supply-side economics. The other countries were already first world, Ireland was in the process a rapid catch-up thanks mainly to enormous levels of development assistance from the rest of the European Economic Community.

  6. PS, I will pre-empt the point about “trickle-down” being another version of the “Keynesian multiplier”. the problems with this argument are too obvious to even mention but you might want to mention them nevertheless

  7. one more thing… mentioning Sean Hannity by name in the context of a debate on economics treats him with much more credibility than he deserves. he is a paid entertainer, and has no more to do with this stuff then the person who operates the fax machine between Heritage and Fox. you should restrict your focus to the stink-tank “economists” who actually make the claims originally

  8. Minor detail: second last paragraph before “”, you have no closing parenthesis:

    Leaving aside the fact that revenues did not in fact double under Reagan (the Heritage institute figures add in some of the first Bush presidency…

  9. Thanks for all these comments. I’ll need to address the Keynesian multiplier point somewhere, but meanwhile I’ve fixed the easy ones.

  10. Multiplier effects are very directed (and restricted to closely aligned enterprises) in their first effect, aren’t they? e.g. car manufacture helps car parts, car repairs, fuel sales, retail car sales; then spending of turnover by the manufacturer and the proximate firms diffuses out into the wider world.

    Phrase in the US: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA”? Is there an Aussie traditional equivalent? “What’s good for BHP is good for the nation”? or was it all about ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ – there’s a case for outward diffusion of prosperity from agricultural exports; not really trickle down though.

  11. General point – these changes seem to be socially driven (rather than by economic policy as such). Would it be worth briefly looking at the social drivers?

    One obvious one is that elites who do not have to depend on mass support can take more of the cake – an observation that can be traced back to Roman times (contrasting the fierce social opprobrium that attached to purely personal riches under the earlier Republic with the ostenation of the late Republic and Empire). Surely World war 2 and the following Cold War drove the Great Compression and the fading of the Soviet threat the Great Moderation.

  12. Adding to my last comment, which was very cursory (blame the kids). The thought was that ideas do not seem to go away just because they are bad, but do fade when less useful in the circumstances. More equality seems to be useful in minimising social stresses, and allowing resources to be directed to severe social challenges rather than to bribes/repression and conspicuous consumption (see the growth in US spending on prisons and social welfare over the last 30 years, and the parallel speculative bubbles as capital struggles to find outlets – starting with S&Ls under Reagan, going on through the mergers frenzy, commercial debt, dot-com and now the GFC).

    Flow-on thought is that alternative policies might sell more widely if put in the context of the challenges facing us – such as moves to a low carbon economy, mitigating the inevitable effects of climate change, and decline in the relative power of our former friends.

  13. “Under standard assumptions about the way the economy works, all the benefits of additional investment go to investors (or those whose savings finance the investment). ”

    True only for the marginal dollar of investment – higher capital accumulation still means higher wages.

    “Profits grew at the expense of wages”

    In the US, the wage share hardly fell at all compared to other OECD economies.

    “steeply progressive income tax rates of the postwar era were replaced by flat tax systems”

    Since when does the US have a flat tax?

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