Los Angeles

“Trumped-Up Trickle-Down” and What It Means

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In the first general election presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump proposed one of his only concrete policies as a candidate: to cut taxes across the board, including a reduction in the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton called it “Trumped-up trickle-down,” alluding to Ronald Reagan’s so-called trickle-down economic policies of the 1980s. According to economist Heinz Arndt, the expression “trickle-down” implies a vertical flow from rich to poor that happens of its own accord. Tax cuts for higher-income individuals are meant to boost economic growth, as those individuals invest and spend the money saved on taxes. The corresponding increase in capital will create a need for more jobs, as higher investment means higher demand for goods and, eventually, an increase in wages. The same principle holds for giving tax cuts to corporations. If a corporation’s taxes are cut, the idea is it will use that money to either hire more workers or pay current workers more. In essence, the well-endowed will have more wealth to “trickle down” to lower economic classes.

In theory, it’s not a bad policy; in practice, it hasn’t worked. In the 1980s, Reagan proposed huge tax cuts across the board, especially for the highest-earners. The outcome of this policy was that the U.S. national debt roughly tripled during Reagan’s term, and income growth shifted from the bottom classes to the top classes. As you can see from the graph below, the Reagan tax cuts boosted income growth for the top 10 percent of income earners, while the bottom 90 percent of earners saw their income growth decline after the 1980s. This means that the highest earners earned even more, while income growth for the lowest earners slowed and eventually declined. Under Trump’s proposed tax cuts, this process is likely to repeat itself, widening the wealth and income gaps even more.

Graph 1

According to a study by the Tax Justice Network, money that the wealthy accumulate through tax cuts is more likely to be moved to an offshore bank account than reinvested in the national economy. Corporate tax cuts may be used to give top executives bonuses or to fund the relocation of businesses to developing nations. While divesting from the American economy has the potential to make goods cheaper, the second plank of Trump’s proposed fiscal policy – extreme protectionism – would make his trickle-down tax cuts even worse.

Trump seeks to impose a 45 percent tariff on all imported products from China to the United States, meaning that any product coming from China will be marked up an extra 45 percent. Trump’s intention is to discourage companies from moving their factories to China, and instead open or maintain their factories in America. Except trade is incredibly beneficial to both countries involved. Trade allows countries that have a comparative advantage (meaning it is cheaper to produce one good compared to another in that country) to specialize at what they are best, whether it be abundant natural resources or a highly skilled labor force. Comparative advantage is why Southeast Asia produces most of America’s clothing and America produces most of the world’s high-tech products.

The reason we import products from China is that it is cheaper to import them than to produce them domestically. China’s comparative advantage in certain industries means that they can hire more workers and pay them less, making the final goods cheaper for American consumers. Imposing a tariff on all goods from China would effectively raise domestic prices, which would defeat the purpose of lowering taxes. For example, nearly 50 percent of U.S. imports from China are machinery and electronics, meaning a 45 percent tariff would make a large portion of consumer goods more expensive. Without an increase in wages, this increase in the price level would diminish the purchasing power of everyday Americans.

Overall, Donald Trump’s fiscal policy is comprised of two objectives that will do more to harm the economy in the long run than help it. It won’t create jobs, and it won’t raise wages. It will also make the rich richer and the poor poorer, enlarging the already vast wealth gap. Overall, Mr. Trump’s policies will benefit Mr. Trump personally more than they will benefit any average American who is so gladly voting for him. “Trumped-up trickle-down” economics is exactly what it says: a trickle-down policy on steroids.

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