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'Trickle down economics' doesn't exist

This morning's Radio NZ's Morning Report interviewed Labour's Finance Spokesperson Grant Robertson on the OECD report on inequality released today. In the interview, Mr Roberson referred a number of times to 'trickle-down economics' and reiterated the point Green Party co-leader Russel Norman made in an earlier interview that the theory is invalid. But what does the term mean and have fiscally conservative groups (such as the Taxpayers' Union) or centre-right politicians ever argued for lower taxes on the basis a 'trickle-down' theory?

Audio on demand: Labour's take on inequality's effects

What is 'trickle-down economic' theory? Does it exist?

Back in February, Jenesa Jeram at the New Zealand Initiative, a Wellington based think-tank, considered the same question.

Defeating the trickle-down straw man

Jenesa Jeram | Research Assistant | New Zealand Initiative

In debating, speakers are not rewarded for having a superior argument per se. They are rewarded for convincing the audience that they do. The easiest – but ultimately dishonest – way to do this is to caricature the opponent, portraying their argument as ridiculous beyond belief.

Trickle-down economics is an example of a “ridiculous beyond belief” idea; that giving money to the rich will eventually trickle down to the rest of the economy to benefit all. Indeed, the refutation of this theory of trickle-down economics dominates the discourse.

Recently, opposition leader David Cunliffe cited the theory’s failure in his State of the Nation speech, arguing that “The rich are getting much richer, the middle is struggling and the poor are going backwards. It’s the human face of “trickle-down economics”, the idea that if we give more to those at the top, eventually things will get better for the rest of us.”

The problem is, there is no such thing as trickle-down economics. In fact, it is an oxymoron: it has no “economics” in it whatsoever. Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution argues convincingly that the theory is a straw man argument – a flimsy invention of those arguing against it so they can easily knock it down. Sowell writes that the idea cannot be found in “even the most voluminous scholarly studies of economic theories”.

Trickle-down economics is a complete caricature of the original arguments supporting economic growth. No economist has ever argued that in order to make a poor person richer you should make a rich person richer first. Economists have, however, argued that economic growth can make us all better off, whether we are rich or poor.

So why has this trickle-down nonsense persisted for so long? Perhaps because it sets the parameters of debate around redistribution, focussing solely on inequalities in wealth, rather than inequalities in capabilities. If wealth is not trickling down naturally through voluntary processes, then it is up to the government to intervene to ensure it does.

However, there is a much better way to deal with inequalities. Instead of trying to correct inequalities through redistribution, we should ensure that everybody has a chance to participate in our growing economy. First and foremost, this means making sure people acquire the right capabilities and education.

Rather than waiting for wealth to trickle-down from the top, the focus should be on ensuring everyone has the ability to swim with the economic tide.

Ms Jeram's final two paragraphs hit the nail on the head. In fact they are a better summary of the main message of the OECD report: the importance of investing in education and ensuing equality of opportunity.

Unfortunately Messrs Robertson and Norman couldn't help but take the opportunity to use the report to mischaracterise the economic arguments for a low tax economy. Our press release responding to the comments is over the flip.

 

MEDIA RELEASE

'TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS' DOESN'T EXIST

10 DECEMBER 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The key message of the OECD’s report on inequality, released today, is investment in education and is not a prescription for higher taxes, says the Taxpayers’ Union.

The Union’s Executive Director, Jordan Williams, reacting to the OECD report and interviews with Grant Robertson and Russel Norman on this morning’s Morning Report says:

"Grant Robertson and Russel Norman want to use the report as justification to tax high incomes more, even though the top 6% of income earners already pay 37% of everyone’s income tax. They are trying to use the OECD report to frame small efficient government and incentives to work as a bad thing.”

“We’re disappointed that Mr Robertson continues to refer to the made up economic theory of ‘trickle down economics’. Mr Robertson must know that no such economic theory exists. No economist has ever argued that in order to make a poor person richer you should make a rich person richer first. Economists have, however, argued that economic growth and freedom makes us all, rich or poor, better off."

“The biggest cost of living is people’s tax bills. Instead of wanting to solve inequality by cutting government waste and taxes at the low end, politicians immediately want to tax more so they can distribute it to constituencies."

The background to the oxymoronic ‘trickle-down economics’ argument Messrs Robertson and Norman referred to on radio this morning to is available in a piece by New Zealand Initiative Researcher Jenesa Jeram republished with permission.

“Mr Robertson is now shadow Minister of Finance. He should be focused on arguing real economic data, not taking on his own straw men arguments," concludes Mr Williams.

ENDS


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