"Trickle-down economics", also referred to as "trickle-down theory", is a term associated with laissez-faire capitalism in general and more specifically supply-side economics, used by its critics to characterize economic policies as favoring the wealthy or privileged.
In recent history, the phrase has been used by critics of supply-side economic policies, such as "Reaganomics". David Stockman, who as Reagan's budget director championed Reagan's tax cuts at first, but then became critical of them, told journalist William Greider that the "supply-side economics" is the trickle-down idea: "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." Political opponents of the Reagan administration soon seized on this language in an effort to brand the administration as caring only about the wealthy.
History and usage of the term
In 1896, Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan used the metaphor of a "leak" in his famous Cross of Gold speech: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.
Humorist Will Rogers jokingly advised in a column in 1932:
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 fellows 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.
Economist and popular writer Thomas Sowell notes that presidential speech writer Samuel Rosenman wrote of
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, while the first known use of trickle-down theory was in 1954.
After leaving the Presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, 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."
Speaking on the Senate floor in 1992, Sen. 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."
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." He wrote, "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.
In the 1992 presidential election, Independent candidate Ross Perot called trickle-down economics "political voodoo."
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."
In New Zealand, Labour Party MP Damien O'Connor has, in the Labour Party campaign launch video for the 2011 general election, called trickle-down economics "the rich pissing on the poor".
A 2012 study by the Tax Justice Network indicates that wealth of the super-rich does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a negative effect on the tax bases of the home economy.
In 2013, Pope Francis referred to trickle-down theories (plural) in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium with the 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."
A 2015 report by 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.
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."
In 2016 US 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."
Opponents of the term
Some supply-side economists consider the term "trickle down" as a political pejorative which does not denote any specific economic theory. Economists Steven Horwitz and Thomas Sowell claim that there is no "trickle down" economics as defined by economists, and that the term is almost exclusively used by critics of policies with other established names. Sowell issued a challenge to quote any economist who had advocated the "trickle-down" theory. Respondents referred him to David Stockman's remarks to William Greider. Sowell replied in his newspaper columns, rejecting the article as an example because Stockman was merely citing "trickle-down" theory as existing. Stockman was using the term to criticize Reaganomics and explicitly labeling supply-side economics as "trickle-down". Sowell said that "not one of those who made the claim could provide a single quote from anybody who had advocated a 'trickle-down theory.'"
Sowell has written that the actual path of money in a private enterprise economy is quite the opposite of that claimed by people who refer to the trickle-down theory. He noted that money invested in new business ventures is first paid out to employees, suppliers, and contractors. Only later, if the business is profitable, does money return to the business owners—but in the absence of a profit motive, which is reduced in the aggregate by a raise in marginal tax rates in the upper tiers, this activity does not occur.