Fantasy of trickle-down economics
Earlier this week, Dorothy and Toto returned to Kansas. Or reality returned, anyway.
The Republican-controlled state legislature revolted against the preposterous, alternative-reality dogma espoused by the ultra-conservative governor, Sam Brownback, who is a follower of the doctrine that claims cutting taxes will increase government revenue. On June 5, the legislature overturned Brownback’s veto, keeping in place a law that will undo the governor’s longstanding tax cuts and increase taxes by $1.2 billion over the next two years.
That amounted to a repudiation of a reckless philosophy with which Brownback is now completely identified. And it ought to serve as a warning to President Donald Trump, whose budget is modeled on the same magical thinking. The president has proposed whopping tax cuts that will overwhelmingly benefit the rich, claiming that those tax cuts will prompt businesses to hire more people, thereby creating a bounty of new jobs.
Several decades ago, conservative political strategists, aided by economists such as Arthur Laffer, popularized “supply-side” economics, although many respectable Republicans were skeptical at the time. When George H.W. Bush ran against Ronald Reagan during the 1980 GOP presidential primaries, he dismissed that ideology as “voodoo economics.”
But Reagan won, and supply-side economics gained popularity in the Republican Party, mostly because the idea served the interests of the rich to whom the party catered. Wealthy business moguls wanted their taxes cut, even though such cuts would inevitably starve the public treasury. Since conservatives also claimed to be fiscally prudent, they invented the notion that cutting taxes would increase the treasury.
Instead, the dogma of tax cuts has exacerbated income inequality (the rich benefit disproportionately) and eroded basic public services. State legislatures have hacked away at funds for colleges and universities, weakening America’s envied system of higher education. Primary and secondary education has been starved, too. Basic infrastructure — roads, bridges, railroads, dams — is collapsing. The electric grid is an early-20th-century relic.
And there is no evidence that tax cuts lead to job growth. In fact, the opposite is true: some of the states with the lowest taxes have weaker economies than states with much higher taxes.
A Web site called WalletHub ranks states favorably for low taxes, with Alabama taking 14th place. The state’s unemployment rate is 5.8 percent. Contrast that with Massachusetts, which is ranked 31st among the states. Its unemployment rate is 3.9 percent.
The laughable theory that tax cuts produce more jobs and tax revenue has been tested on the national level, too. President Bill Clinton left not only a fast-growing economy but also a federal treasury in excellent shape, buoyed by tax increases that were on track to balance the federal budget. But his successor, President George W. Bush, insisted on deep tax cuts, which led to massive red ink. And the economy? The Bush presidency coincided with a decade of no — zero — job growth.
Still, many Republicans have taken up supply-side economics with a religious fervor – and none more dedicated than Brownback, who took on Laffer as an advisor and instituted whopping tax cuts in 2012. The results were entirely predictable. The state had little money to support public services, such as paying for public schools, and it scrambled to cover massive budget shortfalls, even with severe budget cuts. As for the economy, the state ranked 45th in private-sector job growth over the past 12 months, according to The Wichita Eagle.
Brownback is still preaching his gospel of the impossible, though. “We’ve made a big step backwards,” he insisted after the legislature rebelled. Reality cannot permeate his bubble of belief, which has taken on the certainty of religious dogma.
But Brownback’s adherence to magical thinking couldn’t pay teachers or open libraries or cut the grass in public parks. It took awhile, but voters did eventually notice. If your roof is leaking during a rainstorm, you can’t continue to deny that you are getting wet.