“Trickle-down” economics began as a joke. Seriously.
If there’s one person most often associated with the origins of of trickle-down economics, it’s President Ronald Reagan. Few people know, however, that the phrase was actually coined by American humorist Will Rogers, who mocked President Herbert Hoover’s Depression-era recovery efforts, saying that “money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes it would trickle down to the needy.”
Rogers’ joke became economic dogma within two generations, thanks in large part to Reagan. At the center of Reagan’s economic doctrine was the idea that economic gains primarily benefiting the wealthy—investors, businesses, entrepreneurs, and the like—will “trickle-down” to poorer members of society, creating new opportunities for the economically disadvantaged to attain a better standard of living. Prosperity for the rich leads to prosperity for all, the logic goes, so let’s hurry up with those tax cuts already. The legacy of Reaganomics continues to shape modern debates over macroeconomic policy in the United States, from the Bush tax cuts of the mid-2000s to the deficit hawks waging war over the federal budget in Congress.
Now, nearly 80 years later, Rogers’ quip is getting the punchline it deserves: A devastating new report from the International Monetary Fund has declared the idea of “trickle-down” economics to be as much a joke as he’d imagined.
Increasing the income share to the bottom 20 percent of citizens by a mere one percent results in a 0.38 percentage point jump in GDP growth.
The IMF report, authored by five economists, presents a scathing rejection of the trickle-down approach, arguing that the monetary philosophy has been used as a justification for growing income inequality over the past several decades. “Income distribution matters for growth,” they write. “Specifically, if the income share of the top 20 percent increases, then GDP growth actually declined over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down.”