Tax breaks for the wealthy were meant to trickle through society to benefit all. It didn’t work and inequality just got worse, says an economist
ADVOCATES of trickle-down economics argue that, when the rich get extra income, they invest it and create more jobs – and a higher income – for others. Those people, in turn, spend their extra money. Eventually the effect trickles down the whole system, making everyone better off, in absolute terms.
So, what seems like a moral outrage – giving more to people who already have more – is in theory a socially benign action.
The trouble is it hasn’t worked. In the past three decades, states with pro-rich policies have seen economic growth slow, except in countries like China and Vietnam that needed to jump-start socialist economies.
In the UK, upward income redistribution since 1980 has seen the share of the top 1 per cent rise from 5 per cent of national income to over 10 per cent. Yet the annual growth rate of income per person has fallen from 2.5 per cent between 1960 and 1980 to 1.8 per cent between 1980 and 2013.
One reason is that the rich have not kept their end of the bargain – they didn’t invest more; and inequality, linked to poorer health and societal damage, worsened. Investment as a share of GDP used to be 18 to 22 per cent in the 1960s and 1970s but since then has been 14 to 18 per cent, except for a few years at the end of the 1980s.
Moreover, concentration of income at the top has boosted the political influence of the super-rich, allowing them to push for policies that benefit themselves but create harm in the long run. For example, the UK financial sector successfully lobbied for “light-touch regulation”, which enabled it to earn a lot but led to the 2008 financial crisis.
It is well established that a less equal society has lower social mobility. When talented people from less privileged backgrounds cannot move up the social ladder, the economy’s long-term dynamism suffers. An increasing number of studies show that, above a certain level, higher inequality harms growth. Some are by the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which didn’t use to be concerned about inequality.
Despite these failings, some politicians still back measures that benefit the wealthy, often citing trickle-down economics. In the UK, the Conservatives cut taxes for the top earners while in government. They want to slash inheritance tax for wealthier estates and cut the numbers paying higher-rate tax. The UK Independence Party has a similar stance on higher-rate tax and wants zero inheritance tax.
The 35-year experiment with trickle down economics has failed for most people. Unfortunately, there is too much money and power at stake for its true beneficiaries to accept this reality and end this approach.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Defying gravity”
Ha-Joon Chang is an economist at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Economics: The user’s guide (Pelican)
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