Trickle down economics


Trickle down economics is a term used to describe the belief that if high-income earners gain an increase in salary, then everyone in the economy will benefit as their increased income and wealth filter through to all sections in society.

How the trickle-down effect may work in theory


If the richest gain an increase in wealth, then

  • They will spend a proportion of this extra wealth.
  • The extra wealth will cause an increased demand for goods and services, causing higher employment and a rise in wages.
  • The higher wages will also cause a multiplier effect, e.g. if more chauffeurs are employed by the rich, the chauffeur will gain increased income and, in turn, they will increase spending in local businesses.
  • A cut in taxes increases the incentive to work. Lower income tax encourages people to work longer. Lower corporation tax encourages business to invest, creating wealth.
  • Alternatively, the wealthy may invest their increased wealth. If the wealth is invested in new businesses, it will create new jobs and increase the incomes of those employed.
  • Higher spending and investment will stimulate economic activity leading to a rise in tax revenues (higher income tax, higher VAT).
  • Higher tax revenues can fund public programmes such as healthcare, education and welfare payments to the poor.

Trickle-down effect and tax cuts

An important element of the trickle-down effect is with regard to income tax cuts for the top-income earners. It is argued that cutting income tax for the rich will not just benefit high-earners, but also everyone. The argument is as follows:

  1. If high-income earners see an increase in disposable income, they will increase their spending and this creates additional demand in the economy. This higher level of aggregate demand creates jobs and higher wages for all workers.
  2. Alternatively, increased profits for firms may be reinvested into expanding output. This again leads to higher growth, wages and incomes for all.
  3. Lower income taxes increase the incentive to for people to work leading to higher productivity and economic growth.
  4. The Laffer curve suggests cutting tax can even cause an increase in tax revenues as the lower tax rates are offset by higher growth.

A study by NBER June 1997 Engen and Skinner conclude that:

“cutting marginal tax rates across the board by 5 percentage points and cutting average tax rates by 2.5 percentage points would increase the growth rate of U.S. GDP by 0.3 percentage points per year.”

Video on Trickle-down economics

Criticisms of trickle-down economics

I have a joke about trickle-down economics. Only 99% of you will get it.


Many economists are sceptical of the belief in ‘the trickle-down’ effect. One reason, the wealthy have a higher marginal propensity to save, and also n recent years, wealth has been saved in off-shore accounts to avoid paying tax. Therefore, when the wealthy gain extra income, only a small percentage may filter through to low-income workers.

Also, some studies suggest that increased income inequality can lead to this inequality being solidified through educational opportunities, wealth accumulation and the growth of monopoly/monopsony power. Furthermore, increased inequality may lead to lower rates of economic growth.

Tax cuts have no clear impact on growth. In The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich (2020), by David Hope and Julian Limberg, the authors found tax cuts for the rich, had no statistical effect on economic growth. They looked particularly at the 1980s in UK and US, where significant taxes were cut.

“The results also show that economic performance, as measured by real GDP per capita and the unemployment rate, is not significantly affected by major tax cuts for the rich. The estimated effects for these variables are statistically indistinguishable from zero.” (LSE)

A report by the IMF (2015) found increasing income share of the poor increased economic growth, but increasing income share of the rich, led to lower growth.

“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth.”

Real GDP and Median wages in the US



In the US, real GDP has grown faster than median wages since the early 1980s. In the 1980s, taxes were cut for high earners and there was a significant increase in inequality. Proponents of the Reagan tax cuts and supply-side economics argue it was worth it because everyone benefitted from rising GDP. However, the median wage, (which is the wage the middle-income earners actually receive has increased slower than real GDP, suggested not all the gains of the top 1% have trickled down to average workers.


Inequality and lower growth. A recent report by the OECD found that since the start of the credit crisis in 2008, inequality has widened in many countries; however, this inequality has led to lower rates of economic growth not higher.

This graph from an OECD report suggests that inequality is responsible for lower GDP. The OECD estimates that the UK economy would have been more than 20% bigger had the gap between rich and poor not widened since the 1980s.

oecd-inequality Source: OECD Focus – Inequality and Growth 2014

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Sectors of the economy


The main sectors of the economy are: Primary sector – extraction of raw materials – mining, fishing and agriculture. Secondary / manufacturing sector – concerned with producing finished goods, e.g. Construction sector, manufacturing and utilities, e.g. electricity. Service / ‘tertiary’ sector –  concerned with offering intangible goods and services to consumers. This includes retail, tourism, …

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Market Failure with Covid


Covid raises many problems for society and offers quite a few examples of market failure. These include:

  • Externalities. A young person catching Covid may face few personal costs, but there is an external cost because they may transmit to more vulnerable people.
  • Information asymmetries. There is a lot of misinformation about Covid and vaccines. This makes it more difficult for individuals and business to make rational decisions.
  • Monopoly power. Vaccines patented by large multinationals. Supply is dominated by a few of the richer countries.
  • Public good – Improving public health is a public good (non-rivalry/ non-excludable benefits). But, there is an incentive to be a free-rider on other people who make efforts to improve health.
  • Inequality. Lockdowns and social restrictions have affected different groups in different ways. Some jobs (typing at home) have done well and workers have increased personal savings. Other sectors of the economy have suffered from economic restrictions and may never recover.

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The broken window fallacy


The broken window fallacy states that if money is spent on repairing the damage, it is a mistake to think this represents an increase in economic output and economic welfare. If money is spent on repairing a broken window, the opportunity cost is that individuals cannot spend money on more productive goods. The broken window …

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The throw-away economy


The throw-away economy refers to the prevalence of consumer goods which only last for a short period of time. When they stop working / no longer relevant, we throw them away and replace them with new goods.

This is in contrast to an economy where resources are more scare – and if a good is purchased, we expect to make it last a considerable time – repairing if necessary.

For example, in the past, if our socks had a hole, we would sew them up (‘darning’ your socks). But, these days, if socks get a hole, it is more convenient to throw them away and buy some cheap socks instead.

If average wages are £10 an hour. Why spend 30 minutes sewing your socks, when you can buy a new pair for £3? In the past, wages were much lower compared to prices. If you only earnt £1 an hour, then it is worth sewing your socks to save buying a new pair for £3.

Therefore, rising real wages make a throw-away economy more likely.

Repair shops

TV repair
TV repair. Photo Katie Chao and Ben Muessig – Flickr


In the past, there were many TV repair shops – if your tv or electronic goods broke down, you would try to have them fixed. In today’s world, if a TV broke down, we would be liable to throw away the TV and buy a new one. It is not so expensive and electronic goods are always offering new features. After a couple of years, your electronic goods can feel ‘outdated’ pretty quick. I have a stack of CDs I don’t play in CD players any more.

The problem of the tin openers

Broken tin opener from a Pound Shop


The inspiration for this post has been the number of tin-openers we have got through in the past 12 months. We have bought four tin openers, all of which have ceased working after a short period of use. In each case, we have thrown it away and bought a new one. The first two were from Sainsburys and Asda. They cost about £4 and looked fairly robust. But, after a few weeks, they stopped working properly, and then failed completely. My lodger uses the tin-opener most, so I told him since I paid £5 for a tin-opener and it stopped working, he might as well go get one from a Pound shop. The first tin opener did open one can of Heinz soup then it snapped. 99p to open one tin! That is called a false economy!

He took it back to the 99p shop and the workers laughed. They obviously got returned tin openers all the time. He got a replacement, but that broke straight-away, even before opening a tin.

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The relationship between economics and politics

Readers question: Why cannot politics and economics be seen in isolation?

Economics is concerned with studying and influencing the economy. Politics is the theory and practice of influencing people through the exercise of power, e.g. governments, elections and political parties.

In theory, economics could be non-political. An ideal economist should ignore any political bias or prejudice to give neutral, unbiased information and recommendations on how to improve the economic performance of a country. Elected politicians could then weigh up this economic information and decide.

Houses of Parliament london

In practice there is a strong relationship between economics and politics because the performance of the economy is one of the key political battlegrounds. Many economic issues are inherently political because they lend themselves to different opinions.

Political ideology influencing economic thought

Many economic issues are seen through the eyes of political beliefs. For example, some people are instinctively more suspicious of government intervention. Therefore, they prefer economic policies which seek to reduce government interference in the economy. For example,  supply side economics, which concentrates on deregulation, privatisation and tax cuts.

On the other hand, economists may have a preference for promoting greater equality in society and be more willing to encourage government intervention to pursue that end.

If you set different economists to report on the desirability of income tax cuts for the rich, their policy proposals are likely to reflect their political preferences. You can always find some evidence to support the benefits of tax cuts, you can always find some evidence to support the benefits of higher tax.

Some economists may be scrupulously neutral and not have any political leanings (though I haven’t met too many). They may produce a paper that perhaps challenges their previous views. Despite their preferences, they may find there is no case for rail privatisation, or perhaps they find tax cuts do actually increase economic welfare.

However, for a politician, they can use those economists and economic research which backs their political view. Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were great champions of supply side economists like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph, and  Friedrich Hayek. When Reagan was attempting to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ – there was no shortage of economists who were able to provide a theoretical justification for the political experiment. There were just as many economists suggesting this was not a good idea, but economists can be promoted by their political sponsors. In the US, the Paul Ryan budget proposals were welcomed by many Republicans because they promised tax cuts for better off, cutting welfare benefits and balancing the budget. (1) A popular selection of policies for Republicans.

Economic thought independent of politics

On the other hand, economists who stick to data and avoid cherry picking favourable statistics may well come up with conclusions and recommendations that don’t necessarily fit it with pre-conceived political issues.

Many economists may be generally supportive of the EU and European co-operation, but the evidence from the Euro single currency is that it caused many economic problems of low growth, deflation and trade imbalances.

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Different types of goods – Inferior, Normal, Luxury


A list of different types of economic goods. Income elasticity of demand and types of goods Income elasticity of demand (YED) measures the responsiveness of demand to a change in income. Normal good A normal good means an increase in income causes an increase in demand. It has a positive income elasticity of demand YED. …

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Economic goods – definition and examples



An economic good is a good or service that has a benefit (utility) to society. Also, economic goods have a degree of scarcity and therefore an opportunity cost.


This is in contrast to a free good (like air, sea, water) where there is no opportunity cost – but abundance. Free goods cannot be traded because nobody living by the sea would buy seawater – there is no point.

However, with economic goods where there is some scarcity and value, people will be willing to pay for them (in some form).

Another feature of an economic good is that if it can have a value placed on the good, it can be traded in the marketplace and valued using a form of money.

An economic good will have some degree of scarcity in relation to demand. It is the scarcity that creates a value people become willing to pay for. It is the scarcity which creates opportunity cost. – For example, if we pick apples from a tree, it means that other people will not be able to enjoy them. If we devote resources to mining gold, the opportunity cost is that we can’t devote this time and effort to growing corn.

Readers Question: Can endangered plant/animal species be economic goods? If so then why?

“Dead as a Dodo” But, was the Dodo an economic good?

Firstly, do endangered plants/animal species have a value to man?

  • Many endangered plants and species do have a benefit to humanity, even if we are not aware of them. For example, rare plants may hold the key to creating a vaccine for a disease. If we allow the plant to become extinct, then we lose this bio-diversity and future potential to treat human diseases. This is a clear example of how endangered plants could have a very high economic value.
  • It may be harder to make the case for endangered species. You could argue that some reptile on the verge of extinction has little or no value to humans, therefore some might not class it as an economic good.
  • However, others may disagree, they argue that when considering economic value, we shouldn’t just consider narrow human interest. We could argue that we should look at the issue from a less human-specific perspective. We should see all life as having an intrinsic value.
  • Furthermore, ecologists may argue that protecting the biodiversity of the planet should give joy to humans – we should get utility and satisfaction from being guardians of the planet rather than destroyers of life. Therefore protecting so called ‘useless’ species can actually give utility to humans because we can feel ‘good’ about being responsible citizens of the planet.
  • The difficulty is that a strict definition of an economic good says that the value of the good should have some market value and be traded. It is hard to put a value on the benefit of saving a rare species from extinction. But at least, some people would spend money to save a species from extinction because they feel it is a worthwhile act. Therefore, the rare species do have an economic value.

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