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  1. January 15, 2011 10:08 am

    You have to be concerned for whether it works or not, since if it did, it would embody concern for the poor. The problems cannot be discussed apart from technical expertise.
    “A morality that believes itself able to dispense with technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such, it is the antithesis of morality.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

    The theory doesn’t work, hence it is not concern for the poor.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 15, 2011 10:19 am

      I am concerned for whether it works or not, but I wanted this thread to focus on the question of compatibility with the option for the poor and not the question of whether it works. I’m not asking that we dispense with the technical knowledge, but that we temporarily bracket the debate about that knowledge and consider instead another question. Perhaps that’s not possible, though.

    • sean permalink
      January 17, 2011 2:40 pm

      From a serious Christian perspective “Trickle down” economics works neither in theory or practice.

  2. Mack Ramer permalink
    January 15, 2011 10:17 am

    I think it’s kind of like democracy. It’s the worst system except for all the others.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 10:00 am

      How so?

  3. phosphorious permalink
    January 15, 2011 10:47 am

    It may well work in practice, but at the cost of disenfranchising the poor at a fundamental level.

    The theory is that society. . . government and the economy. . . should serve the rich, and that the rich just being themselves will benefit the poor.

    It may increase the material condition of the poor ( no small advantage, I suppose) but it doesn’t encourage, or even permit them to become wealthier, because the system is gamed in favor of the current holders of wealth. It doesn’t encourage their engagement in the broader polity. Laws and government are for the rich, the poor are merely tolerated.

    (I would also argue that trickle down has a detrimental effect on the character of the rich, since it reinforces the idea that being rich is enough. If you’re rich, it doesn’t matter what else you are, you deserve respect and special treatment.)

  4. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    January 15, 2011 10:54 am

    I am inclined to say that it does not, whether or not it works. My understanding is that “trickle down economics” (TDE) is predicated on a free market liberalism that says that the best thing that can be done for the poor is to maximize total economic wealth and not worry about distribution, since regulating or manipulating distribution leads to less than maximal wealth production. However, Catholic thought is focused much more around optimal distribution of existing wealth, and the preferential option for the poor (POP) says that an optimal distribution of wealth must have, as a primary concern, the needs of the poor and marginalized. TDE does not do this and so is not consistent with POP.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 10:00 am

      Interesting argument, David. This expresses better than I could have said about where I currently am on this issue, but I’m willing to reconsider.

    • ex-libertarian permalink
      January 18, 2011 6:29 am

      the reason why politics marketed as “free market” don’t work is that the efforts are state capitalism, and the results are just a different flavor of class warfare.

      also, there’s no such thing as a free market.

  5. January 15, 2011 10:56 am

    Well, I think it depends. As a general rule, I do not think it works — however, I think bailouts, which is in a way a form of trickle down economics, ends up helping the poor, if they bailouts are managed properly. However, it is also true that with even bailouts, by itself, it is not enough.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 9:57 am

      What extension upon trickle-down policy would make it a suitable example of the option for the poor?

  6. January 15, 2011 11:41 am

    What is morally incorrect will be economically inefficient. And vice-versa. If the terms are properly understood, there can be no real conflict. In this case, the economic problem with trickle down is that it embodies an incorrect view of the role of capital. Capitalism elevates capital over labor, and gives priority to accumulating large pools of capital, which are thought to be the source of jobs and growth. But in fact, these piles of capital are an impediment both to growth in general and to a free market. Trickle down starts at the wrong end and reaches pretty much the situation we are in.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 9:45 am

      What is morally incorrect will be economically inefficient. And vice-versa.

      How so, John?

      • January 16, 2011 9:00 pm

        The specific answer depends on the specific issue, but the general answer is that there cannot be two truths which are contradictory; that would mean we live in an irrational universe ruled by irrational gods. There can be no conflict between morality, properly understood, and economics, properly understood. If one detects an apparent conflict, then one has misunderstood either morality, or economics, or both.

  7. R.C. permalink
    January 15, 2011 1:14 pm

    I don’t think this question can be answered with satisfying completeness without first defining what a “preferential option for the poor” is, in an exact way.

    (I mean, I myself use the term in a casual kind of way…but I doubt I could quickly come up with a precise definition that wouldn’t immediately get challenged for being too broad, too narrow, too vague, too something….)

    Once the term has been defined unambiguously, one must then define “trickle down economics” equally unambiguously.

    This will probably be the trickier of the two definitions, inasmuch as there are a lot of free-marketers and libertarians who (a.) are very generous to the poor personally and want very much to help them through policy means as well, (b.) oppose higher taxes generally and support flatter (less progressive) taxes specifically, and yet (c.) would deny being a supporter of “trickle down economics” because their support for (b.) isn’t motivated by their generous attitude (a.).

    Anyhow, once the two items are defined, the definitions will either overlap, or not, thus answering the question.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 9:47 am

      Fair enough.

  8. January 15, 2011 10:09 pm

    It seems to me that the question is impossible to answer because of terminology difficulties.

    “Trickle-down economics” is in origin a pejorative term for the idea that not taxing upper sections of the spectrum at a confiscatory level would result in greater economic growth which would in the end benefit all levels of the country. It’s not really a particular policy or economic philosophy, however, much less a whole system. Since the term is generally applied in the US to people who not only want to cut the highest tax brackets, but also happen to favor low levels of social spending, I suppose there might be an association with less “preferential option for the poor”, if that is constituted by social spending. But given that the term itself is only a vague description of a tax policy, I don’t see how one could say one way or the other.

    This may be a little more controversial here, but I’d suggest too that “preferential option for the poor” is also a term of which there is not a very clear definition. If forced to try to define it, I’d say it refers to designing an economic or social order with particular concern that the poor be protected or benefited, but this of course becomes a very tricky question very quickly as most people say that they want that, and the controversy is all about what exactly it is that can be considered “benefit” and what particular policies or structures will provide that (whatever it is) to the poor.

    One important question, for instance, might be whether the preferential option has to do with intent or with success. If one comes up with a system with the intent of making special provision for the poor, but in fact it produces worse results for the poor than are seen in another country in which the economic and social systems are focused entirely on growth, is the former better than the latter from a Catholic point of view. From what I read, it seems to me there would actually be a fair amount of controversy over that point, and personally, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say which country (in such a theoretical situation) in fact had a better preferential option for the poor.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 9:52 am

      Excellent questions in your last paragraph, Darwin. From a moral standpoint, the intention to help the poor is, of course, necessary, but then, from the standpoint of actually fulfilling the principle, it’s insufficient. I would hope that if one truly intends to help the poor, he or she would be happy to evaluate and accept criticism of the specific policies advanced.

    • January 16, 2011 1:47 pm

      In that case, it sounds to me like you’d need to ask two questions in order to determine an answer to your question:

      1) Does the term “trickle down economics” specifically denote an un-concern for whether the poor are in fact benefited. (If it does, then obviously it doesn’t have a preferential option for the poor, because there’s a lack of intent.)

      2) If it does not necessarily denote lack of concern for the poor, the next question would go beyond your current scope: Does it in fact benefit the poor?

      Now that I think about it, you’d also have to define “benefit” in my above formulation. For instance, would we define benefiting the poor as maximizing their material condition? Would we define it as minimizing the disparity between them and “the rich” regardless of them being poorer or richer in absolute terms? Does it involve, more than either of these, a sense that “the system” is designed with them in mind, regardless of whether this actually is grounded in reality or derives them much benefit?

      I don’t seem to be reducing the number of questions here…

  9. January 16, 2011 8:24 am

    Ask whether a particular economic policy helps or hurts the poor. I think it’s as simple as that. The answer to your question requires technical knowledge of economics and a knowledge of statistics and so on.

    But I agree with Darwin that the terms you are employing themselves are almost meaningless and come from a caricature.

    • Kyle R. Cupp permalink
      January 16, 2011 9:53 am


      I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. Darwin raises intention, and that I think needs to be there. Otherwise, the help given to the poor may be accidental.

  10. January 16, 2011 6:39 pm

    It seems to me it is difficult to evaluate something like trickle-down economics and the preferential option for the poor while bracketing the question of whether it works or not. Undoubtedly a more virtuous approach would be for neighbor to help neighbor, neighboring communities to help each other, and so on. However, if in actual practice this doesn’t happen to a significant degree, and trickle-down economics leaves the poor better off, then from the viewpoint of the poor, at least, trickle-down economics is preferable.

    Presumably at least one goal of the preferential option for the poor is to help the poor. If there is a system that makes rich people feel more virtuous, but that only minimally helps the poor, then the poor may be better off under ruthless, cold-blooded laissez-faire capitalism — assuming, of course, that it works as it is supposed to, and the rising tide lifts all boats. But of course it doesn’t, and as I believe I heard Alan Greenspan saying recently, what we have had over the past 8 or 10 years is a case of a rising tide lifting all yachts.

  11. January 16, 2011 9:38 pm

    In its immediate effect, socialism helps the poor. The only question is, does socialism wreck a national economy in the process? Our elite handlers continually tell us that socialism has wrecked the economies of western europe (where poverty had pretty much been eliminated.) But our domestic “free market” capitalism isn’t doing so well these days, either. It is, in fact, creating more poor people than it is helping. It is, in fact, destroying the middle-class while continuing to further greatly enrich the already-rich.
    So who’s zoomin’ whom?
    Since this is a Catholic blog, I might also ask anyone who knows the answer to share with us just what conditions Jesus Christ put on helping the poor.

  12. Paul DuBois permalink
    January 16, 2011 11:17 pm

    I see a preferential option for the poor (POP) to mean that when we make a policy decision on a societal or personal level we are required to consider how that decision will affect the poor and give a preference to the choice that has the best effect on the poor. This is not always easy to determine and is often even harder to act on. Examples are given in the Bible in the law, the historical books, the prophets, the gospels and the epistles. It would be off track to detail all examples, but good choices would include the Jubilee year and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
    To claim that a choice represents a POP requires more than the belief it will work, it should require examples of when or where that option has worked in a way that benefits the poor (or as a minimum does not hurt their condition). This issue can be confused by asking what we mean my “benefit”, but clearly that would include enabling them to provide for their basic needs and giving them a hope for the future in a way that does not harm their relationship with God and their fellow man (recommending they enrich themselves through drug dealing and prostitution not meet this requirement).
    Trickle-down economics (or supply side economics) I assume to be a system that believes if we let the wealthy keep more of their money, they will use that money to invest and expand the economy creating more jobs. Or they may even just spend the money on goods that people have to manufacture and therefore create jobs that way. If one compares the economic growth in the US from the early 80’s to today to the period from the 40’s to the 80’s is seems this policy has failed. By any measure (growth of the middle class, wage growth for the lower 50% of the population, family income, numbers of hours worked in the family) the poor have not benefited from the policy changes that represented supply side economics. I cannot think of an example of a country or time where supply side economics has improved the lot of the poor.
    Based on the above, any attempt to reconcile trickle-down economics with a POP without a good example of where it has worked would be disingenuous at best. Have the intent to do good while blindly trying to implement strategies that have not been proven, and possible disproven is not a serious intent at all.

  13. January 17, 2011 12:03 am

    Let me suggest that the POP is a technical requirement of solidarity. It gives us a standard for evaluating any law of policy from the standpoint of the least important members of society. If the law impacts them negatively, then it likely isn’t a good law.

  14. R.C. permalink
    January 17, 2011 3:00 pm

    I’m glad that some folks have addressed my questions about definitions.

    I notice that most folk here are uniformly confident that (a.) supply-side/trickle-down economics has been attempted at some point in the past and (b.) that the attempt failed to “lift all boats.” This seems to me to be open to question, inasmuch as, at any site where more economically rightward persons predominate, I find uniform confidence that (a.) supply-side/trickle-down economics has been attempted, tho’ hamstrung by inconsistent implementation, despite which (b.) the attempt succeeded in “lifting all boats,” albeit to a degree which was hampered by the inconsistent implementation.

    I myself am not competent to judge which side is correct and thus am avoiding the “but does it WORK?” part of the debate. I note only that both sides are confident to the point of taking a casual, “as everyone knows” kind of attitude about their judgments.

    The only other thing I’ll say on that topic is that I notice that the rightward-leaning folk, when they deal with the topic of whether all the boats have been lifted, are not talking about whether they have all been lifted proportionally in all economic brackets, but only about whether they have been lifted more in each economic bracket than under an alternate policy.

    I mention this because it may explain the confidence each side has in its judgment on the success of the policy. Perhaps the left is saying, “Yes, all the boats rose, but the little ones rose only by a foot and the yachts by twenty feet, which can hardly be called a success”; whereas the right is saying, “Yes, all the boats rose; the little ones by a foot and the yachts by twenty feet…but since the alternative policies would have lifted the little boats by only six inches, they’re still higher up than they otherwise would have been.” In short, perhaps success or failure is a function of whether one’s goal is income equality or simply a raw increase in purchase-power? Perhaps the choice is between elevating everyone, with the downside of elevating those who least need the boost most, versus cutting everyone down a bit, but fortunately those who can most easily afford it will get cut down the most?

    In any case the whole question is complicated by the difficulty of deciding against which baseline to make comparisons. Presumably we ought to compare the outcome of Policy X with the outcome which would have happened if an alternative policy had been implemented. But as Aslan told Lucy, “Child, have I not told you before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”

    One thing I think unambiguous about policy on both sides of the aisle is that they’ve tended towards loose monetary policy hand-in-hand with a lot of sovereign debt, and that, it seems to me, is particularly destructive of the “working poor”; that is, those folk who follow the save-and-be-thrifty middle class values of yesteryear which we in theory ought to be rewarding. But that’s a whole other discussion.

  15. January 19, 2011 7:41 pm

    As Darwin Catholic said “trickle down economics” is a pejorative term invented discredit opposition without serious discussion.

    May I suggest another way to look at the issue.

    When I took some public service management courses we reviewed an concept called hygiene theory.

    You have hospital, it spends scads of money on hygiene – soap, sterilizing, hermetically sealed everything. new hospital administrator come in and says “we want a preferential option for making patients well, medicine makes patients well, soap doesn’t, lets stop wasting money on soap so we can spend more money on medicine.” What happens? Patients die left and right from avoidable infections.

    Every organization, society has functions analogous to hygiene and medicine. If you just do medicine and not hygiene nothing is accomplished because the everything falls apart. Just doing hygiene and not medicine produces an a stable result at the lowest common denominator. Both need to be done. There has to be a balance.

    What is unjustly derided as “trickle down economics” is a hygiene function. Not having that as part of the package produces an economy that is like a hospital that doesn’t not “waste” any money on soap. Having it makes it possible to apply “medicine” where it is needed but of course it doesn‘t apply the medicine. How much “medicine” should be applied and where is certainly a matter of prudential judgment.

  16. January 20, 2011 7:16 am

    “The poor” is such a dreary topic…

  17. January 20, 2011 8:49 pm

    I don’t know that supply-side economics even takes the truly poor into consideration. Isn’t the central idea of lower taxes and fewer regulations that it will produce more and cheaper goods for purchase by the consumer (i.e. the middle-) class? The poor are not consumers of those items to be purchased with discretionary dollars; they struggle to acquire basic necessities. What the poor need is not cheaper consumer goods, but either massive social welfare programs, or (preferably) jobs that pay a true living wage. I don’t know that supply-side economics addresses the issue of poverty directly at all. I don’t know that free market capitalism addresses the issue of poverty directly at all–other than to guarantee that we will have the poor always with us.

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