In his first debate against President Obama two weeks ago, Mitt Romney twice condemned “trickle-down government.” In this week’s debate, he used the phrase twice more. In a speech at the Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee Conference recently, the Republican mentioned “trickle-down government” literally nine times.
Unfortunately, no one seems to know what, if anything, it means.
The American mainstream is generally pretty familiar with the concept of “trickle-down economics”: it’s the model in which wealth is deliberately concentrated at the top, redistributed to the very wealthy, in the supply-side hopes that the rich will spend and invest, and wealth will eventually trickle down to everyone else.
But trickle-down government borders on gibberish. To his enormous credit, Tim Noah dug in and investigated the origins of the phrase. Oddly enough, in 1984, the phrase popped up in a favorable context – it was “shorthand for government spending that has a stimulative multiplier effect on private-sector economic growth,” such as the “trickle-down government” that saved Mitt Romney’s backside in the 2002 Olympics.
It’s gone through some iterations since – Alan Keyes has apparently been quite fond of it – and then-President George H.W. Bush even used it in a debate against Bill Clinton in 1992. Noah concluded:
To the very minor extent that “trickle-down government” has any meaning at all, it’s shorthand for the argument, “Government spending doesn’t stimulate the economy.” But even that is just a reflexive attempt to neutralize the argument (backed by powerful evidence) that tax cuts for rich people don’t stimulate the economy. Indeed, to whatever extent they exacerbate income inequality, the growing consensus is that they may harm it.
The idea that government spending doesn’t help the economy contradicts a pretty sturdy consensus among economists (including, according to Paul Krugman, at least two of Romney’s own economic advisers, Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia) that government spending does indeed stimulate the economy, just like John Maynard Keynes said. Indeed, in times of economic crisis government spending (along with Fed monetary policy, which the president and Congress don’t control) is just about the only tool the government has at its disposal. Romney claims not to believe this. But if he really doesn’t believe it, where is his apology for wasting the government’s money at the 2002 Winter Olympics?
That need not be a rhetorical question.