In 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt gave his rousing “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where he called for new approaches to dealing with the problems the nation faced. President Obama visited Osawatomie today, and in his own speech — his first major economic speech since Occupy Wall Street protests began highlighting income inequality and corporate greed — Obama called for a new approach to addressing America’s current economic challenges.
In the process, Obama fired a shot across the bow of 30 years of conservative economic theory, a shot that was sorely needed but has been left in the chamber by Democratic presidents and political leaders, Obama included, far too often. Trickle down economics, the conservative theory embraced by Ronald Reagan and virtually every conservative since, “doesn’t work,” Obama declared. And even as conservatives have clung to the idea in the face of overwhelming evidence against it, “it has never worked,” Obama added:
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.
It’s a simple theory — one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
Obama is right. The trickle-down policies put in place since the Reagan administration haven’t brought prosperity to the middle- and working-classes; if anything, they have made prosperity an illusion for the vast majority of Americans who don’t directly benefit from them.
Tax cuts for the wealthy, primarily those passed by Republicans in 2001 and 2003, lowered rates for the richest Americans to historically low levels — but those cuts were followed by massive deficits and weak job growth, not the economic boom conservatives promised. Anti-regulatory policies helped lead to a predatory financial system that busted the housing market, nearly collapsed the financial industry, and threw America into a recession that largely spared — and even enriched — the nation’s wealthiest. At the same time, millions of lower- and middle-class Americans lost jobs, retirement funds, and any hope of economic prosperity in their lifetime. Under 30 years of trickle down policies, wage growth has stagnated even as CEO pay has boomed.
Unfortunately, Obama’s speech won’t be enough to make such policies disappear. Republicans continue to espouse the same ideas — loosening regulations and cutting taxes on the rich while slashing programs that benefit the working- and middle-classes — in their attempts to bring about recovery. If history is any indicator, however, those policies would again fail to boost job creation and economic growth. As Obama noted today, those policies don’t work, and they never have.