Trickle-down economics is the longest failed experiment in modern American history


These folks ain’t waiting in line for fuel for their cars

In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.

In part, that’s a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again…

More broadly, the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid, prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009…

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

It’s manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place…

The National Climatic Data Center has just reported that October was the 332nd month in a row of above-average global temperatures. As the environmental Web site Grist reported, that means that nobody younger than 27 has lived for a single month with colder-than-average global temperatures, yet climate change wasn’t even much of an issue in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, the World Economic Forum ranks American infrastructure 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4, yet infrastructure is barely mentioned by politicians…

This question of public goods hovers in the backdrop as we confront the “fiscal cliff” and seek to reach a deal based on a mix of higher revenues and reduced benefits. It’s true that we have a problem with rising entitlement spending, especially in health care. But I also wonder if we’ve reached the end of a failed half-century experiment in ever-lower tax rates for the wealthy.

Since the 1950s, the top federal income tax rate has fallen from 90 percent or more to 35 percent. Capital gains tax rates have been cut by more than half since the late 1970s. Financial tycoons now often pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

All this has coincided with the decline of some public services and the emergence of staggering levels of inequality (granted, other factors are also at work) such that the top 1 percent of Americans now have greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

American building codes generally tail along a decade behind European building codes. When it comes to infrastructure, the number ranges from thirty years to fifty years. More likely the latter. You can end our progress with Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System built officially for the Cold War – and really for the motor freight industry. Though that had improved codes that approached European standards for infrastructure, the big boys running contracting firms capable of the job were already figuring out how to cut corners – legally or otherwise.

Highway Codes have since declined. Budgets have diminished. Low-bidder rulings supersede standards. And Congress couldn’t care less.

The same is true for schools and libraries, bridges, parks, any structure designed for the common good.

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