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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Republicans

trickle-down

(1980’s | academese (economics))

Although the Reagan administration gave us many new expressions, it cannot be blamed for this one, which long predates Reagan’s ascent to the presidency. It’s unlikely he ever used it himself, at least in public. But everyone else did, and we continue to associate the phrase with him, especially if we’re my age. The term was accurate in the case of Reaganomics; the much-discussed supply-side theory was a smoke screen to disguise the massive (and ongoing) redistribution of wealth upward, a process well underway before Reagan got in, but which he accelerated, and, more culpably, made to feel normal and inevitable. Now a generation or two of Americans senses that trickle-down economics is just how we do things. Advocates of the theory care far more about the first part — putting more money at the top — than the second — making sure a lot of it actually reaches those who have less. The real point is not that wealth trickles down. The real point is that it gushes up.

No question this expression is older, dating back at least to mid-century. It was not rare before 1980 and therefore ready to hand when Reagan came along. Apparently “trickle-down” did not carry the opprobrium Reagan’s adversaries hoped it would. (John Kenneth Galbraith used the phrase “horse and sparrow economics,” which lacks rhetorical vim but makes the relationship between the tricklers and the tricklees clear.) The word “trickle,” suggesting a sluggish and paltry stream, ought to raise hackles or at least spark discussion, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered very many people back in the eighties, or today, though union spokespersons and political candidates still use the phrase with intent to defame. It may not scare voters very much, but that doesn’t mean politicians advertise their own policies in such terms; it’s one of those expressions you would hear only from an opponent.

“Trickle-down” is not used exclusively to talk about money and distribution of wealth, but that has always been its métier. Today you see it in sportswriting a fair amount, where it comes closer to “ripple effect,” the idea that small changes will be amplified and lead to larger changes. It’s a different axis: “trickle down” insists that the wealthy occupy a higher position, but “ripple effect” is more horizontal and egalitarian. In an economy where more people have a larger share of the money, it washes around; when only a few people have most of the money, it can only trickle down.

The trouble with trickle-down is that it’s deeply un-American. It posits a small aristocratic class that receives large benefits from the king — er, uh, ahem, government — in exchange for a certain amount of fealty and service. The government shovels more and more money onto the aristocrats — a tiny minority of the population — further strengthening their hold on political, and purchasing, power. In theory, anyone can make their way into this minuscule aristocracy, but in practice it’s much easier if you start in the top tax bracket, or in the right family (yes, bloodlines still help). Now there have always been prominent American politicians and philosophers who preferred aristocracy, and they have wielded considerable influence since 1789. But each go-round they seem to get a little more immune to the masses’ resistance. Or maybe that’s just hubris repeating itself. After all, ruthless, amoral greedpigs make mistakes like the rest of us.

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