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A Short Primer on McCainomics Versus Obamanomics: Top-Down or Bottom-Up

July 23, 2008

Robert Reich

McCain and Obama represent two fundamentally different economic philosophies. McCain’s is top-down economics; Obama’s is bottom-up.

Top-down economics holds that:

1. If you give generous tax breaks to the rich, they will have greater incentive to work hard and invest. Their harder work and added investments will generate more jobs and faster economic growth, to the benefit of average working people.

2. If you give generous tax breaks to corporations, reduce their payroll costs, and impose fewer regulations on them, they will compete more successfully in global commerce. This too will result in more jobs for Americans and faster growth in the United States.

3. The best way to reduce the energy costs of average Americans is to give oil companies access to more land on which to drill, lower taxes, and lower capital costs. If they get these, they’ll supply more oil, which will reduce oil prices.

4. The best way to deal with the crisis in credit markets is to insure large Wall Street investment banks, as well as Fannie and Freddie, against losses. This will result in more loans at lower rates to average Americans. (Bailing them out may risk “moral hazard,” in the sense that they will expect to be bailed out in the future, but that’s a small price to pay for restoring liquidity.)

The rich do not necessarily invest additional post-tax earnings in the United States; they invest wherever around the world they can get the highest returns.

All of these propositions are highly questionable, especially in a global economy. The rich do not necessarily invest additional post-tax earnings in the United States; they invest wherever around the world they can get the highest returns. Meanwhile, large American-based corporations are doing business all over the world; their supply chains extend to wherever they can find low labor costs combined with high output, and their sales to wherever they can find willing buyers. Oil companies, too, are operating globally and set their prices largely at the point where global supply meets global demand. Additional drilling here creates environmental risks for us but generates the same marginal benefits for consumers in China, India, and Europe as we might enjoy (most likely not for a decade or more). Credit markets are global as well, so the beneficiaries of bailouts of large investment banks and lenders are also worldwide while the potential costs (including moral hazard) fall on American taxpayers.

This isn’t to argue that top-down economics is completely nonsensical. America is, after all, the world’s largest economy. So whatever helps the top of it will to some extent trickle down to everyone else here, and whatever hurts the top is likely to impose some burdens all the way down.

But in a global economy, bottom-up economics makes more sense. Bottom-up economics holds that:

1. The growth of the American economy depends largely on the productivity of its workers. They are rooted here, while global capital and large American-based global corporations are not.

2. The productivity of America workers depends mainly on their education, their health, and the infrastructure that connects them together. These public investments are therefore critical to our future prosperity.

In order to avoid a recession or worse, it’s necessary to improve the financial security of average Americans who are now sinking into a quagmire of debt and foreclosure.

3. Global capital will come to the United States to create good jobs not because our taxes or wages or regulatory costs are low (there will always be many places around the world where taxes, wages, and regulatory costs are lower) but because the productivity of our workers is high.

4. The answer to our energy costs is found in the creativity and inventiveness of Americans in generating non-oil and non-carbon fuels and new means of energy conservation, rather than in access by global oil companies to more oil. So subsidize basic research and development in these alternatives.

5. Finally, in order to avoid a recession or worse, it’s necessary to improve the financial security of average Americans who are now sinking into a quagmire of debt and foreclosure. Otherwise, there won’t be adequate purchasing power to absorb all the goods and services the economy produces. (As to “moral hazard,” the financial institutions that did the lending had more reason to know of the risks involved than those who did the borrowing.)

Listen carefully to the economic debate in the months ahead in light of these two competing economic philosophies. And hope that the latter wins out in years to come.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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