Trickle Up Economics?

I have been doing research about the minimum wage lately, spurred on partially by Kerry’s proposal to raise the minimum wage from its current $5.15 to $7.00 by 2007. The right wing has trotted out all the arguments against it – higher unemployment, inflation, etc., even though Bush is not necessarily opposed to the idea.

Coincidentally, one of my friends emailed me today and articulated a thought that has been forming in the back of my mind for the past several weeks. In a nutshell, why is it that the right wing is so quick to embrace trickle down economics, but so closed-minded about the possibility of trickle-up economics?

In a nutshell, your average right-winger accepts as an article of faith that if you give the rich people more money, they will spend it in such a manner that everybody will benefit. On the other hand, if you give a poor person a higher wage, that money disappears into a black hole and does no economic good (kind of like the money the right wing wants to spend on Star Wars defense).

Doesn’t it make sense that if the poor community gets a wage hike, they will spend it in their community, on the goods they need or desire most? If the person bagging my groceries gets another few bucks a day, s/he isn’t likely to ship off those dollars to Germany for a new Porsche – it’ll probably go for more immediate needs, like better housing, clothes or nutrition. Doesn’t it make sense that America’s poor will do better if more money is spent in the areas where they live?

My friend wants to use this theory as a theme to build a new Democratic vision – and I think he has a point. The right wing’s economic theories often center on enhancing the consolidation of capital as a form of economic efficiency. The left wing, however, could seize the issue by using economic theory as a way of solving the problems of the poor and the working poor by decentralization of capital. It’s common sense that money siphoned to the wealthy may have some attenuated trickle down benefit, but it’s also common sense that money earned by the poor will help the micro-economies of the poor, and will trickle up more quickly to the middle class. At the same time, it could have all kinds of “positive externalities” (see, I really have been reading some economics!), such as enhancing the health and welfare of our poorest citizens, rather than paying for the country-club dues and foreign cars.

The theory has deeper application than minimum wage laws, though. Universal health care could, perhaps, fit within the concept of trickle up economics. By asuring that everyone, employed or not, has access to adequate health care, we could unleash untold entrepreneurial energy currently enslaved by the necessity of maintaining employment for access to employee health care plans. Less traditionally liberal, trickle up economics may encourage the left to take a fresh look at issues such as school vouchers (which I currently oppose, but am willing to rethink).

Money spent on our social safety net is not wasted – in fact, it is invested in the area most in need of investment. Increased teacher salaries not only benefit teachers, they benefit students, and communities. Many of the programs near and dear to the heart of the left could, perhaps, benefit from being recast as wise investments in the economy, and their benefits may be more deeply understood from the perspective of how they trickle up, to build our economy on a stronger base.

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