I’ve written about the apparent confusion of the language here in the US between conservatives and liberals, commented on how the word ‘entitled’ has been transformed from a criticism of the upper classes to a pejorative for the working poor, and lamented that some accept lies as facts simply because they have heard them hundreds of times. And now we have Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway giving us ‘alternative facts’. But in all of this confusion, there is one idea that is so muddy and unclear that one hardly knows what it means – or whether it means anything at all. In fact, I think we may all have quite a different idea in our heads when we hear the words ‘the economy’.
Studies of bi-lingual children have shown that the same word spoken in different languages can produce very different images in the mind. One study involved French-Canadian children between the ages of 4 and 7 years old who had one English-speaking parent at home and one French-speaking one, and could use both languages with equal skill. The children were given a piece of paper and some crayons and were asked by an instructor, in English, to “draw a dog for me, please.” The children happily complied. The drawings all looked very similar, as do most drawings done by children of this age. No surprises.
The next day, the same children were given the exact same instruction, but this time, the whole event was conducted in French instead of English, so the children were told to “dessinez un chien pour moi, s’il vous plait.” Again, all of the drawings looked very similar to each other – but to the astonishment of the instructors, they all looked decidedly different from the drawings of the previous day. The study was repeated with a variety of different objects and creatures school children might be familiar with – every time with the same surprising result.
It seemed that when the children were communicating in French, they were actually thinking differently than when they were speaking in English. Is it possible that ‘un chien’ produces one image in the mind, while ‘a dog’ conjures another? Can it be that not only do different cultures have different ideas kicking around in their brains, but also different ideals?
Or, that what one person means when he says ‘the economy’ isn’t the meaning I get when I hear him say it? This might explain why we are in so much disagreement about how to fix our ‘economy’.
I’ve never been rich, so I have a decidedly middle-class idea of what a good economy might look like. To me, a good economy means that everyone who wants to work can find a job, and that those jobs pay enough to provide the necessities of life. With a bit of hard work, other opportunities to obtain better jobs with better pay become available, and some of the niceties of life, such as a house or car, can be afforded as well. Over time, not only can one afford a few comforts and modest luxuries, but a modicum of financial security. Professionals and successful entrepreneurs can scale to even greater financial heights, but pretty much everyone can expect to exchange his or her labor for a typical American lifestyle. Government assistance is for those who have temporarily fallen upon hard times or who legitimately can not work.
What about for those who don’t work for a living, but instead depend on the accumulation of wealth and a positive return on investments? The availability and quality of work is an integral part, in my mind, of a good economy. But, I’m guessing that ‘a good economy’ means something altogether different for investors than it does for me.
Notice that how well Wall Street is doing doesn’t factor into my thinking about the economy, but it would be perhaps the single most important factor for someone with a huge accumulation of wealth. For me, I’d like to do something I enjoy doing, and pay the bills doing it. For a person who doesn’t need to work, doing what he wants to do and paying the bills while doing it is a foregone conclusion; what he wants is something completely different from what I want – and thus his idea of what is ‘good for the economy’ probably doesn’t line up with mine.
He wants a good return on his investment. I want a good return for my labor. He might be able to win some, lose some; I cannot afford to work at something that doesn’t pay.
So, when conservatives tell us that tax cuts for the rich are good for the economy, we need to ask, “Which economy?” When the rich have more cash, they invariably invest more into the stock market. As more money pours in, stock prices rise – whether the companies selling shares perform better or not, more buyers than sellers creates an influx of cash for a finite number of shares, causing prices to rise. Therefore, tax cuts are good for the stock market and those who invest in it. If this is your measure of ‘a good economy’, then saying that cutting taxes for the rich is good for the economy is true.
However, if your idea of a good economy looks like mine, then tax cuts are counter-productive. Teachers, policeman, firemen, and other government employees get axed when taxes are cut, which sends most communities into a downward spiral. Those who lose their jobs can no longer shop or buy, meaning that local businesses lose income as well, meaning they may have to lay off employees as well. All those folks without jobs means lower tax revenues next year, which necessitates even further job cuts.
Depending on how it’s managed, this can still be good news for shareholders. Those redundant employees might be forced to take lower-paying jobs than they had before, and low wages increase the bottom line for big business.
But notice the big difference – the investor class can do well in either type of ‘good economy’, when companies are expanding and adding employees or when they are cutting costs by letting them go. If he’s savvy, the investor can make even more money when stock prices go down.
The man who depends on his labor for his living is not in the same predicament. When the economy is bad, he suffers. Some may find a way to start a new business in bad times, but most end up making less money than they did before. There’s no upside to a downturn for the working man.
I think this is one of the reasons Donald Trump is now POTUS. While I think the man is abhorrent, there are a great number of people who voted for him because they haven’t seen their personal economies improve in decades, despite watching the stock market double in the last 20 years. I don’t see how cancelling trade agreements like TPP and NAFTA are going to reverse that trend – what I really think is that, while people have had stagnant wages, they’ve enjoyed cheaper prices on goods. ‘Renegotiating’ trade agreements will do little to bring back jobs or raise wages, but will certainly raise prices on everything from computers to shoes to vegetables. So, the working man will lose again.
I certainly do NOT see how more tax cuts for the rich will create those jobs or raise wages – not in the US anyway. And I’m afraid I don’t have much sympathy for what ails the rich, nor am I concerned about what benefits that class without benefiting others. A guy like Mitt Romney pays 15% in taxes on his millions, which grow while he sleeps, while I pay 30% on what I earn by the sweat of my brow. He can adjust his investment strategy to incorporate a downturn; I’m left with the ultimate tax break – I get to pay 0% if I have no income at all.
Can Trump improve the middle-class economy while slashing taxes for the rich? It hasn’t worked in my lifetime – but I’m guessing we’ll know the outcome soon enough.