Kevin Williamson writes Blue Voodoo in National Review.
The point of rehearsing this history is not to determine whether traditional supply-side thinking on economic policy is true or false, but rather to show that it is something fundamentally different from the trickle-down caricature offered by the progressives and others generally hostile to the idea of a smaller federal financial footprint. But that is not to say that “trickle-down” is an idea without adherents, a banner without partisans marching under it. Perversely, those advancing trickle-down ideas are mostly the same ideologues who denounce “trickle-down.” But they do not call it trickle-down — they call it “stimulus.”
The important point here is this: The argument that the government should spend on infrastructure because a certain piece of infrastructure is needed is one kind of argument; the argument that government should spend on infrastructure because doing so is good for the economy is a different kind of argument — specifically, it is a trickle-down argument.
If you doubt that, ask yourself: What kind of firms get federal contracts? Do you think any of those unhappy people in Ferguson, Mo., own firms that are in line for Department of Defense or Department of Energy contracts? Do you think impoverished Appalachian pillbillies are in the running for upgrading Treasury’s computer networks? If so, I have a bridge I’d like to build you at a very reasonable price.
Federal contracting is dominated, as one would expect, by large firms, often the dreaded multinational corporations of angsty soy-latte-liberal legend. Call the roll: In first place, we have Lockheed Martin, followed by those poor, Dickensian waifs at Boeing, who would be bereft without the support of the Export-Import Bank. Then we have the plucky upstarts at Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon. And, lest Wall Street feel left out, Cerberus Capital Management comes in at No. 11. Deloitte, Rolls-Royce, and our friends at the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation all make the list — because federal spending is all about Main Street, albeit Main Street in Abu Dhabi, where the national oil company does nearly $2 billion a year in business as a federal contractor.
But that is a big, hairy Gordian knot of an issue if your argument is that infrastructure spending, and other federal project outlays, are a desirable form of economic stimulus in and of themselves. If the latter is your argument, then you have to believe something far stronger than even the cartoon trickle-down version of supply-side tax cuts: You have to believe that having the federal government literally write enormous checks to gigantic international conglomerates and the rich guys who own and operate them will create prosperity by, forgive me for noticing, trickling down through the economy to the guys who spread asphalt and the guys who sell those guys work boots and burritos and bass boats. “Deep voodoo,” as Paul Krugman would put it in another context.
Trickle Down is largely a myth perpetuated by supply side opponents. But the current idea that giving cash direct to big companies is stimulative but giving tax cuts is not is irrational. The political benefit of direct subsidies and contracts is to be able to control the money, which broad based tax cuts would not allow.