I can’t think of a popularly-understood economic theory that’s been more thoroughly debunked than “Trickle-down.” The idea that’s now infamously connected to Reagan is as likely to generate a laugh as it is a serious economic debate.
It’s not that it’s theoretically flawed. We just have the numbers now to know it doesn’t work. We’ve seen the effects of repeated tax cuts on the wealthy in the past several decades, and have basked in the arid drought of anything trickling down.
Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office to show my tell:
What that chart depicts is that “the top 10% of families held 76% of the wealth in 2013, while the bottom 50% of families held 1%. Inequality worsened from 1989 to 2013.”
Another way to look at it is that almost all of the wealth created from 1989 to 2013 went to the wealthiest families (the top 10%), while the bottom 50%’s wealth actually decreased.
The idea of “Trickle-down Social Justice” is a bit harder to measure than its economic counterpart, but theoretically quite similar. I’ll walk us through the concept in general first, before I explain what I mean about the measurability.
Here’s a definition of the new idea for us to work from:
Trickle-down Social Justice refers to the theory that placing marginalized individuals in positions of power within systems will result in equity for their fellow group members. The power allocated to the individual will trickle down to rest of their disempowered group.
I’m using “power” here broadly, as well as “systems,” embracing the nebulousness of the terms.
Much like how it was unclear exactly what “benefits” would be granted to the public at large via Trickle-down Economic’s cuts in taxes on the wealthy and business owners. The wiggle room allowed proponents of Trickle-down to evade being pinned down to any particular measurement, or form that those benefits would take, to indicate the theory was working (or as proof that the theory had failed).
Trickle-down Social Justice affords a similar amount of wiggle room.
By the “power” trickling down, we might mean economic power. That is, the wealth going to this marginalized person will inevitably benefit other group members (but this should ring familiar). Or symbolic justice for this one person will eventually lead to material justice for all. Or representation in those systems being good merely for its own sake.
And the “systems” could be branches of government, Fortune 500 Companies, or even smaller systems like a local school or business. The implication is that the more powerful the role within that institution the otherwise-marginalized person is granted, the more power will trickle down to their people. Ultimately saying that having a marginalized person in charge – the CEO, President, Executive Director, etc. – is the best for that marginalized person’s group(s).
The simplified way this theory generally gets advanced can summed up as a woman CEO is good for women everywhere; a Black CEO is good for Black people everywhere; a transgender CEO is good for transgender people everywhere; and so on.
Where before we had oppression, now we have justice, and that justice will trickle down.
But we’d also apply Intersectionality theory here as well, so a CEO who is a Black, transgender, woman means even more justice will trickle down.
Does that make sense, theoretically speaking?
Now, I should say that I’ve never actually heard any other social justice people refer to this as “Trickle-down Social Justice.” I’ve just given a name to a thing I see the vast majority of us advocating for, in order to make it easier to discuss it.
The name isn’t perfect, but as I’ll explain, it makes sense to me. In addition to the parallel of something positive directionally traveling from an elite few to benefit the many, there are other ways “Trickle-down Social Justice” maps onto “Trick-down Economics.”
For example, Trickle-down Economics is a focused set of policies within a broader theory of economics called “Supply-Side Econonomics.” And we can think of Trickle-down Social Justice as being a popular concept emerging from a broader field of theory within the social justice movement that focuses on individual agents to positively affect change toward justice in society, what we might call “Agent-Centered Social Justice.”
Another thing I should say is that many of the people who advocate for Trickle-down Social Justice would likely balk at me labeling it as a “theory.”
What I mean is that the policies of Trickle-down social justice aren’t discussed as if they’re up for question, study, experimentation, or debate; they’re accepted as a matter of fact. It’s an “of course” thing.
“Of course having a marginalized person in that position of power is better for marginalized people.”
And this is where social justice dogma (SJD) enters the picture, because questioning that fact isn’t advisable. “Are you sure? How do you know? What evidence do you have that confirms that theory?”, would all be heretical questions.
This isn’t a “theory” within social justice so much as gravity is a theory: it’s real, you feel its pull everywhere you go, and you act as though it isn’t real at your own peril.
When I said that Trickle-down Social Justice is harder to measure than it’s Economic twin, I was referring to the unit of measurement in question. Dollars and wealth are easy to account for, and so are their changes over time. “Power,” on the other hand, is quite the opposite.
Following the theory of Trickle-down Social Justice, Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, was good for Black people (and, many argued, people of color more broadly). To put it another way, he was bad for racism. In electing him, we landed a heavy blow on White supremacy.
But as any racial justice advocate would have been quick to tell you from January 20, 2009, until right now, we don’t view Obama getting a seat in the Oval Office as meaning racism is over.
And this was in response to a frustrating and constant retort we’d hear from anti-racial-justice people who used Obama’s presidency to signal the end of the need for racial justice advocacy. “You have a Black president? What more could you want?!”
Well, racial justice, to name one thing. Obama’s election was a blow against White supremacy, surely, but not its fall. Him being President was good for Black people everywhere, but it wasn’t enough.
So what would be enough?
Applying the framework of Trickle-down Social Justice, we might ask, “How many Black people would need to be elevated into elite offices of power before there’s enough power to trickle down to Black people as a whole?”
To that, we don’t have a quick answer. Or really one at all.
Someone might also ask, “There were 43 presidents before Obama who were White. Do you need 43 Black presidents to signal we’re post-racism?”
Then the question could turn to other axes of oppression, like sexuality or gender or religion or more. “How many women presidents? How many gay presidents?” And so on.
And again, we don’t have a clear, unified-front when it comes to questions like that.
Some factions within the social justice movement would push for balancing the ledger (e.g., “There need to be as many marginalized people in those seats of power as there have been dominant group members.”). Others would want representation more broadly (“As long as congress, as a whole, proportionally represents the diversity of America, we’re good.”). And others would have radically different instincts.
To take this even further, we’re not all in agreement on what, exactly, is supposed to be trickling down.
Is the “power” that’s trickling down the ability for other Black people (in the case of Obama’s presidency) to run for office, and see themselves in that role? Is it that the person in that role does things, or changes things, such that power trickles down to others outside of the institution? Making people like them less marginalized through those actions?
I could write a whole book with all the different answers I’ve heard from thought leaders and figureheads within the social justice movement to questions like that. And the only conclusion I can imagine coming from it is that it’s hard to measure the benefits of Trickle-down Social Justice, and, ultimately, we aren’t in agreement on which measurements matter.
We don’t all share a similar idea for what society would need to look like for us to agree it has trickled down.
To the question of, “Does it benefit Black people to have a Black president?” our answer – especially within SJD – is a resounding, united, unequivocal, “Hell yes.”
But to these other questions, the ones that take Trickle-down theory and put it into practice, the only thing we’re equivocal about is “You can’t ask that question.”
Am I missing the point? Is this all just a bunch of word salad? Do I hate that Barack Obama was president? These are all questions I’m happy to answer: I don’t think so, I hope not, and of course not.
But the questions above are questions that I have never been happy to answer.
And I’ve been asked them plenty, because of the work I do. They’ve come up in trainings, or after I’ve given keynotes or performed my shows.
Sometimes they are asked in earnest, by eager people who are excited to get the checklist of steps necessary to achieve the goals of social justice. “Do you think we need to elect a female president before we can say that our country has gender equity?”
The person wasn’t questioning the theory of Trickle-down Social Justice; they were down, they just wanted to know how to get the trickle started.
And sometimes they were asked with malice – “gotcha!” questions by someone who knew I didn’t have a good answer, because they had gotcha’d other people like me, and they were excited to see me squirm. “How many female presidents do we need to elect before we can say we’ve accomplished gender equity? What’s the number?”
The first few of those times, I tried to answer them, earnestly, before I realized myself that I didn’t have a good answer, especially not to the follow-ups they had prepared that I couldn’t expect. I believed in the spirit of Trickle-down Social Justice (even if I couldn’t articulate the implementation well myself), but squirming isn’t fun (sorry, worms), so I didn’t want to be in that situation again.
After that, for a long time, I would either answer with a sarcastic non-answer of something like, “Maybe we start with one then worry about that.” Or “I think we have a long way to go before we have a problem of electing too many women to office.”
Or I would do the SJD-approved thing when confronted with pushback and indict the question itself, instead of answering it: “This is how deeply rooted oppression is in our psyches. Society never questions whether it’s helpful that a man is President or CEO, but the idea that a marginalized person be granted similar power is met with skepticism and pushback.”
Like a lot of questions that are forbidden by dogma, the mere act of trying to answer them honestly exposes cracks in the dogma itself. And with each “Why?” or “What then?” you get asked as a follow up, the dogma crumbles further.
Because you slowly come to the realization, “Oh. I actually don’t know. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I was just trusting that the person who taught me knew. That they’d gotten to the bottom of this.” It felt so real to you, like a wall you could lean up against.
And then, when you ask them, and they don’t actually know either, “Poof!” – it’s gone, and you’re falling.
The main question we need to be able to answer is “Does the power trickle down?” That is, “When we put this into practice, does the theory work? Will Trickle-down Social Justice help us get closer to living social justice?” These are questions that I’ve, in the past few years, talked through with a lot of social justice people.
To even be able to ask those questions, we have to be willing first to see Trickle-down Social Justice as a theory for dismantling injustice, historical and present, and paving a path toward equity. We have to be willing to question it, and consider whether or not it’s working based on the evidence we see.
Now, assuming you’re willing to authentically consider the question (because you’ve kept reading along), here’s what I can say for absolute certain: anyone who’s certain the answer is “Yes” is either lying to you or lying to themselves.
And I’m not picking on Trickle-down specifically, this is just the nature of scientific theory. To quote Einstein, when we are testing a theory… “in the most favorable [experiment] says ‘Maybe,’ and in the great majority of cases simply ‘No.’”
We have more data every day we could use to test this.
We could look at institutions that now have marginalized people at the helm – a number that’s always increasing – and study what change that’s effected. To oversimplify, we’d have to know the answer to, “Have other members of their marginalized group benefited from this person holding power?”
There are some versions of this research already underway, and lots of little glimpses of it have been published.
But there’s a problem we haven’t yet addressed, one that has come up reliably in the conversations I’ve had with other social justice advocates about Trickle-down Social Justice. A problem that’s not too different from the problem that derailed Trickle-down Economics.
When you’re testing a theory, you’re limited by the boundaries of that theory. This isn’t a problem, usually; quite the opposite, it’s a positive constraint. Without some boundaries, every question you ask would bleed into every other question you could possible ask.
To take a hilariously extreme version of this, when we ask, “Does a marginalized person holding power in an organization benefit other people of their marginalized group?” we don’t have to concern ourselves with the organs of that person’s body, the cells that make up those organs, the atoms that make up the cells, or the quarks within those atoms.
We’ll never have to figure out the spin position of an electron in Damian’s liver before we can say whether or not justice is trickling down because they were hired as the CEO.
What does Damian’s liver have to do with any of this? Nothing, and that’s exactly my point.
Just because something is present, or involved, or measured, doesn’t make it a meaningful part of the effect we’re trying to study. Creating boundaries, and trying to only focus on what we think matters, enabling us to test theories.
That’s the upside of boundaries, and why they’re necessary. The downside is that we might accidentally ignore the variable that was truly responsible for the effect we’re measuring.
The reason I bring this up is that the experimentation that’s been done to test the theory of Trickle-down Social Justice has all been affirmative – at least everything I’ve read. To say that again, literally research paper I’ve read that could be used as evidence that Trickle-down Social Justice works has shown a measurable, and positive effect. (Woohoo, right?! That’s something to celebrate.)
And I’d be happy to give you a list of the research I’m talking about, but in the next paragraph you’ll understand why I didn’t (You’ll also remember that right now I’m talking about the problem of Trickle-down Theory).
The same is true for the theory of Trickle-down Economics. (Uh oh. This was a trap.)
The research that supports Trickle-down Economics seems to be sound. It’s based on something called the Laffer Curve, and without getting too in the weeds, it seems like the evidence is there, and there’s nothing fishy going on with those data.
So what’s the problem? Did we need to know how many quarks are in Damian’s liver after all?
In a word, implementation.
Even if you accumulate a mountain of empirical evidence to support your theory, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Because the world is messy. People are hard to predict. There’s always a million influences acting on someone for every one you’re measuring. It’s hard to say which will show up, when, and with what force.
In theory, Trickle-down Economics is solid. Bulletproof, even. It’s backed by empirical data that add up, and its advocates constantly cite those data when they advocate for tax cuts. The problem isn’t the theory.
The problem is wealth hasn’t trickled down. And not for a lack of trying to implement the theory. Reagan, Bush, and Trump all brazenly cut taxes – amounting to trillions of dollars – citing Trickle-down as their rationale.
But the result has been the opposite of what the theory says will happen: in the past 40 years, we’ve seen an accumulation of wealth among the most wealthy, while the poorest section of the population became more poor. Wealth has trickled up.
Even if we’re right in theory, and had a ton of evidence to back up our theory, that doesn’t mean the implementation will deliver the results we’re hoping for. And when it comes to implementing Trickle-down Social Justice, to putting that theory into practice, there are a few outstanding boxes we need to be able to check.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to ask the gotcha questions I’ve been asked countless times, and turn you into a Mechanical Turk of annoying question problem-solving. “How many Black presidents do we need for racial justice?” “Do we need every CEO to be female for retributive gender justice?” And etc.
I don’t even think we really need answers to those questions. I stand by my sentiment of “let’s kick that can down the road,” but now with a new fervor.
We’ve never had a unified front in response to those questions, and I still don’t think we need one. Answering those questions aren’t the boxes we have to check.
Instead, I want to share the results of the conversations that I told you I’ve had with social justice colleagues about Trickle-down, and the problems (and solutions) we repeatedly stumbled into.
One of the big problems of Trickle-down economics is that the Laffer Curve was based on an assumption that…
“Companies will respond to increased revenue from tax cuts by creating jobs… Businesses didn’t use money from the Bush tax cuts and the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailouts to create jobs. Instead, they saved it, sent it out to stockholders as dividends, repurchased their stocks or invested overseas. None of those activities created the U.S. jobs needed to give the economic boost Laffer described.” (source)
Trickle-down Social Justice presents a nearly identical problem: what if the marginalized people who are given the power don’t, in reality, end up sharing it with their marginalized group?
What if – worst case – they end up looking out for themself instead of their community, hoarding the power, and playing “the game” to accumulate more. Or – best case – are merely restricted by the system they’re in charge of from sharing that power with their community?
This brings us to the first box we need to check: What can we do to ensure that the people who aren’t granted the power individually still benefit?
The second checkbox centers on the scarcity reinforced by this theory.
Within Trickle-down Social Justice, we’re changing who holds the power within systems, and the group memberships of that person dictate who benefits from that transfer of power. A “perfectly” intersectionally-oppressed person who holds every identity targeted by society might benefit everyone (brb gonna vomit from writing that sentence), but even they would have to concert their efforts to the identities most salient to them.
In short, the idea that the path to equity and living social justice requires marginalized people to have representation in institutions of power, then to share that power with their group, creates a zero sum game: for some to improve their standing, others must reduce theirs.
Here’s the checkbox: How can we make sure that marginalized groups who aren’t holding that power benefit as much from the trickle down as the fellow marginalized group members of the person who does?
The final checkbox is prickly, but necessary. If we’re truly living social justice, then we’ve created equity for all, not a select few at the costs of advancing equity for others – we haven’t just swapped who suffers at the hands of society.
The final checkbox: How do we make sure we’re not creating new barriers for the previously majoritized, in order to dismantle barriers for the minoritized?
This is where all of my conversations with colleagues about Trickle-down Social Justice have led, and then ended. Because when we see these three checkboxes, all next to each other in our minds, as a list of things we need to make sense of, and put protections in to guarantee, as we implement Trickle-down Social Justice, we realize something:
Checking those boxes requires a different school of thought. They’re not guaranteed on the individual-by-individual level. They’re not “Agent-Centered” social justice, to call back to the camp I said earlier we might place Trickle-down into. They’re systemic, and require System-Centered action, change, policy, and ideas.
What’s even more startling: If we check all three of those boxes, we wouldn’t need for power to Trickle-down. It wouldn’t matter if the CEO was still a man, or the President White. We would have already achieved the justice that we hoped would trickle down, but with one fewer step.
It’d be like if, instead of giving trillions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy, hoping they’d share that wealth with the poor, we just gave the money to the poor.
The theory behind the theory of Trickle-down Social Justice is that marginalized people will look out for other marginalized people, and dominant group members will keep on dominating. If marginalized people are granted power, even just a chosen elite few, they’ll share that power with others, and it will show up in the form of material improvements in those other people’s lives.
This might work, and it might be the best path toward living social justice. Maybe!
At the same time, because of it’s abstraction, and the additional steps required to bring this to fruition, it’s also fraught. It requires individual people to do good things, be good actors, act in pre-supposed ways because of their group memberships.
It also requires us to do some tricky measuring of “progress,” or success of the implementation of our theory. Does having marginalized people in charge of the system still count as progress if the system itself continues along its destructive, unjust path?
For example, is it a win for social justice if it’s women CEOs who profit from the bombing of Brown people in the Middle East? If so, consider social justice closer to being achieved, because 4 out of 5 of the biggest U.S. defense contractors already have women as CEOs.
It’s possible that we might continue pursuing this theory and achieve success. That we just need more, more marginalized people in more roles of power.
And it’s also possible that we might continue these efforts and find ourselves, like with Trickle-down Economics, 40 years later with an even wider gap in equity, but a few elite “marginalized” people at the helm of most of the world’s major governments and corporations.
In that dystopian future, we might even still have advocates of Trickle-down Social Justice telling us it will work. “Just grant a few more elite roles to marginalized people, the power will trickle down – trust us!” The same way that today, despite all the financial data we have, and the reality of an ever-widening wealth gap, Trickle-down Economics still has proponents.
Instead of – or even better: simultaneously! – we could focus on something else.
We could identify each individual benefit we hope will trickle down, the ways we hope that having a marginalized person in a position of power will benefit other marginalized people, and work as a community to guarantee those benefits to everyone regardless of who is in power.
What is it that we hope will change, when the right people are in power? We can skip the middle step, and start advocating for that now.
If the system is creating barriers to justice, preventing people from being healthy, understood, educated, or safe, then changing (or replacing) the system itself is the goal. The strategy of replacing who is in charge might work, but reforming (or abolishing) the system directly skips an iffy step.
For example, private prisons disproportionately incarcerate and profit from the imprisonment of Black men. Do we organize to make the CEO of a private prison corporation a Black man and changes course? Or do we work to make it illegal to profit from the imprisonment of humans and outlaw private prisons?
We can organize to systemically dismantle barriers to justice and grant power to the marginalized, and the many, regardless of who is in charge. Guaranteeing what we view now as the benefits of power to everyone, especially the formerly powerless.
To do this, we’ll have to structurally diminish the power of the elite and spread it among the people. But hey – maybe some will trickle up.