Now, however, with three decades of experience with the experiment, the fallacies of “supply-side” economics are no longer a mystery. For instance, a major obstacle to today’s economic recovery has been the absence of “demand-side” consumers, not the availability of money to build more productive capacity.
And the reason that there are fewer consumers is that the Great American Middle Class, which the federal government helped build and nourish from the New Deal through the GI Bill to investments in infrastructure and technology in the Sixties and Seventies, has been savaged over the past three decades.
Though many Americans were able to cover up for their declining economic prospects with excessive borrowing for a while, the Wall Street crash of 2008 exposed the hollowing out of the middle class. So today, businesses are sitting on vast sums of cash – some estimates put the amount at about $2 trillion.
And the reasons for this dilemma are now well-known: first, when companies have expanded in recent years, the modern factories have relied on robotics with few humans required; second, the companies put many manufacturing sites offshore so they can exploit cheap labor; and third, the shrinking middle class has meant fewer customers, leaving corporations little motivation to build more factories.
For Americans, this has represented a downward spiral with no end in sight. American workers, whether blue- or white-collar, know that computers and other technological advancements have made many of their old jobs obsolete. And modern communications have allowed even expert service jobs, like computer tech advice, to go to places like India.
While painful to millions of Americans who find their talents treated as surplus, these developments do not by themselves have to be negative. After all, humans have dreamed for centuries about technology freeing them from the grind of tedious work and freeing up society to invest in a higher quality of life, for today’s citizens and for posterity.
The problem is that the only practical way for a democratic society to achieve that goal is to have a vibrant government using the tax structure to divert a significant amount of the super-profits from the rich into the public coffers for investments in everything from infrastructure to education to arts and sciences, including research and development for future generations, even possibly Gingrich’s “big idea” of a colony on the moon.
In fact, that kind of virtuous cycle was the experience of the United States from the 1930s through the 1970s, with the federal government taxing the top tranches of wealth at up to 90 percent and using those funds to build major electrification projects like the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority, to educate World War II veterans through the GI Bill, to connect the nation through the Interstate Highway system, to launch the Space Program, and to create today’s Internet.
Out of those efforts emerged robust economic growth as private corporations took advantage of the nation’s modern infrastructure and the technological advancements. Millions of good-paying jobs were created for the world’s best-trained work force, giving rise to the Great American Middle Class. The obvious answer was to keep this up, with the government investing in new productive areas, like renewable energy.
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