Trickle-down Economics and Ronald Reagan
Jim Blair

There has been a good deal of discussion centred on the question of whether anyone can point to a nation or empire that implemented 'Trickle Down Economics' and saw wealth actually trickle. In reviewing the issue I see two separate issues, and plan to treat them in the two parts of this essay.

PART I: What is meant (or at least what is commonly understood) by the term 'Trickle Down Economics'. And from that, what are examples that will be accepted by the parties to the discussion. In other words, let's see if we can agree about what we are talking about, and agree on specific examples.

PART II: How to evaluate a specific example, or what I call the use and misuse of statistics. The earlier exchange generated a "textbook example" of the misuse of statistics about the recent US. And what should be the basis of comparison? Should one country be compared to another? Or one time period in history to another. More on this later.


What is "Trickle Down Economics"?

What I shall call TDE is clearly intended to be an economic system where there is no significant barrier to the accumulation of wealth by individuals. From the old story that "if the horse has better hay to eat, the birds will eat better" (it being understood that birds eat manure). Reaganomics (to imply one example). If the rich do well, benefits will "trickle down" to the rest. Lower taxes on high income or capital gains will benefit most of the population, etc.

No ancients

If this is what is meant by TDE, then most ancient societies cannot qualify. The mere existence of rich and poor is not enough. Egypt for example. The Pharaoh had vast wealth and power (comparatively speaking) but no slave building a pyramid could expect to become wealthy by working harder. Same lack of incentive exists in any society based on inherited position or land, which was most or all pre-industrial societies.

Only with industry and commerce did it become reasonable for one born outside the ruling class to have the idea that they could climb above their "station in life". (even if, as the opponents of TDE claim the idea is a false hope)

So I claim that only "modern" societies can qualify. But not all modern ones. Sweden in the 1960's had an income top bracket of 105% If a Swede with a high income were to be so foolish as to earn an extra krona (and the declare it as taxable income) the tax would be 1.05 krona. The US after WWII had a top bracket of 94%.

NOTE ASIDE: high top brackets are not a certain disqualification since they may be only "cosmetic". It was so rare for anyone to actually pay the 94% top bracket that I can remember a time when some actually did, and it became a news item. (Except for poor Joe Louis, the boxer, who could never pay off his taxes - but that is another story.)

Only capitalists need apply

And I would have thought it obvious that countries which declare themselves socialist would be disqualified. Equality for all should rule out some getting much more than the others. I was surprised when the original poster proposed India as an example, citing 40 years of TDE. He didn't say which 40 years, but I would not have been more surprised to have the Red China of Chairman Mao nominated. I say this because when I was a student at the UW in the 1960's the debate among the campus Left was which country was the model for the future: India (representing democratic socialism) or China (representing revolutionary socialism).

It was taken for granted that the USA (representing capitalism) was over the hill and would soon collapse. And only a minority then backed the USSR (seen as bureaucratic socialism or as Stalinism). How strange it is to see India proposed as an example of TDE.

To qualify as TDE a country must have either a low or flat rate tax on income or only a mildly progressive one (to insure that the rich can continue to get richer, or to trick the poor and middle income people into thinking they can get more and keep it). Let's say top rate of 30% or less. Then I nominate two candidates, both from the USA.

ONE: the USA from the Constitution until WWI, when the top bracket jumped to 77%. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. There was no tax on income for most of that time, and a top bracket of 7% in 1913. If that is not TDE, then what is?

Reagan as a Keynesian?

Earlier, someone objected to this example, claiming that it is an example of "Keynesian economics" rather than TDE. John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936 and its main thesis was that the federal budget need not always be balanced. Indeed Keynes proposed that the federal government should run a deficit, especially during a recession/depression. He criticized earlier political leaders for their obsession with the balanced budget. (The US government actually had a surplus every year from the end of the Civil War until 1894.) The Keynes view is not inconsistent with the policies of Reagan. Indeed, there could be an interesting debate on the proposition "Resolved: Ronald Reagan was the most Keynesian President in US History". At any rate Reagan can hardly be accused of being obsessed with balancing the budget.

TWO: the USA during the Reagan Era (1981-89). Reagan lowered the top bracket to 28% (from an earlier 94% after WWII until JFK dropped it to 70% where it remained until 1982). The era ended with the 1990 "budget deal" that increased the top rate back above 30%.

This is just an attempt to define the Question: PART II will be to evaluate candidate TWO. Assuming that this is an example of TDE, did it "work", and what does that mean anyway, and can that be measured, and if so, how?

A reply: JFK

In reply to the first part of this essay, came this from Professor A. R. Whitaker:

In reply to Jim Blair's thoughtful challenge, I would like to give three-not two but three!- examples. The best example is President Kennedy's tax cut in the early 1960's. It is not fashionable or politically correct to call that trickle-down economics, but that's what it was. It was also supply-side economics, although Herbert Stein had not yet put the term into the language.

Investment tax credits stimulated businesses to invest (remember, they didn't get a tax break unless they invested-or aren't you old enough to remember? :-)) in producing what they thought we wanted. In view of the fact that they are in business to make profits, and have learned how to do it, they invested wisely, so that spending, production, and employment increased. Thus did the handout to the rich result in a benefit which trickled down to the unemployed.

Perhaps you also remember that after a couple of years, Congress killed the goose that had laid the golden egg and eliminated this shameful welfare for the rich- that is, they eliminated the tax break, catching many businesses only a year or two into five-year expansion programs. Many top management careers were destroyed by what proved to be the poor judgement of trusting Congress. Moving right along, let us consider President Reagan in a similar situation in 1981. He tried the same tactic, but it was slow in working because the top managers of the 1980's were the lower management of the 1960's who remembered all too well what had happened to their bosses a mere 20 years earlier. It's safe for a politician or a journalist to say that history is bunk, but when a business career lasts 40 years, it's better not to forget. (as an example: Our youngest son had finished a tour with the Marines and was working in industrial management for Honeywell. His plant was running 24 hours a day, but they were not considering expanding because they felt Congress would soon increase taxes and they would be stuck with idle capacity).

If I have not succeeded in offending everyone in sight, let me for my third example go back to FDR and the NRA (NIRA). This particular bone- headed piece of trickle-down economics was supposed to work as follows. Monopolizing a competitive industry generates profits through output reductions and price increases. So- in a country of naked and starving unemployed- let us reduce output of food and clothing. The resulting profits to the industries involved will be invested in new capacity which will generate jobs and prosperity. Sure it will.

Plough under every third row of corn, kill baby pigs, burn oranges while shotguns and guard dogs are used to repel hungry people. The idiots who thought this up are to this day called the brain trust; and there wasn't an economist among them. President Clinton would understand that. Real experts keep telling you things you'd rather not hear.

I didn't say my third example was a good example, did I?

PS FDR has to be the greatest leader we ever had. Washington and Lincoln? No. They did things right! But FDR did it wrong and still held us together!

Another reply

Here was another reply:

Why not employ deficit spending as the late Nobel Winner Edward Vickrey advocated, and as JFK actually did - creating (in conjunction with his tax cut) the greatest era of post-war prosperity (for the *average* American) ever. As Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David Powers note ('Johnny- We Hardly Knew Ye', p. 477):

"The combination of a budget debt and a reduction of the government's income seemed to be economic heresy, but Kennedy and the liberal economists saw it as a sophisticated move to increase the prodcutive power of our industrial society, which it did successfully, giving the United States in the 1960s the longest stretch of peacetime prosperity that the country had enjoyed since the boom days of the 1920s"

Calvin Coolidge: The First Trickle Down Guy?

Reagan was not the first to try Trickle Down.

After writing the first half of this essay, I came across another not very well publicized example of TDE, also in the USA. After WWI the top income tax bracket was a high 73%. But the Revenue Acts lowered it to 25% in a set of reductions starting in 1921 and completed in 1926. This was done because it was argued that high taxes were restricting economic growth. Tax revenue surged during the 1920's from $719 million in 1921 to $1.16 billion in 1928, an increase of over 61%. This was a time of almost no inflation.

This from Calvin Coolidge: (as taken from Jude Wanniski's Supply Side U lesson #6, Spring 1998)

In my book, I quoted from Andrew Mellon's best student, President Calvin Coolidge, who clearly helped his pupil write his February 12, 1924 speech to the National Republican Club in New York City. It appeared in Mellon's book of the same year, Taxation, the People's Business, which is a terrific collection of essays on taxation that is still available in better libraries, but which appears to be out of print.

The proposed bill maintains the fixed policy of rates graduated in proportion to ability to pay. The policy has received almost universal sanction. It is sustained by sound arguments based on economic, social and moral grounds. But in taxation, like everything else, it is necessary to test a theory by practical results. The first object of taxation is to secure revenue. When the taxation of large incomes is approached with that in view, the problem is to find a rate which will produce the largest returns. Experience does not show that the higher rate produces the larger revenue. Experience is all in the other way. When the surtax on incomes of $300,000 and over was but 10 percent, the revenue was about the same as when it was at 65 percent. There is no escaping the fact that when the taxation of large incomes is excessive, they tend to disappear. In 1916 there were 206 incomes of $1,000,000 or more. Then the high rate went into effect. The next year there were only 141, and in 1918, but 67. In 1919, the number declined to 65. In 1920 it fell to 33, and in 1921 it was further reduced to 21. I am not making argument with the man who believes that 55 percent ought to be taken away from the man with $1,000,000 income, or 68% from a $5,000,000 income; but when it is considered that in the effort to get these amounts we are rapidly approaching the point of getting nothing at all, it is necessary to look for a more practical method. That can be done only by a reduction of the high surtaxes when viewed solely as a revenue proposition, to about 25 percent.

I agree perfectly with those who wish to relieve the small taxpayer by getting the largest possible contribution from the people with large incomes. But if the rates on large incomes are so high that they disappear, the small taxpayer will be left to bear the entire burden. If, on the other hand, the rates are placed where they will get the most revenue from large incomes, then the small taxpayer will be relieved. The experience of the Treasury Department and the opinion of the best experts place the rate which will collect most from the people of great wealth, thus giving the largest relief to people of moderate wealth, at not over 25%.

The share of total taxes paid by "the rich" (income over $50,000 in those days) jumped from 44% in 1921 to 78% in 1928. This policy was reversed during the administration of Herbert Hoover who boosted the top rate to 63%.

Of course the Great Depression followed during the decade of the 1930's. Some have claimed that the Boom times of the "Roaring '20's" caused the depression of the '30's. But many other explanations have been given as the cause of the depression: everything from long natural cycles and sun spots to the Smoot-Hawley tariff to the fall of the Bank of England. The stock market collapse of October 1929 is often cited as marking the start of the depression but few economists think it was the cause. There had been many stock market "panics" before. But monetary theorists have given the money supply reductions that followed the market as being the major cause of the depression. At any rate depression did not follow the TDE policies of the 1960's or 1980's.

See also the Great Depression.


This section originally was a discussion of the pitfalls of uncritical acceptance of the "facts" created by studies based on statistics, combined with an analysis of the economic aspects of the Reagan Era. But since posting this web page, I assembled The Sculpting of Statistics which is now on my web page, and established a link to the Reagan Home page. Thus I suggest you read the Use of Statistics article, then continue with this (which will include some things to look for on the Reagan Page.)

The Reagan Era is generally accepted by both pro and con as an example of Trickle Down Economics (TDE), the meaning of which was discussed in Part I. I refer to the years from 1981 (Reagan takes office) to 1990, when the famous "budget deal" raised the top income bracket above the 30% and signaled the real beginning of the Bush-Clinton period.

How is a decade of history measured? Compared to what? I'll start with a broad overview. The most obvious event of that time (so important that it has been completely omitted by both sides from all the discussion I have seen so far including the Reagan Home Page (http// has been the fall of the USSR. This is probably the most significant event in centuries and will be viewed by future historians as comparable to the triumph of Rome over Carthage. It is seen by his detractors as a lucky accident that happened to us while Reagan was asleep, or as being due entirely to Gorbachev. While there is no way to know for certain how history would come out if we could do it again with other decisions being made, Reagan did implement a plan designed to bring down the USSR. And it did have some adverse effects on the US economy. For information on this topic see "Who Broke the Evil Empire?" National Review, May 30, 1994. I have been told that a section on this may be added to the Reagan Page soon.

The adverse effects were the deficit increase- that part due to the military buildup that the Soviets tried to match, and the lower oil prices engineered through Saudi Arabia which undercut the major Soviet export and cut off their source of hard currency. It also damaged the oil based economy of Texas and the US southwest. Well, by comparison, FDR ran up a far larger deficit to win WW II. And it is expected that some will suffer if we are fighting a war, even a "cold" one.

And before returning to the main topic, I should be open about my own bias. If I were to die tomorrow and be told by St. Peter: "our computer is down. You will have a wait before we can process your application. There is no bar, so you can re-live any decade of your choice while we reboot. Which decade do you choose?" I would pick the 1970's. For me this was the best, but it has to with events in my life that are personal rather than financial: from an economic/financial perspective the 1980's were best. You should ask yourself the same question. (remember the 1990' are still in progress, so you get only 4 years if you pick them) And yes, I would certainly miss compact discs and computers!

What kind of statistics?

Now about statistics. In a response, (PD) referred to a "mountain of statistics" used to prove a point and the analogy is good. Just as a mountain can be shaped into various forms, so the same mountain of data can be used to "prove" (imply is a better word) very different "facts". There are two approaches to the use of statistics: you can either use them to discover what the truth really is, or use them to "prove" a point which may or may not be true.

I first became aware of this in the 1960's while a student. Mexico had a rapidly expanding population such that each year the average age in Mexico decreased. This was reported in the press as "the average Mexican got 2 (or 4 or whatever) months younger last year." Which was a perfectly true statement. Of course we all know that everyone in Mexico gets one year older every year; it is only the "average" (mean, also median) Mexican who got younger. If we didn't know this however, I can imagine all sorts of explanations being offered as to why "Mexicans get younger", each promoting a different view of what is important in life. A rest at mid-day renews the body. Corn meal and beans provide complementary amino acids, etc. Logical sounding explanations of a misunderstood fact. Clearly the mean value does not imply anything about any individual in a set that is open, ie there is flow in and/or out.

For an example of how "bad" the Reagan Era was, see Kevin Phillips "The Politics of Rich and Poor"(p17) showing that 80% of the population experienced a decrease in income from 1977 to 1988. The table lists Average Family Income by Decile for those two years, with losses in the bottom 8 and gains in only the top 2. Similar data for the Reagan years are available from the Reagan Page (but using different years) and they show positive gains in each decile, which should then mean that everyone gained income during the Reagan Era. And similar data taken during the Carter years (1977-80) shows that the top 1% of the families had all of the income growth. Of course any of these conclusions is of the "Mexicans get younger" type.

If Kevin Phillips had wanted to make Reagan look even worse, he could have used Average Wage data which has been going down since 1973 (even during the Reagan years), ie. he wouldn't have had to use the Carter Administration to try to make Reagan look bad.

Why your average goes down as your family makes more

This is mostly because more people (typically wives) now work, a trend which accelerated during the 80's. Husband makes $30,000/year, wife gets job that pays $20,000. Can say good, family income is up to $50,000/year; or can say bad, the average wage for a family worker dropped to $25,000/ year. And if Junior gets a part time job after school, the average drops dramatically, while family income rises slightly.

And all these income numbers are "corrected" for inflation using the CPI. But CPI is known to "overcorrect". Incomes went up during this time: the question is, did they go up faster than inflation? That is, did the purchasing power rise or fall? This is not an easy question to answer: see the last part of the item "Inflation & Federal Reserve Policy" in the economics section of my web page.

And anyway, all of this deals with averages and does not apply to anyone in particular. The average wage in the US is also strongly affected by the large influx of immigrants that started after a change in the immigration laws in 1965. From the mid-1920's until then, there were relatively few immigrants, and most were educated and skilled. Now about 1/3 of new workers and perhaps half of total population growth is due to immigration. And immigrants today are less educated and have lower job skills (on average) than the native population--see the items under "immigration" in the political section of the web page. Immigration clearly benefits the immigrants or they would not come (or would not stay). But the effect on the native population depends on many factors. In the past it was almost certainly good. But as the total population gets larger and the immigrants are poorer and less educated, things change. And the effect is not the same for everyone. As Mrs Huffington says in the Firing Line debate, the rich benefit from immigration but not the poor who must compete with them for jobs.

To Find the Truth, Follow the People

Is there any way to get at the true picture? PD had a suggestion: personal experience. But you are only one out of 250 million (of course you are the most important one :-). But what if you selected a statistically significant number of people at random and traced what happened to each of them during the time in question? A Treasury study done at the request of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress traced the income reported by 14,351 taxpayers between 1979 and 1988. The results of this kind of study are, I think, more meaningful than most other kind of data. One result is that 85.8% of those who started in the bottom quintile in 1979 had climbed to a higher quintile by 1988. In fact more of them were in the top quintile in 1988 than were still in the bottom quintile. For a summary of this data, see the Reagan Home page (link on web page) under Income/Income Mobility.

Much of the often criticized transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich during the Reagan era was poor people getting rich. Most of those in the study who moved down were old people who retired. Surprised? Or is this consistent with the common sense experience that youngsters just out of school start at lower pay jobs, but often work up to better ones. And most people lose income when they retire. (But their total assets are at their lifetime maximum.)

This sort of study is like tracing individual Mexicans. While the "average" one is getting younger, a well done study would find that each subject got older. Given the uncertainty of data, they might find that the randomly selected Mexican aged 11.5 months last year.

If so many people improved their income during this time, why were there still low income people in 1988? Many new people came into the system, and mostly they came in at the lower end: youngsters leaving home and many new immigrants, largely unskilled from poor countries. If the goal is to make the income distribution statistics look good, we should not let poor people into the country (The Scandinavian Strategy). And if we wanted the figures to look really great, we would deport anyone who was in the bottom 10%. three years in a row!


Does trade change the world?

A reply to the first half of this essay I received from Ken ( expressed a concern that I have heard before: All my examples of TDE are from the past. But foreign trade and the Global Economy are now relatively more important than in the past. Will that change things? Well, let him say it::

1. Prior to 1980, the U.S. imported very little in regards to her total economy. In many countries these imports would be considered large, but not for the U.S. economy. An American automobile content was basically 100 %, American made, except for raw materials, i.e, rubber, etc. TVs, appliances and most other hard goods were basically made in = the U.S.A. Under this environment trickle down economics would work, because most of the purchases by the rich would be American made. Please note "most." The money spent by the rich would eventually reach the working person making the product or providing the service. This is a closed economy.

2. In todays environment where a large percent of the U.S. economy consist of imported goods. The affluent would still spend their money for goods and services, but much of it would end up to pay wages of foreign labor that made these goods. There are few products sold in the U.S. today that are American made or contain all American made parts. In this economy money spent by the affluent is no long distributed among American workers, but are now shared by workers in foreign countries. Many Americans that used to have jobs in these sectors are no longer employed. This a global economy.

3. American workers working in a factory made $17.00 - $26.00 an hour. My brother in-law made over $19.00 an hour as a plant production machinist and maintenance worker. He had steel workers working on the production line for about $17.00 an hour making aluminum cans for beer and soft drinks. The plant shut down in Aug 95. The plant equipment was sent lock, stock and barrel to Brazil. He is still unemployed. He has a lot of job offers at $11.00 an hour, but not at his old pay. Because of migration of jobs overseas, and technology, the pay of the American worker has remained relatively flat for the last 20 years. Th affluent in the meantime have increased their income by over 25% per year.

4. Trickle down economics hasn't worked. My assumption is because, we are becoming more of a global economy, with workers in the U.S. competing with workers in Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, etc. This situation is not unique to the U.S. worker alone. It is happening to workers in Germany, Britain, France, even Japan.

5. The U.S. has the largest market in the world. Every nation under the sun want a piece of the U.S. market. It was this way because of our high rate of income, relative to the world. Now with jobs in the $17 - $28.00 an hour being replaced by jobs in the $6 - $9.00 an hour, the market for these goods and services is shrinking. For the sake of short-term profit, big business had reduced the number of customers available for their products. A typical example is the automobile. The average age of cars 10 years ago was 3 years, it is now 5-7 years. Besides many people no longer buy their cars, they lease them. They just can't afford these new cars anymore. If they could, these cars would be financed for 5 years, not the 3 years they did 10 years ago.

I hope I answered your questions,



Start of response

Hi Ken,

Now I think that I understand your point. And while I oppose the policy implications that most would draw from it, it does have some validity. Actually, I said something along the same line in the "are things getting Better :-)" part of my web page: the developing "global economy" is narrowing the gap between rich and poor. World wide. (that's good, isn't it?)

But at the same time it is widening the rich/poor gap in the US, as our "poor" and even "middle" (all rich by international standards) get competition from the poor of the 3rd world (the Really poor). I think this is both inevitable and, on balance, a good thing. The basic unit here is the earth and the human race, not any one country. And I think your figures are off a but. Considering total compensation, it is closer to say $40 per hour jobs are being replaced by $15 per hour ones in the US, or $5 ones abroad.

There was a time, after WWII, when (some) unskilled or semi-skilled labor in the US could get a high salary and "we" could be rich while most of the human race lived at the edge of starvation. But those days are over even if we (Buchanan) try to bring them back. The Genie is out of the bottle, and we can't put it back. As you say, it is not just the US but the industrialized world that is being effected. I think this point comes up in Peddling Prosperity (and my review of it). There is the practical problem that if we are rich and they are poor, they just move HERE. That is what is happening now.

The US or the world?

You say that Trickle down "hasn't worked". But of course whether or not an economy "works" depends on what is considered to be success. By comparison to the rest of history and to most of the world today, the US economy is a success. I claim that "supply side economics" HAS worked in the US: in the 1920's and the 60's and the 80's. And from 1800 to WWI. Low (or lower) tax rates have resulted in economic growth and increased tax revenues; while higher rates (in the 1930's, 70's and 90's) have either reduced revenue or lowered the growth of revenue. This was the claim of Arthur Laffer, and the supply side economists. The figures are clear about this, but I keep reading about how the 1980's prove that Reagan was a fool who destroyed America and caused us to be poor today, etc. Read the "Baseball Players Syndrome". And see the Reagan Page under deficit & debt/Facts.

Is it wealth trickling down or people moving up?

And while I used the term 'trickle down', I see the idea of a 30% limit on the top tax rate as stimulating economic growth by providing incentive for people in the middle and bottom of the income curve to work/invest/invent to try to become rich: not that wealth will trickle down from the "already rich" to the middle and poor if the government lets the already rich keep the money. You seem to have this second view, and think that the money will now (with world trade) trickle down to the rest of the world rather than to people in the US, as in the past. As if there was only a fixed amount of wealth. When a poor or middle income person makes a lot of money, they become "the rich". And it should be clear that investment abroad causes foreign workers to be more productive than in the past. So the net wealth of the world is increased. I think this answers the other often heard question: If world trade will integrate the entire world economy into a unit, will the result be to raise up the poor workers to the level of the rich or drag the rich down to the level of the poor?

And if he rest of the world gains in wealth, will that make us less wealthy? Well, by comparison, yes. And from an ecological perspective we may suffer if the rest of the world reaches our "standard of living".

You say that cars used to be replaced every 3 years, but now they last 5-7 years. But isn't that good? Is the idea here to have everyone get a new one every year? (mine have always lasted at least 10). Should goods be designed to wear or to wear out?

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