Perhaps the silliest part of an already silly stimulus bill is a provision giving corporations big tax deductions this year on the costs of new machinery, instead of spreading those deductions over several years, as is normally the case. The idea is to get businesses to invest in more machinery, which will stimulate the economy.
But accelerated depreciation, as it’s called, doesn’t work. Almost the same tax break was enacted in 2002 and studies show just about no increase in business investment as a result. Why? Because companies won’t invest in more machines when demand is dropping for the stuff the machines make. And right now, demand is dropping for just about everything.
This tax break exemplifies the illogic of what’s called supply-side economics. If you reduce the cost of investing, so the thinking goes, you’ll get more investment. What’s left out is the demand side of the equation. Without consumers who want to buy a product, there’s no point in making it, regardless of how many tax breaks go into it.
Which gets us to the real problem. Most consumers are at the end of their ropes and can’t buy more. Real incomes are no higher than they were in 2000, while food and energy and health care costs are all rising faster than inflation. And home values are dropping, which means an end to home equity loans and refinancing.
Most of what’s being earned in America is going to the richest 5 percent, but the rich devote a smaller percent of their earnings to buying things than the rest of us because, after all, they’re rich — which means they already have most of what they want. Instead of buying, the rich invest most of their earnings wherever around the world they can get the highest return.
Add all this together and there’s just not enough consumer demand out there to keep the American economy going. We’re finally reaping the whirlwind of widening inequality and ever more concentrated wealth. Supply-siders who want to cut taxes on corporations and the rich just don’t get it. Neither does most of official Washington.