Jayne: Kansas’ failing economy matters in presidential election

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

At some point, one would hope, the presidential campaign will focus more upon policy than upon emails or building walls or which candidate is the bigger bigot (it’s Trump, in case you are wondering).

And while we can hope that the public — and the media — will eventually discuss substance rather than style, we realize this is wishful thinking. Goodness knows, the general public is less intrigued by the intricacies of the tax code than it is about the latest insult hurled by one candidate or the other.

But, just in case anybody is interested in things that might actually impact their lives under the next administration, let’s take a peek at how things are going in Kansas. You remember, Kansas, don’t you? That’s where Gov. Sam Brownback has set up a petri dish for the experiment that is trickle-down economics — the theory that if you slash taxes on job creators, they will have more money to, well, create jobs. It’s a brilliant theory; an unassailable theory; a theory that conservative economists cling to like so much manna from heaven.

And if things didn’t go well during the first couple of years of Brownback’s administration, surely by now Kansas is busy paving its streets with gold while the citizens bathe in milk and honey. Right?

So, let’s see . . . well, a June 22 headline in The Wichita Eagle reported, “Kansas to borrow $900 million, may delay payments to school districts.” Oops. Well, that’s just one example. We can’t debunk an ironclad theory based upon one example. So let’s glance at an Aug. 19 headline from the Kansas City Star: “New jobs report is an utter disaster for Kansas and Brownback.” Uh-oh. Well, disasters can create jobs for cleanup crews, or so we’ve been told. So how about an Aug. 25 headline from the Kansas City Star: “KU, KU Med to cut millions of dollars’ worth of programs, staffing, tech.” Um, er, well, gosh, that’s hard to believe given the rock-solid thinking behind trickle-down economics.

Reagan is misunderstood

And therein lies the problem. You see, a sizeable faction of politicos and their supporters continue to cling to the notion that slashing taxes will boost the economy to the point that tax revenue actually increases. People make more money, the thinking goes, and therefore pay more in taxes even if it is a lower percentage of their income. It was the foundation of Reaganomics, and many people echo it despite the fact that we have more than three decades of evidence to the contrary.

At the heart of this cognitive dissonance is a remarkable misunderstanding of Ronald Reagan’s legacy.

When he took office in 1981, Reagan — along with Congress — enacted a huge tax cut. Acolytes say this boosted the economy and raised tax revenue, but what they fail to mention is that the economy did not improve until Reagan increased taxes in subsequent years.

Reagan, in fact, increased taxes at least 11 times, usually through closing loopholes or boosting business taxes. The 1982 tax increase under his watch was “probably the largest peacetime tax increase in American history,” economist Bruce Bartlett, who was a Reagan adviser, told The Washington Post this year. When Reagan’s initial tax cuts did not have the desired effect, he demonstrated pragmatism — something that is woefully deficient in today’s tax-cut disciples.

Now, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with the dumpster fire that is Kansas’ economy, an economy that experienced anemic growth of 0.2 percent in 2015. The point is that Brownback is the most visible driver of trickle-down economics, and he is leading his state off the cliff.

And you might be wondering what this has to do with the presidential election. So let’s check another headline, this one from last week in PoliticsUSA.com: “As The Kansas Economy Dies, Trump Appoints Gov. Sam Brownback As Advisor.” Which should explain all you need to know about Donald Trump’s promise to surround himself “with the best people.”