Why Trumponomics won’t make America great again

The impulsiveness and shallowness of America’s president threaten the economy as well as the rule of law. Graphic: The Economist

Accordng to this article in The Economist: DONALD TRUMP rules over Washington as if he were a king and the White House his court. His displays of dominance, his need to be the centre of attention and his impetuousness have a whiff of Henry VIII about them. Fortified by his belief that his extraordinary route to power is proof of the collective mediocrity of Congress, the bureaucracy and the media, he attacks any person and any idea standing in his way.

Just how much trouble that can cause was on sensational display this week, with his sacking of James Comey—only the second director of the FBI to have been kicked out. Mr Comey has made mistakes and Mr Trump was within his rights. But the president has succeeded only in drawing attention to questions about his links to Russia and his contempt for the norms designed to hold would-be kings in check.

Just as dangerous, and no less important to ordinary Americans, however, is Mr Trump’s plan for the economy. It treats orthodoxy, accuracy and consistency as if they were simply to be negotiated away in a series of earth-shattering deals. Although Trumponomics could stoke a mini-boom, it, too, poses dangers to America and the world.

Trumponomics 101

In an interview with this newspaper, the president gave his most extensive description yet of what he wants for the economy (see article). His target is to ensure that more Americans have well-paid jobs by raising the growth rate. His advisers talk of 3% GDP growth—a full percentage point higher than what most economists believe is today’s sustainable pace.

In Mr Trump’s mind the most important path to better jobs and faster growth is through fairer trade deals. Though he claims he is a free-trader, provided the rules are fair, his outlook is squarely that of an economic nationalist. Trade is fair when trade flows are balanced. Firms should be rewarded for investing at home and punished for investing abroad.

The second and third strands of Trumponomics, tax cuts and deregulation, will encourage that domestic investment. Lower taxes and fewer rules will fire up entrepreneurs, leading to faster growth and better jobs. This is standard supply-side economics, but to see Trumponomics as a rehash of Republican orthodoxy is a mistake—and not only because its economic nationalism is a departure for a party that has championed free trade.

The real difference is that Trumponomics (unlike, say, Reaganomics) is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king. Mr Trump has listened to scores of executives, but there are barely any economists in the White House. His approach to the economy is born of a mindset where deals have winners and losers and where canny negotiators confound abstract principles. Call it boardroom capitalism.

That Trumponomics is a business wishlist helps explain why critics on the left have laid into its poor distributional consequences, fiscal indiscipline and potential cronyism. And it makes clear why businessmen and investors have been enthusiastic, seeing it as a shot in the arm for those who take risks and seek profits. Stockmarkets are close to record highs and indices of business confidence have soared.

In the short term that confidence could prove self-fulfilling. America can bully Canada and Mexico into renegotiating NAFTA. For all their sermons about fiscal prudence, Republicans in Congress are unlikely to deny Mr Trump a tax cut. Stimulus and rule-slashing may lead to faster growth. And with inflation still quiescent, the Federal Reserve might not choke that growth with sharply higher interest rates.

Unleashing pent-up energy would be welcome, but Mr Trump’s agenda comes with two dangers. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date.

Contrary to the Trump team’s assertions, there is little evidence that either the global trading system or individual trade deals have been systematically biased against America (see article). Instead, America’s trade deficit—Mr Trump’s main gauge of the unfairness of trade deals—is better understood as the gap between how much Americans save and how much they invest (see article). The fine print of trade deals is all but irrelevant. Textbooks predict that Mr Trump’s plans to boost domestic investment will probably lead to larger trade deficits, as it did in the Reagan boom of the 1980s. If so, Mr Trump will either need to abandon his measure of fair trade or, more damagingly, try to curb deficits by using protectionist tariffs that will hurt growth and sow mistrust around the world.

A deeper problem is that Trumponomics draws on a blinkered view of America’s economy. Mr Trump and his advisers are obsessed with the effect of trade on manufacturing jobs, even though manufacturing employs only 8.5% of America’s workers and accounts for only 12% of GDP. Service industries barely seem to register. This blinds Trumponomics to today’s biggest economic worry: the turbulence being created by new technologies. Yet technology, not trade, is ravaging American retailing, an industry that employs more people than manufacturing (see article). And economic nationalism will speed automation: firms unable to outsource jobs to Mexico will stay competitive by investing in machines at home. Productivity and profits may rise, but this may not help the less-skilled factory workers who Mr Trump claims are his priority.

The bite behind the bark

Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant. Worse, when the contradictions become apparent, Mr Trump’s economic nationalism may become fiercer, leading to backlashes in other countries—further stoking anger in America. Even if it produces a short-lived burst of growth, Trumponomics offers no lasting remedy for America’s economic ills. It may yet pave the way for something worse.

A complete transcript of The Economist’s interview with Mr Trump is available here.

Trump presidency is in a hole

After 70 days in office Mr Trump is stuck in the sand.

DONALD TRUMP won the White House on the promise that government is easy. Unlike his Democratic opponent, whose career had been devoted to politics, Mr Trump stood as a businessman who could Get Things Done. Enough voters decided that boasting, mocking, lying and grabbing women were secondary. Some Trump fans even saw them as the credentials of an authentic, swamp-draining saviour.

After 70 days in office, however, Mr Trump is stuck in the sand. A health-care bill promised as one of his “first acts” suffered a humiliating collapse in the—Republican-controlled—Congress. His repeated attempts to draft curbs on travel to America from some Muslim countries are being blocked by the courts. And suspicions that his campaign collaborated with Russia have cost him his national security adviser and look likely to dog his administration (see article). Voters are not impressed. No other president so early in his first term has suffered such low approval ratings.

The business of government

Mr Trump is hardly the first tycoon to discover that business and politics work by different rules. If you fall out over a property deal, you can always find another sucker. In politics you cannot walk away so easily. Even if Mr Trump now despises the Republican factions that dared defy him over health care, Congress is the only place he can go to pass legislation.

The nature of political power is different, too. As owner and CEO of his business, Mr Trump had absolute control. The constitution sets out to block would-be autocrats. Where Mr Trump has acted appropriately—as with his nomination of a principled, conservative jurist to fill a Supreme Court vacancy—he deserves to prevail. But when the courts question the legality of his travel order they are only doing their job. Likewise, the Republican failure to muster a majority over health-care reflects not just divisions between the party’s moderates and hardliners, but also the defects of a bill that, by the end, would have led to worse protection, or none, for tens of millions of Americans without saving taxpayers much money.

Far from taking Washington by storm, America’s CEO is out of his depth. The art of political compromise is new to him. He blurs his own interests and the interests of the nation. The scrutiny of office grates. He chafes under the limitations of being the most powerful man in the world. You have only to follow his incontinent stream of tweets to grasp Mr Trump’s paranoia and vanity: the press lies about him; the election result fraudulently omitted millions of votes for him; the intelligence services are disloyal; his predecessor tapped his phones. It’s neither pretty nor presidential.

That the main victim of these slurs has so far been the tweeter-in-chief himself is testament to the strength of American democracy. But institutions can erode, and the country is wretchedly divided (see article). Unless Mr Trump changes course, the harm risks spreading. The next test will be the budget. If the Republican Party cannot pass a stop-gap measure, the government will start to shut down on April 29th. Recent jitters in the markets are a sign that investors are counting on Mr Trump and his party to pass legislation.

More than anything, they are looking for tax reform and an infrastructure plan. There is vast scope to make fiscal policy more efficient and fairer (see article). American firms face high tax rates and have a disincentive to repatriate profits. Personal taxes are a labyrinth of privileges and loopholes, most of which benefit the well-off. Likewise, the country’s cramped airports and potholed highways are a drain on productivity. Sure enough, Mr Trump has let it be known that he now wants to tackle tax. And, in a bid to win support from Democrats, he may deal with infrastructure at the same time.

Yet the politics of tax reform are as treacherous as the politics of health care, and not only because they will generate ferocious lobbying. Most Republican plans are shockingly regressive, despite Mr Trump’s blue-collar base. To win even a modest reform, Mr Trump and his team will have to show a mastery of detail and coalition-building that has so far eluded them. If Mr Trump’s popularity falls further, the job of winning over fractious Republicans will only become harder.

The character question

The Americans who voted for Mr Trump either overlooked his bombast, or they saw in him a tycoon with the self-belief to transform Washington. Although this presidency is still young, that already seems an error of judgment. His policies, from health-care reform to immigration, have been poor—they do not even pass the narrow test that they benefit Trump voters. Most worrying for America and the world is how fast the businessman in the Oval Office is proving unfit for the job.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

Fact-checking Donald Trump’s first presidential address to Congress

Highlights from Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress.

Jobs, taxes and business

“Since my election, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Wal Mart, and many others have announced they will invest billions and billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.”

Some of these corporations announced jobs and investment before the election, though Ford credited the president with its decision to create 700 jobs and make a $700m investment in Michigan. General Motors had committed $2.9bn and Walmart announced an expansion before any votes were cast, on the other hand, and several companies, including Chrysler, had previously agreed to create jobs.

“Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.”

This is a grossly exaggerated claim that seems to rely on the roughly 94 million civilians who are 16 or older and not in the labor force: a figure that includes retired people, high school and college students, people with a disability, etc. The unemployment rate in January was 4.8%, or about 7.5 million people who are looking for work but can’t find it.

“Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”

Trump is correct that about 43 million Americans are classified as living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, after a small decline last year. He is also correct about 43 million people using food stamps, according to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That number reached as high as 47.6 million people in 2013, during the slow recovery.

“We will create massive tax relief for the middle class.”

Trump’s tax plan cuts taxes for all Americans but, by a wide margin, disproportionately helps the wealthiest Americans. According to a conservative thinktank, the Tax Foundation, his plan would save wealthy Americans millions of dollars and add $5.3tn to the national debt. Half of Trump’s tax cuts would go to the top 1% of earners, the thinktank estimates, and most families below the top 20% of earners would have income gains of less than 1%.

“We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since Nafta was approved, and we’ve lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.”

According to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, slightly more than 10% of the manufacturing jobs lost since the 1970s were due to trade deals such as Nafta. The study estimated that 88% of factory jobs lost since the 1970s were eliminated by automation.

Economists still debate the effect of Nafta on jobs. In 2015, the Congressional Research Service wrote that the “net overall effect” was “relatively modest”. “Nafta did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters.” A 2012 report by the OECD found that manufacturing jobs did flee the US after the deal was signed, but also noted the broader shift toward a service economy.

Trump is correct that China has benefited from trade deals, such as the “most favored nation” status that Bill Clinton renewed for the country. But it too has started to feel the changes of robots replacing humans in the workforce.

“Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world.”

The US is not even in the top 30 highest-taxed nations in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD’s most recent data ranks the US 31st of 34 industrialized nations for tax revenue as a percentage of GDP – far behind Denmark, Britain, Germany and Luxembourg. The US ranks 17th for corporate tax revenue, and 19th for tax revenue per capita.

“We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.”

This claim is true only because the 2008 financial crisis was the worst economic collapse in American history except for the Great Depression, when people starved to death and moved constantly in search of work. In 1933 25% of all workers and 37% of all non-farm workers were out of work. After the 2008 financial crisis, the US lost 8.7m jobs – in October 2010, unemployment reached a peak of 10%. The recession itself lasted 18 months, officially.

“In the last eight years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined.”

Trump mostly has this right, except that he ignores key context: Barack Obama inherited the Oval Office while the economy was in freefall, and after his predecessor had signed a huge stimulus bill. Obama continued the recovery efforts of George W Bush, with Republican support from Congress, which ultimately controls the purse strings of government.

“Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800bn.”

Trump has it almost correct that the trade deficit in goods alone neared $800bn; but he ignores the surplus in services, which reduces the deficit to about $502.3 bn, according to the Census Bureau. Economists say investment, something that Trump has welcomed, also contributes to a larger deficit.

Healthcare

“Obamacare is collapsing.”

The Affordable Care Act’s healthcare program does have problems, but it is not “collapsing” or in the much warned “death spiral” in which rising costs push healthy people out of the market, ever increasing fees and then pushing companies out as well. But healthcare premiums are increasing at varying rates around the country, on average by 22%, making an unstable market state-to-state. Rates were increasing before the law was enacted, however, and about 30 million people are enrolled in the program.

Immigration

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.”

The economic benefit of Trump’s immigration plans is uncertain. The disappearance of undocumented workers could push Americans into agriculture and construction jobs over the long term, for instance, but it could also sow chaos in those industries in the short term. A fair amount of research suggests that immigration is good for the economy, and some US industries rely heavily on employees with visas (such as tech) or undocumented workers (such as agriculture).

If enacted, Trump’s plans would have also cost taxpayers billions. Trump’s promised wall would cost Americans about $21.6bn – Mexico has flatly refused to pay for it; aggressive deportation plans could cost billions more, especially if Trump greatly expands the number of federal border agents and the number of private prison contractors.

“We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own border wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in and at a now unprecedented rate.”

The US’s borders are not “wide open for anyone to cross”, with sections of wall and fencing along the southern border, 21,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents, and a recent history of aggressive deportation. Barack Obama has deported a record more than 2.5 million people, including a record 438,421 people in 2013. The US also has extremely strict vetting for visa applicants and refugees, forcing people to go through multiple rounds of interviews, background checks and medical screenings.

“Where proper vetting cannot occur … we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to establish itself in America.”

Trump’s suggestion that the US’s vetting methods cannot account for the systems of countries abroad has flipped the procedure of vetting on its head. The system, among the most intensive screening process in the world for refugees, relies on US agencies to vet applicants, and not those of countries abroad. Refugees must pass multiple background checks and interviews with several agencies, as well as medical checks, fingerprint and photo screenings. The process takes 18-24 months.

Foreign policy

“We’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
“America has spent approximately $6tn in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6tn we could have rebuilt our country – twice.”

Trump does not specify what spending he’s referring to – though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost an estimated $4.79tn, according to a study by Brown University researchers.

Trump is correct that US infrastructure, in general, is in dire need of repair and reconstruction. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that the government needs to spend roughly $1.4 tn over the next decade, or $3.6tn by 2020, to overcome the shortfall in infrastructure funding.

Trump’s claim of $6tn is misleading: it includes estimates of future spending, including veterans care for decades in the future.

Crime

“Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison.”

Trump’s anecdote suggests a link between immigrants and crime, but anecdotes about individuals do not paint an accurate picture of about 11 million people, most of whom are not violent offenders or aggravated felons.

On the contrary, presidential commissions and recent academic research has in general found no links between immigrants and crime or lower rates of crime correlated to cities with more immigrants compared to those with fewer immigrants.

“The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone — and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.”

Trump has accurately stated a statistic he often distorts. Last September, the FBI reported that murders and non-negligent manslaughter rose in the US by 10.8% in 2015, the largest single-year increase since 1971. That is not the same as saying there are more murders in the US than at any point since 1971: 15,696 murders were reported in 2015, down from 1991 high of 24,703. The murder rate declined 42% from 1993 to 2014, even though the population increased by a quarter.

Trump correctly cites Chicago’s number of shooting victims; the city has suffered a significant increase in gun violence in the last two years, though it has yet to reach the highs of the mid-1990s. This year has started even more violently than 2016 did, with at least 513 people shot so far in 2017. But fewer people have been killed compared with the same period in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune, and police do not trust a few months’ worth of data to estimate a trend.

Also worth reading: An annotated guide to Trump’s first address to Congress.
Source for this fact-checking post: The Guardian newspaper article.

The alarming response to Russian meddling in American democracy.

A mural in Vilnius depicting Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

A mural in Vilnius depicting Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Before the election a joint public statement by the director of national intelligence and secretary of homeland security said that intelligence agencies are “confident” that the Russian government directed the hacking. That statement did little to sway supporters of Donald Trump, who heard their candidate cast doubt on that intelligence finding, and instead revel in the contents of the stolen e-mails as they hit the press. This, Mr Trump, was just more evidence that his opponent deserved the soubriquet “Crooked Hillary”.

All that has changed materially in recent days is that—thanks to reporting by the Washington Post and New York Times—we now know that the CIA briefed senior members of Congress before and after the election that, in the consensus view of intelligence analysts, the Russians’ motive was not just to undermine confidence in American democracy generally, but actively to seek Mrs Clinton’s defeat. These latest revelations have probably not changed any minds at all. Republicans who hate Mrs Clinton are still delighted that she was defeated. Democrats who loathe and fear Mr Trump have one more reason to dislike him. Outside Washington, red-blooded Americans who mostly rather dislike President Vladimir Putin (pictured), according to polls, seem to be shrugging off the latest allegations.

The problem is not that all Republicans in Congress dismiss the claim that Russia tried to meddle in the election. Committee chairmen have promised urgent hearings. “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and no friend of Russia, told reporters: “Everybody that I know, unclassified, has said that the Russians interfered in this election. They hacked into my campaign in 2008; is it a surprise to anyone?” The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, has said that he believes Russia is guilty, but then turned his fire on the Obama administration, saying that President Barack Obama’s desire for a “reset” of relations with Moscow had led him and his spy chiefs to fail “to anticipate Putin’s hostile actions.”

Congressional Republicans are stuck. They have long dreamed of unified government, in which they control both chambers of Congress and the White House, so that they can advance the sort of conservative programme that they believe will set the country on the right course. Smart and candid Republicans always conceded in private that securing the White House was hard because core elements of their programme—eg, cutting taxes for big corporations and slashing regulations—are not very popular. Now they have found a populist standard-bearer who has an astonishing ability to speak to working-class voters, notably whites living in bleak Rust Belt states, and to carry them into power on his coat-tails. Many elements of Mr Trump’s policies make thoughtful Republicans queasy to the point of misery, from his fondness for Mr Putin to his willingness to pick up the telephone and bully company bosses into keeping specific factory jobs in America, as if he were a Gaullist French president rather than leader of a free-market democracy. But many millions of those Mr Trump brought into the party are Trump voters more than they are Republicans, and they frighten and cow members of the party that he has captured.

Some may wonder if this latest squabble matters. There is no evidence of actual collusion between Mr Trump and Russia. Mr Putin’s fierce dislike of Mrs Clinton, who as secretary of state questioned the validity of the 2011 elections in Russia, is more than enough motive to want her defeated. It is unknowable whether the last-minute leaks of Democratic e-mails affected the result. Most straightforwardly, a close election is over and Democratic leaders are not questioning the result.

This squabble does matter. When the next president of America takes his oath of office in January, officers of Russian intelligence can savour a historic win. And that astonishing, appalling fact has divided, not united, the two parties that run the world’s great democracy. That should be enough to unsettle anyone.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site here.