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.

Palace whispers in the court of King Donald

Image from The Economist magazine article.

IT IS too soon to know whether Donald Trump’s sudden, regal dismissal of the FBI director—“Off with his head!”—will trigger a constitutional crisis. Much depends on who is appointed to succeed James Comey, and on the fate of FBI probes into Russian meddling in the election of 2016.

It is not too soon to make a more general observation. Less than four months into the reign of King Donald, his impetuous ways are making it more likely that his presidency will be a failure, with few large achievements to its name. That is not journalistic snark but a statement of fact, based on warnings from prominent Republicans and Democrats, notably in the Senate.

The 100 members of the Senate have a touchy relationship with every president. They are grandees, with a keen sense of superiority over the toiling hacks who serve in the House of Representatives and the here-today-gone-tomorrow political appointees who run the executive branch. Senators are treated as princes when they travel overseas, briefed by grizzled American generals and treated to tea by local potentates. In their dreams, election campaigns might still involve addressing crowds from the flag-draped caboose of a private train. Small wonder, then, that senators often resent the still-grander life of a president. Yet their dismay over Mr Trump sounds different.

As the Trump era began, Democratic senators recalled how this populist president had scorned both parties on the campaign trail, and wondered whether he might seek new, bipartisan coalitions to help hard-pressed working Americans. Democrats would muse, off the record, about the terms they would demand for supporting policies like a vast infrastructure programme. Perhaps, for example, they might seek union wage rates for workers building Mr Trump’s new airports and bridges. Republican senators worried, privately, about the same thing from the other side. They fretted that their new president would strike bargains with the new Democratic leader in the Senate, the canny, deal-cutting Charles Schumer of New York. To comfort themselves, Republicans imagined Mr Trump as a sort of salesman-CEO, selling comprehensive tax reform and deregulation to the masses while delegating day-to-day government to conventional conservatives such as his vice-president, Mike Pence.

Not any more. Increasingly the mood among Senate Republicans is a mixture of incredulity and gloom, as each political success (the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice, deftly handled cruise-missile strikes on Syria) is followed by a momentum-killing outburst from the president.

Some cast Mr Trump’s woes as a crisis of messaging and of White House staff discipline. At a recent lunch for Senate Republicans , Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the owl-like majority leader, scolded Mr Pence over a Trump tweet that suggested a government shutdown might be a nifty idea. You don’t believe that, we don’t believe that, and that sort of tweet only makes our lives harder, Mr McConnell reportedly told the vice-president. Prominent Republicans and Democrats have offered Mr Trump the same advice: find a chief of staff in the ferocious mould of James Baker, chief enforcer in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Some senators have still more specific counsel to offer. They urge Mr Trump to create a domestic policy team that apes the professionalism of his national security team. They praise his second national security adviser, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, for turning around a group left in chaos by his ill-starred predecessor, Mike Flynn, and hail the way that his defence secretary, James Mattis, works with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Not only do the chieftains of the Pentagon and State Department meet on their own at least once a week for breakfast to share their thinking, when recommending policies they try to present the president with a single option.

At the root of each fresh crisis lies Mr Trump’s character. If he were a king in velvet and ermine that would matter less. But he is an American president. Party loyalty may save him from a revolution. But, startlingly early on, his own colleagues are starting to wonder what King Donald is for.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

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.

A Peronist on the Potomac

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A PRESIDENT is swept into office after whipping up a wave of grievance and resentment. He claims to represent “the people” against internal exploiters and external threats. He purports to “refound” the nation, and damns those who preceded him. He governs though confrontation and polarisation. His language is aggressive—opponents are branded as enemies or traitors. He uses the media to cement his connection with the masses, while bridling at critical journalism and at rebuffs to executive power. His policies focus on bringing short-term benefits to his political base—hang the long-term cost to the country’s economic stability.

Donald Trump? Yes, but these traits come straight from the manual of Latin American populist nationalism, a tradition that stretches from Argentina’s Juan Perón to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and beyond. Yes, Mr Trump is a billionaire capitalist whereas Chávez was an anti-capitalist army officer. But populism is not synonymous with the left: conservatives such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori used its techniques, too. “Post-truth” politics and “alternative facts” have long been deployed in Latin America, from Mr Fujimori’s use of tabloid newspapers to smear opponents, to Chávez’s imaginary coups and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s fake inflation statistics in Argentina.

Latin American experience teaches that populists are easily underestimated and can stay in power for a long time. But not forever. Populist regimes are often corrupt and spendthrift, and usually fail to make people better off. Whatever the example from the White House, Latin American history shows that populist nationalism is a recipe for national decline. That is the message liberals need to hammer home.

Read the complete article in The Economist magazine.

What is the scope of a president’s executive orders?

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In just his first week as America’s 45th president, Mr Trump signed executive orders and memoranda freezing federal hiring, backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, defunding “sanctuary cities” that protect unauthorised immigrants, undermining Obamacare, restoring the “global gag rule” on abortion counselling, restarting the construction of two controversial oil pipelines through Native American lands, building a wall on the nation’s southern border, blocking Syrian refugees and residents of several majority-Muslim countries from immigrating to the United States and slashing regulations on businesses. These moves have provoked fierce criticism from Democrats and studied silence from most Republicans. What are executive orders, and what limits a president’s authority to issue them?

Only Congress can make laws; it is the executive branch’s duty to enforce them. Article II of the constitution specifies that presidents “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”, and they take an oath to do just that on inauguration day. But as John Locke pointed out in his “Second Treatise of Government,” gaps and ambiguities are hallmarks of written law. “[A] latitude”, Locke wrote, must be “left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe”. When on January 25th he ordered the erection of a wall on the Mexican border, for example, Mr Trump claimed to be acting under the Immigration and Nationality Act and two other statutes. This move, he wrote, was designed to protect America’s “safety and territorial integrity” and to “ensure that the nation’s immigration laws are faithfully executed”.

Few presidents hesitate to put their executive power to quick use. Mr Obama issued fewer orders than most, averaging 35 a year (compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 307, the peak, and 36 and 46 for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively). But Mr Obama came out swinging, too, putting his name to 17 orders during the first month of his presidency. Not every signature bears fruit: Barack Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on January 22nd, 2009, a facility that still housed 41 inmates when he left office. The boldness of Mr Trump’s volley of orders in the opening days of his presidency may be similarly tempered, and the entry ban has already met with judicial resistance. Further court challenges are likely: threatening sanctuary cities with a loss of federal funding may violate the Tenth Amendment and the abortion gag rule runs up against the First.

Read the complete article on The Economist web site here.

Why presidents take an oath of office

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AT NOON on January 20th, Donald Trump will take the presidential oath of office, administered by John Roberts, the chief justice. With his right hand raised and his left hand atop two bibles, Mr Trump will say “I do solemnly swear”, (though he also has the option to “affirm”, using a book of his choice), “that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.”

There are signs that Mr Trump’s constitutional commitment may not match those of his predecessors in the White House. During the campaign and the post-election transition, Mr Trump made several statements that seem difficult to square with America’s founding document. In an apparent rejection of settled First-Amendment law—and of a ruling by the late Antonin Scalia, a justice he hails—Mr Trump said that people who burn the American flag should be jailed or lose their citizenship. He also called for looser libel laws to permit newspapers to be sued more easily and advocated the use of torture, long held to violate the Eighth Amendment. Some scholars say that the oath gives presidents a tool to protect the prerogatives of their office from the encroachment of Congress. But others argue the presidential oath was designed to serve as a check on chief executives’ power. David Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago, observes that oaths are inherently “limiting, not empowering”.

From The Economist magazine here.

What is Donald Trump likely to achieve in power?

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All that just about everyone can agree on is that Mr Trump promises to be an entirely new sort of American president. The question is, what sort?

For sure, Mr Trump is changeable. He will tell the New York Times that climate change is man-made in one breath and promise coal country that he will reopen its mines in the next. But that does not mean, as some suggest, that you must always shut out what the president says and wait to see what he does.

When a president speaks, no easy distinction is to be made between word and deed. When Mr Trump says that NATO is obsolete, as he did to two European journalists last week, he makes its obsolescence more likely, even if he takes no action. Moreover, Mr Trump has long held certain beliefs and attitudes that sketch out the lines of a possible presidency. They suggest that the almost boundless Trumpian optimism on display among American businesspeople deserves to be tempered by fears about trade protection and geopolitics, as well as questions about how Mr Trump will run his administration.

Start with the optimism. Since November’s election the S&P500 index is up by 6%, to reach record highs. Surveys show that business confidence has soared. Both reflect hopes that Mr Trump will cut corporate taxes, leading companies to bring foreign profits back home. A boom in domestic spending should follow which, combined with investment in infrastructure and a programme of deregulation, will lift the economy and boost wages.

Done well, tax reform would confer lasting benefits (see Free exchange), as would a thoughtful and carefully designed programme of infrastructure investment and deregulation. But if such programmes are poorly executed, there is the risk of a sugar-rush as capital chases opportunities that do little to enhance the productive potential of the economy.

That is not the only danger. If prices start to rise faster, pressure will mount on the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates. The dollar will soar and countries that have amassed large dollar debts, many of them emerging markets, may well buckle. One way or another, any resulting instability will blow back into America. If the Trump administration reacts to widening trade deficits with extra tariffs and non-tariff barriers, then the instability will only be exacerbated. Should Mr Trump right from the start set out to engage foreign exporters from countries such as China, Germany and Mexico in a conflict over trade, he would do grave harm to the global regime that America itself created after the second world war.

Just as Mr Trump underestimates the fragility of the global economic system, so too does he misread geopolitics. Even before taking office, Mr Trump has hacked away at the decades-old, largely bipartisan cloth of American foreign policy. He has casually disparaged the value of the European Union, which his predecessors always nurtured as a source of stability. He has compared Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and the closest of allies, unfavourably to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and an old foe. He has savaged Mexico, whose prosperity and goodwill matter greatly to America’s southern states. And, most recklessly, he has begun to pull apart America’s carefully stitched dealings with the rising superpower, China—imperilling the most important bilateral relationship of all.

The idea running through Mr Trump’s diplomacy is that relations between states follow the art of the deal. Mr Trump acts as if he can get what he wants from sovereign states by picking fights that he is then willing to settle—at a price, naturally. His mistake is to think that countries are like businesses. In fact, America cannot walk away from China in search of another superpower to deal with over the South China Sea. Doubts that have been sown cannot be uprooted, as if the game had all along been a harmless exercise in price discovery. Alliances that take decades to build can be weakened in months.

Dealings between sovereign states tend towards anarchy—because, ultimately, there is no global government to impose order and no means of coercion but war. For as long as Mr Trump is unravelling the order that America created, and from which it gains so much, he is getting his country a terrible deal.

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How will Mr Trump’s White House work? On the one hand you have party stalwarts, including the vice-president, Mike Pence; the chief of staff, Reince Priebus; and congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. On the other are the agitators—particularly Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro and Michael Flynn. The titanic struggle between normal politics and insurgency, mediated by Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will determine just how revolutionary this presidency is.

As Mr Trump assumes power, the world is on edge. From the Oval Office, presidents can do a modest amount of good. Sadly, they can also do immense harm.

From The Economist magazine article here.