Are Democrats hexing the Trump boom with bad thoughts?
Almost four decades ago then-candidate George H.W. Bush used the phrase “voodoo economic policy” to describe Ronald Reagan’s claim that cutting taxes for the rich would pay for itself. He was more prescient than he could have imagined.
For voodoo economics isn’t just a doctrine based on magical thinking. It’s the ultimate policy zombie, a belief that seemingly can’t be killed by evidence. It has failed every time its proponents have tried to put it into practice, but it just keeps shambling along. In fact, at this point it has eaten the brains of every significant figure in the Republican Party. Even Susan Collins, the least right-wing G.O.P. senator (although that isn’t saying much), insisted that the 2017 tax cut would actually reduce the deficit.
During the 2016 campaign Donald Trump pretended to be different, claiming that he would actually raise taxes on the rich. Once in office, however, he immediately went full voodoo. In fact, he has taken magical thinking to a new level.
True, whenever tax cuts fail to produce the predicted miracle, their defenders come up with bizarre explanations for their failure.
My favorite until now came from Art Laffer, the original voodoo economist and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Why did George W. Bush’s tax-cutting presidency end not with a boom, but with the worst economic slump since the Great Depression? According to Laffer, blame rests with Barack Obama, even though the recession began more than a year before Obama took office. You see, according to Laffer, everyone lost confidence upon realizing that Obama might win the 2008 election.
But Trump has gone one better. As it has become increasingly clear that the results of his tax cut were disappointing — recent data revisions have marked down estimates of both G.D.P. and employment growth, to the point where it’s hard to see more than a brief sugar high from $2 trillion in borrowing — Trump has invented ever more creative ways to blame other people. In particular, he’s now claiming that the promised boom hasn’t arrived because his opponents are hexing the economy with bad thoughts: “The Democrats are trying to ‘will’ the Economy to be bad for purposes of the 2020 Election.”
Can opposition politicians really cause a recession with negative thinking? This goes beyond voodoo economics; maybe we should call it evil-eye economics.
To be fair, the claim that Democrats are hexing his boom is a secondary theme in Trump’s ranting. Mostly he has been blaming the Federal Reserve for its “crazy” interest rate hikes. And the truth is that last year’s rate increases pretty clearly were a mistake.
But blaming the Fed for the tax cut’s fizzle won’t wash. For one thing, the Fed has actually raised rates less than in previous economic recoveries. Even more to the point, the Trump economic team was expecting Fed rate hikes when it made its extravagantly optimistic forecasts. Administration projections from a year ago envisioned 2019 interest rates substantially higher than what we’re actually seeing.
Put it this way: The Trump tax cut was supposed to create a boom so powerful that it would not only withstand modest Fed rate hikes, but actually require such hikes to prevent inflationary overheating. You don’t get to turn around and claim betrayal when the Fed does exactly what you expected it to do.
Aside from blaming everyone but himself, however, how will Trump deal with the failure of his economic promises? He has taken to demanding that the Fed roll the printing presses, slashing interest rates and buying bonds — the actions it normally takes in the face of a serious recession — even as he claims that the economy remains strong, and unemployment is in fact near a historic low.
As many people have noted, these are exactly the actions Republicans, including Trump, denounced as “currency debasement” when unemployment was far higher than it is today and the economy desperately needed a boost.
Since the Fed is unlikely to oblige, what else might Trump do? Officials have floated, then retracted, the idea of a cut in payroll taxes — that is, a tax break for ordinary workers, rather than the corporations and wealthy individuals who mainly benefited from the 2017 tax cut. But such action seems unlikely, among other things because top administration officials denounced this policy idea when Obama proposed it.
Trump has also suggested using executive authority to reduce taxes on capital gains (which are overwhelmingly paid by the wealthy). This move would have the distinction of being both ineffectual and illegal.
What about calling off the trade war that has been depressing business investment? This seems unlikely, because protectionism is right up there with racism as a core Trump value. And merely postponing tariffs might not help, since it wouldn’t resolve the uncertainty that may be the trade war’s biggest cost.
The truth is that Trump doesn’t have a Plan B, and probably can’t come up with one. On the other hand, he might not have to. Who needs competent policy when you’re the chosen one and the king of Israel?
More than 20 years ago, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, who would later serve as George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser, published the first edition of his best-selling Economics 101 textbook. Early in the book, trying to explain why economists are often perceived as disagreeing about everything, he wrote about the role of “charlatans and cranks.” When economists appear to be at odds, he wrote, you should be aware that sometimes the apparent dissent is coming from “some snake-oil salesman who is trying to sell a miracle cure.” He was referring to the people who told Ronald Reagan that cutting taxes would pay for itself, above all a guy named Art Laffer. As Mankiw noted, the charlatans and cranks were wrong: Reagan’s tax cuts sharply reduced revenue. And the same thing has been true every time tax-cut proponents have promised a miracle. Most recently, the 2017 Trump tax cut has led to a precipitous collapse in corporate tax receipts, twice as much as projected. Yet decades of being wrong again and again has done nothing to reduce the influence of tax-cut cranks on the G.O.P. On the contrary, their grip has gotten ever tighter. Even supposed Republican moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins justified their support for the 2017 bill by saying that it would pay for itself. And on Wednesday, Laffer will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To be fair, Laffer is known for other things besides his utter faith in the miraculous power of tax cuts. He’s also known for warning about the dire effects of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight the financial crisis: “Get ready for inflation and higher interest rates,” he thundered a decade ago. Actually, no: Inflation has stayed low, and interest rates are close to their lowest levels in history. Now, anyone with a long career of making economic pronouncements will have made some bad calls. God knows I have. But what makes Laffer and others like them so special is both the utter consistency of their wrongness and the fact that their influence just keeps rising despite that wrongness. Or maybe I should say that their influence grows because of their wrongness. Constantly predicting great results from tax cuts for the rich and catastrophe should top tax rates go up is a bad way to devise economic policy but a very good way to ingratiate yourself with wealthy political donors. Attacking any policy that might have helped the economy while a Democrat was president was a pretty good career strategy too. What’s striking is that at this point the G.O.P. apparently has no use for economists who aren’t snake-oil salesmen. There are serious economists — like Mankiw — who happen to be conservatives, out of some combination of personal values and judgements about the proper role of government. I can respect their positions, even when I disagree. But they have no political home. Laffer’s medal, like the appointment of the fundamentally ludicrous Larry Kudlow as chief economist and the attempt to install Stephen Moore at the Fed, is like putting up a sign saying “Only charlatans and cranks need apply.”
Those decades of free-market machinations are now paying off, as a quintet of Ronald Reagan administration alumni — Kudlow, Laffer, Forbes, Moore and David Malpass—united by undying affection for each other and for laissez-faire economics, have the run of Washington once more. Members of the tight-knit group have shaped Trump’s signature tax cut, helped install each other in posts with vast influence over the global economy, and are working to channel Trump’s mercantilist instincts into pro-trade policies. Blasted by their critics as charlatans and lauded by their acolytes as tireless champions of prosperity, there’s no denying that the quintet has had an enduring impact on decades of economic policy.
Most recently, in late March, and partly at Kudlow’s urging, Trump announced his intention to nominate Moore to one of two open seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the body that sets the tempo of the global financial system.
The announcement prompted protests from economists across the ideological spectrum—George W. Bush’s top economist, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, said Moore lacked the “intellectual gravitas” for the job—who warned that appointing Moore, a think-tanker with no Ph.D., would politicize the Fed. Soon, it emerged that Moore had made a mistake on a 2014 tax return that led the IRS to place a disputed $75,000 lien against him, and CNN dug up scathing comments Moore had made about Trump during the presidential primary.
Whether Moore can survive the scrutiny and pass muster with the Senate will be a test of the supply-siders’ renewed cachet. They believe they can pull it off.
“I understand there are imperfections,” Kudlow told POLITICO. “I think it can be worked out.”
Moore described some of his recent conversations with Trump, which often turn to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell.
“I think his criticism of Powell is excessive and could be counterproductive,” Moore said, because it could actually provoke Powell to prove his independence by defying Trump’s wishes. Generally speaking, Trump wants Powell to keep interest rates low to decrease the chances of any economic slump before the president faces voters again next November.
Moore also recounted how he and Laffer, who began advising Trump in 2016, helped place Kudlow in his current posting.
Roughly a year into Trump’s term, as Trump’s first NEC director, Gary Cohn, prepared to depart the post, the duo sprang into action. Moore said that during this period, whenever he and Laffer engaged in their semiregular consultations with Trump, they would have some version of the following exchange:
“You know, Mr. President, you’re missing one thing,” Laffer or Moore would say.
“What is that?” Trump would ask.
“Larry Kudlow,” Laffer or Moore would tell him.
“We just drilled the message over and over,” Moore recalled. “‘Larry, Larry, Larry, Larry.’”
During that same period, following the 1974 midterms, Laffer first drewhis famous Laffer Curve — a representation of the idea that at a certain level of taxation, lowering taxes would theoretically spur enough growth that government revenue would actually rise—at a meeting near the White House with Wanniski, Dick Cheney, then an aide to President Gerald Ford, and Grace-Marie Arnett, another free marketeer active in Republican politics.
Reagan would go on to fully embrace supply-side theory, a shift from the party’s traditional emphasis on fiscal discipline, appointing Laffer to his Economic Policy Advisory Board.
Then as now, supply-side economics was criticized for favoring the rich and derided by critics as unrealistic “Voodoo Economics.” The critics got an early boost from a 1981 Atlantic cover story in which Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, aired his doubts that this novel theory was working in practice.
The piece ruined Stockman’s standing with Reagan—Laffer calls him “the traitor of all traitors”—but Stockman’s young aide, Kudlow, now 71, remained a loyal supply-sider and struck up a relationship with Laffer.
Reagan would go on to appoint Forbes as the head of the Board of International Broadcasting, which oversaw Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, and Moore worked as the research director for Reagan’s privatization commission. Malpass, meanwhile, worked in Reagan’s Treasury department. Representatives for Forbes and Malpass said they were not available for interviews.
In the 1988 presidential primary, another supply-sider, the late New York congressman Jack Kemp, lost out to George H.W. Bush, curtailing the crew’s influence within the party.
But they stuck together. Moore, now 59, first became close with Laffer and Kudlow in 1991, after he recruited them to participate in an event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Reagan’s first tax cuts for the libertarian Cato Institute.
In 1993, Kudlow and Forbes teamed up to craft a tax cut plan for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Christine Todd Whitman, who went on to unseat incumbent Democrat James Florio.
Meanwhile, Kudlow hired Malpass to work for him at Bear Stearns, where he had been flying high as the investment bank’s chief economist.
The next year, Kudlow crashed to earth—he left the bank and entered rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. Laffer stuck by Kudlow, hiring the investment banker to work for his consulting firm in California when he emerged.
In 1996, Forbes, backed by Moore, entered the Republican primary and lost out to Bob Dole, but the group takes credit for getting Kemp picked for the bottom half of that year’s ticket, which lost to incumbent Bill Clinton.
And they have not stopped partying since. Members of the group have continued to actively socialize with each other over the decades, with some spending New Year’s eves together. At one birthday party for Laffer in New York, they presented the aging economist with a signed poster of the Jedi master Yoda. “I’m short, a little bit fat. I’ve got big, green ears,” Laffer explained. “I look sort of like Yoda.”
In 2015, Forbes, Laffer, Kudlow and Moore created the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a group intended in part to counter the emergence of the “Reformicons,” a rival gang of Republican eggheads who felt the party had gone too far in the direction of laissez-faire policies favoring the rich.
Among the other 29 committee members listed in a press release were both Malpasses, Kevin Hassett, now chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Andy Puzder, who was Trump’s initial pick for labor secretary until allegations of domestic abuse unearthed by POLITICO derailed his nomination.
The group sought, with considerable success, to vet Republican presidential candidates for their supply-side credentials and to influence their platforms, holding large private dinners at Manhattan venues such as the Four Seasons and the 21 Club, so that committee members and other notable invitees—like Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes—could feel out the candidates.
Before meeting with the larger group, candidates would huddle with the committee’s founders to receive economic tutorials. Or in the case of Ohio Governor John Kasich, to give one. “We were all sitting there, and he would talk for an hour,” Moore recalled. “We’re like, ‘No, we’re supposed to be talking to you,’ and he’s talking to us.” Moore called the episode “Classic John Kasich.”
Though the events were supposed to be off the record, journalists often attended, and an otherwise lackluster February 2015 dinner for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made headlines when Giuliani barged in, proclaimed he did not believe that President Barack Obama “loves America,” and insisted a POLITICO reporter could print the quote.
Media personality Larry Kudlow, a loquacious and energetic advocate of low taxes and free trade, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Gary Cohn as director of the White House’s National Economic Council
.. Kudlow was an adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign, working closely with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the design of an initial tax plan. But Kudlow, in media appearances in the past month, has been critical of President Trump’s new plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports
.. Trump’s close relationship with Kudlow — and Kudlow’s experience speaking on television — have bolstered his candidacy for the job.
.. On March 3, Kudlow joined Steve Moore and Arthur Laffer in a column for CNBC.com that was sharply critical of Trump’s proposal to impose the new tariffs.
“Trump should also examine the historical record on tariffs, because they have almost never worked as intended and almost always deliver an unhappy ending,” they wrote.
.. It is unclear if Trump wants his next NEC director to advance an ambitious agenda or spend more time with the media defending the changes that have already taken place, such as tax cuts and efforts to roll back regulations.