The President’s remarks at the recent State of the Union aroused my curiosity:
Since my election, the net worth of the bottom half of wage earners has increased by 47 percent — three times faster than the increase for the top 1 percent.
This prompted the following questions:
- So, what is the average net worth of the bottom 50% of Americans?
- How has the average net worth of the bottom 50% changed over time, adjusted for inflation, starting around 1970?
- For extra bonus points, can you compare that to data on the top 1%?
This sounds like it would make a good story for The Indicator from Planet Money.
It’s all about the power — and the cronyism.
Almost exactly one year has passed since Donald Trump declared, “I am a Tariff Man.” Uncharacteristically, he was telling the truth.
At this point I’ve lost count of how many times markets have rallied in the belief that Trump was winding down his trade war, only to face announcements that a much-anticipated deal wasn’t happening or that tariffs were being slapped on a new set of products or countries. Over the past week it happened again: Markets bet on an outbreak of trade peace between the U.S. and China, only to get body slammed by Trump’s declaration that there might be no deal before the election and by his new tariffs on Brazil and Argentina.
So Trump really is a Tariff Man. But why? After all, the results of his trade war have been consistently bad, both economically and politically.
I’ll offer an answer shortly. First, however, let’s talk about what the Trump trade war has actually accomplished.
A peculiar aspect of the Trump economy is that while overall growth has been solid, the areas of weakness have come precisely in those things Trump tried to stimulate.
Remember, Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment was a huge tax cut for corporations that was supposed to lead to a surge in investment. Instead, corporations pocketed the money, and business investment has been falling.
The truth is that even economists who opposed Trump’s tax cuts and tariffs are surprised by how badly they’re working out. The most commonly given explanation for these bad results is that Trumpian tariff policy is creating a lot of uncertainty, which is giving businesses a strong incentive to postpone any plans they might have for building new factories and adding jobs.
It’s important to realize that Trumpian protectionism wasn’t a response to a groundswell of public opinion. As best as I can tell from the endless series of interviews with white guys in diners — who are, we all know, the only Americans who matter — these voters are driven more by animosity toward immigrants and the sense that snooty liberals look down on them than by trade policy.
And public opinion seems to have become far less protectionist even as Trump has raised tariffs, with the percentage of Americans saying that free trade agreements are a good thing as high as it’s ever been.
So Trump’s trade war is losing, not gaining, support. And one recent analysis finds that it was a factor hurting Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, accounting for a significant number of lost congressional seats.
Nevertheless, Trump persists. Why?
One answer is that Trump has long had a fixation on the idea that tariffs are the answer to America’s problems, and he’s not the kind of man who reconsiders his prejudices in the light of evidence. But there’s also something else: U.S. trade law offers Trump more freedom of action — more ability to do whatever he wants — than any other policy area.
The basic story is that long ago — in fact, in the aftermath of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 — Congress deliberately limited its own role in trade policy. Instead, it gave the president the power to negotiate trade deals with other countries, which would then face up-or-down votes without amendments.
It was always clear, however, that this system needed some flexibility to respond to events. So the executive branch was given the power to impose temporary tariffs under certain conditions: import surges, threats to national security, unfair practices by foreign governments. The idea was that nonpartisan experts would determine whether and when these conditions existed, and the president would then decide whether to act.
This system worked well for many years. It turned out, however, to be extremely vulnerable to someone like Trump, for whom everything is partisan and expertise is a four-letter word. Trump’s tariff justifications have often been self-evidently absurd — seriously, who imagines that imports of Canadian steel threaten U.S. national security? But there’s no obvious way to stop him from imposing tariffs whenever he feels like it.
And there’s also no obvious way to stop his officials from granting individual businesses tariff exemptions, supposedly based on economic criteria but in fact as a reward for political support. Tariff policy isn’t the only arena in which Trump can practice crony capitalism — federal contracting is looking increasingly scandalous — but tariffs are especially ripe for exploitation.
So that’s why Trump is a Tariff Man: Tariffs let him exercise unconstrained power, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. Anyone imagining that he’s going to change his ways and start behaving responsibly is living in a fantasy world.
And he has only himself to blame.When he isn’t raving about how the deep state is conspiring against him, Donald Trump loves to boast about the economy, claiming to have achieved unprecedented things. As it happens, none of his claims are true. While both G.D.P. and employment have registered solid growth, the Trump economy simply seems to have continued a long expansion that began under Barack Obama. In fact, someone who looked only at the past 10 years of data would never guess that an election had taken place.
But now it’s starting to look as if Trump really will achieve something unique: He may well be the first president of modern times to preside over a slump that can be directly attributed to his own policies, rather than bad luck.
There has always been a deep unfairness about the relationship between economics and politics: Presidents get both credit and blame for events that usually have little to do with their actions.
- Jimmy Carter didn’t cause the stagflation that put Ronald Reagan in the White House;
- George H.W. Bush didn’t cause the economic weakness that elected Bill Clinton; even
- George W. Bush bears at most tangential responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis.
More recently, the “mini-recession” of 2015-16, a slump in manufacturing that may have tipped the scale to Trump, was caused mainly by a plunge in energy prices rather than any of Barack Obama’s policies.
But unlike previous presidents, who were just unlucky to preside over slumps, Trump has done this to himself, largely by choosing to wage a trade war he insisted would be “good, and easy to win.”
The link between the trade war and agriculture’s woes is obvious: America’s farmers are deeply dependent on export markets, China in particular. So they’re hurting badly, despite a huge financial bailout that is already more than twice as big as the Obama administration’s auto bailout. (Part of the problem may be that the bailout money is flowing disproportionately to the biggest, richest farms.)
Shipping may also seem an obvious victim when tariffs reduce international trade, although it’s not just an international issue; domestic trucking is also in recession.
The manufacturing slump is more surprising. After all, America runs a large trade deficit in manufactured goods, so you might expect that tariffs, by forcing buyers to turn to domestic suppliers, would be good for the sector. That’s surely what Trump and his advisers thought would happen.
But that’s not how it has worked out. Instead, the trade war has clearly hurt U.S. manufacturing. Indeed, it has done considerably more damage than even Trump critics like yours truly expected.
The Trumpist trade warriors, it turns out, missed two key points. First, many U.S. manufacturers depend heavily on imported parts and other inputs; the trade war is disrupting their supply chains. Second, Trump’s trade policy isn’t just protectionist, it’s erratic, creating vast uncertainty for businesses both here and abroad. And businesses are responding to that uncertainty by putting plans for investment and job creation on hold.
So the tweeter in chief has bungled his way into a Trump slump, even if it isn’t a full-blown recession, at least so far. It’s clearly going to hurt him politically, notably because of the contrast between his big talk and not-so-great reality. Also, the pain in manufacturing seems to be falling especially hard on those swing states Trump took by tiny margins in 2016, giving him the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.
And while many presidents have found themselves confronting politically damaging economic adversity, Trump is, as I said, unique in that he really did this to himself.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he will accept responsibility for his mistakes. For the past few months he has been trying to portray the Federal Reserve as the root of all economic evil, even though current interest rates are well below those his own officials predicted in their triumphalist economic projections.
My guess, however, is that Fed-bashing will prove ineffective as a political strategy, not least because most Americans probably have at best a vague idea of what the Fed is and what it does.
So what will come next? Trump being Trump, it’s a good bet that he’ll soon be denouncing troubling economic data as fake news; I wouldn’t be surprised to see political pressure on the statistical agencies to report better numbers. Hey, if it can happen to the National Weather Service, why not the Bureau of Economic Analysis (which reports, by the way, to Wilbur Ross)?And somehow or other this will turn out to be another deep-state conspiracy, probably orchestrated by George Soros.
The scary thing is that around 35 percent of Americans will probably believe whatever excuses Trump comes up with. But that won’t be enough to save him.
It’s time for a reality check on Trump’s claims about jobs, wages and economic growth.
Recession fears may be seeping into the national conversation, but President Trump continues to boast about how great the American economy is — “the best in the world, by far,” Mr. Trump tweeted a few days ago.
Time for a reality check on Mr. Trump’s economic accomplishments, using two key measuring sticks: how well the economy is doing, compared with its performance under President Barack Obama’s leadership, and whether it has performed up to Mr. Trump’s promises.
The short answer is, the economy’s performance is not much different than it was under Mr. Obama and far short of what Mr. Trump pledged.
Take, for example, the all-important matter of jobs. Yes, many unemployed Americans are back on the payrolls. Yes, the unemployment rate continues to fall, as it did under Mr. Obama. But no, the pace of hiring has not been faster than it was during a similar period under Mr. Obama and indeed, has been even a bit slower.
In the first 30 months of the Trump presidency, jobs were added at an average rate of 191,000 a month. That’s certainly respectable, although it’s still less than the increase of 220,000 jobs a month during the final two and a half years of the Obama presidency.
Obama average: 220k
Trump average: 191k
Moreover, on Aug. 21, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that it is likely to revise downward substantially payroll gains earlier this year, which could cut about 15,000 jobs a month from Mr. Trump’s tally.
Then there are wages, the other key component of what matters financially to everyday Americans. The rate of pay raises has continued to edge up under Mr. Trump, a typical occurrence in the latter part of an economic recovery. But more important is what is left for workers after inflation takes its bite.
And on that measure, earnings for American workers rose faster under Mr. Obama.
Not to mention that Mr. Trump has utterly failed to deliver on his wage promises. As part of pushing for the 2017 tax cut, his Council of Economic Advisers projected that the legislation would raise average pay by $4,000 a worker. No material amount of that has been realized.
Obama average: +1.5%
Trump average: +0.7%
Then there’s the overall economy. The sluggishness of growth since the 2008 recession has puzzled and dismayed policymakers. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump routinely promised to push this rate up; in seeking passage of his tax cut legislation, he said growth would accelerate to “4, 5 and maybe even 6 percent.”
That is not remotely what transpired. The tax cut produced a short “sugar high,” a momentary boost. Gross domestic product, after adjusting for inflation, rose at a 3.5 percent rate in the second quarter of 2018. But for 2018 as a whole, the 2.5 percent increase did not come close to the Trump administration’s projection of 3 percent.
All told, G.D.P. has risen at a 2.6 rate during Mr. Trump’s presidency, which, in fairness, is marginally higher than the 2.4 percent rate of improvement during the last 10 quarters of Mr. Obama’s tenure. Neither number is anything to brag about.
Now the economy is demonstrably slowing down, thanks in large part to Mr. Trump’s trade war. Interestingly, the business community appears more worried than consumers, who have continued to spend and who, in surveys, still express confidence.
As a result, forecasters have been marking down their projections; by the end of this year, J.P. Morgan expects G.D.P. to be increasing at only a 1.8 percent rate. (The White House seems to live in a parallel universe; it clings resolutely to its prediction of 3.2 percent growth this year.)
Should that slowdown occur, expect Mr. Trump to blame the Federal Reserve and the interest rate increases it instituted beginning in December 2015. But the Fed’s increases were modest; rates are still exceptionally low by historical standards, especially in the tenth year of a recovery.
Accordingly, private economists rank the trade war as playing a much larger role in the slowing economy than the Fed’s actions. (And, of course, now it has begun cutting rates.)
“The fears of a further slowing in growth and recession are entirely due to the trade war,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told me. “If the president follows through on his current tariff threats, growth will continue to weaken to well below the economy’s 2 percent potential by early next year.”
Mr. Zandi is not alone. Private economists recently polled by Reuters gave a median 45 percent probability of the United States economy entering recession in the next two years.
Economists are notoriously poor at predicting downturns. But what’s not disputable is even if we duck a recession, when it comes to the economy, Mr. Trump still has not eclipsed Mr. Obama’s record and is many miles from making America great again.