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.
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?
President Trump on Monday called for the Federal Reserve to cut its benchmark interest rate by 1 percentage point, a move that would typically be considered only when the U.S. economy is on the brink of a recession, and again criticized his own central bank chairman for a “horrendous lack of vision.”
In a pair of tweets Monday morning, the latest in a series of attacks Mr. Trump has levied against Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, the president said a combination of a reduced interest rate and a resumption of the Fed’s crisis-era bond-buying stimulus would improve the economy both in the U.S. and globally. “Good for everyone!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Mr. Trump, who returned Sunday from a 10-day vacation at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., has repeatedly attacked Mr. Powell for the state of the economy, even as he and his advisers have projected optimism that the decadelong economic expansion will continue. Mr. Trump has repeatedly called on the central bank to lower interest rates more than it has, saying that would further boost growth. U.S. economic growth slowed to 2.1% in the second quarter from 3.1% in the first three months of the year.
Last Wednesday, on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped 800.49 points, or 3%, the president spent much of the day attacking the Fed chairman on Twitter.
White House and campaign aides acknowledge privately that a recession would threaten Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, which has made a booming economy a central selling point. On Tuesday, the White House has arranged a call in which National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow is expected to reassure state and local officials about the state of the economy.
Asked in an interview on Fox News about possible economic alarm bells, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday played down the chance of a slowdown.
“It’s nice to have the mainstream media finally covering the economy, but they only cover it when they can use Sesame [Street’s] Grover word of the day, ‘recession,’ ” she said. Pointing to strong employment numbers, she said the economy’s “fundamentals are very strong.”
The last time the Fed reduced rates by a full percentage point was during the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite gyrations on Wall Street this week and an associated rise in recession fears, Donald Trump is still ballyhooing the state of the U.S. economy. In private, however, the President sounded “nervous and apprehensive” when he called a number of business leaders and financiers from his New Jersey golf club to get their opinions, the Washington Post reported.
Small wonder. With his personal-approval ratings stuck in the low forties, Trump’s 2020 reëlection campaign hinges on a healthy economy. He can be pretty confident that his core supporters will turn out for him, but he also needs to win over some less committed voters. His pitch to them is one that the British Conservative Party used successfully in 2015, during a general election, when it talked up the U.K. economy and issued dire warnings about the consequences of a victory for the opposition Labour Party.
One of the Conservatives’ campaign slogans was “DON’T LET LABOUR WRECK IT.” Substitute “THE DEMOCRATS” for “LABOUR” and you have Trump’s campaign strategy in a nutshell. Addressing a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Thursday night, he portrayed the Democratic candidates for President as “a bunch of socialists or communists” and asked the crowd, “Does anybody want to pay a ninety-five-per-cent tax?” He also suggested that a Democratic victory would lead to a crash in the stock market, adding, “You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me.”
The mere fact that Trump’s strategy is based on scaremongering (under Barack Obama, the Dow more than doubled) and outright lies (Joe Biden is a socialist?) doesn’t mean that it can’t work. In 2015, the British economy wasn’t doing great at all. Held back by five years of Conservative austerity policies, it hadn’t even fully recovered from the Great Recession. But the Conservatives, aided by their allies in the British media, managed to raise enough doubts about Labour’s economic competence to gain an over-all majority in the House of Commons. As long as the U.S. economy looks strong, the possibility of something similar happening in November, 2020, can’t be ruled out entirely, despite Trump’s unpopularity.
But, if the economy turns south between now and the election, Trump will almost certainly be defeated, and he knows it. Hence his delay, earlier this week, on expanding tariffs on Chinese imports, and his increasingly frantic efforts to scapegoat the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Jerome Powell. As the Dow plunged on Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter, calling Powell “clueless” and retweeting guests on Fox Business who were criticizing the Fed’s recent policy moves.
In the two days since the big fall in the stock market, we’ve received some new economic data, and it has been mixed. On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales expanded by 0.7 per cent in July, the strongest figure since March. Economists responded by raising their estimates of third-quarter G.D.P. growth to about two per cent. That’s a long way short of the four-per-cent growth that Trump promised, but it’s also well above recession levels.
At the same time, the Fed confirmed that the manufacturing sector is in a slump. Manufacturing output fell 0.4 per cent in July, the central bank said, and it is now about 1.5 per cent below its December, 2018, level. For a President who promised to restore manufacturing to its former position of prominence, that can hardly be reassuring. Neither can the news, on Friday, that the University of Michigan’s survey-based index of consumer confidence fell sharply in August, reaching its lowest level since 2016.
The fall raised concerns about whether strong consumer spending will continue to underpin the economy, and it also illustrated that Trump’s aggressive tactics in the trade war are backfiring. “Consumers strongly reacted to the proposed September increase in tariffs on Chinese imports, spontaneously cited by 33% of all consumers in early August,” Richard Curtin, the chief economist at the Michigan survey, noted. The White House has now postponed the higher tariffs until December. That may reassure some consumers, but this week’s fluctuations in the stock market are likely to add to their jitters.
To be sure, none of this means that a recession is imminent. Most economists are predicting that the G.D.P. will continue to rise, albeit at a modest pace. Citing continued growth in jobs and household incomes, Curtain said “it is likely that consumers will reduce their pace of spending while keeping the economy out of recession at least through mid 2020.” The most recent statements from the Fed indicate that it agrees with this assessment.
Despite all his bluster, Trump seems spooked. According to the Washington Post report, he has been “telling some confidants that he distrusts statistics he sees reported in the news media and that he suspects many economists and other forecasters are presenting biased data to thwart his reelection.” These sound like the ravings of an egomaniac who sees the world closing in on him.