The Curiously Missing Debate on the US Economy

President Trump focuses on immigration and tariffs and only occasionally cites strong US economic performance. Democratic presidential candidates are trying to win over primary voters by discussing issues such as universal health care, college debt and social justice. The result is a missing debate on the state and future of the US economy, which polls show is the top priority of a majority of voters.

President Trump focuses on immigration and tariffs and only occasionally cites strong US economic performance. Democratic presidential candidates are trying to win over primary voters by discussing issues such as universal health care, college debt and social justice. The result is a missing debate on the state and future of the US economy, which polls show is the top priority of a majority of voters.

A surging stock market, continued job creation and historically low unemployment have led to rising levels of public approval of Donald Trump in the polls. 

On the flip side, soaring federal budget deficits, protracted trade wars affecting industrial and agricultural sectors and tariffs threatening higher consumer prices are posting warning signs of an impending downward economic cycle, perhaps just before the 2020 election. 

Despite the stakes, bread-and-butter economic policy has taken a decidedly back seat in political debates, even as polling shows the economy remains the top priority of voters. 

Skillfully or impulsively, President Trump focuses on immigration, ‘creeping socialism’ and denigrating Democrats, while only occasionally praising the economy he’s overseen for 2½ years. Democratic presidential candidates, many seeking to curry favor with the increasingly restive progressive wing of the party, talk about health care, immigration reform, college debt, wealth taxes, climate change, social justice and Trump. 

Democrats also campaign in the shadow of the Mueller report and growing calls to impeach Trump. At times it seems as if Trump and his media allies egg on articles of impeachment, which face an uncertain fate in the Democratic House, but certain death in the Republican Senate. 

Absent in most Democratic stumping is any serious, sustained criticism of Trump economic policy. If criticism was to occur, this is what it might look like: 

Budget Deficit: According to the Treasury Department, the federal budget deficit ballooned 77 percent in the first four months of 2019 to $310 billion, up from $176 billion during the same period a year earlier. That period included the largest single month deficit. One reason for the larger deficits was a sharp drop in tax revenue, attributed to the Trump tax cuts. Meanwhile, federal spending has increased 9 percent, including a 12 percent hike in military spending and a 16 percent rise in Medicare outlays.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected a $900 billion deficit this fiscal year. The Office of Management and Budget, which is overseen by the Trump administration, projects the deficit will reach nearly $1.1 trillion – and keep rising through the 2020 fiscal year.

The Trump administration has not pushed very hard for federal spending reductions, settling instead for sending Congress a budget with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which are political non-starters.

Trump has seemingly walked away from his promise of a major infrastructure investment plan. His own advisers have warned he cannot boost military spending and build new roads and bridges at the same time, especially when congressional Republicans appear unwilling to vote for the taxes to pay for upgraded infrastructure.

The political punch: The economy is cruising along, but only because it is fueled by the equivalent of credit card debt on steroids. The tax cuts and spending spree have effectively ruled out long-term investments in roads and bridges. 

Trade Wars: True to his campaign promise, Trump has upset the trade apple cart by imposing tariffs, first on steel and aluminum, then more generally, with a special gusto for Chinese imports. Trump also has selectively imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. His trade team succeeded last year in negotiating an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it still hasn’t been approved by Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office shares its data about federal deficits, budget and revenue projections and marginal tax rates, as well as statistical information about many specific federal programs. If you want to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to the economy, check this out:  https://www.cbo.gov/publication/54918 .

The Congressional Budget Office shares its data about federal deficits, budget and revenue projections and marginal tax rates, as well as statistical information about many specific federal programs. If you want to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to the economy, check this out: https://www.cbo.gov/publication/54918.

Trump claims his tariffs have revived the US steel and aluminum industries and produced substantial revenue. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation confirms tariff revenue reached $70 billion by the end of May 2019, while reducing the US Gross Domestic Product by $50 billion, lowering wages by .13 percent and resulting in a loss of nearly 156,000 American jobs. 

The Tax Foundation also computed the impact of tariffs Trump threatened to impose against China, automobiles and Mexican products. Estimated revenues would exceed $154 billion at a cost of $112 billion in lost GDP, .3 percent decline in wages and loss of nearly 350,000 US jobs.

Then there are retaliatory tariffs by the European Union, India, Turkey, Mexico, Canada and Russia. The US treasury receives no revenue from these tariffs, but lost GDP from them tops $21 billion, wages decline .05 percent and some 67,000 jobs disappear. 

“If all tariffs announced thus far were fully imposed, US GDP would fall by 0.74 percent ($184.07 billion) in the long run, effectively offsetting about 44 percent of the long-run impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Wages would fall by 0.48 percent and employment would fall 570,591,” according to the Tax Foundation. 

The tariffs have worked a particular hardship on American farmers who have seen foreign markets evaporate, income nosedive and price increases for new equipment. The Trump administration conceded the impact on farmers, won approval for a $12 billion bailout and is seeking another $16 billion to aid farmers. Adding injury to insult, the major beneficiaries of the first bailout flowed to larger corporate farms, not family farms and “patriot farmers.”

The political punch: Tariffs are taxing Americans, raising prices, lowering wages, hurting farmers, losing jobs and posing a threat to continued economic growth. And, they haven’t resulted, at least so far, in great trade deals either.

Looming Downturn: Signs are emerging that an economic downturn may be on the horizon. Economists warn an escalating trade war combined with slowing growth in China and internationally could tip the economy into recession.

There also are troubling indicators.

  • Historically and ironically, recessions occur just when retail sales, industrial production and employment peak, as they have. Household wealth and income also peak just before a downturn.

  • Another historical indicator of recession is when interest rates on long-term bonds are lower than interest rates for short-term bonds for three continuous months, as just happened. This isn’t just a US phenomenon; it is occurring in bond markets around the world. 

Sensing the possibility of a declining US economy heading into an election, Trump has been hectoring Jerome Powell, the man he chose to head the Federal Reserve Board, to cut interest rates. After resisting such action, Powell in congressional testimony last week hinted an interest rate cut may be in the offing as early as this month. 

Powell told Congress, “Based on incoming data and other developments, it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the US economic outlook.”

The stock market was ecstatic and hit new record highs. Critics warned an interest rate cut now will limit the Fed’s ability to combat a recession when it inevitably occurs.

The political punch: With increased deficit spending, continuing tariffs and a demand for lower interest rates, the administration is playing with fire, dousing a fire and trying to light a fire all at once.

You heard it here, even if you won’t hear anywhere else.