Monday, January 29, 2018

Trump Takes Credit for Not Completely Messing Up

by Neil H. Buchanan

My car is running better lately.  My dog's coat is shinier.  Also, I have been sleeping better, and my ingrown toenail is not bothering me as much.  Why have all of these good things happened?  Because of the Republican tax cuts that Donald Trump signed last month, of course.  How silly even to ask.

Now that Republicans have passed their historically unpopular and regressive tax cut, Trump and his helpmates are desperately trying to say that all good things that are happening have been caused by that one terrible new law.

Their campaign is built around Republicans' apparently willful misunderstanding of economics and is sustained by their willingness to say anything and keep a straight face if doing so somehow supports Trump and justifies their tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people.  I cannot wait to see what the tax cut does to clear up the crabgrass in my yard.

Trump has spent his life avoiding blame for his mistakes and taking credit for things completely beyond his control.  That is who he is.  Perhaps the most humorous recent example of the latter was his attempt to take credit for the zero death count on commercial airlines in 2017.  Not only is that a matter over which a president could not possibly have any serious influence (especially in his first year in office), but Trump conveniently ignored the simple fact that there have been no deaths on commercial airlines since 2009.  By Trump's logic, I guess we should instead be saying: Thanks, Obama!

Last Spring, I suggested that Trump could (and should) spend his entire presidency doing nothing substantive even while taking credit for random blips and highlighting self-serving selections from statistical reports.  My idea was inspired by one of the many times that Trump tried to say that reporters were failing to notice all of the good news in Trump World, where his tweeted example was that "the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo."

As I pointed out at the time, and as PolitiFact reported, this made no sense at all.  Month-to-month variations in federal deficits are meaningless.  For anyone who has struggled to lose weight, think of the morning weigh-in and the frustrating sense that the number staring up at you so often seems at odds with what happened the day or week before.  Both good trends and bad ones have random up and down variations.  This is what statisticians refer to as "noise."

Moreover, even if those two monthly deficit numbers in Trump's tweet actually meant something, Obama had inherited an economy that was spiraling toward a possible second Great Depression, whereas Obama later bequeathed to Trump a growing and fundamentally healthy economy.  Should it be any surprise that the debt rose in Obama's first month?  And even though the federal deficit is generally under control, it has not turned into a surplus, which means that the decrease in debt in Trump's first month was truly a temporary anomaly.

But my larger point was that Trump could and should do nothing at all, because he could spend his remaining days in the White House (however few those days might be) picking out random good news and taking credit for it.  Why do any heavy lifting?

Trump and the Republicans, however, decided to put their chips on an enormously regressive tax bill, which means that they now actually have to defend something that they are responsible for enacting.  Their plan of attack is as baseless as Trump's tweets about deficits and airline deaths.  But the Republicans are undeniably enthusiastic about it.  How to spin this as a win for Trump?

All politicians are eager to associate themselves with good news and distance themselves from bad, of course, but Trump is in a category of his own.  Even so, this Republican strategy is not some new Trumpian effort to distort reality but merely another front in a massive disinformation campaign that Republicans have been waging for decades.

It is a key part of Republican lore that Ronald Reagan ended inflation, for example, even though his policies would have made inflation worse if it were not for the countervailing policies of the Federal Reserve and its chairman, who was put in office by President Jimmy Carter.  And let us not forget that Reagan supposedly also won the Cold War, even though it was obvious that the Soviet system was collapsing due to its over-reliance on militarism and its systemic economic unsustainability.

All of this is merely the mirror image of the years-long efforts by Trump and the Republicans to blame Barack Obama for nearly everything, including plants that closed before Obama took office.  Republicans also conveniently ignored the fact that the bank bailouts in 2008 and 2009 and some other essential economy-saving measures that were nonetheless unpopular with their enraged conservative base were proposed by George W. Bush and pushed through Congress by Republican leaders.  Saving the economy is a weird thing to blame a president for doing, but in Republicans' minds, they were accusing Obama of being anti-capitalist.

Moreover, Republicans' lies have not been limited to attacks on Obama.  Republicans have been screaming to the heavens, for example, that the estate tax breaks up family farms and small businesses.  This is not even an isolated, statistically trivial problem, because it is not a problem at all.  There has never been a documented case of the estate tax having any of those effects (tall tales from farm-state demagogues notwithstanding).  But Republicans will simply never bow to reality, so their new tax bill doubled the tax exemption for estates to $22 million for a married couple.

When it comes to their tax bill, Republicans are claiming that they and Trump should receive all of the credit for good things that are happening, even things that started a long time ago.  One of the more famously dishonest Republican economists (whose blatant hackishness somehow did not disqualified him from being invited to write a guest op-ed for The New York Times this past weekend) argued that Trump is being unfairly denied the glory that is rightly his.

The basic idea is that Trump would be blamed if the economy were tanking, so it must logically follow that Trump should be praised if the economy is doing well, right?  Wrong.

Trump deserves nothing more than notice that he did not reverse the already strong trends in the economy, from employment figures to wages (which are finally starting to kick up a bit).  Again, there can be month-to-month noise in the data, but the reasonably good news has been pretty much consistent for the past few years.  A recent report showed that the GDP growth rate came in at a respectable 2.6 percent at an annual rate, for example, but that was actually lower than the 2.9 percent that economists had been forecasting.  Does that prove that Trump is bad for the economy?  Of course not.  He has so far been blessedly irrelevant.

That is, as the saying goes, not nuthin'.  Indeed, Paul Krugman argued after Trump took office that Trump would preside over a sinking economy.  Krugman has subsequently admitted error on multiple occasions, and he has said that his error sprang from his political views, whereas he should have trusted his knowledge of economics.  There was little if any reason to think that Trump would sink the economy.

True, it was possible that everyone could have responded to the possibly imminent end of American constitutional democracy by changing their economic behavior in way that forced the economy into a tailspin.  They have not done so thus far, however, and life has moved on pretty much as it was before (at least in the economic realm).

More to the point, Trump could have immediately launched some radically bad economic policies, such as initiating full-scale trade wars with our major trading partners and trying to deport the more than ten million immigrants who are helping to produce the goods and services that go into our reasonably positive GDP picture.

So yes, Trump cannot be blamed for making truly bad economic decisions that could have reversed the positive trends that were baked into the economy that he inherited.  This, however, is not symmetric.  If a new president comes in and simply does not muck things up, that does not mean that the good news is proof that he is an economic genius.

Republicans deny that eight years of constant improvement under Obama are not to Obama's credit, and to be honest, they are not entirely wrong.  The Federal Reserve played a key role, and the global economic recovery is a big part of the current story, neither of which are directly attributable to Obama.

But if Obama does not deserve all of the credit for turning a near-death experience into a solid (if unspectacular and still inequality-infected) recovery, then Trump certainly does not deserve anything but the most minimal credit simply for the fact that the economy has not broken trend in the past year.  He did not do anything good other than not doing anything bad.

In a followup column, I will address some of the specific recent news items that Republicans are using to try to support their claims that they and Trump have been great for the economy, especially their claims that some announced bonuses for workers are proof of the virtues of trickle-down economics.  For those who cannot wait, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin recently provided an excellent short summary of some of the key arguments.

The larger point here, however, is that Trump and the Republicans are engaged in the timeless ritual of trying to take undeserved credit for good news.  We should all be happy that there is at least one area in which Trump and his enablers have not yet done anything truly disastrous.  But that is a low bar indeed.


Shag from Brookline said...

A few minutes ago, there were 1152 comments on economist Moore's op-ed.

David Ricardo said...

To call Stephen Moore an economists does a great injustice to the economics profession. This individual has been categorically wrong so many times that only his total lack of humility and self examination allows him to continue to publish, or even show his face in public. One Kansas newspaper refused to publish him after a series of total falsehoods in his work.

Democracy prospers under the honor system, that the politicians while 'spinning' things will not out and out lie. Republicans have broken this trust, Moore being just one of many examples, and now the Trummper lies with impunity. A number of people say the U. S. democratic system will recover. Don't bet on it. This post by Mr. Buchanan may well be included in future anthologies that document how the system of freedom and self government collapsed in America.