The real state of the American economy is pretty good, but not nearly as good as Donald Trump made it out to be in his State of the Union Address Tuesday night. Nor should he take as much credit as he does for a labor market that’s finally turned around after years of recovery.
But more troublesome than Trump’s braggadocio or anything he did say Tuesday night is what he didn’t offer — a remotely plausible solution for any of the major problems facing the country.
Trump’s big ideas about national problems are mostly to ignore them. He gave Ivanka’s call for affordable care one line, with no actual path to achieving it. He made no mention of falling life expectancies and health outcomes in America, compared to other developed nations.
On prescription drugs prices, he simply reiterated promises he’s spent the past year failing to make good on. There’s still no infrastructure plan, no Afghanistan strategy, and no actual policies to back up vague exhortations about the value of job training and vocational schools.
To the extent that there are any ideas here at all, it’s to blame immigrants.
Trump has concocted a fake version of the existing US immigration system in which family unification visas allow people to “bring over unlimited numbers of distant relatives” and proclaims this the source of both economic woes and threats of deadly violence from MS-13 gangs.
Trump wished away the self-induced crises that have dominated his administration, by neither naming the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program nor the Russian nesting doll of constitutional conflicts touched off by his decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.
The closest he came to acknowledging a real source of trouble in American life was his insistence that “we want every citizen to be proud of this land that we love.” It would be nice to think that, at a minimum, Trump could spend the rest of his years in office reading the kind of dull conservative rhetoric that Stephen Miller may have written for him tonight, and thus solve at least that one problem.
But realistically we’re not going to be that lucky. Trump has personally made America into a global laughingstock and given millions a sense of shame about their country. And he’s not going to do anything about any of it.
America still has plenty of problems
Sky-high unemployment made healing the labor market public priority number one for years. But the country faces plenty of other problems that have long endured and won’t be magically solved by four percent unemployment.
Trump, himself — once upon a time as a candidate — claimed he would offer solutions for most of them. A few examples:
- The child poverty rate in the United States is extraordinarily high by international standards, even as middle class families struggle mightily to afford the price of child care and higher education for their kids.
- The United States is considerably richer on average than almost every European country, but Americans are in much worse health and have lower expectancy — indeed, our life expectancy seems to be dropping.
- The American cities with the most vibrant economies have the least-affordable housing markets and the slowest growth in housing stock.
- Many American cities with extensive physical infrastructure and priceless cultural amenities remain well below their historical peak populations and continue to suffer from systematic disinvestment and population decline.
- Alone among wealthy countries, the United States has millions of citizens who can’t afford health insurance and millions more insured families who struggle enormously with the cost of prescription drugs and other out-of-pocket expenses.
- The murder rate, though still low compared to the relatively recent past, appears to have risen slightly again in 2017.
- The labor force participation rate for “prime age” workers between 25 and 54 years old remains below its 2007 level, which in turn was below its 2000 peak.
Trump maintains such a furious news cycle of scandal, outlandish behavior, outrage, and counteroutrage that it’s easy to forget this. But as a candidate Trump paired a lot eccentric personal behavior with some real promises on public policy.
He — or at least his daughter Ivanka — claimed to be working on some kind of child care solution, he repeatedly promised a plan to deliver lower-cost healthcare to the American public, he unveiled an opioid crisis task force to much fanfare, and he barnstormed the country promising a revival of the rust belt manufacturing economy.
None of this has actually happened, and he’s now just forgotten about it, choosing to focus instead on the fact that the economy continues growing on the same steady trajectory that it grew throughout his predecessor’s second term. Instead, he’s now focused on the dire threat to American citizens that’s allegedly posed by the possibility that somewhere a foreign-born naturalized US citizen is sponsoring a visa for her brother.
Trump’s immigration clampdown won’t fix anything
The crux of Trump’s speech was the claim that “struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.”
If you actually believe that Trump’s policies are motivated by a desire to help immigrant communities, you might be interested in a degree from Trump University and the inclusion of this spurious aside is a reminder that we are fundamentally in the domain of the bullshitter-in-chief. The truth about immigration is that it boosts the wages of native-born Americans, while Trump’s proposed cuts to legal immigration would modestly reduce America’s per person income and more substantially reduce our aggregate income. A Trumpified America, in other words, would be both poorer and weaker with less clout on the world stage and less prosperity for the average family.
The entirety of Trump’s plan to deport our way to prosperity flies in the face of both theory and evidence, but in the larger context of Trump’s bragging on the economy it doesn’t even make surface-level sense. When the economy was in the throes of high unemployment five or six years ago, immigrants could at least be scapegoated for bankers’ sins. But if, as Trump says, the economy is now booming then what problem is cutting legal immigration in half supposed to solve?
To make some sense of this, Trump’s argument on immigration focuses on physical violence. He referred to “two precious girls ... brutally murdered while talking together in their hometown” by “members of the savage gang MS-13.”
But deploying immigration enforcement officers specifically against violent criminals is precisely the Obama-era policy that Trump has ended. Instead, at Trump’s direction, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are now broadly detaining undocumented immigrants from all walks of life in hopes of inspiring maximum terror in the hearts of all 11 million. And he’s yanking work permits from 800,000 young Dreamers who’ve grown up in this country and have clean criminal records. All this will exacerbate problems of violent crime not solve them.
President Trump calls for a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure: "We built the Empire State Building in just 1 year – isn't it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?" #SOTU pic.twitter.com/NqkYyZiVz2— Vox (@voxdotcom) January 31, 2018
For at least two years now, Trump has been talking on-and-off about infrastructure. He and his team have been teasing infrastructure plans on-and-off and reporters like me who are interested in the infrastructure issue have been waiting for an infrastructure plan.
Today, once again, we didn’t get one.
Instead, we got “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”
In other words, he doesn’t want to spend $1.5 trillion. And he also doesn’t want to say how much he does want to spend. He just wants to say “every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment — to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.”
What does this mean? What will the money be spent on? Where will the money come from? A normal, competent administration would have spent the past 48 hours holding background briefings with journalists so that our State of the Union coverage could explain it to you.
But Trump has no idea what he’s doing, so I have no idea either. Suffice it to say that if you wake up tomorrow morning and your commute sucks, Trump has somberly promised to ask Congress to come up with something to fix that — which may or may not involve spending new money on something.
The coming shambles
The closest Trump got to the poetry one expects from a formal presidential speech came at the beginning, when he said “to everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else — we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.”
The Puerto Rico saga is marginal to American politics because Puerto Rico itself is a marginal part of the country — an island physically separated from the mainland, whose residents lack representation in Congress or the right to vote in presidential elections.
But the sad state of that island is worth dwelling on, because the devastation of Hurricane Maria remains the one real crisis that Trump’s dealt with that hasn’t simply been self-inflicted. He’s been inattentive, ill-informed, dishonest, and ineffective, capping it with tonight’s solemn pledge of solidarity that’s totally disconnected from the actual reality on the ground.
Most of the problems Trump is ignoring are chronic rather than acute, and if the country needs to suffer through a few more years of neglect we’ll make it. Puerto Rico is facing acute problems and the president is, likewise, doing nothing.
If we’re lucky, those of us on the mainland won’t have to find out what it’s like to live through that. But Trump makes it clear on a daily basis that if we ever do, there’s no way he’s going to rise to the occasion.