President Donald Trump’s debut budget proposal is a stark declaration of war on the future of the American economy that substitutes a curious mix of ideology and blind nostalgia for any effort to think critically about the actual needs of a 21st-century nation.
The war starts with reducing spending — even though an aging population, plus the government’s role in inherently labor-intensive activities like education and long-term care, militates overwhelmingly in favor of a somewhat larger role for the state. But it continues with the priorities Trump set for where the remaining cash gets spent.
The picture that emerges is overwhelmingly one of nostalgia — more money for men with guns, less money for education, caring, and pointy-headed science. But nostalgia is not memory. The midcentury economy Trump yearns for was, almost by definition, less technologically advanced and educationally intensive than today’s.
But it was an extraordinarily forward-looking time. Propelled by the imperatives of Cold War competition, the United States made investments on an unprecedented scale in institutions dedicated to education and research, while engaging in massive public-private partnerships to disseminate then-new technological marvels like cars, phones, and televisions.
Trump’s budget doesn’t imitate the past; it simply looks backward to it in a way that postwar Americans never would. The government’s manly men — the ones with guns, mostly — get more cash. Programs aimed at effeminate or pointy-headed undertakings like educating children get cut. Not just in obvious places like the Department of Education, either. Little educational programs in departments from State to NASA are getting zapped. Job training is in line for cuts, along with K-12 schooling and college education for the disadvantaged.
Scientific research — whether at Energy, NOAA, the NIH, or anywhere else — is out. Trump’s America will give up on the dream of becoming a world leader in generating clean electricity or manufacturing the advanced batteries that store it. His statements on automobile fuel efficiency regulations make it clear that we won’t be operating on the cutting edge there, either.
Once the Environmental Protection Agency is gutted by cuts of over 25 percent, after all, we’ll all be able to get good-paying jobs in coal mines and won’t miss the skill- and technology-driven future Trump is destroying.
A fiscal manifestation of nostalgia politics
A presidential budget submission can play many roles — highlighting the alleged unreasonableness of congressional opposition, putting a new idea on the public agenda, rewarding a key interest group, or picking a symbolically useful fight— but for a newly elected president blessed with congressional majorities, one would expect it to also be a fairly literal legislative proposal. Trump’s budget is different.
Its military spending increases would violate the Budget Control Act of 2011, meaning that it could not actually be passed as a budget. (The law itself could be amended, but that, unlike a budget, would take 60 votes). Which is just as well, because a budget that completely ignores both taxes and the domestic entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, plus some smaller items — isn’t really a budget at all.
Instead, it’s simply an effort to translate a policy-ignorant candidate’s often nonsensical campaign rhetoric into something budget-shaped. Trump promised to balance the budget while cutting taxes and preserving entitlements — which isn’t possible. So huge swathes of the budget are simply missing. He promised a big defense hike, so it’s in there even though it’s illegal.
As a blueprint for actually doing anything, it’s a mess. But that’s not the point. Writing laws is House Speaker Paul Ryan’s job. Trump’s budget is campaign rhetoric made manifest.
That campaign rhetoric was unprecedentedly backward-looking and nostalgic. Trump ran, literally, on making America better by making it more closely resemble the America of the past. While Democrats debated ways to make college tuition more affordable, Trump appealed to older white working-class voters with the notion that there is no need for anything to change over time — no need for immigrants to sustain the country’s demographics, no need for more education and more soft people skills to maintain relevance to the changing needs of the workplace.
And so the nostalgia candidate has delivered a nostalgia budget.
America needs to get real
A little dose of Trump’s old-school approach was a necessary and useful corrective to an elite discourse that, four or five years ago, seemed too often to take it for granted that any day now literally everyone would be learning to code from MOOCs while riding in a self-driving car between various exciting “gig economy” employment opportunities at hip downtown lofts.
This is a big, diverse country, encompassing not just urban centers and peripatetic young people, but small towns and 50-somethings with chronic knee trouble. It needs to offer people more than an endless series of overhyped apps.
But Trump’s rhetoric, and now his spending blueprint, don’t just push back against techno-utopianism. They constitute a denial of the obvious truth that a prosperous society is necessarily going to be one that is evolving and changing over time.
Most Americans work in the service sector, and that was true 20 or 40 years ago, too. And even within the goods-producing sector, today’s highly paid jobs require more skills and training than their 1976 counterparts did. The country as whole, meanwhile, needs to continually develop whole new industries (generation, storage, and transmission of clean energy seems like the obvious candidate to me) to create new opportunities for new generations of people just as it did in the past.
One of the main things that was good about the “good old days” is that they were a time of massive progress, expansion of higher education opportunities into the middle class and rapid development of new products and cures. This happened while the government invested more — not less — on health, education, science, and regional development.
Trump’s budget acknowledges none of that. It slashes funding for medical research, for physical sciences, and for scholarship and culture generally. It cuts deeply into education and training programs it regards (oftentimes wrongly) as ineffective or poorly evaluated. But it only puts a fraction of that money back into other ones it likes better, while crushing science programs that Trump’s own Cabinet was praising earlier this month.
Nostalgia economics won’t save us
As a political message, this is well-targeted to a certain set of voters. There are people who remember a time when Michigan’s automobile industry and Pennsylvania’s coal-and-steel complex represented world-leading technology. And there are sons and daughters and nephews of those old-timers who don’t actually remember it, but who feel like they can.
The problem is nowhere on earth is prosperous today — not San Francisco, not Shanghai, not Switzerland, not Singapore, not anywhere — because it’s managed to retain the same jobs mix it had 40 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia as an emotion, but it’s a terrible basis for a national economic strategy.
Trump’s core voters, at or near retirement age already, likely prefer a symbolic reaffirmation of their centrality to the American national narrative to a plausible vision of a prosperous future. And, of course, to Trump’s true institutional base — well-to-do businessmen — a national economic strategy of cutting back on the future is welcome. Trump wants to deregulate everything while slashing taxes on corporations and investors, privileging not just the sentiments of older people but the concrete material interests of old capital.
But for people hoping to get a good paying job not just next week but next year and next decade, doing so at the cost of any kind of investment in the future is going to be a disaster.