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The truth about the Trump economy, explained

A massive change in perceptions masks continuity with the Obama years.

SWITZERLAND-ECONOMY-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-DAVOS-SUMMIT Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

At his inaugural address a little more than a year ago, President Donald Trump spoke of a landscape of “American carnage” featuring “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” along with “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”

Weeks later, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump continued the theme, complaining that “we have the worst financial recovery in 65 years” while “our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800 billion.”

A year later, we can expect a very different message in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech. Trump has become a relentless cheerleader for the American economy, touting the low unemployment rate, steady job growth, and record stock market peaks that have occurred during his brief presidency.

Wonks will debate how much credit he really deserves, personally, for any of this. (Foreign markets have soared too, and several are also at all-time highs.) But the fact is that his words will resonate today just as his bleak view resonated in 2016, even with many people who ultimately didn’t vote for him. Gallup found in early January that Americans’ confidence in the economy soared 16 points during Trump’s first year in office, reaching positive territory for the first time since Gallup began tracking it in 2008.

But this transformation in perceptions is out of step with the underlying reality. The basic truth is that while the economy displayed steady growth over the past 12 months, the same was true of the 72 months or so that came before that. The big change hasn’t been in the economy but in people’s hearts — Republican Party loyalists, in particular, weren’t ready to admit the economy had recovered until they had a co-partisan in the White House.

The partially partisan economy

Two polls from Gallup tell the tale.

The first, comparing annual averages, shows that Democrats and Republicans have reacted very differently to Trump’s ascent, with Republicans becoming more positive about the economy and Democrats less so.

That perceptions of the economy would be mediated by partisanship is perhaps to be expected. But Trump’s key achievement here is that while both Democrats and Republicans have changed their minds about the economy, Republicans have responded more sharply. They’ve nearly uniformly developed positive views about the economy due to Trump, while many Democrats also hold positive views about the economy and likely simply give former President Barack Obama the credit for it.

Even more strikingly, Gallup’s weekly numbers show that the Republican turnaround in perceptions largely happened before Trump even took office.

It wasn’t, in other words, that something changed in the economy, Republicans gave Trump credit for it and then decided to start praising the economy. The mere fact that Trump had won the election made Democrats feel somewhat worse about economic conditions and Republicans feel a lot better.

Actual economic conditions, meanwhile, really have improved — but only at a modest pace that is entirely continuous with previous trends.

The economy just isn’t that different

The American economy as of last fall certainly had its share of problems — problems that Trump wasn’t shy about pointing out. The trouble is that, as Michael Grunwald wrote recently, none of the dark linings in the silver cloud of the Obama economy have changed under Trump:

In fact, by the standards Trump used to trash the Obama era in his speech to Congress, the Trump era has been another economic nightmare. “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force!” he complained last year. That was true at the time, if you included students, retirees and the disabled, but today, 95.5 million Americans are out of the labor force. “Over 43 million Americans are on food stamps,” Trump said last year. This year, it’s still over 42 million. “Our trade deficit in goods last year was nearly $800 billion!” Trump marveled. Under Trump, the trade deficit is increasing.

Trump has addressed this largely by changing the criteria by which he evaluates the economy. No longer does a healthy America require closing the trade deficit, drastically increasing the labor force participation rate despite an aging population, or making the labor market so robust nobody needs social assistance. Instead, Trump points to record-low black unemployment and a record-high stock market.

But the stock market first hit record high territories under Obama, and Trump-era market performance has actually lagged its Obama-era average. A simple eyeball of the African-American unemployment rate, meanwhile, makes it clear that Trump has nothing to do with this trend.

More broadly, whether you want to characterize current economic trends as fantastic or terrible (I prefer, “They’re okay”), they simply aren’t very different from the trends we saw under Obama. In the fourth quarter of 2017, the economy grew 2.5 percent relative to where it had been a year ago. That’s better than what we saw in 2016 or 2015 but worse than what we got in 2014 and 2013. It’s also considerably lower than the 3 percent average annual growth he promised in his official budget submission, which in turn was lower than the 4 percent average annual growth he touted on the campaign trail. It’s also slightly worse than Canada or Mexico did last year.

Perhaps the clearest indication that we’re looking at a continuity recovery is a glance at annual job growth, which was decent under Trump but reflected an ongoing slowdown rather than an acceleration.

That’s not Trump’s fault.

Job growth slowed in 2017 for the same reason it slowed in 2016 — the closer we get to a full-employment economy, the fewer unemployed workers there are out there to easily rehire. But if Trump had actually delivered some kind of game-changing supply-side transformation of the American economy, he wouldn’t be stuck with that slowdown. He’s presiding over the same “steady as she goes” demand-side recovery that Obama had for his second term, and that should really be no surprise, since the Federal Reserve has remained in the same hands.

The stock boom is real — and great for globalist elites

The biggest exception to the case for continuity here is probably the stock market.

It’s true that shares soared on Obama’s watch, but that’s in part because he took over in the aftermath of a gigantic crash. Trump won the election at a time when stock market valuations were already high, and watched markets soar during the lame-duck months; they’ve only gone up since then. This market euphoria really is different from what we saw prior to 2017, and it may suggest something significant.

Exactly what that might be isn’t entirely clear. The 2017 stock market boom was a fully global phenomenon. It was actually Argentina whose exchange posted the highest gains, and the US stock market has slightly underperformed Japan’s Nikkei 225 index since Trump’s inauguration. The Hong Kong stock exchange is at an all-time high, as are the major indexes of India, South Korea, Germany, and a range of other countries.

Meanwhile, Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who’s spent a lifetime studying asset price bubbles, reports that American shares are the most expensive in the world relative to underlying corporate earnings. That could mean our stock market is massively overvalued, or it could reflect expectations that a pro-business regime in Washington is going to find a way to tilt the playing field even more strongly in favor of shareholders over workers and consumers.

In his inaugural address, Trump promised to champion the little guy, saying “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

The reality of the stock market boom, however, is that it means an explosion of inequality. Economist Edward Wolff has calculated that nearly 40 percent of the market is owned by the richest 1 percent of the population, with the next 9 percent accounting for a bit more than 40 percent. The bottom 90 percent of the population owns just 19 percent of stock market wealth.

None of which is to say that a booming stock market is bad, only that it doesn’t do much to concretely impact the life of the average person or contradict the basic reality that labor market and GDP growth data show broad continuity with the Obama era.

Is America great now?

Hillary Clinton struggled to articulate a boosterish case for the American economy during the 2016 campaign in part because of lingering patches of labor market weakness but largely because progressives have a more fundamental critique of the US economic situation.

The United States is the only high-income country to have millions of citizens who lack health insurance, has a relative child poverty rate that’s off the charts by the standards of other developed countries, has no guaranteed paid parental leave or paid vacation, and remains one of the world’s highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases even as the world hurtles toward an environmental crisis. Under those circumstances, efforts to pitch the notion that “America is already great” end up falling flat not just — or even especially — with skeptical swing voters but with Democrats’ own base that yearns for transformative change to aspects of the American welfare state and of American political economy.

Republicans have no such qualms. The Republican Party donor class is very, very excited about high stock market valuations (which lead directly to huge payouts for top executives) and about corporate income tax cuts (which lead to high stock market valuations, and thus huge payouts for top executives) and thus are very glad to embrace the narrative that all is now well with the American economy. That gives an incumbent Republican presiding over decent growth an easy, uncomplicated pitch to make — things are good now, and they are good thanks to me.

It’s largely forgotten now, but back during the mid-aughts (a time of more rapid wage growth than what we saw in 2017, incidentally), it was commonplace in conservative circles to proclaim that we were living through a “Bush Boom” touched off by his game-changing tax cuts and deregulation. That story, obviously, eventually ended in tears, as a poorly supervised financial system channeled inequitably shared growth into an unsustainable pyramid of debt that eventually collapsed. But they were good times while they lasted.

Perhaps this time it will be different.

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