Would You Rather a Recession, or Trump?

A downturn would crater Trump’s odds at reelection. It would also create much of the inequity, misery, and chaos that Democrats seek to avoid by winning in 2020.

Wall Street sign
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter. He is also the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Plain English.

With tumbling United States stocks, a queasy eurozone market, and decelerating Chinese growth, warnings signs are flashing that the U.S. economy, for all its strengths, may be slipping into a downturn. But some of the president’s opponents are greeting economic jitters with a surprising response: Bring on the recession!

Their thinking goes like this: Trump’s presidency poses a unique threat to the United States and the planet. A recession is a high but necessary price to pay for the quasi-guarantee of his administration’s demise—akin to taking out an insurance policy against Trump’s second term. “We can survive a recession,” the comedian Bill Maher said on his HBO show Real Time. “We’ve had 47 of them. They don’t last forever. You know what lasts forever? Wiping out species!”

Other liberals and leftists have been similarly ambivalent, or even hopeful, about an incipient downturn, sometimes pointing to the deep body of research showing that recessions reliably doom the incumbent party. (Even if you knew nothing of this research, just look at how Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and the 2008 Republican Party fared when the business cycle went south on their watch.) There’s no formal polling I can find to quantify the popularity of the pro-recession sentiment, but it’s enough in-the-ether that I’ve heard it from several friends and seen it debated on cable news.

While this sort of wish-casting might seem defensible—even moral—I am here to tell you that it is not. At all. While a downturn could crater Trump’s odds at reelection, it would also create much of the inequity, misery, and chaos that Democrats seek to avoid by winning in 2020.

  1. Recessions are bad.

But seriously, they’re very, very bad. People lose their jobs, their businesses, their houses, their factories, their farms, and their savings. Young people who graduate into recessions have their fortunes permanently pinched. Children go hungry, instances of anxiety and depression rise, and so does substance abuse. Thirty-one out of 38 studies on the effects of recessions found that suicide rates increase during economic downturns. One study linked the Great Recession to more than 10,000 suicides. Even if that number is an order of magnitude too high, and even if the next recession is considerably less virulent, it refutes the Bill Maher thesis that some nameless “we” easily survive each recession. To root for Trump’s defeat via a downturn is to wish for one form of cruelty to replace another.

  1. Recessions are especially bad for the poor.

The past few recessions in the U.S. have led to so-called jobless recoveries, where the labor market struggles for years even after GDP starts growing. This may be because companies use recessions to accelerate their adoption of “labor saving”—that is, human-replacing—technology. To understand how this might work, imagine that CVS, having dabbled with checkout machines for the past few years, uses the occasion of the next downturn to fire many of its cashiers and more fully automate the customer-checkout process.

Because low-skill, routine-based jobs are particularly vulnerable to automation, the ensuing pain of long-term unemployment could be concentrated among the poorest workers. And that would have a ricochet effect on their wages. One of the unsung triumphs of the economy in the past few years is that, due to a tight labor market, wage growth has been highest for the poor—a remarkable reversal of the past few decades. That progress would be utterly undone with rising unemployment for low-skill workers, who would lose their leverage with employers.

  1. Recessions are really, really bad for the global poor.

The deplorable treatment of migrants at border facilities has been a moral stain on Trump’s administration. But if you care about the lives of Central Americans after they cross the U.S. border, then you ought to care about their living conditions before they cross the border—or even if they don’t cross any border at all.

And there is no question that the lives of this hemisphere’s most vulnerable workers will be made immediately worse in the event of a global downturn that reduces growth in the U.S.—the largest trading partner of Central America.

Even a one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate of the region would mean a quarter of a million workers losing their jobs. If you include South America, Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world in this analysis, it’s unavoidable that a U.S. recession in a period of weak global growth would mean a full-on global recession, which would throw millions of people out of work and reduce income growth in every corner of the world. If your aim in removing Trump is to improve global welfare, this is a strange outcome to root for—even as an insurance policy against his capacity to potentially destroy the planet.

Oh, and about the planet ...

  1. A recession is the wrong way to save the planet.

Let me do my best here to summarize what might be the most sophisticated argument for cheering a recession. A downturn is going to come anyway; no business cycle lasts forever. So we might as well have one now, when we have a once-in-a-species opportunity to arrest Republicans’ reckless deregulatory policies and establish laws and rules that rein in climate change, and save humanity in the process. (Plus a recession will probably reduce global emissions, anyway!)

I think all of these arguments are wrong—except for the last one, which, taken to its logical extreme, would be an argument for permanently lowering the living standards for most living humans. (Evaluating that desire would require a whole other column.)

First, there is no economic or physical law that says that economies must suffer recessions. Australia, for example, has been recession-free for a quarter of a century.

Second, it’s not hard to imagine how an economic downturn could hurt the national case for a Green New Deal, or a similarly dramatic action on climate change. In a 2019 Pew survey of public priorities, the environment was a top issue for Democrats, behind only health care and education, with jobs and the economy far behind all three. The stage is set for a Democratic president to take unprecedented action on climate change in his or her first year in office.

But in a recession, this picture could change quickly. With job losses mounting by the month and voters freaked out about their savings and income, economic worries would dominate, and centrists might back away from policies that struck them as expensive, economically risky, or not directly responsive to the crisis. Could a Warren White House stuff a 2021 stimulus bill with huge subsidies for renewable energy and a fund for carbon-capture technology? Sure. Or we could also see a redux of the Waxman-Markey clean-energy bill, which passed Congress in 2009 but died before reaching the Senate floor, doomed by the constraining politics of a bad economy.

This unpredictability is precisely the point: A recession is not an Icy Hot patch. You can’t slap it on, tear it off, feel a moment’s burn, and then forget about it forever. A recession brings unpredictable consequences for workers, firms, politics, and policy. Trump may be a whirlwind of chaos and injustice. But don’t pray for a hurricane to take out a tornado.