Donald Trump’s signature legislative achievement was the corporate-tax cut he signed in 2017. Republicans said it would grow the economy by up to 6 percent, stimulate business investment, and pay for itself.
None of those promises have come to pass. GDP growth has declined to less than 2 percent according to the latest report, released yesterday. Business investment has now declined for two straight quarters, dragging down economic growth. And the federal deficit exceeds $1 trillion.
These shortcomings alone might be enough to embolden Democrats to fight Trump on economic grounds just one year from a crucial 2020 election. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Trump swept into office pledging to restore the U.S. economy to the good old days of brawny work and global swagger. He had a vision of the United States where the exports would be bigger, the trade deals would be better, and “forgotten” Americans working in declining sectors like coal mining would be restored to their rightful place at the center of the economy. This bold strategy hinged on the theory that trade wars were “good, and easy to win.”
None of those promises have come to pass, either. Let’s go through them one by one. The U.S. manufacturing sector is practically in a recession. The ISM index, a key measure of that industry’s health, registered its lowest number in 10 years. Real exports of goods and services have declined in the past year, after peaking in 2018. Mining jobs have declined in the past 12 months, too. Finally, hovering in the background behind declining investment, sputtering manufacturing, and wilting exports is the trade war with China, which has proved neither “good” nor “easy” for American businesses.
All of this might make it sound as if the U.S. economy is a disaster. It’s not. As I wrote earlier this month, we are in the midst of the longest labor-market recovery in American history, and the stock market has set new all-time highs almost every year this decade.
So how do we reconcile these two facts: The promises of the Republican tax plan have failed as spectacularly as Trump’s grand vision of a New American Mercantilism, and the U.S. economy as a whole is actually doing fine for now?
The answer, basically, is that while the Trump can’t deliver, the American consumer continues to chug along. Consumer spending, which was the one bright spot in yesterday’s GDP report, beat forecasts by rising nearly 3 percent. Unemployment is at a 60-year low, and wage growth has accelerated for the poorest workers. (Ironically, these positive trends have been buoyed by large federal deficits, which break another Trump campaign promise.)
While the president has tried to engineer a return to the economy of the 1950s, based on manufacturing and trade surpluses, the country is racing inexorably toward a very different economy, dominated by both high-tech firms and low-tech services. Since 2018, service-sector jobs (at hospitals and restaurants and software companies) have grown five times faster than those from the “goods-producing” economy (in construction, manufacturing, and mining). There is a cliché that Millennials prefer experiences over things. You could say the same about the U.S. economy, which is devoting more and more spending to health care, education, and consulting.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing. We could use more things in this country—particularly things that people can live in, otherwise known as apartments and houses. Private and public investment in fixed capital like real estate has declined tremendously as a share of GDP in the past 60 years. This fact has contributed to a housing shortage, particularly on the coasts, which has made homeownership nearly impossible for the middle class near America’s richest cities.
Some debates about Trump seem split between those who consider him infallible and those who consider him dangerously all-powerful. When it comes to the economy, he is rather obviously neither—both too stuck in the past to help the economy and too weak to destroy it.