In response to news that the economy created 266,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate dipped to 50-year lows, CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza rehashed the tired but nonetheless damaging and deceptive narrative that “the economy” is indeed strong, providing Trump a clear path to re-election if only he were politically deft and disciplined enough to stay on it. Cillizza suggests he isn’t and that it is precisely his inability to stay on point about the success of the economy that threatens his 2020 re-election bid.
We have heard this narrative again and again.
What is damaging and deceptive in this narrative is the premise. The assertion that the economy is strong is, if not entirely wrong or untruthful, problematic and distorted. As I’ve written elsewhere in PoliticusUsa, democrats would be wise not to concede this premise and, in fact, to make Americans’ economic well-being a central issue in 2020.
“The economy” is not the same thing as people’s economic life and livelihood.
As Steven Horwitz, Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise at Ball State University, reminds us, “The economy isn’t a thing.” He explains, “Things are not ‘good/bad for the economy.’ They are good or bad for the people . . . Trump’s policies may well enrich many firms, but they will impoverish the average American.”
When we paint a fuller, more detailed, and indubitably more accurate picture of the economy, we can see very clearly the way Trump’s policies on healthcare, education, the environment, taxes tariffs, food stamps, and more, have inflicted and promise to inflict more pain on Americans’ pocketbooks and lives.
One place to start in providing a more accurate view of Trump’s handling of the economy is with the deficit.
Reports indicated that in October the federal government’s budget deficit ballooned 34% from a year earlier to $134.5 billion, projecting that the annual deficit will top $1 trillion for the first time in eight years.
Hmmm. If the economy is booming, shouldn’t the federal government’s coffers be filling up and not depleting?
We can certainly understand how in a time of recession the government would need to provide economic stimulus and thus run a deficit, but when the economy is supposedly experiencing record performance?
When Trump slashed corporate tax rates from 35 to 21 percent, we were told, as usual, that these tax cuts would pay for themselves, create an economy that enriches us all.
But deficits actually take money from Americans. How? Well, first, more of our tax dollars are diverted from paying for services and infrastructure (education, healthcare, roads, etc.) we all use and need, to simply paying interest for which we receive nothing in return.
The American people, then, thus receive less for each tax dollar. Our tax dollars are going to enrich corporations and the wealthy rather than pay for the services and infrastructure we are used to receiving for those same dollars. It’s like going to the grocery store and having the cashier take your milk and bread, which you can typically afford with your budget, when you check out.
Consider that Trump’s proposed 2020 budget called for significant cuts to education and services, even though we know, for example, that investing in education promises to serve the health of the economy overall as well as helping individuals increase their earnings over the course of their lives, thus also creating more tax revenue. In short, these cuts are harmful to ordinary citizens as well as the overall health of the economy.
And the ballooning deficit resulting from the Trump tax-cuts, for example, cultivated a fertile context for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to loudly renew their insistence that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are necessary to address the out-of-control deficit their own policies immediately exacerbated. Far from benefiting Americans, these tax cuts, which were supposedly to trickle down, just keep cutting Americans and increasing economic precarity, not prosperity. How about we measure that?
And while we need to support farmers for our national and individual well-being, the reason taxpayers are contributing $28 billion to bail them out is precisely because of Trump’s failing trade war with China and the tariffs he has levied.
Again, this is $28 billion dollars effectively taken out of Americans’ pockets for which they receive nothing in the return. In fact, they will lose more, as these payouts lead to cuts elsewhere as well as rising deficits. Now that cashier just took your bag of apples as well.
And consider healthcare. Last year a federal judge in Texas threatened millions of Americans’ healthcare, declaring the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. The Trump administration effectively supported the suit, doing nothing to support or defend the federal law. As of yet, despite promises, Texas legislators have done nothing to develop a replacement should the Affordable Care Act disappear in Texas.
Healthcare is an economic issue for Americans. Is Trump doing anything to improve their financial well-being through healthcare policy? No, he is only undermining people’s ability to secure affordable and quality healthcare, hugely impacting Americans’ lives.
And consider the costs of his hostility to addressing climate change in meaningful ways.
Trump’s own scientists issued a report on climate change in November 2018, focusing on its environmental and economic impacts, highlighting the need for urgent short-term action to ensure our long-term survival. Among many alarm bells, the report warns,
“Extreme weather and climate-related impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security.”
It attributes the many floods and wildfires in recent years, increasing in frequency and intensity, on humanly-caused climate change, underscoring the urgency of action and the limited window of time we have in which to enact policy and change behavior to preserve the very basis of our lives.
Taxpayers cover the costs of these disasters, meaning tax dollars are diverted or the deficit is increased. That cashier just took your pound of hamburger.
Is Trump taking good care of American lives? Hardly.
The economy is hurting, not helping most Americans.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.