What is the story of the U.S. economy?
Not unlike the proverbial elephant subject to scrutiny by a band of blind men, the nation’s economy is subject to multiple narrative descriptions depending on which component of the beast, whether our economy or an elephant, the blind man massages.
Some media pundits have argued that the historically low unemployment rates combined with record stock market performances attest to a strong economy that would propel Trump to victory in 2020 if only he were disciplined enough to stay on point about the economy, stupid.
Others claim focusing on these numbers is akin to grasping the trunk and the tail of the elephant, missing the bigger and much more accurate picture of an economy that has not just failed but actively assaulted the vast majority of Americans. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, for example, has been unrelenting in fleshing out this more comprehensive narrative, insisting, among other points, that the stock market and the overall economy are not the same thing.
It may very well be the more compelling storyteller, or the storyteller who gets access to the most air time, who tilts the 2020 election.
Robert Shiller’s recent splashy book Narrative Economics underscores this point in a general way, arguing that the popular and viral narratives purveyed about the economy don’t so much describe the economy but drive the economic events themselves, regardless of the truth value of the story itself.
As the Yale University professor and Nobel-prize winning economist told CNBC, “It may not be so logical. It may be more, as I said, of animal spirits. This is an emotion that you feel at a certain time that you sense you see in other people. So when you see other people feeling confident about the market, you feel more confident yourself.”
He attributes recent market strength, for example, to Trump’s storytelling prowess: “He’s a motivational speaker. We’ve never had a motivational speaker president before. He knows how to create animal spirits.”
What cannot be emphasized enough, however, is the importance of a crafting an economic narrative that aligns as closely as possible with our economic reality, generating the most effective understanding of the dynamics and performance of the economy–for good decision-making by voters and good policy-making by legislators.
How we tell this story is vital to lives of the American majority, which is why Shiller’s applause for Trump’s motivational stirring of animal spirits is absolutely misplaced and damaging to American lives.
As we get a hold of the entire elephant of the Trump economy, we find an economy on a sugar high, thriving on taxpayer debt, enriching even further the already wealthy, and heading for a crash.
As we limn this elephant, let’s start with the national debt and deficit. Trump inherited a strong economy, and it is typically during healthy economic times that the government pays down the national debt. But both the deficit and debt have grown under Trump’s administration, largely because of his tax cuts that served largely the wealthy.
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.
The national debt, meanwhile, has surged beyond $22 trillion.
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.
Basically, Trump is using the credit of the American worker to enrich corporate America and the wealthiest of Americans. It’s as if, for most Americans, someone maxed out their credit cards and yet they got none of the benefit of the goods and services purchased.
These tax cuts benefited the wealthy and did not trickle down, despite Trump’s promises that companies would invest in workers and not cut jobs. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Other automakers have also slashed thousands of jobs, saving billions of dollars.Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.
Meanwhile, homelessness in the U.S. has increased for the third year in a row under Trump/s rule.
Despite low unemployment rates, poverty is increasing. West Virginia is a telling case study of how the jobs being created, particularly in retail and service industries, do not pay a living wage.
As Sean O’Leary, senior budget analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told CBS News, “It’s cashiers, retail sales people, service employees — those are our fastest growing jobs, but those jobs don’t pay very well.”
Tara Martinez, executive director of a soup kitchen in West Virginia, elaborated, “”The jobs that are available are minimum wage and part time — they don’t have benefits.”
Poverty, homelessness, and despair continue, even for those who are working and seek work in this supposedly thriving economy.
Let’s get the story straight. Our lives depend on it.
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.