One of the interesting things about the (pre-Covid) US economy was that, on the surface at least, it didn’t change all that much between Trump and Obama. Or so argues economist Pierre Lemieux in The Trump Economy: Three Years of Volatile Continuity for the Cato Institute.
His assessment on economic growth:
“Under Obama, the average annual growth [in real GDP per capita] starting in 2010 was 1.4%. Under Trump, it averaged 2.0%, though the upward trend slowed in 2019, falling to 1.8%, which is roughly the same level as 2017. These data are consistent with the continuation of a slow recovery from the Great Recession.”
And on labour markets:
“Overall, the poverty and unemployment picture improved slowly from 2009 to 2019, with no radical break when the occupant of the White House changed. The Obama economy and the Trump economy seem to be the same economy. This observation applies to many other measures of American prosperity”
OK. An important general point – that presidents’ short-term influence on the economy is usually overrated and the influence of longer-term market and policy settings is underrated – is usefully made. But you still ought to look at the changes in those settings to draw some conclusion about possible longer-term economic and political impacts.
Lemieux’s analysis identifies three substantial policy divergences between the two administrations.
Comprehensive tax reform in 2017 is the first. This pushed down the cost of capital and increased investment. Lemieux cites evidence that it spurred economic growth in the following year by 0.8 percentage points.
But the tax cuts were not backed by reduced government spending. So rising government debt, further boosted by Covid payouts, will require a response at some point. The choice on how this is done – either spending restraint or higher taxes – remains a key dividing line between America’s political tribes.
The second divergence is on regulatory policy. Trump’s administration actually managed to stop (rather than just slow) the growth in the stock of regulation.
“… the Trump administration has roughly capped the total volume of federal regulations at, or slightly over, the 185,000 pages [in the Code of Federal Regulations] they comprised at the end of the Obama presidency”
The process was probably more shuffle than standstill but, even so, it represents a decisive change of intent from the sweeping regulatory surges in areas like resource use, financial services, healthcare and energy policy launched by enthusiastic politicians of all stripes and predating the financial crisis. And it almost certainly needed a clear lead from the top (plus some excellent regulatory economists on the ground).
The third area is Trump’s break with the orthodox consensus on world trade.
Managed stability has been replaced by an attempt to batter concessions out of China, win votes from the losers of globalisation, and challenge China’s bid for geopolitical hegemony. The best you can say about the economics is that so far he seems to have got away with it (despite increased trade barriers reducing US GDP by an estimated 0.4%).
If you are a market liberal, you ought on balance to prefer the Trump mix – although you would be entirely justified in having some conniptions with regard to opportunism and lack of consistency.
And you might also want to use this analysis to evaluate how a Biden or Trump presidency might approach things after the November election.
First up, the case for more continuity. Despite the rhetoric, both parties will at bottom be relying on workers and businesses in the private sector to generate post-Covid recovery by adapting to changed economic conditions. Both are likely to spend freely to support those economically hurt by the pandemic (although it’s also reasonable to expect the winner to direct more pork towards ‘his people’). Both are likely to favour strategic competition with China over market integration. No one wants to tackle the national debt before the market makes them do it.
And now the differences.
Biden Democrats see a much bigger role for government in the recovery and are already talking about higher taxes on the usual suspects (business and the rich) to pay for extra spending on green subsidies, childcare and unionised jobs. One can also safely predict a resumption of normal service from the regulatory bureaucracy. Trump and his allies seem less likely to take this path.
So in some ways, Covid might be clarifying the economic choices facing Americans in November. Which will surely be helpful after all that continuity.