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Notwithstanding dalliances in other fields, I’m a policy wonk.

But I will pontificate (often incorrectly) on politics when asked, which is what happened in this interview about the electoral impact of the coronavirus.

My basic point is that Trump is much better than the average Republican about “controlling the narrative.”

In other words, he doesn’t allow the media to frame issues in a way that is adverse to his interests.

Given Trump’s Jekyll-Hyde approach to economic policy, I have mixed feelings about his Jedi-like ability.

But I will point out why narratives are so important in public policy.

Since I’ve shifted to my comfort zone of public policy, I’ll also say something about trade.

One of the big risks from the coronavirus is that it will weaken global trade. Which led me to mention in the interview that hopefully Trump might learn from this growing crisis that expanded trade is good for prosperity.

Though I admit I’m not very optimistic given his mercantilist perspective.

P.S. Textbook discussions of “robber barons” and “sweatshops” are other examples of how bad narratives lead to distorted history.

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Early last year, I shared a video explaining that trade deficits generally don’t matter. I even suggested trade deficits might be a sign of economic strength because foreigners who earned dollars were anxious to invest them in the American economy.

I’m recycling this video to make a point about trade and the economy for both Trump supporters and Trump critics.

For Trump supporters, I want them to understand that the trade deficit has increased under his policies. The data from the latest Commerce Department report show that the yearly trade deficit has increased from about $500 billion at the end of the Obama years to a bit over $600 billion during the Trump years.

And the reason I’m making this point is that I want Trump supporters to realize that they shouldn’t be upset about trade balances. Indeed, they should be happy because there’s a strong argument that the trade deficit is increasing in large part because Trump’s pro-growth tax reform and regulatory reform and making America more attractive for foreign investors.

For Trump critics, I want them to understand the same point, though from a different perspective. Many of them have been (correctly) critical of Trump’s protectionism. And they’ve been happy to point out that his taxes on foreign goods haven’t reduced the trade deficit.

But I would like them to contemplate why the economy has continued to grow. Hopefully, they will realize that pro-market policies in other areas are offsetting the damage of protectionism and therefore be more supportive of capitalism.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic last year.

President Trump can take a bow that his tax reform and deregulation are working as intended. …The trade deficit grew… This is not bad economic news. Imports grew faster than exports as the U.S. economy accelerated and much of the world slowed. The dollar grew stronger as capital flowed into the U.S., and the trade deficit grew to offset the larger capital inflows as it must by definition under the national income accounts. …a larger trade deficit is a benign byproduct of a healthier American economy. Supply-side policies revived animal spirits and gave the economy a second wind. …The best way to respond to a trade deficit is to ignore it.

From a left-of-center perspective, Fareed Zakaria made the same point in a recent column for the Washington Post.

Trump campaigned relentlessly on the notion that America’s economy was being ruined by large trade deficits. …He promised on the campaign trail in June 2016, “You will see a drop like you’ve never seen before.”In reality, the trade deficit has risen substantially under Trump. …when the United States has grown robustly, its trade deficit has tended to rise. If you want to achieve a sharp decline in the trade deficit, it’s easy — just trigger a recession. …while the United States has a deficit in manufactured goods with the rest of the world, it runs a huge surplus in services (banking, insurance, consulting, etc.). …The United States is also the world’s favorite destination to invest capital, by a large margin. As Martin points out, when you look at this entire picture, “the trade deficit should be something to brag about rather than denounce.” …Trump’s trade policy has been an enormously costly exercise, forcing Americans to pay tens of billions in taxes on imported goods, then using tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to compensate farmers for lost income (because of retaliatory tariffs)… All to solve a problem that isn’t really a problem.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, writing for Reason, summarizes the issue.

President Donald Trump hates the trade deficit. …If elected, he promised, he would “end our chronic trade deficits.” …free traders…explained, a country’s trade balance is determined overwhelmingly by factors such as the U.S dollar serving as a reserve currency, the ratio of savings to investment opportunities at home and abroad, and the relative attractiveness of that country’s investment climate. As long as the United States is growing and remains an attractive place to invest, we Americans will continue to run trade deficits with the rest of the world. …They want these dollars, in part, to buy American exports. …More important, and often overlooked: Foreigners want dollars also to invest in America’s powerful economy. …the current-account deficit is a mirror image of the capital-account surplus. This is why Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute describes imports as “job-generating foreign investment surpluses for a better America.” It is thus no surprise that as the American economy grew, the trade deficit also grew.

I’ll close with a chart that’s in the video because it reinforces the three columns cited above.

As you can see, the link between the trade deficit and an investment surplus isn’t just a theoretical construct. It’s an accounting identity.

The bottom line is that people on both sides of the political debate should ignore the trade deficit and instead focus on the tried-and-true recipe for generating prosperity.

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I pointed out yesterday that Donald Trump has increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter.

The day before, I castigated him for proposing a budget that expands the burden of government spending by $2 trillion over the next decade.

And two days before that, I explained that he hasn’t really changed the trend line on jobs.

So it’s safe to say I don’t go out of my way to say nice things.

But I’m also very fair. I don’t hesitate to praise politicians whenever they do good things, or to point out evidence that their policies are having a desirable effect.

And here’s a tweet that suggest Trump has made a positive difference.

This is an amazing shift.

Especially since Trump hasn’t actually fixed the problems that lead some successful people to expatriate.

But he has moved policy in the right direction is some of those areas thanks to the 2017 tax legislation.

His other achievement, which is probably even more important, is that he’s not Hillary Clinton. In other words, we’re not getting the bad tax policies that might have occurred in a Clinton Administration.

So it’s understandable that there’s been a big drop in the number of expatriates. The type of people who might move (the “canaries in the coal mine“) now think things are getting better rather than worse.

By the way, we’re talking about small numbers of people. But they’re often exactly the type of people – entrepreneurs, inventors, and innovators – that help drive growth.

P.S. I’ll add today’s column to my collection of noteworthy tweets.

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Trump’s new budget was released yesterday and almost every media outlet wrote about supposed multi-trillion dollar spending cuts when, in reality, the President’s budget actually calls for nearly $2 trillion of additional spending over the next 10 years.

The bottom line is that Trump is more akin to a big-government Republican rather than a Reagan-style conservative.

Today, let’s take a look at Table 3.2 of the Historical Tables of the Budget to assess how Trump’s record on spending compares to other modern presidents.

I’ve done this exercise in the past, starting in 2012 and most recently in 2017, but this is the first year we have enough data to include Trump’s performance.

And if we simply look at overall spending numbers (adjusted for inflation, of course), we get the shocking result that Obama increased spending at the slowest rate.

This surprising outcome is due in part to factors such as falling interest rates, a slowdown in military expenditures, and the fiscal impact of the 2010 elections (in other words, gridlock can be beneficial).

Trump, meanwhile, is near the bottom of the list (though not as bad as George W. Bush and LBJ).

What happens, though, if we remove interest payments from the data? After all, those outlays truly are uncontrollable (barring a default) and they mostly reflect spending decisions of prior administrations.

So if we want to judge a president’s fiscal policy, we should look at “primary spending,” which is the term used by budget geeks when looking at non-interest spending.

This measure doesn’t radically alter the results, but some presidents wind up looking better and others fall.

Another way of looking at the numbers is to remove the fiscal impact of bailouts, such as TARP (and also the savings & loan bailouts of the late 1980s).

The reason for this alteration is that the bailouts cause a big spike in spending when they occur, and then cause a drop afterwards because repayments actually are considered “negative spending,” as are the premiums that banks pay each year (I’m not kidding).

So presidents who are in office when the bailouts occur wind up looking worse, even though their policies may not have contributed to the problem. And the presidents who are in office when the repayments occur (remember, those count as negative spending) wind up looking better than they really are.

Here are the adjusted rankings (calculated by subtracting rows 46, 50, and 51 of Table 3.2). As you can see, Obama takes a bit of a tumble and Reagan is now the most fiscally prudent president.

Last but not least, now let’s also remove defense spending so we can see which presidents did the best (and the worst) when it comes to social welfare spending.

This is the most important category for those of us who believe the federal government should get out of the business of income redistribution and social insurance.

Reagan easily tops the list, limiting outlays to 0.5 percent annual growth. The other thing that’s remarkable is that every other Republican was worse than Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

For what it’s worth, Trump is the best of the non-Reagan Republicans, though that is damning with very faint praise.

The first President Bush was awful on spending, and Nixon was catastrophically terrible.

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I would prefer not to write about President Trump’s new budget, largely because I know it’s not a serious proposal.

Even before he was elected, I pointed out that Trump was a big-government Republican who had no intention of dealing with serious fiscal issues such as the rising burden of entitlement spending.

So I wasn’t surprised that he capitulated to swamp-friendly budget deals in 2017, 2018, and 2019. And I’m depressingly confident that the same thing will happen this year.

That being said, I want to comment on how the media is covering his latest budget.

Take a look at some of the headlines that are dominating the news this morning.

From Reuters.

From New York magazine.

From the Washington Times.

From NBC.

From the Associated Press.

From Bloomberg.

From International Business Times.

From Fox.

From the Wall Street Journal.

All of these headlines make is seem like Trump is proposing a Reagan-style budget with lots of cuts, especially with regards to domestic programs.

All of that would be great news…if it was true.

In reality, here’s what Trump is projecting for total spending over the next 10 years.

Can you find the spending cuts?

And here’s what’s happening with domestic spending (mandatory outlays plus domestic discretionary) according to Trump’s budget.

Can you find the spending cuts?

Last but not least, here’s Trump’s plan for domestic discretionary spending.

Can you find the spending cuts?

So why is there such a big disconnect in the media? Why are there headlines about cutting and slashing when government is growing by every possible measure?

For the simple reason that the budget process in Washington is pervasively dishonest, as I’ve explained in interviews with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano. Here are the three things you need to know.

  1. The politicians created a system that automatically assumes big increases in annual spending, called a baseline.
  2. When there’s a proposal to have spending grow slower than the baseline, the gap between the proposal and the baseline is called a cut.
  3. It’s like being on a diet and claiming progress because you’re gaining two pounds each month rather than five pounds.

Defenders of this system argue that programs should get built-in increases because of things such as inflation, or because of more old people, which leads to more spending for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It’s certainly reasonable for them to argue that budgets should increase for these reasons.

But they should be honest. Be forthright and assert that “Spending should climb X percent because…”

Needless to say, that won’t happen. The pro-spending politicians and interest groups like the current approach because it allows them to scare voters by warning about “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts.

Remember how Obama said the sequester would wreak havoc because of massive cuts? Except there weren’t any cuts, massive or otherwise. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, Obama was trying to deceive voters.

P.S. The British also use dishonest budgeting.

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There’s endless “spin” in over-politicized and self-serving Washington, with Democrats and Republicans both trying to convince people why any particular bit of economic data is either wonderful news or horrible news.

Since I care about policy rather than politics, I like to think I’m largely immune from this tendency. I criticize either Republicans or Democrats when they do something wrong, and I also offer praise when either Republicans or Democrats do something right.

That applies to Trump, of course.

For instance, the Department of Labor just released new numbers on the job market and Trump loyalists are bragging that this is additional confirmation that the president has steered the economy into glorious prosperity after the supposed wretched misery of the Obama years.

Is that true?

Well, here’s a chart showing total employment in the United States, taken directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We see that jobs have been increasing, but can anybody identify a change in the trend line when Trump took office in January 2017?

For what it’s worth, the average monthly increase in employment has actually been smaller under Trump than it was under Obama.

Though Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute correctly observes that it’s harder to get more jobs when the unemployment rate is low.

Now that we’ve looked at total employment, let’s examine the BLS numbers for the unemployment rate.

Yes, we see better numbers during the Trump years, but we’ve been getting better numbers ever since 2010.

Can anyone look at this data and make a compelling case that there was some big change starting in 2017?

Next we have the BLS chart showing the employment-population ratio, which measures the share of the adult population which is actually employed (a key factor since economic output is a function of the quantity and quality of both labor and capital).

Notice, once again, that there’s no obvious change in the trend line when Trump took over from Obama.

It’s not good news, by the way, that the employment-population ratio is still below where it was before the 2008 crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that the employment-population numbers look much better if they’re adjusted for demographic change.

But adjusting the numbers for demographic change doesn’t have any impact on the point I’m making today. Notice that there hasn’t been any obvious change in the trend since Trump got to the White House.

So why do I keep making the point that the trend hasn’t changed?

Because I want people to understand that policy matters, not partisan affiliation. And the bottom line is that the trend line hasn’t noticeably changed because Trump hasn’t noticeably changed the overall level of economic freedom compared to Obama.

Yes, Trump has moved policy in the right direction on some issues (taxes and regulation), but he’s also moved policy in the wrong direction on other issues (trade and spending). Simply stated, his bad policies are offsetting his good policies.

Obama moved policy in the wrong direction, of course, but that was largely during his first two years. There was a policy stalemate his final six years.

And in terms of overall economic liberty, the post-2010 policy stalemate under Obama produced similar scores to the zig-zag policy we’re getting under Trump. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the trend lines are so similar.

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At the beginning of the Trump era, many of us (including me) warned that his statements on trade were nonsensical.

And when Trump shifted from bad rhetoric to bad policy, Johan Norberg pointed out why trade wars are very misguided.

As you might expect, Johan is correct. More government intervention in global commerce has led to bad consequences.

Trump’s tax increases on trade have produced bad results for the American economy. Consumers have been hurt, businesses have been hurt, exporters have been hurt, and specific sectors such as farming and manufacturing have been hurt.

All of this was very predictable.

Indeed, the Trump Administration’s own economists warned back in 2018 that a trade war would backfire. Here are some excerpts from a report in the New York Times.

A White House economic analysis of President Trump’s trade agenda has concluded that Mr. Trump’s tariffs will hurt economic growth in the United States… The findings from the White House Council of Economic Advisers have been circulated only internally and not publicly released… The administration has hit Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union with steel and aluminum tariffs and…tariffs on a range of Chinese goods. In return, many of those countries have either imposed or threatened reciprocal tariffs on everything from steel to pork to orange juice, a move that economists say will depress economic growth. …many economists have been warning that the administration’s trade approach will undercut economic growth and partially offset any boost from the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Congress passed and Mr. Trump signed… Wall Street research firms have warned that those tariffs, and the retaliatory tariffs that trading partners have threatened in response, will slow growth in the United States. …In a…survey of an expert panel of academic economists assembled by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, no economist agreed with the statement, “Imposing new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum will improve Americans’ welfare.”

Needless to say, Trump ignored the good advice from his economists and imposed a bunch of tax increases on trade.

We now have some hard evidence about the wisdom of this approach. Economists at the Federal Reserve crunched the numbers as part of a new study.

While there are already vast theoretical and empirical literatures documenting the effects of changes in trade policy, …there are virtually no modern episodes of a large, advanced economy raising tariffs in a way comparable to the U.S. in 2018-2019. …these tariffs…were imposed, in part, to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector by protecting against what were deemed to be the unfair trade practices of trading partners, principally China. …This paper provides the first comprehensive estimates of the effect of recent tariffs on the U.S. manufacturing sector. …We measure the import protection channel as the share of domestic absorption affected by newly imposed tariffs. We account for declines in competitiveness associated with increased input costs as the share of industry costs subject to new tariffs.Finally, we measure an industry’s potential exposure to retaliatory tariffs by U.S. trading partners as the share of industry-level exports subject to new retaliatory tariffs. …We then relate the measures for these three channels of tariff exposure to monthly data on manufacturing employment, output, and producer prices.

And what did the experts find?

We find that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices. In terms of manufacturing employment, rising input costs and retaliatory tariffs each contribute to the negative relationship, and the contribution from these channels more than offsets a small positive effect from import protection. For producer prices, the relative increases associated with tariffs are due solely to the rising input cost channel. …we find that shifting an industry from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile in terms of exposure to each of these channels of tariffs is associated with a reduction in manufacturing employment of 1.4 percent, with the positive contribution from the import protection effects of tariffs (0.3 percent) more than offset by the negative effects associated with rising input costs (-1.1 percent) and retaliatory tariffs(-0.7 percent).

In other words, the small benefits that go to the industries that are sheltered from competition are very much outweighed by the damage to other sectors of the economy (a lesson that Trump could have learned if he studied real-world evidences, such as the Great Depression).

The Wall Street Journal opined about the Fed’s study.

One mystery of the Trump -era economy has been why U.S. manufacturing slumped sharply in late 2018 and 2019 after surging the year before. The Occam’s razor culprit is the onset of trade war… Federal Reserve economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce examine the impact of the tariff outbursts of 2018 on U.S. manufacturing employment, output and prices. This is important work because 2018 marked the start in earnest of President Trump’s campaign to change the world trading order, using tariffs as his preferred bludgeon. …Mr. Trump justified his campaign in part as a way to revive American manufacturing while protecting against unfair trade practices. So how has that worked out? …the economists have bad news for tariff lovers. …the higher costs from tariffs swamped benefits to specific firms from import protection. The tariffs cost more jobs than they created. …As the Fed economists conclude, “We find the impact” from protection “is completely offset in the short-run by reduced competitiveness from retaliation and higher costs in downstream industries.” ….A previous Fed study looked at uncertainty and found it has cut U.S. GDP growth by about a percentage point, which explains the deceleration to 2% from 3% in the last year.

At the risk of sounding like a dogmatic libertarian, we now have additional confirmation that it’s not a good idea to expand the footprint of government.

That’s true about taxes. That’s true about spending. That’s true about regulation. And it’s true about trade.

P.S. Wonky readers may be interested in this chart from the Fed study, which shows the impact of Trump’s trade war on employment, production, and producer prices.

P.P.S. Trump is right when he asserts that other nations have bad protectionist policies. Unfortunately, he wrongly thinks that reducing trade deficits somehow will address those bad policies. Instead, he should have targeted the specific bad policies (such as Chinese cronyism), ideally by utilizing the World Trade Organization.

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