The Economy Stupid.

Since the 1970s, the fates of working Americans have become uncoupled.[1]  Those with a college education have prospered, while those without a college education have seen their incomes stagnate.  Then, the “Obama recovery” since the financial crisis has not been a very satisfactory recovery by historical standards.  The rate of growth has been slow.

First, it is worth asking why the recovery was so unimpressive   On the one hand, demography exerted a choke-hold.  Baby Boomers have begun to retire, while the share of women in the paid labor force seems to have plateaued.   This could be off-set by rising productivity of the labor we do have.  On the other hand, however, a long-running decline in productivity growth has continued to drag on the recovery.  There are various theories about why this has happened, but no consensus, let alone a solution.  On yet another hand, economists point to “skill-biased technological change.”  That is, employers constantly introduce new technology that replaces many low-skill employees while creating a demand for a smaller number of higher-skilled workers.   Those higher skills are acquired through some form of education (although it doesn’t have to be college).

Second, the economic problems have had social effects, and those social effects now have had political consequences.  Donald Trump won the votes of those without a college education by an eight percent margin; Hillary Clinton won the votes of those with a college degree by a nine percent margin.  Even this disguises the reality of President Trump’s electoral base.  The core of voters who actually propelled Trump to the Republican nomination was much more distinctly those without a college education.  Most Republicans—many of them with college degrees—merely voted for Trump because they were supporting the Republican candidate.

What kind of shape is the economy in as Donald Trump takes the helm?  Unemployment is down to 5 percent, what economists regard as “full-employment” given the constant churning in the economy.  Inflation is finally up around 2 percent, the target long-pursued by the Federal Reserve Bank.  The Fed appears poised to raise interest rates this month to keep inflation from accelerating beyond this target point.

To what extent can President Trump deliver on his commitments to the voters who gave him the nomination?  The same forces that have dragged on the economy for a while now are likely to hamper some of his plans, while some of his plans will likely further drag on the economy.

For one thing, tax cuts combined with a big infrastructure plan will expand the deficit and increase inflationary pressures.  The Fed will raise interest rates in response, dragging back on the economic growth that the president wants to encourage.   The anti-immigrant stance will only worsen the labor supply bottleneck is in the years ahead.  Thus, there is some reason to expect that the Trump administration will disappoint its core constituency.

Democrats might want to hesitate before shifting from protesting in the streets to dancing in the streets.  First, no one doubts that America needs a massive overhaul of its infrastructure.  How to pay for it and how to burst through the resistance of opponents[2] are problems for any successor to the Trump administration.  Second, in a labor-short economy, a big chunk of workers (those without college degrees) are being left behind.  Somebody needs to think of a constructive solution, rather than just viewing them with contempt.

[1] Gregory Mankiw, “Advice for Trump: Ask an Economist,” NYT, 12 March 2017.

[2] For example, both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are infrastructure projects.

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