When President Trump addresses Congress this evening, he will doubtlessly say the state of the economy is strong. Unemployment is the lowest it's been in 17 years. The stock market seems to break a new record every week, and the GDP is growing respectably.
But here's what Trump won't say: The economy isn't nearly as strong as it looks, and he deserves almost no credit for what is going well.
Let's begin with the good.
Yes, unemployment is eye-poppingly low. But it's been falling almost continuously since 2010. At best, Trump's first year in office continued the trend that held under the vast majority of Barack Obama's administration. The same goes for other, often superior metrics like the employment ratio of Americans in their prime working years. The rate of job creation in 2017 was also utterly unexceptional. In fact, that rate peaked in early 2015. It's been dropping ever since, with no evidence of a turnaround under Trump.
Then there's the stock market. It has been rising steadily since 2010. To the extent Obama deserves credit for this, it's for getting out of the recession early with the 2009 stimulus, and for not harming the recovery with bad Federal Reserve appointments or excessive cuts to government spending. The market may have gotten an extra boost last year due to investor excitement over the GOP tax overhaul, but Trump cannot take credit for the clear trajectory it's been on. He also may not want to spent too much time boasting about its strength, because the market is a very poor analogue for the health of the underlying economy.
Which brings me to the bad.
CNN labeled the 2.3 percent GDP growth we saw under Trump's first year as "very, very average," but even that might be overstating things. That's because there are two kinds of growth. There's increasing the overall wealth that workers, factories, and equipment can produce. Then there's getting back to using all the workers, factories, and equipment left idle by a recession. When politicians and economists talk about improving GDP growth, they usually mean the first kind of growth. But what we've been getting recently is mainly the second kind. Since America has historically struggled to operate at full capacity, that's nothing to sneeze at. But it doesn't show a booming economy either. Worse, much of the increase in aggregate demand driving this listless growth seems to be due to private sector borrowing. For what I hope are obvious reasons, that's not healthy.
Finally, let's talk wages. This is arguably the single best indicator of the economy's health because it demonstrates the competitiveness of the labor market. We hit 4 percent wage growth at the peak of the last two business cycles in 2000 and 2007. But when Trump came into office, we were at 2.5 percent wage growth, and we've actually fallen slightly since. It would be a stretch to saddle Trump with much responsibility for that decline. But if he wants to claim the economy's doing great and he's the reason why, wage growth does beg an explanation.
The economy is an ocean liner; it doesn't turn on a dime. Policy changes often take years to be felt. So have Trump and the GOP pushed through any reforms that could yet pay off?
The obvious candidate here is the tax overhaul. The benefits of the package flow mainly to business owners and wealthy shareholders. But Republicans argued that, by letting companies keep more of their profits, the bill would encourage more investment. And that will mean more jobs and higher wages for everyone. Several major companies have already announced bonuses, pay hikes, or other investments in their employees — and gave credit to the tax cut.
Unfortunately, this is all PR. A cursory glance at profit margins reveals these changes were easily affordable without the tax cut. Company investments in workers are dwarfed by their plans for shareholder payouts. Across the whole economy, corporate profits were already higher than they've been in decades, despite abysmal levels of investment. It makes no sense to argue that inflating profits further with tax cuts is the key to boosting investment. (This also circles back to why stock market enthusiasm for the tax bill has nothing to do with the well-being of the actual economy.) In fact, here's an early indicator: Orders for new capital goods actually fell in December.
An interesting complication is the smattering of temporary tax breaks the bill included for the middle class. These all sunset in 10 years, after which taxes on most Americans go up to pay for cuts for the rich. And in the meantime, the breaks are unlikely to boost the economy enough to change the major trends in job and wage growth.
The other big topic is regulations. Trump and the GOP have managed to fight, stall, or roll back a host of rules. They're making it easier for employers to run unsafe workplaces, and are trying to make it easier for restaurant owners to steal workers' tips. They're making it harder for workers to claim overtime pay, or to sure their employers for violations. All of these changes will lower Americans' pay and worsen their work conditions in coming years, while making their lives less financially secure and more chaotic.
And why stop there? Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court could soon gut public sector unions. Trump's appointments to the Fed will probably make the central bank more hawkish, slowing down job creation. As I already mentioned, Trump's budgets are textbook conservative efforts to cut public investment. And his infrastructure bill, should it materialize, will likely be too poorly designed to offset any of this.
The economy is not doing as well as it may appear. And essentially everything genuinely good that is happening is driven by forces that predate the sitting president. Meanwhile, virtually every change Trump and the Republicans have brought will either be negligible, or will make things worse over the long haul.
Whatever Trump has to say tonight, the state of his economy is not great.