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When Politics Trumps Economics

The Trump administration seems to believe that America has reached a propitious moment in the economic cycle to play power politics. But can this approach offset the increasingly tenuous fundamentals of a saving-short US economy that continues to account for a disproportionate share of global military spending?

NEW HAVEN – With each passing day, it becomes increasingly evident that US President Donald Trump’s administration cares less about economics and more about the aggressive exercise of political power. This is obviously a source of enormous frustration for those of us who practice the art and science of economics. But by now, the verdict is self-evident: Trump and his team continue to flaunt virtually every principle of conventional economics.

Trade policy is an obvious and essential case in point. Showing no appreciation of the time-honored linkage between trade deficits and macroeconomic saving-investment imbalances, the president continues to fixate on bilateral solutions to a multilateral problem – in effect, blaming China for America’s merchandise trade deficits with 102 countries. Similarly, his refusal to sign the recent G7 communiqué was couched in the claim that the US is like a “piggy bank that everybody is robbing” through unfair trading practices. But piggy banks are for saving, and in the first quarter of this year, America’s net domestic saving rate was just 1.5% of national income. Not much to rob there!

The same can be said of fiscal policy. Trump’s deficit-busting tax cuts and increases in government spending make no sense for an economy nearing a business-cycle peak and with an unemployment rate of 3.8%. Moreover, the feedback loop through the saving channel only exacerbates the very trade problems that Trump claims to be solving. With the Congressional Budget Office projecting that federal budget deficits will average 4.2% of GDP from now until 2023, domestic saving will come under further pressure, fueling increased demand for surplus saving from abroad and even bigger trade deficits in order to fill the void. Yet Trump now ups the ante on tariffs – in effect, biting the very hand that feeds the US economy.

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