There's No Debating Who Would Be Better for the US Economy

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While voters’ judgments about a candidate’s personality and personal strengths are important, everyone should remember the famous dictum: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In the firehose of outright lies that Trump spewed throughout the debate, the most dangerous falsehoods concerned his and Biden’s respective economic-policy records.

Assessing a president’s management of the economy is always a tricky business, because many developments will have been set in motion by one’s predecessors. Barack Obama had to deal with a deep recession because previous administrations had pursued financial deregulation and failed to head off the crisis that erupted in the fall of 2008. Then, with congressional Republicans tying the Obama administration’s hands and calling for belt tightening, the country was deprived of the kinds of fiscal policies that might have brought the economy out of the Great Recession faster. By the time the economy was finally on the mend, Obama was on his way out, and Trump was on his way in.

Trump did not hesitate to claim credit for the growth that ensued. But while he and congressional Republicans slashed taxes for corporations and billionaires, the promised surge of investment never materialized. Instead, there was a wave of stock buybacks, which are on track to exceed $1 trillion next year.

Although Trump cannot be blamed for COVID-19, he certainly bears responsibility for an inadequate response that left the United States with a death toll far above that of other advanced economies. While the virus disproportionately claimed the lives of the elderly, it also cut into the workforce, and those losses contributed to the work shortages and inflation that Biden inherited.

Biden’s own economic record has been impressive. Immediately after taking office, he secured passage of the American Rescue Plan, which made the country’s recovery from the pandemic stronger than that of any other advanced country. Then came the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provided funding to start repairing crucial elements of the US economy after a half-century of neglect.

The next year, Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which launched a new era of industrial policy that will ensure the economy’s future resilience and competitiveness (a sharp break from the fragility that marked the preceding neoliberal era). And with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the US finally joined the international community in fighting climate change and investing in the technologies of the future.

In addition to providing economic insurance against the possibility of a stubborn and ever-evolving virus, the American Rescue Plan nearly halved the rate of childhood poverty in the space of a year. But it also was blamed (including by some Democrats) for the subsequent inflation.

This charge simply does not hold water. There was no excessive aggregate demand from the American Rescue Plan, at least not of a magnitude that could account for the level of inflation. Most of the blame lay with pandemic- and war-induced supply-side interruptions and shifts in demand. Insofar as Biden could combat these, he did so: he tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to address oil shortages and worked to relieve bottlenecks at US ports.

Even more relevant to this election is what lies in the future. Careful economic modeling has shown that Trump’s proposals would cause higher inflation – in spite of lower growth – and greater inequality.

For starters, Trump would raise tariffs, and the costs would mostly be passed on to US consumers. Trump assumes, contrary to basic economics, that China would simply lower its prices to offset the tariffs. But if it did that, no American jobs would be saved (consistency has never been one of Trump’s strengths).

Moreover, Trump would curtail immigration, which would make the labor market tighter and increase the risk of labor shortages in some sectors. And he would increase the deficit, the effects of which might induce a worried US Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, thereby decreasing investment in housing, raising rents and housing costs (a major source of today’s inflation) even further. In addition to slowing growth by dampening investment, higher interest rates would also push up the exchange rate, making US exports less competitive. Moreover, US exports would suffer from higher-cost inputs owing to higher tariffs, and the retaliation they would provoke.

We already know that the 2017 corporate tax cuts did not stimulate much investment, and that most of the benefits went to the very rich and to foreigners (who own large shares of US corporations). The additional tax cuts that Trump is promising aren’t likely to do any better, but they will almost certainly increase deficits and inequality.

Of course, there is considerable complexity in modeling these effects. It is unclear how fast or forcefully the Fed would respond to tariff-induced inflation, but its economists obviously would see the problem coming. Would they be tempted to nip it in the bud by hiking interest rates early? Would Trump then violate institutional norms by trying to fire the Fed chair? How would the markets (here and abroad) respond to this new era of uncertainty and chaos?

The longer-run prognosis is clearer – and worse. America owes much of its economic success in recent years to its technological prowess, which rests on solid scientific foundations. Yet Trump would continue attacking our universities and demanding massive cutbacks in research and development expenditures. The only reason these cuts weren’t made during his previous term is that he did not have his party completely in tow. Now, he does.

Similarly, even though the US population is aging, Trump would allow the workforce to shrink by curtailing immigration. And though economists have emphasized the importance of the rule of law for economic growth, Trump, a convicted felon, is not exactly known for his adherence to it.

Thus, on the question of who would be better for the economy – Trump or Biden (or any Democrat who might replace him, should he drop out) – there is simply no debate.

© Project Syndicate 1995-2024

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