The makings of a Trump economic policy

By Michael J. Hicks

It is early in the Trump presidency to talk about economic performance, but it is not too soon to review what is materializing in terms of economic policy against the framework of 2016.

At year’s end, 2016 turned out to be nothing better than a fair year for job growth. Indeed, the year-over-year growth rate ending in December ranked right at the top of the bottom third (33rd percentile) in job growth since 1939.

Real growth in U.S. GDP was a supremely dismal 1.9 percent in 2016. In fact, 2016 tied with 2015 for the fourth worst non-recession year of economic growth since World War II. The other years were 2011, 2012 and 1979, which should offer some clarifying evidence of the impact that economic performance played in this election.

I believe the sluggish level of growth since the end of the Great Recession is a great challenge to the nation. If our economy fails to grow more quickly, we face social and cultural challenges as deep as any peacetime test in our 241 years. Economic growth is rightly an imperative issue for President Trump, so it is good to think about what he can and cannot achieve in this direction.

Trade policy is ripe for two things only: political theater and economic disaster. The U.S. balance of trade is less than 3.0 percent of GDP, and as I have explained in earlier columns is entirely offset by foreign investment. The elimination of a trade deficit will be offset, dollar for dollar, by a reduction in foreign investment it the US. Dabbling about with trade deals might shift employment around the country, but it won’t result in a net GDP boost.

The bigger risk of protectionism lies in sparking international retaliation. Any trade reprisals will focus on maximizing political pain in the United States. Thus, a border tax on say, auto parts, will be met with a larger tax on things we export such as agricultural products. This can get ugly early, since other countries have a good idea where these products are grown or produced. So, expect a targeted tariff on such things as row crops from the Midwest and fruit from Florida, while vegetables from California or apples from Washington and New York are unaffected. Remember, this is political, not economic.

The most proximal cause of trade disruptions are higher prices. If President Trump acquires an economic staff prior to taking action, they will no doubt warn him of that risk, and the heavy political costs that accompany it.

President Trump’s strongest opportunities lie in tax reform and regulation. Let me focus on the impact of the latter, which may be both more pronounced and longer lasting than tax cuts. Let me take energy regulation as example.

As Carrier Corp. announced it was leaving the U.S., it noted 52 separate Department of Energy rules for their products. The first 10 of these alone comprised 2,021 pages of rules on such critical national matters as conservation standards for commercial refrigeration equipment (325 pages) and test procedures for the on-off and standby equipment of residential furnaces (489 pages).

No one dislikes energy efficiency, but the tortuous effect of these rules is to clobber U.S. manufacturers. A simple tax increase on energy production would have accomplished the same goal at a fraction of the cost, but would have required political courage as well as a vibrant national discussion on priorities.

Instead, the 2016 election served as a robust national debate, and more economic growth with less regulatory intervention won decisively. I hope that President Trump can deliver on that promise and the U.S. economy will enjoy broad growth over the coming years. I am also sure that a focus on tax and regulation over trade is the only path to that success.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.