BY FROMA HARROP
“We’re doing trade deals that are going to get you so much business you’re not even going to believe it,” President Trump told an American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in January. The attendees cheered.
Meanwhile, farmer income for the first three months of this year fell almost $12 billion. Farmers account for only 2% of all employed Americans, but the drop-off in their income was such that it suppressed the entire nation’s personal income growth number for March.
I’m convinced that even as Trump recharges the trade war responsible for so much pain, his many fans in agricultural America would still whoop at his punch lines. If they didn’t stop long ago as their misery mounted, why would they now?
You’ve got to hand it to Trump. His talent for seducing and entertaining his audiences is extraordinary. That takes genuine skill, and it’s also a useful means to hide a less impressive reality. Trump campaigned as a genius dealmaker who would spread his magic formula for getting rich across the land.
Trump’s supporters ignored evidence to the contrary. His six bankruptcies were public knowledge. Way back in 1987, as Trump’s Atlantic City investments were crashing, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a headline reading “Bankers Say Trump May Be Worth Less Than Zero.” A new report in the New York Times documents a decade of carnage [1985 to 1994], when Trump lost over $1 billion.
In 1988, when he lost almost $47 million, he announced, “If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, I won’t lose a dollar.” In 1990, when he lost over $400 million, he said, “It’s been good financially.”
And his skilled spinning has hypnotized a usually sophisticated media into declaring this an era of amazing economic prosperity. Many of the indicators show strong growth for sure, but a look at the graphs of the decade-long expansion portrays the Trump years as mostly a continuation of the Obama years.
In terms of job creation, they’re not as good. The much-heralded jobs number for April was indeed welcome. It brought the average number of jobs created during the 28-month Trump presidency to 202,000 a month. But in Obama’s last 28 months, job growth averaged 220,000 a month. In 2014, he could have bragged of an average 251,000 a month but didn’t.
To soundtrack to the news of 3.2% economic growth for the first quarter, Trump activated the nation’s marching bands. Under Obama, however, the quarterly gross national product quietly surpassed 3% growth eight times. In four of the quarters, it rose 4% or better.
In not-so-good news, the deficit under Trump will jump from 3.5% of the economy in 2017 to 5.1% in 2019. Piling up debt in good times will make digging out of bad times harder.
Back in the heartland, farm income rose in December only because the government sent out checks to cover some losses caused by the trade war. To be fair to Trump, farmers were also hurt by low prices for their commodities. And some confrontation with China was needed to change its unfair trading practices.
Unfortunately, Trump has been taunting the Chinese. He accuses them of wanting to delay negotiations until a “very weak” Democrat is president. That’s entertainment mode, not business mode.
Trade deficits are a much-misused measure of economic health. But since they are one of Trump’s favorite yardsticks, do note that the U.S. trade deficit has reached its all-time high under him.
Humiliating the other side is not a clever negotiating tactic, assuming results are the goal. A businessperson would want to close the deal. An entertainer wants the show to go on.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer