As Americans absorb the shock of election 2016, some analysts have offered grim prognostications that Donald Trump won’t just wreck the country’s moral character, but its economy as well: "We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight," Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times.
Trump’s win was such an upset — and such a departure from the more-of-the-same steadiness Wall Street expected from a Hillary Clinton presidency — that many observers expected the mere fact of Trump’s victory to throw financial markets into a tailspin. But after some initial jitters, the markets had already recovered — and thrived — by Wednesday afternoon.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Stock markets are not the real economy. They’re mainly a venue for exhibiting the irrational crowd behavior of the small portion of Americans with too much money to throw around. Meanwhile, the powerful forces that drive the actual economy are job growth, productivity growth, and aggregate demand — none of which were altered by Trump’s win.
But depending on what policy agenda he enacts once he takes office, there are lots of other ways Trump could run those deeper economic forces into the ground.
Some mainstream analysts have argued that Trump would bring a recession on America by focusing on two of his major planks: Deporting some or all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, and rolling back our international free trade agreements. But as much as establishment economists love international trade, it’s hard to nail down evidence that it does much practical good for our economy or anyone else’s. Furthermore, what good it does do is distributed in a wildly unequal fashion. Depending on how Trump goes about reducing America’s trade deficit, he could do a little damage, no damage, or even improve things.
Similarly, while deporting 3 percent of the U.S. population would be morally monstrous, the argument that it would cause a recession involves a certain mathematical circularity: GDP is just the population multiplied by its incomes, so reducing the population reduces GDP by definition. But recessions are dangerous because they reduce collective incomes while the population stays the same, so there’s less money to go around. That’s not the case if you reduce GDP by reducing the population itself. It’s possible a mass deportation scheme could even tighten labor markets, driving up low-wage incomes.
The real issue lies elsewhere. Namely, that Trump has no ideology or policy preferences. He’s been all over the place on everything. His populism is a vacuous cultural affect. As a result, the longer his campaign went on, the more his policy platform reverted to the standard GOP donor class wish list.
On paper, Trump’s promises to go big on infrastructure should help the economy. But his actual infrastructure plan is a crony-capitalist gambit that would negate the vast majority of the stimulative effect you’d get from the government simply borrowing to fund projects directly.
His tax cuts ostensibly ought to help the economy as well. And they are so gratuitous they can’t help but raise the incomes of middle-class consumers somewhat, which would have some stimulative effect. But Trump’s tax plan would shovel the sizable majority of its benefits to the rich, wasting any possible boost to the economy.
What about Trump’s increased defense spending? It’s not the most efficient way to produce jobs or boost the economy, but it can get the job done. Except that while the GOP will surely increase defense spending, there’s enough infighting in the party over spending and debt to keep a lid on it.
Meanwhile, in recent years, the House GOP has consolidated around a series of budgets that would repeal ObamaCare’s subsidies, gut Medicaid and much of the rest of the social safety net, and reduce public investment to an unprecedented degree. That would do incredible damage to the lives of tens of millions of poor and working-class Americans, stripping them of health care, aid, housing, and basic necessities. Such a massive reduction in spending would drag down the entire economy, leading to slower job growth, a return to stagnating wages, and higher unemployment.
It seems unlikely that the milquetoast stimulus from tax cuts, defense spending, or infrastructure would be able to offset that effect. And Trump and the GOP will almost surely fill the empty seats at the Federal Reserve with tight money ideologues, leading to higher interest rates. That would also depress the economy.
Throw in the fact that the Republicans will probably kill the filibuster as soon as the new Congress starts, giving them total carte blanche to enact their agenda with simple majorities, and one of two scenarios emerge: The best case, where the economy simply grinds into a long stagnation, while inequality and mass hardship and the potential for financial instability shoot up. Or the worst case, where the combined effect of these policies pitches the economy directly into actual recession.