President Trump’s alternative facts have foreigners and bureaucrats, not the top 1 percent, reaping the gains from economic growth
It’s no secret that we at EPI have been skeptical about President Trump’s commitment to a policy agenda that would deliver the goods for low and middle-income Americans. His campaign proposals were nearly across-the-board great for high-income households and corporate business, but bad for most American workers. His nominees for key economic posts have been consistently hostile to policies that boost bargaining power for low and middle-wage workers. And now we have his inaugural speech, in which he specifies the groups he thinks have won and lost over recent decades in the American economy.
This speech is clarifying in that he identifies foreigners and “a small group in our nation’s Capital [sic]” as the big winners. Totally absent from his speech is the “small group” that has actually done very well and whose gains genuinely crowded-out potential growth for the vast majority of American households: the top 1 percent.
It’s unclear what evidence Trump could be referring to when decrying that “small group in our nation’s Capital” as the winners in recent decades. Since the recovery from the Great Recession began, for example, federal spending has grown more slowly than in nearly every other post-war recovery.
There is similarly thin evidence that the losses of American low and middle-wage workers have been gains for workers abroad. Trump is not alone in this strange belief that increases in living standards and wages in developing countries around the world were only possible because American wages near-stagnated for typical workers in recent decades, but he is wrong nonetheless.
To be fair, a corrupt political system and globalization are some ingredients of a pretty good analysis of recent decades. But what’s missing—and this is key—is that these have been damaging because they have been used as tools by capital-owners and corporate managers to shift bargaining power and economic leverage away from typical American workers.
So, for example, the decision to block increases in the federal minimum wage for decades at a time didn’t lead to politicians prospering, instead it led to owners of low-wage business establishments prospering as labor costs were kept in check.
And decisions to neuter the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and keep it from leveling the playing field between workers trying to organize unions and employers looking to stop this didn’t make the NLRB richer, it made the owners of non-union companies richer by robbing their workers the bargaining power they could have had if unionized. The decades of eroding unions and collective bargaining, in turn, spilled over and robbed even nonunion workers of bargaining power and wage growth.
Decisions to abandon the aggressive pursuit of full employment as a policy goal didn’t make the Federal Reserve rich. But it did make employers across the country richer as excess unemployment bludgeoned the ability of most workers to demand faster wage-growth to remain at their jobs.
Crucially, in regard to trade, agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did not make either politicians in DC or workers in Mexico and Canada rich. Instead, it made American, Mexican, and Canadian capital-owners and managers richer by strengthening their hand in bargaining with workers. The threat to move production abroad if workers didn’t accept low wage demands was made much more credible by NAFTA (and subsequent agreements followed the same logic). Further, it made specific American sectors rich by increasing international protection for them: American pharmaceutical and software manufacturers, for example, could now demand that foreign authorities spend precious resources making sure that American companies’ patent and copyright profits were protected.
The desire to fundamentally change how the American economy operates for the vast majority of households is understandable. But it needs to start with a clear, fact-based understanding about just where all the income generated in recent decades went, if not to low and middle-income families. The Trump inaugural speech provided none of that.
Telling a convincing story of the decline of American working and middle-classes without mentioning the astronomical growth of the top 1 percent is awfully hard. And substituting in vague foreigners and politicians for the top 1 percent as the beneficiaries of recent decades is definitely not convincing. But one gets the sense that Trump is not really trying to be convincing, instead he’s actively trying to hide the ball by channeling anger toward scapegoats and away from the real root of America’s economic woes.