Does Donald Trump have a consistent and coherent set of economic policies?
He sometimes says things indicating that he understands Washington is a cesspool of waste. But on other occasions, he seems to be singing off the same song sheet as Bernie Sanders.
Which is why, when I recently tried to dissect Trumponomics, I admitted to being clueless.
The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable? He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?
For what it’s worth, I’m getting more skeptical that Trump would try to restrain and limit the federal government if he got elected.
And I have three recent news reports to underscore my concern.
Here’s a very disturbing example. Trump actually criticized Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not raising taxes. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.
Donald Trump attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for failing to raise taxes in order to properly fund schools and roads on Tuesday, in a startling new break from rightwing orthodoxy… “There’s a $2.2bn deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” said Trump. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”
To dig deeper into the issue, Governor Walker had just endorsed Ted Cruz, so I can understand why Trump would try to take a few shots at someone who is supporting a rival for the GOP nomination.
But attacking the Wisconsin governor for successfully balancing his state’s budget without a tax hike? Sounds more like something Hillary would say. Maybe it’s time to induct Trump into the Charlie Brown Club.
Trump also doesn’t like federalism. Assuming he even knows what it is. In his column for the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Adler shares some Q&A from a recent CNN interview with Trump.
QUESTION: In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?
TRUMP: Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation. I would also say health care, I would also say education.
This doesn’t sound like a candidate who wants to reduce the federal government’s footprint.
Here’s more of the interview.
COOPER: So in terms of federal government role, you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?
TRUMP: Well, those are two of the things. Yes, sure. I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods…
Huh, providing “great neighborhoods” is now a legitimate function of the federal government?!? I guess if Washington gets to be involved with underwear, neighborhood policy is just fine.
And why is he talking about education when the goal should be to eliminate the Department of Education?
To be fair, Trump also said in the interview that he wants to get rid of Common Core. So it’s unclear what he actually envisions.
His answer on healthcare is similarly hazy.
COOPER: And federal health care run by the federal government?
TRUMP: Health care – we need health care for our people. We need a good – Obamacare is a disaster. It’s proven to be…
COOPER: But is that something the federal government should be doing?
TRUMP: The government can lead it.
So he wants the federal government involved, but he also thinks Obamacare is a “disaster.” I certainly agree about the Obamacare part, but once again we’re left with no idea whether a President Trump would make good reforms of bad reforms (i.e., would he move the “health care freedom meter” in the right direction or wrong direction?).
One thing that is clear, however, is that Trump doesn’t seem to have any core principles about the size and scope of the federal government.
He may not even realize that federalism is a key issue for advocates of limited and constitutional government.
Last but not least, Trump criticized Senator Cruz for the partial government shutdown fight that occurred in 2013. Here are some passages from a report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner.
When Trump did get around to Cruz, his critique focused…on the 2013 partial government shutdown. …He goes and he stands on the floor of the Senate for a day and a half and he filibusters …. To stand there and to rant and rave for two days and to show people you can filibuster — and in the meantime, nothing was accomplished.
I guess this isn’t an issue of underlying principles, but it does give us some idea of whether a President Trump would be willing to fight the Washington establishment.
Moreover, his assessment of the shutdown fight is completely wrong. By reminding voters that Republicans were opposed to Obamacare, the GOP won a landslide victory in 2014.
But you don’t have to believe me. Even an ultra-establishment, anti-Cruz figure like Trent Lott (former senator and now lobbyist) grudgingly admits that the shutdown was a success.
Cruz views the shutdown as a victory because the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular and Republicans swept to victory in 2014. Lott said…“That was their strategy, and it worked, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”
The bottom line is that America is heading in the wrong direction, with Washington projected to consume ever-larger amounts of the economy’s output. This is a recipe for continued economic weakness in the short run and economic crisis in the long run.
Turning policy in the right direction requires a principled President who is fully committed to overcoming resistance from the special interests that dominate Washington’s culture.
I still don’t pretend to know where Donald Trump is on the big issues, but I’m not holding my breath for good results if he somehow gets elected.
P.S. Though I do expect more examples of clever political humor the longer he’s in the public eye.