Catherine Rampell: Trump is an expert in bad management and excuses

Excuses, excuses.

That's what President Trump says companies offer when they complain about the economic pain caused by his trade wars.

"Badly run and weak companies are smartly blaming these small Tariffs instead of themselves for bad management … and who can really blame them for doing that? Excuses!" Trump tweeted Friday.

He elaborated on this critique during a subsequent interview with reporters.

"A lot of badly run companies are trying to blame tariffs," he said. "In other words, if they're running badly and they're having a bad quarter, or if they're just unlucky in some way, they're trying to blame the tariffs. It's not the tariffs. It's called 'bad management.'"

On the one hand, Trump is a pretty credible source here: He does know a lot about bad management and excuses. So maybe we should believe him when he scapegoats corporations for not being able to manage the costs of his trade wars. In the president's thinking, if a company can't hack it when faced with a sudden, unexpected, government-imposed cost or other erratic policy changes, it simply doesn't deserve to stay in business.

On the other hand, this is an extremely odd interpretation of recent business complaints, given the rest of Trump's economic agenda.

After all, besides tax cuts, the main way that Trump has supposedly unlocked the economy's great potential and put us on the path to 3% (or 4%, or even 6%!) growth is by reducing the government-imposed cost of doing business and providing more regulatory certainty.

That’s the standard Trump talking point, anyway. According to the president, his pro-business, regulation-slashing rampage has enriched the average American family by $3,000 — an eye-popping number of dubious provenance, awarded three Pinocchios by The Washington Post’s fact-checker extraordinaire Glenn Kessler.

Trump and his various allies and surrogates likewise often repeat the boilerplate claim that the president's "tax cuts and deregulation" agenda has supposedly already unleashed higher gross-domestic-product growth. That's despite the fact that major independent forecasters believe 2019 GDP growth is on track for about 2.2%, which is … exactly what it averaged during President Barack Obama's second term.

Trump surrogates often outright lie about what his tax cuts did and whom they targeted. On the deregulation point, though, they typically avoid any specifics altogether. And they're rarely asked follow-up questions about which onerous, job-killing government regulations they're thinking of when they brag about how Trump has so wisely rolled them back.

Which is lucky for them. Because if you actually look over Trump's regulatory rollbacks, it's difficult to pinpoint which, if any, of them is supposedly unleashing all that (imaginary) growth.

Perhaps the economy-growing deregulations that Team Trump is thinking of are his dozens of environmental rule changes. These do indeed help a handful of companies save money — by, for instance, allowing them to dump more mercury and arsenic into the water supply, pump more methane and fine particulate matter into the air, and use a pesticide linked to neurological damage in children.

Presumably taking those options off the table could raise the cost of doing business, at least a little.

Or maybe Trumpkins are instead thinking of the rescission of a requirement for for-profit schools to disclose (and maintain minimum) employment outcomes as a condition of continuing to receive federal aid.

Or maybe they mean Trump's repeal of a rule that said companies could only get lucrative government contracts upon certifying that they follow federal labor laws.

Or maybe it's the relaxation of yet another rule dictating how many hours long-haul truck drivers can go without sleeping.

In each of these cases (and others), rolling back regulations might reduce costs and thereby boost profits for companies. But that doesn't actually eliminate said costs. It just shifts them onto someone else — such as whoever lives downwind from the coal plant or happens to share the road with a sleep-deprived trucker.

In other words, those government-imposed, "job-killing" costs were there to address what economists call externalities: costs imposed upon third parties. Unlike, say, Trump's pointless but still costly trade wars, they were designed to correct a market failure, not to make a functional market fail.

So maybe Trump's comment about the interaction between burdensome government policies and "bad management" — that if you can't handle a little extra government-imposed cost, you probably aren't running a great business — was right, after all. He was just applying it to the wrong government policies. Listen to Trump's insight, ye whiny, excuse-making businesses: If your company can stay afloat if and only if it dumps arsenic in the water, defrauds customers, cheats workers or gives kids brain damage, maybe you don't deserve to be in business after all.

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.