Donald Trump marked the anniversary of 9/11 by repeating several lies about his own actions on that day. But that wasn’t his only concern. He also spent part of the day writing a series of tweets excoriating Federal Reserve officials as “Boneheads” and demanding that they immediately put into effect emergency measures to stimulate the economy — emergency measures that are normally only implemented in the face of a severe crisis.
Trump’s diatribe was revealing in two ways. First, it’s now clear that he’s in full-blown panic over the failure of his economic policies to deliver the promised results. Second, he’s clueless about why his policies aren’t working, or about anything else involving economic policy.
Before I get to the economics, let’s talk about one indicator of Trump’s cluelessness: his remarks about federal debt.
In addition to demanding that the Fed cut interest rates below zero, Trump declared that “we should then start to refinance our debt,” because “the USA should always be paying the lowest rate.” Observers were left scratching their heads, wondering what he was talking about.
Actually, however, it’s fairly obvious. Trump thinks that federal debt is like a business loan, which you can pay down early to take advantage of lower interest rates. He’s clearly unaware that federal debt actually consists of bonds, which can’t be prepaid (which is one reason interest rates on federal debt are always lower than, say, rates on home mortgages). That is, he imagines that the government’s finances can be managed as if the U.S. were a casino or a golf course, and it never occurred to him to ask anyone at Treasury whether that’s how it works.
But back to the economy. Why is Trump panicking?
After all, while the economy is slowing, we’re not in a recession, and it’s by no means clear that a recession is even on the horizon. There’s nothing in the data that would justify radical monetary stimulus — stimulus, by the way, that Republicans, including Trump, denounced during the Obama years, when the economy really needed it.
Furthermore, despite Trump’s claims that the Fed has somehow done something crazy, monetary policy has actually been looser than Trump’s own economic team expected when making their rosy forecasts.
In the summer of 2018 the White House’s economic projections envisioned that this year three-month interest rates would average 2.7%, while 10-year rates would be 3.2%. The actual rates as I write this are 1.9% and 1.7%, respectively.
But while there’s no economic emergency, Trump apparently feels that he’s facing a political emergency. He expected a booming economy to be his big winning issue next year. If, as now seems likely, economic performance is mediocre at best, he’s in deep trouble.
Remember, Trump’s two signature economic policies were his 2017 tax cut and his rapidly escalating trade war with China. The first was supposed to lead to a decade or more of rapid economic growth, while the second was supposed to revive U.S. manufacturing.
In reality, however, the tax cut delivered at most a couple of quarters of higher growth. More specifically, huge tax breaks for corporations haven’t delivered the promised surge in wages and business investment; instead, corporations used the windfall to buy back stocks and pay higher dividends.
At the same time, the trade war has turned out to be a major drag on the economy — bigger than many people, myself included, expected. Until last fall the general expectation was that Trump would deal with China the way he dealt with Mexico: make a few mainly cosmetic changes to existing arrangements, claim victory, and move on. Once it became clear that he was really serious about confrontation, however, business confidence began falling, dragging investment down with it.
And voters have noticed: Trump’s approval rating on the economy, while still higher than his overall approval, has started to decline. Hence the panicky demands that the Fed pull out all the stops.
But while Trump realizes that he’s in trouble, there’s no indication that he understands why. He’s not the kind of person who ever admits, even to himself, that he made mistakes; his instinct is always to blame someone else while doubling down on his failed policies.
Even actions that look like a slight policy softening, like his announcement of a two-week delay in implementing some China tariffs, betray a deep incomprehension of the problem — which has as much to do with his capriciousness as with the tariffs per se. Policy zigzags, even if they involve delaying tariffs, just add to the will-he-or-won’t-he uncertainty that’s causing companies to put investment on hold.
So what happens next? Trump could reverse course, and do what most people expected a year ago, reaching a deal with China that more or less restores the status quo. But that would be a de facto admission of defeat — and at this point it’s not clear why the Chinese would trust him to honor any such deal past Election Day. The fact is that when it comes to economic policy, Trump has trapped himself in a bad place.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.