Trump’s Economic Record in Charts

A.  Introduction

Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that he built “the greatest economy in history”.  A recent example is in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination to run for a second term.  And it is not a surprise that Trump would want to claim this.  It would be nice, if true.  But what is surprising is that a number of election surveys have found that Trump polls well on economic issues, with voters rating Trump substantially above Biden on who would manage the economy better.

Yet any examination of Trump’s actual record, not just now following the unprecedented economic collapse this year resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, but also before, shows Trump’s repeated assertion to be plainly false.

The best that can be said is that Trump did not derail, in his first three years in office, the economic expansion that began with the turnaround Obama engineered within a half year of his taking office in 2009 (when Obama had inherited an economy that was, indeed, collapsing).  But the expansion that began under Obama has now been fully and spectacularly undone in Trump’s fourth year in office, with real GDP in the second quarter of 2020 plummeting at an annualized rate of 32% – to a level that is now even well below what it was when Trump took office.  The 32% rate of decline is by far the fastest decline recorded for the US since quarterly data on GDP began to be recorded in 1947 (the previous record was 10%, under Eisenhower, and the next worst was an 8.4% rate of decline in the last quarter of 2008 at the very end of the Bush administration.

This post will look at Trump’s record in comparison to that not just of Obama but also of all US presidents of the last almost 48 years (since the Nixon/Ford term).  For his first three years in office, that Trump record is nothing special.  It is certainly and obviously not the best in history.  And now in his fourth year in office, it is spectacularly bad.

The examination will be via a series of charts.  The discussion of each will be kept limited, but the interested reader may wish to study them more closely – there is a lot to the story of how the economy developed during each presidential administration.  But the primary objective of these “spaghetti” charts is to show how Trump’s record in his first three years in office fits squarely in the middle of what the presidents of the last half-century have achieved.  It was not the best nor the worst over those first three years – Trump inherited from Obama an expanding and stable economy.  But then in Trump’s fourth year, it has turned catastrophic.

Also, while there is a lot more that could be covered, the post will be limited to examination of the outcomes for growth in overall output (GDP), for the fiscal accounts (government spending, the fiscal deficit, and the resulting public debt), the labor market (employment, unemployment, productivity, and real wages), and the basic trade accounts (imports, exports, and the trade balance).

The figures for the charts were calculated based on data from a number of official US government sources.  Summarizing them all here for convenience (with their links):

a)  BEA:  Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce, and in particular the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, also commonly referred to as the GDP accounts).

b)  BLS:  Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor.

c)  OMB Historical Tables:  Office of Management and Budget, of the White House.

d)  Census Bureau – Foreign Trade Data:  Of the US Department of Commerce.

It was generally most convenient to access the data via FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database of the St. Louis Fed.

B.  Real GDP

Trump likes to assert that he inherited an economy that was in terrible shape.  Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council and Trump’s principal economic advisor recently asserted, for example in his speech to the Republican National Convention, that the Trump administration inherited from Obama “a stagnant economy that was on the front end of a recession”.  While it is not fully clear what a “front end” of a recession is (it is not an economic term), the economy certainly was not stagnant and there was no indication whatsoever of a recession on the horizon.

The chart at the top of this post shows the path followed by real GDP during the course of Obama’s first and second terms in office, along with that of Trump’s term in office thus far.  Both are indexed to 100 in the first calendar quarter of their presidential terms.  Obama inherited from Bush an economy that was rapidly collapsing (with a banking system in ruin) and succeeded in turning it around within a half year of taking office.  Subsequent growth during the remainder of Obama’s first term was then similar to what it was in his second term (with the curve parallel but shifted down in the first term due to the initial downturn).

Growth in the first three years of Trump’s presidency was then almost exactly the same as during Obama’s second term.  There is a bit of a dip at the start of the second year in Obama’s second term (linked to cuts in government spending in the first year of Obama’s second term – see below), but then a full recovery back to the previous path.  At the three-year mark (the 12th quarter) they are almost exactly the same.  To term this stagnation under Obama and then a boom under Trump, as Kudlow asserted, is nonsensical – they are the same to that point.  But the economy has now clearly collapsed under Trump, while it continued on the same path as before under Obama.

Does Trump look better when examined in a broader context, using the record of presidents going back to the Nixon/Ford term that began almost 48 years ago?  No:

The best that can be said is that the growth of real GDP under Trump in his first three years in office is roughly in the middle of the pack.  Growth was worse in a few administrations – primarily those where the economy went into a recession not long after they took office (such as in the first Reagan term, the first Bush Jr. term, and the Nixon/Ford term).  But growth in most of the presidential terms was either similar or distinctly better than what we had under Trump in his first three years.

And now real GDP has collapsed in Trump’s fourth year to the absolute worst, and by a very significant margin.

One can speculate on what will happen to real GDP in the final two quarters of Trump’s presidency.  Far quicker than in earlier economic downturns, Congress responded in March and April with a series of relief bills to address the costs of the Covid-19 crisis, that in total amount to be spent far surpass anything that has ever been done before.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the resulting spending increases, tax cuts, and new loan facilities of measures already approved will cost a total of $3.1 trillion.  This total approved would, by itself, come to 15% of GDP (where one should note that not all will be spent or used in tax cuts in the current fiscal year – some will carry over into future years).  Such spending can be compared to the $1.2 trillion, or 8.5% of the then GDP, approved in 2008/09 in response to that downturn (with most of the spending and tax cuts spread over three years).  Of this $1.2 trillion, $444 billion was spent under the TARP program approved under Bush and $787 billion for the Recovery Act under Obama).

And debate is currently underway on additional relief measures, where the Democratic-controlled Congress approved in May a further $3 trillion for relief, while leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate have discussed a possible $1 trillion measure.  What will happen now is not clear.  Some compromise in the middle may be possible, or nothing may be passed.

But the spending already approved will have a major stimulative effect.  With such a massive program supporting demand, plus the peculiar nature of the downturn (where many businesses and other centers of employment had to be temporarily closed as the measures taken by the Trump administration to limit the spread of the coronavirus proved to be far from adequate), the current expectation is that there will be a significant bounceback in GDP in the third quarter.  As I write this, the GDPNow model of the Atlanta Fed forecasts that real GDP in the quarter may grow at an annualized rate of 29.6%.  Keep in mind, however, that to make up for a fall of 32% one needs, by simple arithmetic, an increase of 47% from the now lower base.  (Remember that to make up for a fall of 50%, output would need to double – grow by 100% – to return to where one was before.)

Taking into account where the economy is now (where there was already a 5% annualized rate of decline in real GDP in the first quarter of this year), what would growth need to be to keep Trump’s record from being the worst of any president of at least the last half-century?  Assuming that growth in the third quarter does come to 29.6%, one can calculate that GDP would then need to grow by 5.0% (annualized) in the fourth quarter to match the currently worst record – of Bush Jr. in his second term.  And it would need to grow by 19% to get it back to where GDP was at the end of 2019.

C.  The Fiscal Accounts

Growth depends on many factors, only some of which are controlled by a president together with congress.  One such factor is government spending.  Cuts in government spending, particularly when unemployment is significant and businesses cannot sell all that they could and would produce due to a lack of overall demand, can lead to slower growth.  Do cuts in government spending perhaps explain the middling rate of growth observed in the first three years of Trump’s term in office?  Or did big increases in government spending spur growth under Obama?

Actually, quite the opposite:

Federal government spending on goods and services did rise in the first year and a half of Obama’s first term in office, with this critical in reversing the collapsing economy that Obama inherited.  But the Republican Congress elected in 2010 then forced through cuts in spending, with further cuts continuing until well into Obama’s second term (after which spending remained largely flat).  While the economy continued to expand at a modest pace, the cuts slowed the economy during a period when unemployment was still high.  (There is also government spending on transfers, where the two largest such programs are Social Security and Medicare, but spending on such programs depends on eligibility, not on annual appropriations.)

Under Trump, in contrast, government spending has grown, and consistently so.  And indeed government spending grew under Trump at a faster pace than it had almost any other president of the last half-century (with even faster growth only under Reagan and Bush, Jr., two presidents that spoke of themselves, as Trump has, as “small government conservatives”):

The acceleration in government spending growth under Trump did succeed, in his first three years in office, in applying additional pressure on the economy in a standard Keynesian fashion, which brought down unemployment (see below).  But this extra government spending did not lead to an acceleration in growth – it just kept it growing (in the first three years of Trump’s term) at the same pace as it had before, as was seen above.  That is, the economy required additional demand pressure to offset measures the Trump administration was taking which themselves would have reduced growth (such as his trade wars, or favoritism for industries such as steel and aluminum, which harmed the purchasers of steel and aluminum such as car companies and appliance makers).

Trump has also claimed credit for a major tax cut bill (as have Reagan and Bush, Jr.).  They all claimed this would spur growth (none did – see above and a more detailed analysis in this blog post), and indeed such sufficiently faster growth, they predicted, that tax revenue would increase despite the reductions in the tax rates.  Hence fiscal deficits would be reduced.  They weren’t:

Fiscal deficits were large and sustained throughout the Reagan/Bush Sr. years.  They then moved to a fiscal surplus under Clinton, following the major tax increase passed in 1993 and the subsequent years of steady and strong growth.  The surplus was then turned back again into a deficit under Bush Jr., with his major tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 coupled with his poor record for economic growth.  Obama then inherited a high fiscal deficit, which grew higher due to the economic downturn he faced on taking office and the measures that were necessary to address it.  But with the economic recovery, the deficit under Obama was then reduced (although at too fast a pace –  this held back the economy, especially in the early years of the recovery when unemployment was still high).

Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit rose in his first three years in office, at a time when unemployment was low.  This was the time when the US should have been strengthening rather than weakening the fiscal accounts.  As President Kennedy said in his 1962 State of the Union Address: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”  Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit was reaching 5% of GDP even before the Covid-19 crisis.  The US has never before had such a high fiscal deficit when unemployment was low, with the sole exception of during World War II.

This left the fiscal accounts in a weak condition when government spending needed to increase with the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.  The result is that the fiscal deficit is expected to reach an unprecedented 16% of GDP this fiscal year, the highest it has ever been (other than during World War II) since at least 1930, when such records began to be kept.

The consequence is a public debt that is now shooting upwards:

As a share of GDP, federal government debt (held by the public) is expected to reach 100% of GDP by September 30 (the end of the fiscal year), based on a simple extrapolation of fiscal account and debt data currently available through July (see the US Treasury Monthly Statement for July, released August 12, 2020).  And with its momentum (as such fiscal deficits do not turn into surpluses in any short period of time), Trump will have left for coming generations a government debt that is the highest (as a share of GDP) it has ever been in US history, exceeding even what it was at the end of World War II.

When Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016, he asserted he would balance the federal government fiscal accounts “fairly quickly”.  Instead the US will face this year, in the fourth year of his term in office, a fiscal deficit that is higher as a share of GDP than it ever was other than during World War II.  Trump also claimed that he would have the entire federal debt repaid within eight years.  This was always nonsense and reflected a basic lack of understanding.  But at least the federal debt to GDP ratio might have been put on a downward trajectory during years when unemployment was relatively low.  Instead, federal debt is on a trajectory that will soon bring it to the highest it has ever been.

D.  The Labor Market

Trump also likes to assert that he can be credited with the strongest growth in jobs in history.  That is simply not true:

Employment growth was higher in Obama’s second term than it ever was during Trump’s term in office.  The paths were broadly similar over the first three years of Trump’s term, but Trump was simply – and consistently – slower.  In Obama’s first term, employment was falling rapidly (by 800,000 jobs a month) when Obama took his oath of office, but once this was turned around the path showed a similar steady rise.

Employment then plummeted in Trump’s fourth year, and by a level that was unprecedented (at least since such statistics began to be gathered in 1947).  In part due to the truly gigantic relief bills passed by Congress in March and April (described above), there has now been a substantial bounceback.  But employment is still (as of August 2020) well below what it was when Trump took office in January 2017.

Even setting aside the collapse in employment this year, Trump’s record in his first three years does not compare favorably to that of other presidents:

A few presidents have done worse, primarily those who faced an economy going into a downturn as they took office (Obama) or where the economy was pushed into a downturn soon after they took office (Bush Jr., Reagan) or later in their term (Bush Sr., Nixon/Ford).  But the record of other presidents was significantly better, with the best (which some might find surprising) that of Carter.

Trump also claims credit for pushing unemployment down to record low levels.  The unemployment rate did, indeed, come down (although not to record low rates – the unemployment rate was lower in the early 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower, and again in the late 1960s).  But one cannot see any significant change in the path on the day Trump was inaugurated compared to what it had been under Obama since 2010:

And of course now in 2020, unemployment has shot upwards to a record level (since at least 1948, when these records began to be kept systematically).  It has now come down with the bounceback of the economy, but remains high (8.4% as of August).

Over the long term, nothing is more important in raising living standards than higher productivity.  And this was the argument Trump and the Republicans in Congress made to rationalize their sharp cuts in corporate tax rates in the December 2017 tax bill.  The argument was that companies would then invest more in the capital assets that raise productivity (basically structures and equipment).  But this did not happen.  Even before the collapse this year, private non-residential investment in structures and equipment was no higher, and indeed a bit lower, as a share of GDP than what it was before the 2017 tax bill passed.

And it certainly has not led to a jump in productivity:

Productivity growth during Trump’s term in office has been substantially lower (by 3%) than what it was during Obama’s first term, although somewhat better than during Obama’s second term (by a cumulative 1% point at the same calendar quarter in their respective terms).

And compared to that of other presidents, Trump’s record on productivity gains is nothing special:

Finally, what happened to real wages?  While higher productivity growth is necessary in the long term for higher wages (workers cannot ultimately be paid more than what is produced), in the short term a number of other factors (such as relative bargaining strength) will dominate.  When unemployment is high, wage gains will typically be low as firms can hire others if a worker demands a higher wage.  And when unemployment is low, workers will typically be in a better bargaining position to demand higher wages.

How, then, does Trump’s record compare to that of Obama?:

During the first three years of Trump’s tenure in office, real wage gains were basically right in the middle of what they were over the similar periods in Obama’s two terms.  But then it looks like real wages shot upwards at precisely the time when the Covid-19 crisis hit.  How could this be?

One needs to look at what lies behind the numbers.  With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, unemployment shot up to the highest it has been since the Great Depression.  But two issues were then important.  One is that when workers are laid off, it is usually the least senior, least experienced, workers who are laid off first.  And such workers will in general have a lower wage.  If a high share of lower-wage workers become unemployed, then the average wage of the workers who remain employed will go up.  This is a compositional effect.  No individual worker may have seen an increase in his or her wage, but the overall average will go up if fewer lower-wage workers remain employed.

Second, this downturn was different from others in that a high share of the jobs lost were precisely in low-wage jobs – workers in restaurants, cafeterias, and hotels, or in retail shops, or janitors for office buildings, and so on.  As the economy shut down, these particular businesses had to close.  Many, if not most, office workers could work from home, but not these, commonly low-wage, workers.  They were laid off.

The sharp jump in average real wages in the second quarter of 2020 (Trump’s 14th quarter in office) is therefore not something to be pleased about.  As the lower-wage workers who have lost their jobs return to being employed, one should expect this overall average wage to fall back towards where it was before.

But the path of real wages in the first three years of Trump’s presidency, when the economy continued to expand as it had under Obama, does provide a record that can be compared.  How does it look relative to that of other presidents of the last half-century?:

Again, Trump’s record over this period is in the middle of the range found for other presidents.  It was fairly good (unemployment was low, which as noted above would be expected to help), but real wages in the second terms of Clinton and Obama rose by more, and performance was similar in Reagan’s second term.

E.  International Trade Accounts

Finally, how does Trump’s record on international trade compare to that of other presidents?  Trump claimed he would slash the US trade deficit, seeing it in a mercantilistic way as if a trade deficit is a “loss” to the country.  At a 2018 press conference (following a G-7 summit in Canada), he said, for example, “Last year,… [the US] lost  … $817 billion on trade.  That’s ridiculous and it’s unacceptable.”  And “We’re like the piggybank that everybody is robbing.”

This view on the trade balance reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of basic economics.  Equally worrisome is Trump’s view that launching trade wars targeting specific goods (such as steel and aluminum) or specific countries (such as China) will lead to a reduction in the trade deficit.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the trade balance ultimately depends on the overall balance between domestic savings and domestic investment in an economy.  Trade wars may lead to reductions in imports, but then there will also be a reduction in exports.  If the trade wars do not lead to higher savings or lower investment, such trade interventions (with tariffs or quotas imposed by fiat) will simply shift the trade to other goods or other nations, leaving the overall balance where it would have been based on the savings/investment balance.

But we now have three and a half years of the Trump administration, and can see what his trade wars have led to.  In terms of imports and exports:

Imports did not go down under Trump – they rose until collapsing in the worldwide downturn of 2020.  Exports also at first rose, but more slowly than imports, and then leveled off before imports did.  They then also collapsed in 2020.  Going back a bit, both imports and exports had gone up sharply during the Bush administration.  Then, after the disruption surrounding the economic collapse of 2008/9 (with a fall then a recovery), they roughly stabilized at high levels during the last five years of the Obama administration.

In terms of the overall trade balance:

The trade deficit more than doubled during Bush’s term in office.  While both imports and exports rose (as was seen above), imports rose by more.  The cause of this was the housing credit bubble of the period, which allowed households to borrow against home equity (which in turn drove house prices even higher) and spend that borrowing (leading to higher consumption as a share of current income, which means lower savings).  This ended, and ended abruptly, with the 2008/9 collapse, and the trade deficit was cut in half.  After some fluctuation, it then stabilized in Obama’s second term.

Under Trump, in contrast, the trade deficit grew compared to where it was under Obama.  It did not diminish, as Trump insisted his trade wars would achieve, but the opposite.  And with the growing fiscal deficit (as discussed above) due to the December 2017 tax cuts and the more rapid growth in government spending (where a government deficit is dis-saving that has to be funded by borrowing), this deterioration in the trade balance should not be a surprise.  And I also suspect that Trump does not have a clue as to why this has happened (nor an economic advisor willing to explain it to him).

F.  Conclusion

There is much more to Trump’s economic policies that could have been covered.  It is also not yet clear how much damage has been done to the economic structure from the crisis following the mismanagement of Covid-19 (with the early testing failures, the lack of serious contact tracing and isolation of those who may be sick, and importantly, Trump’s politicizing the wearing of simple masks).  Unemployment rose to record levels, and this can have a negative impact (both immediate and longer-term) on the productivity of those workers and on their subsequent earnings.  There has also been a jump in bankruptcies, which reduces competition.  And bankrupt firms, as well as stressed firms more generally, will not be able to repay their loans in full.  The consequent weakening of bank balance sheets will constrain how much banks will be able to lend to others, which will slow the pace of any recovery.

But these impacts are still uncertain.  The focus of this post has been on what we already know of Trump’s economic record.  It is not a good one. The best that can be said is that during his first three years in office he did not derail the expansion that had begun under Obama.  Growth continued (in GDP, employment, productivity, wages), at rates similar to what they were before.  Compared to paths followed in other presidencies of the last half-century, they were not special.

But this growth during Trump’s tenure in office was only achieved with rapid growth in federal government spending.  Together with the December 2017 tax cuts, this led to a growing, not a diminishing, fiscal deficit.  The deficit grew to close to 5% of GDP, which was indeed special:  Never before in US history has the fiscal deficit been so high in an economy at or close to full employment, with the sole exception of during World War II.

The result was a growing public debt as a share of GDP, when prudent fiscal policy would have been the reverse.  Times of low unemployment are when the country should be reducing its fiscal deficit so that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall.  Reducing public dis-saving would also lead to a reduction in the trade deficit (other things being equal).  But instead the trade deficit has grown.

As a consequence, when a crisis hits (as it did in 2020) and government needs to spend substantial sums for relief (as it had to this year), the public debt to GDP ratio will shoot upwards from already high levels.  Republicans in Congress asserted in 2011 that a public debt of 70% of GDP was excessive and needed to be brought down rapidly.  Thus they forced through spending cuts, which slowed the recovery at a time when unemployment was still high.

But now public debt under Trump will soon be over 100% of GDP.  Part of the legacy of Trump’s term in office, for whoever takes office this coming January 20, will therefore be a public debt that will soon be at a record high level, exceeding even that at the end of World War II.

This has certainly not been “the greatest economy in history”.

How Fast is GDP Growing?: A Curiosum

A.  How Fast is GDP Growing?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released today its first estimate (what it calls it’s Advance Estimate) for the growth of GDP and its components for the third quarter of 2019.  Most of it looked basically as one would expect, with an estimate of real GDP growth of 1.9% in the quarter, or about the same as the 2.0% growth rate of the second quarter.  There has been a continued slowdown in private investment (which I will discuss below), but this has been offset by an expansion in government spending under Trump, coupled with steady growth in personal consumption expenditures (as one would expect with an economy now at full employment).

But there was a surprise on the last page of the report, in Appendix Table A.  This table provides growth rates of some miscellaneous aggregates that contribute to GDP growth, as well as their contribution to overall GDP growth.  One line shown is for “motor vehicle output”.  What is surprising is that the growth rate shown, at an annualized rate, is an astounding 32.6%!  The table also indicates that real GDP excluding motor vehicle output would have grown at just 1.2% in the quarter.  (I get 1.14% using the underlying, non-rounded, numbers, but these are close.)  The difference is shown in the chart above.

Some points should be noted.  While all these figures provided by the BEA are shown at annualized growth rates, one needs to keep in mind that the underlying figures are for growth in just one quarter.  Hence the quarterly growth will be roughly one-quarter of the annual rate, plus the effects of compounding.  For the motor vehicle output numbers, the estimated growth in the quarter was 7.3%, which if compounded over four quarters would yield the 32.6% annualized rate.  One should also note that the quarterly output figures of this sector are quite volatile historically, and while there has not been a change as large as the 32.6% since 2009/10 (at the time of the economic downturn and recovery) there have been a few quarters when it was in the 20s.

But what appears especially odd, but also possibly interesting to those trying to understand how the GDP accounts are estimated, is why there should have been such a tremendously high growth in the sector, of 32.6%, when the workers at General Motors were on strike for half of September (starting on September 15).  GM is the largest car manufacturer in the US, its production plummeted during the strike, yet the GDP figures indicate that motor vehicle output not only soared in the quarter, but by itself raised overall GDP growth to 1.9% from a 1.2% rate had the sector been flat.

This is now speculation on my part, but I suspect the reason stems from the warning the BEA regularly provides that the initial GDP estimates that are issued just one month after the end of the quarter being covered, really are preliminary and partial.  The BEA receives data on the economy from numerous sources, and a substantial share of that data is incomplete just one month following the end of a quarter.  For motor vehicle production, I would not be surprised if the BEA might only be receiving data for two months (July and August in this case), in time for this initial estimate.  They would then estimate the third month based on past patterns and seasonality.

But because of the strike, past patterns will be misleading.  Production at GM may have been ramped up in July and August in anticipation of the strike, and a mechanical extrapolation of this into September, while normally fine, might have been especially misleading this time.

I stress that this is speculation on my part.  Revised estimates of GDP growth in the third quarter, based on more complete data, will be issued in late November and then again, with even more data, in late December.  We will see what these estimates say.  I would not be surprised if the growth figure for GDP is revised substantially downwards.

B.  Growth in Nonresidential Private Fixed Investment

The figures released by the BEA today also include its estimates for private fixed investment.  The nonresidential portion of this is basically business investment, and it is interesting to track what it has been doing over the last few years.  The argument made for the Trump/Republican tax cuts pushed through Congress in December 2017 were that they would spur business investment.  Corporate profit taxes were basically cut in half.

But the figures show no spur in business investment following their taxes being slashed.  Nonresidential private fixed investment was growing at a relatively high rate already in the fourth quarter of 2017 (similar to rates seen between mid-2013 and mid-2014, and there even was growth of 11.2% in the second quarter of 2014).  This continued through the first half of 2018.  But growth since has fallen steadily, and is now even negative, with a decline of 3.0% in the third quarter of 2019:

There is no indication here that slashing corporate profit taxes (and other business taxes) led to greater business investment.

The “Threat” of Job Losses is Nothing New and Not to be Feared: Issues Raised in the Democratic Debate

A.  Introduction

The televised debate held October 15 between twelve candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination covered a large number of issues.  Some were clear, but many were not.  The debate format does not allow for much explanation or nuance.  And while some of the positions taken refected sound economics, others did not.

In a series of upcoming blog posts, starting with this one, I will review several of the issues raised, focussing on the economics and sometimes the simple arithmetic (which the candidates often got wrong).  And while the debate covered a broad range of issues, I will limit my attention here to the economic ones.

This post will look at the concern that was raised (initially in a question from one of the moderators) that the US will soon be facing a massive loss of jobs due to automation.  A figure of “a quarter of American jobs” was cited.  All the candidates basically agreed, and offered various solutions.  But there is a good deal of confusion over the issue, starting with the question of whether such job “losses” are unprecedented (they are not) and then in some of the solutions proposed.

A transcript of the debate can be found at the Washington Post website, which one can refer to for the precise wording of the questions and responses.  Unfortunately it does not provide pages or line numbers to refer to, but most of the economic issues were discussed in the first hour of the three hour debate.  Alternatively, one can watch the debate at the CNN.com website.  The discussion on job losses starts at the 32:30 minute mark of the first of the four videos CNN posted at its site.

B.  Job Losses and Productivity Growth

A topic on which there was apparently broad agreement across the candidates was that an unprecedented number of jobs will be “lost” in the US in the coming years due to automation, and that this is a horrifying prospect that needs to be addressed with urgency.  Erin Burnett, one of the moderators, introduced it, citing a study that she said concluded that “about a quarter of American jobs could be lost to automation in just the next 10 years”.  While the name of the study was not explicitly cited, it appears to be one issued by the Brookings Institution in January 2019, with Mark Muro as the principal author.  It received a good deal of attention when it came out, with the focus on its purported conclusion that there would be a loss of a quarter of US jobs by 2030 (see here, here, here, here, and/or here, for examples).

[Actually, the Brookings study did not say that.  Nor was its focus on the overall impact on the number of jobs due to automation.  Rather, its purpose was to look at how automation may differentially affect different geographic zones across the US (states and metropolitan areas), as well as different occupations, as jobs vary in their degree of exposure to possible automation.  Some jobs can be highly automated with technologies that already exist today, while others cannot.  And as the Brookings authors explain, they are applying geographically a methodology that had in fact been developed earlier by the McKinsey Global Institute, presented in reports issued in January 2017 and in December 2017.  The December 2017 report is most directly relevant, and found that 23% of “jobs” in the US (measured in terms of hours of work) may be automated by 2030 using technologies that have already been demonstrated as technically possible (although not necessarily financially worthwhile as yet).  And this would have been the total over a 14 year period starting from their base year of 2016.  This was for their “midpoint scenario”, and McKinsey properly stresses that there is a very high degree of uncertainty surrounding it.]

The candidates offered various answers on how to address this perceived crisis (which I will address below), but it is worth looking first at whether this is indeed a pending crisis.

The answer is no.  While the study cited said that perhaps a quarter of jobs could be “lost to automation” by 2030 (starting from their base year of 2016), such a pace of job loss is in fact not out of line with the norm.  It is not that much different from what has been happening in the US economy for the last 150 years, or longer.

Job losses “due to automation” is just another way of saying productivity has grown.  Fewer workers are needed to produce some given level of output, or equivalently, more output can be produced for a given number of workers.  As a simple example, suppose some factory produces 100 units of some product, and to start has 100 employees.  Output per employee is then 100/100, or a ratio of 1.0.  Suppose then that over a 14 year period, the number of workers needed (following automation of some of the tasks) reduces the number of employees to just 75 to produce that 100 units of output (where that figure of 75 workers includes those who will now be maintaining and operating the new machines, as well as those workers in the economy as a whole who made the machines, with those scaled to account for the lifetime of the machines).  The productivity of the workers would then have grown to 100/75, or a ratio of 1.333.  Over a 14 year period, that implies growth in productivity of 2.1% a year.  More accurately, the McKinsey estimate was that 23% of jobs might be automated, and with this the increase in productivity would be to 100/77 = 1.30.  The growth rate over 14 years would then be 1.9% per annum.

Such an increase in productivity is not outside the norm for the US.  Indeed, it matches what the US has experienced over at least the last century and a half.  The chart at the top of this post shows how GDP per capita has grown since 1870.  The chart is plotted in logarithms, and those of you who remember their high school math will recall that a straight line in such a graph depicts a constant rate of growth.  An earlier version of this chart was originally prepared for a prior post on this blog (where one can find further discussion of its implications), and it has been updated here to reflect GDP growth in recent years (using BEA data, with the earlier data taken from the Maddison Project).

What is remarkable is how steady that rate of growth in GDP per capita has been since 1870.  One straight line fits it extraordinarily well for the entire period, with a growth rate of 1.9% a year (or 1.86% to be more precise).  And while the US is now falling below that long-term trend (since around 2008, from the onset of the economic collapse in the last year of the Bush administration), the deviation of recent years is not that much different from an earlier such deviation between the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.  It remains to be seen whether there will be a similar catch-up to the long-term trend in the coming years.

One might reasonably argue that GDP per capita is not quite productivity, which would be GDP per employee.  Over very long periods of time population and the number of workers in that population will tend to grow at a similar pace, but we could also look at GDP per employee:

This chart is based on BEA data, the agency which issues the official GDP accounts for the US, for both real GDP and the number of employees (in full time equivalent terms, so part-time workers are counted in proportion to the number of hours they work).  The figures unfortunately only go back to 1929, the oldest year for which the BEA has issued estimates.  Note also that the rise in GDP during World War II looks relatively modest here, but that is because measures of “real” GDP (when carefully estimated using standard procedures) can deviate more and more as one goes back in time from the base year for prices (2012 here), coupled with major changes in the structure of production (such as during a major war).  But the BEA figures are the best available.

Once again one finds that the pace of productivity growth was remarkably stable over the period, with a growth rate here of 1.74% a year.  It was lower during the Great Depression years, but then recovered during World War II, and was then above the 1929 to 2018 trend from the early 1950s to 1980.  And the same straight line (meaning a constant growth rate) then fit extremely well from 1980 to 2010.

Since 2010 the growth in labor productivity has been more modest, averaging just 0.5% a year from 2010 to 2018.  An important question going forward is whether the path will return to the previous trend.  If it does, the implication is that there will be more job turnover for at least a temporary period.  If it does not, and productivity growth does not return to the path it has been on since 1929, the US as a whole will not be able to enjoy the growth in overall living standards the economy had made possible before.

The McKinsey numbers for what productivity growth might be going forward, of possibly 1.9% a year, are therefore not out of line with what the economy has actually experienced over the years.  It matches the pace as measured by GDP per capita, and while the 1.74% a year found for the last almost 90 years for the measure based on GDP per employee is a bit less, they are close.  And keep in mind that the McKinsey estimate (of 1.9% growth in productivity over 14 years) is of what might be possible, with a broad range of uncertainty over what will actually happen.

The estimate that “about” a quarter of jobs may be displaced by 2030 is therefore not out of line with what the US has experienced for perhaps a century and a half.  Such disruption is certainly still significant, and should be met with measures to assist workers to transition from jobs that have been automated away to the jobs then in need of more workers.  We have not, as a country, managed this very well in the past.  But the challenge is not new.

What will those new jobs be?  While there are needs that are clear to anyone now (as Bernie Sanders noted, which I will discuss below), most of the new jobs will likely be in fields that do not even exist right now.  A careful study by Daron Acemoglu (of MIT) and Pascual Restrepo (of Boston University), published in the American Economic Review in 2018, found that about 60% of the growth in net new jobs in the US between 1980 and 2015 (an increase of 52 million, from 90 million in 1980 to 142 million in 2015) were in occupations where the specific title of the job (as defined in surveys carried out by the Census Bureau) did not even exist in 1980.  And there was a similar share of those with new job titles over the shorter periods of 1990 to 2015 or 2000 to 2015.  There is no reason not to expect this to continue going forward.  Most new jobs are likely to be in positions that are not even defined at this point.

C.  What Would the Candidates Do?

I will not comment on all the answers provided by the candidates (some of which were indecipherable), but just a few.

Bernie Sanders provided perhaps the best response by saying there is much that needs to be done, requiring millions of workers, and if government were to proceed with the programs needed, there would be plenty of jobs.  He cited specifically the need to rebuild our infrastructure (which he rightly noted is collapsing, and where I would add is an embarrassment to anyone who has seen the infrastructure in other developed economies).  He said 15 million workers would be required for that.  He also cited the Green New Deal (requiring 20 million workers), as well as needs for childcare, for education, for medicine, and in other areas.

There certainly are such needs.  Whether we can organize and pay for such programs is of course critical and would need to be addressed.  But if they can be, there will certainly be millions of workers required.

Sanders was also asked by the moderator specifically about his federal jobs guarantee proposal (and indeed the jobs topic was introduced this way).  But such a policy proposal is more problematic, and separate from the issue of whether the economy will need so many workers.  It is not clear how such a jobs guarantee, provided by the federal government, would work.  The Sanders campaign website provides almost no detail.  But a number of questions need to be addressed.  To start, would such a program be viewed as a temporary backstop for a worker, to be used when he or she cannot find another reasonable job at a wage they would accept, or something permanent?  If permanent, one is really talking more of an expanded public sector, and that does not seem to be the intention of a jobs guarantee program.  But if a backstop, how would the wage be set?  If too high, no workers would want to leave and take a different job, and the program would not be a backstop.  And would all workers in such a program be paid the same, or different based on their skills?  Presumably one would pay an engineer working on the design of infrastructure projects more than someone with just a high school degree.  But how would these be determined?  Also, with a job guarantee, can someone be fired?  Suppose they often do not show up for work?

So there are a number of issues to address, and the answers are not clear.  But more fundamentally, if there is not a shortage of jobs but rather of workers (keep in mind that the unemployment rate is now at a 50 year low), why does one need such a guarantee?  It might be warranted (on a temporary basis) during an economic downturn, when unemployment is high, but why now, when unemployment is low?  [October 28 update:  The initial version of this post had an additional statement here saying that the federal government already had “something close to a job guarantee”, as you could always join the Army.  However, as a reader pointed out, while that once may have been true, it no longer is.  So that sentence has been deleted.]

Andrew Yang responded next, arguing for his proposal of a universal basic income that would provide every adult in the country with a grant of $1,000 per month, no questions asked.  There are many issues with such a proposal, which I will address in a subsequent blog post, but would note here that his basic argument for such a universal grant follows from his assertion that jobs will be scarce due to automation.  He repeatedly asserted in the debate that we have now entered into what has been referred to as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, where automation will take over most jobs and millions will be forced out of work.

But as noted above, what we have seen in the US over the last 150 years (at least) is not that much different from what is now forecast for the next few decades.  Automation will reduce the number of workers needed to produce some given amount, and productivity per worker will rise.  And while this will be disruptive and lead to a good deal of job displacement (important issues that certainly need to be addressed), the pace of this in the coming decades is not anticipated to be much different from what the country has seen over the last 150 years.

A universal basic income is fundamentally a program of redistribution, and given the high and growing degree of inequality in the US, a program of redistribution might well be warranted.  I will discuss this is a separate blog post.  But such a program is not needed to provide income to workers who will be losing jobs to automation, as there will be jobs if we follow the right macro policies.  And $12,000 a year would not nearly compensate for a lost job anyway.

Elizabeth Warren’s response to the jobs question was different.  She argued that jobs have been lost not due to automation, but due to poor international trade policies.  She said:  “the data show that we have had a lot of problems with losing jobs, but the principal reason has been bad trade policy.”

Actually, this is simply not true, and the data do not support it.  There have been careful studies of the issue, but it is easy enough to see in the numbers.  For example, in an earlier post on this blog from 2016, I examined what the impact would have been on the motor vehicle sector if the US had moved to zero net imports in the sector (i.e. limiting car imports to what the US exports, which is not very much).  Employment in the sector would then have been flat, rather than decline by 17%, between the years 1967 and 2014.  But this impact would have been dwarfed by the impact of productivity gains.  The output of the motor vehicle (in real terms) was 4.5 times higher in 2014 than what it was in 1967.  If productivity had not grown, they would then have required 4.5 times as many workers.  But productivity did grow – by 5.4 times.  Hence the number of workers needed to produce the higher output actually went down by the 17% observed.  Banning imports would have had almost no effect relative to this.

D.  Summary and Conclusion

Automation is important, but is nothing new.  The Luddites destroyed factory machinery in the early 1800s in England due to a belief that the machines were taking away their jobs and that they would then be left with no prospects.  And data for the US that goes back to at least 1870 shows such job “destroying” processes have long been underway.  They have not accelerated now.  Indeed, over the past decade the pace has slowed (i.e. less job “destruction”).  But it is too soon to tell whether this deceleration is similar to fluctuations seen in the past, where there were occasional deviations but then always a return to the long-term path.

Looking forward, careful studies such as those carried out by McKinsey have estimated how many jobs may be exposed to automation (using technologies that we know already to be technically feasible).  While they emphasize that any such forecasts are subject to a great deal of uncertainty, McKinsey’s midpoint scenario estimates that perhaps 23% of jobs may be substituted away by automation between 2016 and 2030.  If so, such a pace (of 1.9% a year) would be similar to what productivity growth has been historically in the US.  There is nothing new here.

But while nothing new, that does not mean it should be ignored.  It will lead, just as it has in the past, to job displacement and disruption.  There is plenty of scope for government to assist workers in finding appropriate new jobs, and in obtaining training for them, but the US has historically never done this all that well.  Countries such as Germany have been far better at addressing such needs.

The candidate responses did not, however, address this (other than Andrew Yang saying government supported training programs in the US have not been effective).  While Bernie Sanders correctly noted there is no shortage of needs for which workers will be required, he has also proposed a jobs guarantee to be provided by the federal government.  Such a guarantee would be more problematic, with many questions not yet answered.  But it is also not clear why it would be needed in current circumstances anyway (with an economy at full employment).

Andrew Yang argued the opposite:  That the economy is facing a structural problem that will lead to mass unemployment due to automation, with a Fourth Industrial Revolution now underway that is unprecedented in US history.  But the figures show this not to be the case, with forecast prospects similar to what the US has faced in the past.  Thus the basis for his argument that we now need to do something fundamentally different (a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for every adult) falls away.  And I will address the $1,000 a month itself in a separate blog post.

Finally, Elizabeth Warren asserted that the problem stems primarily from poor international trade policy.  If we just had better trade policy, she said, there would be no jobs problem.  But this is also not borne out by the data.  Increased imports, even in the motor vehicle sector (which has long been viewed as one of the most exposed sectors to international trade), explains only a small fraction of why there are fewer workers needed in that sector now than was the case 50 years ago.  By far the more important reason is that workers in the sector are now far more productive.