Growth for Whom?

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This week, President Trump was forced to back off on his aggressive trade war, defend himself against recorded audio discussing a payoff to a Playboy model, and fret over the Trump Organization financial chief, Allen Weisselberg, testifying before a federal grand jury. Understandably, Trump has seized on relatively good news that U.S. economic growth hit 4.1% in the second quarter of 2018. Nevertheless, 40 million Americans live in poverty, and remain without healthcare coverage¹. It begs the question, “Who is the growth benefiting?”

The apparently good numbers come in the wake of a massive tax cut from 35% down to 21% that Trump gave corporations at the beginning of the year. Although previous administrations have used economic stimulus in order to avoid recessions, Trump’s gift came at a bullish period of economic expansion, falling unemployment and rising home values. Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, calls it a “temporary sugar-high” that has long-term negative consequences because it pushes the federal deficit to over $1 trillion.² 

The biggest beneficiaries of this largesse have been corporate executives. Corporate profits after taxes are at the highest level ever seen in this country.² Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the top 1% of the U.S. population owns 38.6% of the total wealth in the country, and that “the U.S. already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality.” ³

Only a trickle has gone towards employee raises or bonuses. $800 billion is going towards stock buybacks to boost share prices and dividends. Stock shareholders have benefited, but 84% of all stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10% of households. 40% of Americans (125 million people) have hardly any investments at all.⁴

Trump’s trade war has also created an artificial spike in growth. In anticipation of U.S. tariffs and retaliatory tariffs being implemented, foreign companies have been stockpiling goods and raw materials in order to buy before prices jump. This has temporarily boosted U.S. exports.

A 10% tariff on $400 billion of imports is $40 billion that goes into the U.S. Treasury, a welcome pay increase for the government. But who pays for the trade tariffs? For American consumers, the trade war is a new financial hit, because it raises prices. The import tax on automobiles would raise the cost of a Toyota Corolla, Honda CRV or Ford F150 by about $1,000 due to the tariffs on car parts manufactured outside the U.S. It would add about $5,000 to the cost of imported cars.⁵

In addition, General Motors estimates that because of the proposed tariffs, they would have to eliminate 195,000 jobs over the next three years. With retaliatory tariffs, these job losses could increase to 624,000.⁶

It appears that “growth” means even more wealth to a small number of already-wealthy Americans. For the vast majority of the population, it means paying more for food, housing, clothing and healthcare, including the possibility of losing their jobs.

Although Trump characterizes the quarterly number as “an economic turnaround of HISTORIC proportions,” it is actually more modest and fleeting. During the Obama administration, the economy exceeded 4.1% four times.⁷ And because of the unusual confluence of events that created last quarter’s surge, it’s likely the economy will soon return to the average 2 to 2.5% rate that we’ve experienced since 2009.

¹ Bloomberg 4/3/2018

² New York Times 7/25/2018

³ Los Angeles Times 6/6/2018

⁴ CNN Money, 2/16/2018

⁵ CBS News 7/2/2018

⁶ CNBC 7/3/2018

⁷ New York Times 7/27/2018

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