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Three Things We’ve Learned About How Trump Will Govern

This is In Real Terms, a regular column analyzing the latest economic news. Comments? Criticisms? Ideas for future columns? Email me, or drop a note in the comments.


Donald Trump ran a campaign that was heavy on contradictions and light on policy details. He pledged to be a voice for the working class yet favored tax cuts for the wealthy. He ran on a platform of opposition to free trade and immigration, yet took advantage of both in his business career. He embraced, at one point or another, nearly every possible position on the minimum wage.

But a month after Election Day, Trump’s priorities are gradually becoming clearer. He has made few new policy pronouncements. But his selections for his Cabinet and other key roles provide hints as to how he will approach the presidency, and which issues he will emphasize once he takes office. Here are three lessons from the transition thus far — with the caveat that Trump has changed direction plenty of times in the past and could well again.

He really meant some of his promises: During the campaign, Trump pledged repeatedly to repeal Obamacare. But shortly after the election, he told The Wall Street Journal that he was open to keeping some elements of the law, such as its prohibition against denying insurance coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Was he wavering in his commitment to repealing the law?

Trump’s choice of Georgia Rep. Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services suggests he really does want to repeal most if not all of President Obama’s signature health law. In Congress, Price drafted perhaps the most comprehensive Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act; his bill would probably make insurance more affordable for young, healthy patients while making it more expensive for those who are older and sicker. Trump hasn’t said whether he will pursue a plan similar to Price’s, but there are other signs that he is serious about dismantling the law. His nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, is an outspoken critic of the law, and Trump’s team has talked with Republican leaders in Congress about a plan to repeal Obamacare immediately but delay its actual expiration, possibly for years.

Trump seems equally serious about his plans to cut corporate taxes and regulations. He emphasized both pledges when discussing his deal to save jobs at Carrier — even though those policies probably won’t do much to prevent the outsourcing of other manufacturing jobs to other countries. Puzder has blamed regulation — including the Affordable Care Act and other Obama-administration policies such as new rules expanding the number of workers who must be paid overtime — for slowing job creation, especially in the restaurant industry. Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has helped lead efforts to challenge Obama’s environmental rules. And Trump’s nominees to run Treasury and Commerce — Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, respectively — have both spoken about the need to lower taxes on corporations. In a joint interview on CNBC shortly after their selection, they called tax reform the administration’s “No. 1 priority.”

But other promises may not be priorities: One of Trump’s core messages during the campaign was his critique of free-trade deals, which he argued have cost Americans their jobs. He returned to that theme after the election when he threatened to impose steep tariffs on companies that move jobs overseas. But his Cabinet picks suggest he may not be quick to turn that rhetoric into actual policy. Ross has been a free-trade critic and has supported tariffs on imported steel. But Puzder has called himself a “free trader” and said he opposed tariffs. Trump’s newly created “Strategic and Policy Forum” is stacked with avowed globalists, including the chief executives of Wal-Mart, IBM and General Motors and the former chiefs of Boeing and GE. And over the weekend, numerous news outlets reported that Trump was likely to name Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. Exxon, which produces and sells oil around the world, is perhaps the ultimate global company.

Perhaps just as significant as who Trump has appointed to key posts is who he hasn’t: Peter Navarro, the economist who offered much of the intellectual justification for Trump’s antitrade stance during the campaign. Navarro has continued to defend Trump since the election, and he could still end up with an important role in the administration; Trump hasn’t yet named anyone to run his Council of Economic Advisers, for example. But in their CNBC interview Mnuchin and Ross seemed to back away from some of Trump’s more extreme rhetoric on trade.

Trump’s Cabinet picks paint a more ambiguous picture of his plans for his other signature issue, immigration. His choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is an immigration hardliner whom the National Review once dubbed “amnesty’s worst enemy.” But Puzder is an immigration proponent who last year published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a path to legal status (though not citizenship) for undocumented immigrants. Trump’s nominee for United Nations ambassador, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, once criticized his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. And Trump himself, in a “60 Minutes” interview after the election, appeared to soften his immigration stance somewhat, saying he wants to focus on deporting people who have committed crimes rather than on all 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Although he probably overestimated the number of undocumented workers with criminal records in the U.S.)

There is no such ambiguity on Trump’s stand on Wall Street. Trump criticized bankers during his campaign, including in an ad that featured ominous images of investor George Soros and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. But Trump has offered top positions to at least three current or former Goldman partners: Mnuchin; Stephen Bannon, who will serve as Trump’s chief strategist; and Goldman President Gary Cohn, who has been offered the job of director of the National Economic Council. And Trump has tapped the financial world beyond Goldman as well: Ross is a hedge-fund billionaire, and the strategic forum includes both JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon and Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman.

He values business experience over policy expertise: Republicans often talk about wanting more private-sector experience in government, but few have followed through on that goal to the extent Trump has. Mnuchin, Ross and Puzder have no government experience. Nor does Betsy DeVos, his choice to run the Department of Education, or Ben Carson, his nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tillerson has negotiated with presidents and dictators, but only on behalf of Exxon Mobil, never as a representative of his country.

Trump hasn’t entirely eschewed government experience. Sessions and Price are longtime legislators; Pruitt is a state official. His nominee to run the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao, served as secretary of labor under George W. Bush. And Trump has turned to a series of retired generals to fill key national security posts.

But overall, Trump seems to be questioning the value not just of government experience but of expertise more broadly. Mnuchin had rarely spoken publicly about politics or policy before the campaign, and hasn’t been involved in the think tanks and blue-ribbon panels that often let private-sector leaders dabble in the world of public policy. Ross has decades of experience in business, but he has never run a large corporation. (Nor has Todd Ricketts, whom Trump has nominated to be Ross’s deputy.) Carson has had no professional involvement in housing policy, nor, apart from one op-ed article criticizing Obama’s fair-housing agenda, has he shown much interest in it. And as noted on Friday by Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and former official in the Obama White House, Puzder and Pruitt appear to oppose the basic policy goals of the agencies they have been appointed to run.

Trump campaigned and won as an outsider who pledged to “drain the swamp” in Washington, so it is hardly surprising that he has steered clear of the usual policy circles to fill out his Cabinet. Indeed, doing otherwise might have looked hypocritical. But it is nonetheless striking the degree to which personal wealth — rather than experience, ideology or even loyalty to Trump — has emerged as the defining characteristic of Trump’s administration. NBC News estimated the combined net worth of Trump’s Cabinet picks at $14.5 billion — and that was without Puzder or Tillerson. Trump, a billionaire businessman with no government experience, is thus far surrounding himself with advisers who look a lot like him.

Fight against 15

Last month, I wrote about the surprising success of the “Fight for $15” movement, which has won big minimum-wage increases in cities and states across the country. That momentum could now be in jeopardy thanks to Trump’s choice to run the Department of Labor, which is in charge of enforcing minimum-wage rules.

Puzder, who runs the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. hamburger chains, has been a prominent critic of the Fight for $15 movement, and has warned that raising the minimum wage too high could cost jobs. He has also opposed the Obama administration’s new rule guaranteeing overtime pay to more workers, and has criticized laws mandating paid sick leave.

Labor groups, unsurprisingly, are rallying against Puzder’s nomination — as soon as his appointment was announced on Thursday, my inbox was flooded with statements denouncing the pick. But it isn’t yet clear how hard a line Puzder will take on the minimum wage or related issues. He has said previously that he doesn’t oppose raising the wage “rationally” — he once suggested $9 an hour — and an ally of Puzder’s told The New York Times that he would probably look for a “middle ground” on the overtime rule.

The week ahead

The Federal Reserve’s policymaking Open Markets Committee meets this week, and it is widely expected to raise interest rates for the first time in a year. The Fed has repeatedly delayed the move due to signs of weakness in the economy and, possibly, out of a desire to avoid interference in election. But the combination of a solid November jobs report and a post-election rally in financial markets mean the Fed is unlikely to remain on the sidelines any longer. Investors’ behavior suggests they see a 95 percent probability of a quarter-point rate hike.

There is much less certainty about what comes next. The disappointingly slow economic recovery has repeatedly forced policymakers to re-evaluate their plans — the Fed once hoped to raise rates four times in 2016, but will end up with one hike at most. Economists have in recent months become more optimistic about the short-term direction of the economy, in part because of Trump’s pledge to cut taxes and invest in infrastructure. But that optimism could fade quickly if Trump pursues protectionist policies such as new tariffs on imported goods. Fed Chair Janet Yellen is unlikely to address Trump’s policies directly in her post-meeting press conference on Wednesday, but she may give a more general sense of how the Fed is weighing conflicting signals on the U.S. and global economy.

Last week at FiveThirtyEight

On Monday, I joined the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast to talk about Trump’s economic policies.

Nicaragua is one of Latin America’s poorest countries, in part because less than half of its women participate in the workforce. On Tuesday, Lucia He looked at the country’s efforts to bring more women off the economy’s sidelines.

During the recent recession, millions of Americans went back to college in the hopes of finding better-paying jobs. That gamble didn’t always pay off. On Thursday, Donna Airoldi wrote about the challenges facing older college students.

Nearly all Americans born in 1940 went on to earn more than their parents. Only about half of those born in 1984 could say the same. On Thursday, I wrote about new research showing that inequality is eroding Americans’ economic mobility.

Elsewhere

Neil Irwin of The New York Times asks what it would take to replace the lost wages of the U.S. working class. He finds it would be possible — but very expensive — to make up the gap using a tax credit. (Moody’s Analytics economist Adam Ozimek responds that such a policy would carry other benefits as well.)

The political narrative has lately focused on manufacturing workers who lose their jobs through layoffs. But Jeffrey Sparshott of The Wall Street Journal notes that more manufacturing workers are quitting their jobs voluntarily, as well.

Workers have long been more skeptical than economists of the benefits of free trade. Gwynn Guilford of Quartz argues the workers were right.


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Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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