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TrumpBeat: Is Trump Already Messing With Government Data?

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When then-President Barack Obama promised, in his 2010 State of the Union address, to “double our exports over the next five years,” experts were skeptical — and with good reason. Obama didn’t even come close to achieving that goal. Even today, two years after Obama’s five-year deadline expired, exports are up only about 30 percent since early 2010.

So mark that down as a failure for Obama. But at least we know he failed — the data is right there on the Census Bureau’s website. There is reason to doubt whether the Trump administration will be equally transparent.

The Wall Street Journal this week reported that the White House was considering changing the way the government calculates the trade deficit. Specifically, the proposed change would affect how the government accounts for “re-exports” — products that are imported into the U.S. and then sold to customers overseas. Right now, re-exports are a wash for the trade deficit because they count on both sides of the equation (as both imports and exports). The Trump administration, according to the Journal, is weighing whether to count them as imports but not as exports, which would make the overall trade deficit look larger.

From an economic perspective, the change makes no sense — it’s the equivalent of Starbucks accounting for the cost of buying coffee but not the revenue from selling it. But politically, it could serve Trump’s purposes by making the deficit (and therefore U.S. trade policy) look worse than it really is. That could make it easier for Trump to push through protectionist trade policies.

It isn’t clear whether any of this will ever happen; the first month of Trump’s administration has been full of rumored policy moves that haven’t materialized. But the mere idea points to a larger concern about President Trump’s commitment to reliable data. During the presidential campaign, Trump famously questioned the validity of the unemployment rate (“one of the biggest hoaxes in politics”) and other government statistics, and in the weeks before he took office, many experts fretted about the possibility that Trump could seek to erode or manipulate government data.

Now we’re seeing the first hints that could be happening. Last week, the Journal reported in a separate story that some in the White House were trying to fit economic forecasts to the administration’s tax and spending plans, rather than the other way around. Trump’s newly confirmed budget director, Mick Mulvaney, once voted to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau’s premier source of annual data. And scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have complained about efforts — now on hold — to remove data on climate change from the agency’s website.

It’s much too soon to declare that Trump will undermine government data. But it’s not too soon to start paying attention. After all, that data is often the only way to know whether Trump — or any president — is keeping his promises.

Here are some of the major policy developments from the past week:

Immigration: This is going to cost a lot

Two new memorandums from the Department of Homeland Security this week made clear that Trump intends to follow through on campaign promises to ramp up deportation of undocumented immigrants. They also made clear that he’s going to need a lot of money if he wants to turn those intentions into reality.

The policies call for some very expensive changes, even without taking into account the multibillion-dollar wall he’s proposed along the southern border. Among the most costly are the hiring of 15,000 enforcement and border patrol agents (never mind that hiring freeze) and a move to keep immigrants locked up while they await deportation. The current budget for 2017 requests $3.83 billion for 21,070 Customs and Border Patrol employees, meaning adding another 5,000 agents, as Trump requested, would likely run upwards of $900 million. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requested $3.1 billion for removal and enforcement, before the proposed increase of 10,000 agents and additional removals. That doesn’t even include the cost of building additional housing for CBP agents, who are often assigned to remote areas, or purchasing equipment.

Meanwhile, detaining more immigrants for longer periods of time could easily tally up to billions of dollars a year. The Department of Homeland Security requested $1.75 billion to fill about 31,000 beds. Trump’s call to both expand who can be deported and to keep deportees locked up while they wait could easily quadruple or triple that number. Trump can take some initial steps by moving around some funds, but achieving his larger goals will take action from Congress — and a lot of taxpayer dollars.


Health care: The closer its demise, the more popular Obamacare gets

The Affordable Care Act is the most popular it’s been since 2010, according to a new poll out Friday. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking opinions of the ACA since it passed, found that 48 percent of people had a favorable view of the health care law this month, up from 43 percent in December. That shift is largely due to a change of view among political independents – just 18 percent of people identifying as Republicans had a favorable view of the law, the same as in December. Among independents, however, favorability rose from 42 to 50 percent. There was a slight increase among Democrats as well, though most of them already supported for the law.

Other polls have come to the same conclusion in recent weeks. On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a survey showing majority approval for the law for the first time since it passed. A Fox News poll found that 50 percent of survey respondents felt favorably towards the law, up from 41 percent the last time they polled in 2015. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released last week, 45 percent of people thought the law was “a good idea,” the highest percentage since that poll began asking that question in April 2009 (and 4 percentage points more than people who thought the law was a “bad idea”).

A January poll from NPR/Ipsos might help explain what’s going on. The poll showed about an even split on support for the law, but among those who wanted it repealed, most wanted it replaced with something else. The “replace” part of “repeal and replace,” however, has proved thornier than some Republicans expected.

Meanwhile, there’s one subject with resounding, bipartisan support: Medicaid. In the Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the majority of respondents from all parties felt that the expanded insurance program for the poor should stay in place (in states that expanded Medicaid coverage, as allowed under the ACA), no matter what comes of the law overall.

The environment: The cost of regulation

Scott Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator on Feb. 17, bringing the era of speculating about what he might do in the role to a close. Now we get to watch what he does do. One of the first things on Pruitt’s agenda: doubling down on the idea that previous administrations have unnecessarily pitted environmental protection against job creation. In his introductory speech to agency employees on Tuesday, Pruitt positioned himself as the person who will set the EPA on a new course. “We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and we can be pro-environment,” he said.

This is an interesting claim because the groups opposing Pruitt and his agenda basically agree: They, too, think the apparent conflict between environmental regulation and jobs is a false dichotomy. But whereas Pruitt argues that regulations have killed jobs, his opponents disagree. Or, at the very least, they don’t think the rules have been bad for the economy as a whole.

Take this 2015 report by the the Office of Management and Budget, which looked at the economic impacts of new EPA rules between 2004 and 2014. The agency implemented 32 major rules during that period, including the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, one of the many EPA provisions that Pruitt fought as Oklahoma attorney general. The estimated costs of those rules ranged from $38 billion to $45 billion, in 2010 dollars. The estimated benefits to the national economy: $160 billion to $788 billion.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has something to say about this. Looking at data on mass layoff events — incidents in which at least 50 unemployment claims are filed against a company in the span of five weeks — only a tiny portion are attributed by employers to government regulations. In 2010 and 2011, employers categorized 0.2 percent of layoff events this way. In 2012, it was 0.3 percent.1 This covers all layoffs — environmental rules, specifically, are presumably responsible for an even smaller share of job cuts.

But the economic impact of a regulation is not a simple thing to calculate. We are, after all, talking about impacts that affect the nation (and regions of it) in complex, and often indirect, ways. A butterfly flaps its wings in Washington and some jobs are lost in Peoria while others are gained in Seattle. And the jobs gained are not necessarily accessible to the people who lost out. There’s evidence from academic research that, while environmental regulation benefits the economy overall, people in specific sectors and locations really do suffer. Ultimately what’s at issue is less about whether environmental regulation is good for the nation and more about whether it’s good for, say, Oklahoma.

More from FiveThirtyEight

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  • In his final years in office, Obama worked to reduce deportations. Now Trump wants to reverse that — and then some.
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  1. Mass layoff data has not been updated since the first quarter of 2013.

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

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.