, , , , , , ,

This “Making News” item will be a little different, since a new detailed crtitique of my recent American Conservative article challenging the charge that President Trump is a phony populist reveals so much about the agitated way so many Americans – including the so-called experts – discuss and debate public policy.

I’ll start by saying flat out that it was flattering to see two economists at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) bother to take on my article. As I’ve written previously, I’ve long worked with EPI researchers on trade issues, learned a great deal from them, and believe that their findings in this area (the one with which I’m most familiar) unusually important.

At the same time, an October 28 analysis of my article disappointed for several important reasons. Principally, the authors got my overall argument wrong. Contrary to their claim, I never contended that the faster wage growth during the Trump years compared with relevant Obama years “justifies the vote-flipping” in most of the counties that supported Trump in 2016 after opting for Barack Obama twice “because the Trump administration has done something that has boosted wage growth in these presumably blue-collar counties.”

What I did say was that the faster wage growth was one development that “clashed loudly with the Trump-as-phony-populist charge.” And this conclusion seemed all the stronger given, as I noted, “the common companion depiction of the last Democratic administration as a working- and middle-class champion.”

After all, the phony populist charge implies that while sweet-talking the working- and middle-class populations of flip counties, the President has spent the last four years working on enriching his fellow one-percenters while leaving his less affluent supporters ever deeper in the hole economically.  

The EPI authors are correct in observing that during the first three Trump years, wage growth in these flip counties lagged the national average. But just how important is that point? As I made clear in the 2019 version of this article:

“The only grounds for economic complaint that Trump flip county residents might legitimately have concerns the gap between their well-being and the rest of the country’s. During the last two Obama years, the number of flip counties whose annual salary growth rates topped the U.S. average rose from 89 to 116. During the first two Trump years, their numbers dropped to 84 and then 83. (Between 2015 and 2016, the salary growth in one of these counties matched the national average.)

“But some context is needed here—and quite possibly it hasn’t been missed by flip county voters. Average annual U.S. salaries rose considerably faster during the first two Trump years (3.41 percent and 3.36 percent, respectively) than during the Obama years (3.08 percent and 1.21 percent, respectively). So since the national salary bar for the flip counties has been significantly higher during the Trump years, the fall-off looks pretty moderate, and in absolute terms, the annual increases remain an improvement.”

And son-of-a-gun: Although I didn’t perform this exercise for the latest article, a check of the same government data relied on by the EPI authors and by me shows that the “national salary bar for the flip counties” (which they call “pivot counties”) remained “significantly higher during the Trump years” through 2019.

It’s entirely possible that flip county voters are seething with anger because by this measure, inequality has widened. But it’s at least as possible that they’re mainly impressed that, for the most part, their own annual pay has risen faster under Mr. Trump than under his predecessor.

The EPI authors make a great deal of the argument that, although my factual case is correct, the President had nothing to do with the flip counties’ improved performance. As mentioned above, however, I never claimed cause-and-effect. I simply described the trend, and then did emphasize its great inconsistency with characterizations of Mr. Trump. Determining cause-and-effect entails both analyses of the many moving parts of the economy during the two periods in question, and then inevitably making judgment calls about the conclusions, and which conclusions count the most (e.g., as discussed, do absolute gains matter the most, or does closing the economic gap).

But I do find myself wondering why they say absolutely nothing about the Trump trade tariffs and immigration restrictions that surely helped the national labor market keep tightening, and wages continue their rise — especially for the kinds of jobs that lower- and middle-income Americans tend to hold.

The Shakespearian observation that it’s possible to “protest too much” is a wonderful description of complaints or rejoinders that are so over-the-top that they suggest more than a smidgeon of underlying doubt. That looks like a good way to describe EPI’s treatment of my recent Trump populism article.