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Since I’m still glad that Americans elected a President with strong populist leanings in 2016 (however flawed he was in all the temperament and character ways on full display after his reelection loss), I was especially interested in a new academic study on how well populist leaders have run their nation’s economies when they’ve had the chance.

And since I’m particularly keen on properly assessing former President Trump’s record in this regard (it’s the selfish American in me), I was especially disappointed that this research on “The cost of populism” said nothing useful at all about the subject because it lumped the experiences of populist leaders in widely divergeant economies and across many equally divergeant periods of time into one category. Therefore, I thought I’d provide some perspective.

The authors, a trio of German economists, are pretty emphatic in their conclusion:

When populists come to power, they can do lasting economic and political damage. Countries governed by populists witness a substantial decline in real GDP per capita, on average. Protectionist trade policies, unsustainable debt dynamics, and the erosion of democratic institutions stand out as commonalities of populists in power.”

And they highlight their finding that, after taking into account the circumstances faced by populist leaders once they’ve gained power or office (which presumably were pretty bad – otherwise, as the authors recognize, why would the populists have succeeded in the first place?), right after a populist victory, such economies as a group fared increasingly worse in terms of their growth rates compared with economies headed by more establishmentarian leaders. To their credit, the authors also try to adjust for whether the countries examined faced financial crises just before their populist political experiments began.

The question remains, though, whether a study encompassing and deriving averages or medians from a group of countries containing many chronically impoverished lands, as well as the high-income United States, can tell us about the latter, whose single populist leader during the period studied served for just a single brief term. Interpreting this American experience is further complicated by three important, concrete factors the authors apparently haven’t considered.

First, the pre-Trump growth rates of the United States were artificially inflated by interlocking bubbles in housing and consumer spending. And because the growth stemmed largely from these massive bubbles, by definition it should never have reached the levels achieved. So viewing that bubble-period growth as an achievement of establishment leaders isn’t exactly kosher methodology. Even more important: The financial crisis that (inevitably) followed these establishment-created bubbles nearly crashed the entire world economy. So maybe this debacle deserves at least a little extra weighting?

Second, U.S. growth during the populist Trump years compared well with that of the second term of the establishment-y Obama administration, especially before the CCP Virus struck and much economic activity was either voluntarily depressed or actually outlawed. For example, during the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, gross domestic product (GDP) after inflation (the most widely followed measure), increased by 7.68 percent. During the first three years of the second Obama term, it rose by 7.63 percent. And don’t forget: American economic expansions usually don’t speed up the longer they last.

Even if you include the results of pandemic-stricken 2020, real GDP improved by 3.90 percent under Trump – a rate much lower than the four-year Obama total of 9.47 percent, but hardly disastrous. Moreover, since this growth has already begun accelerating once again, the claim that Trump’s policies did lasting damage looks doubtful.

The price-adjusted GDP per capita statistics (i.e., how much growth the economy generates per individual American), tell a similar story. During the full second Obama term, this number improved by 6.25 percent as opposed to the four-year Trump advance of just 2.46 percent.

But the pre-CCP Virus comparison shows a 5.58 percent climb under Trump versus 4.81 percent during the first three years of Obama’s second term. And here again, the levels have snapped back quickly so far after plummeting during the worst pandemic and lockdown months. Therefore, the populist Trump administration likely left the pre-Trump trends intact at the very worst.

Third, if you want to go international, the Trump economic record holds up well compared to those of establishment leaders in Germany and France. During the CCP Virus year 2020, France’s economy shrank in real terms by 5.01 percent, and Germany’s by 3.88 percent. The U.S. contraction? Just 2.46 percent.

No reasonable person would conclude that these comparisons prove once and for all that American populism has been vastly superior in economic policy terms. And it’s entirely possible that the U.S. record has no or few lessons to teach other countries. But for Americans, nothing in this paper indicates that they’ve paid any “cost of populism,” and a deeper dive uncovers evidence that they’ve actually benefited.