He says we could buy back federal debt at a discount by raising interest rates. But if interest rates rise by a couple of percentage points, he said last week that the United States of America would cease to exist.
As for taxes, we need to raise them on the rich. No, we need to lower them. Or raise them.
And American workers? Their wages are too high. No, too many earn nothing because foreign workers make so much less. Then again, maybe the minimum wage is too low.
If all his contradictory comments seem confusing, the fact is that they are. They are also difficult to square with Trump touting his economics degree from an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, where he claims he was a top student.
What reality-show hosts say is of no consequence. But every public word presidents speak gets scrutinized worldwide. Candidate Trump’s wildly inaccurate and ahistorical statements are of no official consequence, but were he president they would have serious and damaging effects on the United States.
Federal Debt: You Could Make a Deal
Consider what Trump said on May 5 to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the cost of servicing federal debt: “If interest rates go up 1%, that’s devastating. What happens if that interest rate goes up 2, 3, 4 points? We don’t have a country.”
By Trump’s reckoning America should have ceased to be a country long ago. Back in 1982 the 10-year bond paid 14.6%. Uncle Sam’s average interest cost on all federal debt was 6.6% when George W. Bush took office. Last month it was just 2.3% even though the debt is 17 times the level of 34 years ago.
Trump talked about buying back debt at a discount and cited his own success in taking out loans, but not paying them back in full. “I’m the king of debt,” he said, in one of his frequent tangential comments focusing not on how a Trump administration would govern, but reminding us of his self-proclaimed greatness.
When journalists try to parse Trump’s words—no easy task because transcripts show jumbled thoughts galore—his response is to accuse them of misquoting him. So, whom to believe: Trump or that lying videotape?
On CNBC, Trump implied that when he took out some loans, he never intended to repay them in full.
“I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts,” he said on CNBC. “And I’ve done very well with debt. Now, of course, I was swashbuckling, and it did well for me, and it was good for me, and all that. And you know debt was sort of always interesting to me. Now, we are in a different situation with a country, but I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed you could make a deal.”
That last sentence might send shivers down the spines of those who buy federal debt, as it could be read to say he would crash the economy as president just to make the market price of Treasury debt fall. I read his remarks as another example of his lack of articulation, but others could reasonably read into those remarks a plan to submarine the economy.
When challenged about his words, Trump revised his comments saying he was thinking only in terms of renegotiating the federal debt—88% of which matures in 10 years or less—to longer terms. What Trump didn’t mention is that Treasury bonds with maturities of up to 30 years pay on average 4.5% interest, more than double the average federal interest rate. The contradiction here is obvious: By Trump’s own words switching to longer-term Treasury bonds would result in interest expenses so high that America would cease to exist.
The Politics of Winging It
How and why “we wouldn’t have a country” were interest rates to rise is just one of the many observations that Trump has never been asked to explain.
When Trump’s comments drew widespread criticism as reckless, he turned the tables on those who reported what he said. He claimed that others put words in his mouth and distorted his intent.
So how do we make sense of the following: “If we can buy bonds back at a discount,” he said, “we should do that.” He also said that there would be no reason for holders of federal debt to ask the government to buy their bonds back at a discount. If that is so—and it is—then why say any of this?
The explanation is that Trump is winging it, making it up as he goes along just as he has through his career, which I have covered on and off for 27 years.
To those who understand economics, public finance and taxes, listening to Donald Trump talk about these issues is like listening to Sarah Palin talk about anything. The contradictions, the baseless assumptions, the meandering sentences that veer off into nowhere belong more in the fictional world of Alice in Wonderland where, as the Cheshire cat advised, “it really doesn’t matter which way you go” in search of the White Rabbit, but you could ask the Mad Hatter or the equally mad March Hare.
You might think that after decades of planning a run for the White House—after all, he did run in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate—Trump would have developed a clear set of views on economics. You might think he would have devoured policy papers, retained top experts and tested out ideas in speeches heard by few. You might think he would have polished and logical lines by now.
But that would require treating these issues as matters deserving of serious study. Absent such study, it is no surprise that much of what Trump says confounds those who have spent their lives studying economics, public finance, taxes, and history.
Whatever Trump may have learned in college, his flip-flopping and wavering suggest that Trump saw no need to prepare to be president. It’s as if a chef decided he didn’t need to learn how to cook before pulling off a White House State Dinner.
Trump just tosses concepts into a pot. He starts with made-up numbers (our China trade deficit is $338 billion, not Trump’s $500 billion); adds some brazen conspiracy theories (Obama was not born an American citizen); mixes them with irreconcilable vagaries (taxes should go down, but so should budget deficits); tosses in some populist myths (thousands in North Jersey celebrated as the Twin Towers burned) and rotten ideas (the President telling Carrier, Ford and Nabisco where to build factories)—and finishes it all off with a bucket of rhetorical nonsense.
Trump is superb at one aspect of this. His economic stew would induce economic food poisoning, but he sells it with an appealing name: Make America Great Again.