Robert Reich

SOTU: SNAFU

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Here’s the real state of the union:

The most powerful force in American politics today continues to be anti-establishment fury at a rigged system. Vicious partisanship, record-breaking economic inequality and the resurgence of white supremacy are all byproducts of a rigged system. The biggest political battle today isn’t between left, right or center: it’s between Trump’s authoritarian populism  and democratic (small “d”) populism.

A direct line connects the four-decade stagnation of wages with the bailout of Wall Street, the rise of the Tea Party (and, briefly, Occupy), and the successes of Sanders and Trump in 2016. By 2016, Americans understood that wealth and power had moved to the top. Big money had rigged our politics.

Democrats cannot defeat authoritarian populism without an agenda of radical democratic reform, an anti-establishment movement that tackles runaway inequality and heals the racial wounds Trump has inflicted. Even though he’s a Trojan Horse for big corporations and the rich—giving them all the  tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks they’ve ever wanted—he still has large swaths of the working class convinced he’s on their side.

Here, for the record, is the real state of the union:

1. Jobs: Average monthly job creation dropped from 223,000 in 2018 to 176,000 in 2019. The employment rate for working-age adults has increased less than during the Obama recovery and is still significantly below that of other developed countries. The pace of job creation is also markedly slower than it was under Obama.

2. Wages: Wage growth has slowed, except in states with minimum-wage increases. The typical American household remains poorer today than it was before the financial crisis began in 2007. The median wage of a full-time male worker (and those with full-time jobs are the lucky ones) is still more than 3 percent below what it was 40 years ago.

3. Taxes: The Trump-Republican tax cut has been a huge failure. We were promised an increase in business investment, but business investment has contracted for the third straight quarter—the first time this has happened since the Great Recession in 2009. Instead, the tax cut triggered an all-time record binge of share buybacks—some $800 billion in 2018.

If fully implemented, the 2017 tax cut will result in tax increases for most households in the bottom 80 percent.

And it has resulted in record peacetime deficits (almost $1 trillion in fiscal 2019) in a country supposedly near full employment. Even with weak investment, the U.S. had to borrow massively abroad: the most recent data show foreign borrowing at nearly $500 billion a year, with an increase of more than 10 percent in America’s net indebtedness position in one year alone.

Nothing has trickled down to average workers. To the contrary: if fully implemented, the 2017 tax cut will result in tax increases for most households in the bottom 80 percent.
4. Trade: The 2018 goods deficit was the largest on record. Even the deficit in trade with China was up almost a quarter from 2016.

5 Growth: Last quarter’s growth was just 2.1 percent, far less than the 4 percent, 5 percent or even 6 percent Trump promised to deliver and even less than the 2.4 percent average of Obama’s second term. That is a remarkably poor performance considering the stimulus provided by the $1 trillion deficit and ultra-low interest rates.

6. Workers’ Rights: The Trump administration has systematically weakened workers’ rights. More than 8 million workers will be left behind by the Trump overtime rule. Workers would receive $1.4 billion less than under the 2016 rule. New Trump administration joint-employer rule has $1 billion price tag for workers.

7. Health: Millions of Americans have lost their health coverage, and the uninsured rate has risen, in just two years, from 10.9 percent to 13.7 percent. U.S. life expectancy, already relatively low, fell in each of the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and in 2017, midlife mortality reached its highest rate since World War II.

8. Climate: Losses related to climate change have already reached new highs in the United States, which has suffered more property damage than any other country—reaching some 1.5 percent of GDP in 2017.

Trump is not the cause of our divided nation; he is the symptom of a rigged system that was already dividing us. It’s not enough to defeat him. We must reform the system that got us here in the first place to ensure that no future politician will ever again imitate Trump’s authoritarian demagoguery.

Past Columns
Who Stood Up to Trump?

December 2, 2020

Winners and Losers

November 18, 2020

Antipathy of Empathy

October 7, 2020

Power versus Principle

September 23, 2020

Speak for the People

October 30, 2019

Real Lesson of Ukraine

October 9, 2019

‘Right vs. Left’

July 10, 2019

Warren’s Way

June 12, 2019

The Hidden Economy

May 22, 2019

Bernie is Back

February 27, 2019

Watch Your Wallets

December 26, 2018