Once in a while, like a lucky drunk driver careening madly down the road until he swerves safely into his own garage, Donald Trump stumbles into some vaguely cogent-sounding comments about public policy.
For pundits, these momentary flashes of near-clarity can be seductive. Journalists and academics have lots of dry pet policy preferences that are hard to turn into catchy headlines. So when Trump offers up a sound bite that seems somewhat supportive of, say, your preferred approach to macroeconomic management or trade, it’s really, really tempting to spin out a punchy story explaining “Why Donald Trump Is Right About X.” After all, how often is an aggressively ignorant demagogue right on something? It’s man bites dog. It’s clicky. It’s a show of intellectual fairness, to boot—the man is poised to become the presidential nominee of a major American political party, so it behooves writers to acknowledge his strong points. And as we get closer to the general election and Trump gives more formal policy addresses, these types of articles will probably become more common.
Reader, allow me to plead for a moment: Approach these pieces with deep, deep skepticism.
Take, for example, this Bloomberg View riff Thursday by University of Rochester economist Narayana Kocherlakota, who until recently served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota. Kocherlakota is a smart and forceful advocate for stimulating the U.S. economy through unconventional monetary policies, like negative interest rates, as well as large doses of government spending. And in Trump, he seems to think he has maybe found a useful kindred spirit. The headline of his article, which was presumably chosen by his editors but still fairly reflects the piece, is “Donald Trump Starts Making Economic Sense.”
“Donald Trump has offered up a number of questionable ideas on how to manage the U.S. economy,” it begins. “Some of his latest proposals, though, might make a lot of sense.”
The word might is doing an inhumane amount of labor in that sentence. A more accurate passage would read: “Donald Trump may be haphazardly circling closer to coherence regarding a single subject, but it’s hard to tell.”
Kocherlakota is particularly encouraged by some recent comments Trump made in a Q&A with Fortune: “We have to rebuild the infrastructure of our country,” the candidate said. “We have to rebuild our military, which is being decimated by bad decisions. We have to do a lot of things. We have to reduce our debt, and the best thing we have going now is that interest rates are so low that lots of good things can be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.”
The professor sees this and launches off on a flight of exegesis:
I read this as calling for two forms of fiscal stimulus. One is more spending, especially on the military and on infrastructure such as roads and bridges. The second is maintaining low taxes despite high levels of government debt (in other remarks, Trump has favored tax reduction). Both could have a beneficial effect on the U.S. and global economy, creating the demand for goods and services needed to get inflation and employment back up to healthier levels.
This would align Trump neatly with Kocherlakota’s own views. It’s also a bit of a stretch, especially since the candidate himself never uses the word stimulus. Let’s look at Trump’s comments in a little more context (italics mine):
Fortune: You’ve said you plan to pay off the country’s debt in 10 years. How’s that possible?
Trump: No, I didn’t say 10 years. [Nope. He said eight years in an interview earlier this month with the Washington Post.] First of all, with low interest rates, you can think in terms of refinancings, and get it down. I believe you can do certain things to pay off the debt more quickly. The most important thing is to make sure the economy stays strong. You can do it in smaller chunks. You can do it in larger chunks. And you can do it in refinancings.
How much of the debt could you pay off in 10 years?
You could pay off a percentage of it.
It depends on how aggressive you want to be. I’d rather not be so aggressive. Don’t forget: We have to rebuild the infrastructure of our country. We have to rebuild our military, which is being decimated by bad decisions. We have to do a lot of things. We have to reduce our debt, and the best thing we have going now is that interest rates are so low that lots of good things can be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.
There are certainly some flashes of clarity in this exchange. Trump is obviously softening his stance on the national debt. That’s interesting. He is absolutely right that strong economic growth will make the debt more manageable, that infrastructure should be a priority, and that low interest rates give the U.S. some flexibility.
And yet he is still saying we should gradually cut the debt, which is quite the opposite of fiscal stimulus. It’s unclear whether he wants to do that entirely through refinancing—which is a slightly offbeat, not necessarily advisable idea that wouldn’t actually pay off the debt as he suggests so much as slow its growth—or if he has something else in mind. It is also not obvious whether he thinks that low interest rates make this a good time to borrow and fix our roads and bridges, or whether he thinks we need to invest in infrastructure and simultaneously cut the debt. As usual with Trump, it’s mostly garbled.
Kocherlakota is similarly overgenerous to Trump about monetary policy. He suggests that the candidate seems to favor a dovish Fed, while admitting that we can’t know for sure until Trump tells us more about his feelings regarding inflation. But he credits Trump for “beginning to answer” these “important economic questions.” Even that is a bit of an interpretive leap. At best, Trump sounds torn. “I always like low interest rates, certainly as a developer,” he told Fortune. “The problem with low interest rates is it’s unfair that people who’ve led the American way of life” because they get lower returns on their savings. The exchange goes on:
Should the Fed be raising interest rates? Has the Fed and Janet Yellen done a good job?
People think the Fed should be raising rates. What’s a scary prospect is if you start raising rates and you have to borrow money as a country, and if the rates, instead of where they are now, the rates are substantially higher, where the rates are 3% and 4%, or whatever it may end up being. That is a very scary prospect for this country. When you start adding that kind of number to an already reasonably crippled economy, certainly in terms of what we produce, that number is a very scary number for a lot of people to be looking at. And if you notice they don’t look at it. Because they want to keep interest rates down. A frightening scenario is that interest rates go up and we have to refinance the debt at higher rates, as apposed to paying very little like we are now.
I have no idea what Trump is trying to communicate here. I don’t know what “people” he’s referring to, or if he agrees with them at all. He does seem to suggest higher rates would be a problem for the economy because it would become more expensive for the U.S. government to borrow, which would be an unusual take (most people worry that higher rates would slow down the private economy by making it more expensive for businesses to borrow). And as for our current Fed chair:
Do you think Janet Yellen is doing a good job?
I think she’s doing a serviceable job. But you never know if they’re doing a good job until about five years after they leave office.
In short, Trump has said that we need to reduce the national debt slowly, somehow, maybe through refinancing what we already owe, maybe through other means, while also spending on infrastructure, and that people think we should raise interest rates, but that could be a problem because of the U.S. debt, and Janet Yellen may or may not be doing a decent job. These are the meandering thoughts of a guy who still doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, not someone articulating an incipient economic philosophy.
I don’t mean to pick on Kocherlakota. But reading too deeply into Trump’s rambling and acting as if his stray, often contradictory comments truly offer hints of a real outlook on policy does the disservice of normalizing a candidate who does not deserve to be normalized. Even when he makes a valid discrete point—infrastructure spending is important! We shouldn’t be aggressive about paying down the debt!—it doesn’t make sense to highlight that without noting that it’s embeded in the shallow, incoherent bog of Donald Trump’s thought process. When writing about a broken clock, it’s sort of silly to emphasize how it’s right twice a day.
In short, we shouldn’t pretend that Trump has started to make sense unless he actually starts making sense.