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Are we headed for an economic recession?

With President-elect Donald Trump taking office on Jan. 20, 2017, and with the GOP maintaining majority control of both houses of Congress, is there a risk of the U.S. falling into economic recession from 2017 to 2020? If history is any guide, the answer is most likely: Yes!

According to Princeton University economics professors Alan Binder and Mark Watson (in their report entitled “Presidents and the Economy — A Forensic Investigation”), together with Sam Stovall, investment strategist at CFRA independent equity research, whenever the GOP gains the White House and/or controls Congress, the U.S. goes into recession. (The Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008 are two extreme examples, obviously.) On the brighter side, history shows that when Democrats take office, the economy recovers. What are the facts?

From 1945 to now, say our economics experts, the real growth of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) averaged 3.33 percent. When Democrats were in charge, GDP growth averaged fully 4.33 percent. When Republicans were in charge, GDP growth averaged only 2.45 percent. Republicans always propose to “grow the economy,” and solve all other problems as a result. In fact, the opposite happens. Since 1945, five Republican presidents suffered 11 recessions, while four out of five Democratic presidents saw no recessions during their terms of office.

The same trends were seen in jobs and wages. When Democrats were in charge, unemployment fell by 6.8 percent. When Republicans were in charge, unemployment rose by 1.1 percent. So much for the conventional conservative myth that tax reduction for corporations and the wealthy together with deregulation of banking and industry will necessarily lead to greater economic growth and job creation. It is this oft-repeated myth in the political discourse that induces working Americans to ignore the historical facts and vote against their own self-interest. The entire nation is the loser.

The conservative myth includes scorn for cooperative governmental action and public institutions, claiming greater efficiency in private enterprise over public options. This explains why so many GOP legislators in Washington have sought to dismantle or privatize Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Affordable Care, and even the U.S. Postal Service. They resent and seek to undermine such eminently successful quasi-governmental enterprises as the Ex-Im Bank (export financing) and Ginnie Mae (mortgage financing), as well as our long-standing commitment to public school and higher education for all.

You can’t fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them enough of the time to win elections and possibly bring the house of cards down on the heads of unsuspecting American workers and into the hands of the dealers who hold most of the cards already. Tax breaks and loopholes that benefit the super wealthy do not benefit the nation. For the plutocrats, it’s all a great big poker game anyway. We might name the game “Oligopoly,” the would-be successor to democracy in America.

So, with the GOP in charge from 2017 to 2020, where does this leave us on the question of economic recession? Are we doomed by historical facts? Not necessarily. Our Princeton professors remind us, in effect: “History isn’t Gospel. History doesn’t have to repeat itself.” Moreover, with President-elect Donald Trump taking office in 2017, all rational bets are off. Trump is completely unpredictable — even to himself. It’s almost like the old Irish saying: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”

Already, Trump 2017 is backing away from most of the sweeping campaign promises he made that won him the primary and general elections in 2016. He is surrounding himself with a very mixed bag of contradictory advisers. Even Republicans, as well as Democrats and the unaffiliated, have no idea which way Trump is going to jump next. But the fact that Trump is breaking with conventional GOP thinking on some key issues is in many ways a sign of hope. Trump has now embraced the Democratic-platform call for more spending on infrastructure (roads, bridges, communications) — anathema to the conventional GOP leadership.

If President Trump can actually initiate and carry out a scaled-up national infrastructure program, we could expect a genuine economic boom and fuller employment. Of course, this requires complicity from a still-dominant GOP legislature in Washington. Added to this, if Trump made good on his promises to reduce high-end corporate taxes and remove governmental regulation of banks and businesses, we could see a surge in stock prices on Wall Street (although this is by no means a measure of actual improvement in the lives and conditions of working Americans). But at least we would have avoided the economic recession that history would otherwise predict. 

Sharon, Conn., resident Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.