It’s hard to make plans when the rules keep changing.
With each passing week it becomes ever clearer that Donald Trump’s trade war, far from being “good, and easy to win,” is damaging large parts of the U.S. economy. Farmers are facing financial disaster; manufacturing, which Trump’s policies were supposed to revive, is contracting; consumer confidence is plunging, largely because the public (rightly) fears that tariffs will raise prices.
But Trump has an answer to his critics: It’s not me, it’s you. Last week he declared that businesses claiming to have been hurt by his tariffs should blame themselves, because they’re “badly run and weak.”
As with many Trump statements, one immediate thought that comes to mind is, how would Republicans have reacted if a Democratic president said something like that? In this case, however, we don’t have to speculate.
As some readers may recall, back in 2012 Barack Obama made the obvious and true point that businesses depend on public investments in things like roads and education as well as on their own efforts. Referring to those public investments, he said, “You didn’t build that.” The usual suspects pounced, taking the line out of context and claiming that he was disrespecting entrepreneurs; Mitt Romney made this claim a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
Attacks on Obama as being anti-business were, of course, made in bad faith. Trump, however, really is denouncing businesses and blaming them for the problems his policies have created. And tariffs aren’t the only policy area where Trump and American business are now at odds.
Some of Trump’s most consequential actions involve his frantic efforts to dismantle environmental regulation. Unlike tariffs, this may at first sound like something business would want.
It turns out, however, that many businesses want to keep those regulations in place. Major oil and gas producers oppose Trump’s relaxation of rules on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Major auto producers have come out against Trump’s attempt to roll back fuel efficiency standards. In fact, in a move that has reportedly enraged Trump, several companies have reached an agreement with the state of California to stick with Obama-era rules despite the change in federal policy.
When Trump won his upset victory in 2016, many investors assumed that his rule would be good for business. And he did indeed give corporations a huge tax cut — which has almost entirely been used for higher dividends and stock buybacks, with workers getting essentially nothing.
Aside from the tax cut, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trumpism is bad for business. Or more precisely, it’s bad for productive business.
Imagine yourself as the head of a business that plans and expects to be around for a long time. Sure, you’d like to pay less in taxes and not have to comply with costly regulations. But you also want to invest in your company’s future. And to do that, you need some assurance that the rules of the game will be stable, so that whatever investments you make now aren’t suddenly made worthless by future shifts in policy.
The big complaint business has about Trump’s trade war isn’t just that tariffs raise costs and prices, while foreign retaliation is cutting off access to important markets. It is that businesses can’t make plans when policy zigzags in response to the president’s whims. They don’t want to invest in anything that relies on a global supply chain, because that supply chain might unravel with Trump’s next tweet. But they can’t invest on the assumption that Trump’s tariffs will be permanent, either; you never know when or whether he’ll declare victory and surrender.
Environmental policy, it turns out, is similar. Business leaders aren’t do-gooders, but they are realists. Most of them understand that climate change is happening, that it’s dangerous, and that we’ll eventually have to transition to a low-emissions economy. They want to spend now to secure their place in that future economy; they know that investments that worsen climate change are bound to be long-run losers. But they’ll hold off on investing in our energy future as long as conspiracy theorists who consider global warming a gigantic hoax — and/or vindictive politicians determined to erase Obama’s achievements — keep rewriting the rules.
To be fair, however, some kinds of business do thrive under Trumpism — namely, businesses that aren’t in it for the long run, operations whose strategy is to take the money and run. These are good times for mining companies that rush in to extract whatever they can, leaving a poisoned landscape behind; for real estate speculators sponsoring dubious ventures that take advantage of newly created tax loopholes; for for-profit colleges that leave their students with worthless degrees and crippling debt.
In other words, under Trump it’s springtime for grifters.
But to say the obvious, these smash-and-grab operations aren’t the kinds of business we want to thrive. Put it this way: Remaking the U.S. economy in the image of Trump University isn’t exactly making America great again.
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