Trump’s economic agenda would make inflation a whole lot worse

Voters trust Trump to lower prices, even as his advisers put forward plans for increasing Americans’ cost of living.

Trump’s economic agenda would make inflation a whole lot worse0

Trump speaks at an event in Pennsylvania on April 13. Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

Donald Trump is currently leading the 2024 presidential race, in no small part because voters trust him to combat inflation. This is a bit strange since Trump has for months now been advertising plans to drastically increase consumer prices.

Over the weekend, an NBC News poll found Trump leading Biden nationally by a 46 to 44 percent margin. Yet on the question of which candidate would better handle inflation and the cost of living, the Republican led the Democrat by a whopping 22 points.

Trump’s landslide lead on price management is significant, since inflation was the poll’s single most commonly cited “critical issue” facing the United States.

Unfortunately, Trump does not actually have a bulletproof plan for making Big Macs cheap again. To the contrary, the Republican and his advisers have developed an economic agenda that amounts to a recipe for turbocharging inflation.

The claim that Trump’s policies would increase prices does not rest on a debatable interpretation of their indirect effects. Rather, some of the president’s proposals would directly increase American consumers’ costs by design. Here is a quick primer on the likely GOP nominee’s four-point plan for making your life less affordable:

Step 1: Reduce the value of the U.S. dollar

In the years since the Covid crisis, inflation has plagued consumers all across the wealthy world. Americans, though, have one advantage over their peers abroad: Their nation’s currency is relatively strong.

The US economy is growing at nearly twice the pace of other major rich countries without suffering substantially higher inflation. Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve has kept America’s interest rates elevated. Taken together, these two realities increase demand for the dollar: Foreign investors want to place their capital in countries that are growing fast and/or that are offering high, low-risk returns on their sovereign debt. America is currently doing both. Thus, many investors abroad are swapping their local currencies for greenbacks, thereby bidding up the dollar’s value.

As a result, Americans’ paychecks are going a bit farther, as a strong dollar makes imported goods cheaper for them.

But Trump’s advisers want to change this. According to Politico, the former president’s policy aides are “ actively debating ways to devalue the U.S. dollar if he’s elected to a second term.”

Their rationale is not hard to understand. Although a strong dollar is good for US consumers, it’s not great for US exporters, as it renders their goods more expensive to potential customers abroad. And since Trump and his former trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, have long sought to boost American manufacturing and shrink the trade deficit, they’re prepared to privilege the interests of the nation’s producers over those of its consumers.

Lighthizer reportedly hopes to coerce other nations into strengthening the value of their currencies by threatening to impose tariffs on their exports if they don’t comply. Trump’s advisers are also mulling ways to weaken the dollar without foreign cooperation, according to Politico.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the US dollar is currently too strong. Plenty of analysts on both the right and left believe that America has a national interest in sustaining and growing its domestic production capacities. And all else being equal, a strong dollar does hurt American manufacturing. On the other hand, only about 8.6 percent of US workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, which suggests that a large majority of Americans have a stronger immediate interest in affordable imports than competitive exports.

Further, there’s reason to believe that the Trump team’s plans would backfire, as many foreign governments would retaliate against tariffs and dollar devaluation by imposing duties on US-made goods and seeking to weaken their own currencies.

Yet even if one supports Lighthizer’s priorities and proposals, an inescapable fact remains: A plan to devalue the dollar is — quite literally — a plan to make products more expensive for American consumers.

And this isn’t the Trump team’s only proposal for directly increasing your household’s costs.

Step 2: Apply a 10 percent tariff on all foreign imports

To further boost American manufacturing, Trump and his aides are considering the imposition of a 10 percent tariff on all foreign imports. In practice, this would almost certainly mean that US consumers would pay roughly 10 percent more on all the foreign-made cars, electronics, toys, and other goods that they purchase.

In theory, it is possible for the burdens of a tariff to fall entirely on foreign producers rather than domestic consumers. If a tariff applies only to raw commodities (such as soybeans or wheat) produced in a single country, then exporters in that country might slash their prices in response. This is because lots of countries export raw commodities, so a targeted producer would likely lose market share in the US unless they offset the impact of the tariff with a price cut. In that scenario, American consumers wouldn’t pay much higher prices for imports, but the targeted foreign producer would be forced to accept smaller profit margins.

This is not how a universal tariff would work. Americans import a lot more than raw commodities. And the country cannot currently produce all the goods and production inputs that the economy requires, let alone produce them as cheaply as foreign firms do. Producers of specialty products such as advanced semiconductors will know that American consumers have nowhere else to turn. They therefore will feel little pressure to cut their prices. According to multiple studies, when Trump imposed tariffs on specialty Chinese goods such as silk embroidery, US consumers paid roughly 100 percent of the costs.

Meanwhile, sheltered from foreign competition by tariffs, US manufacturers would be able to raise their prices considerably without risking a loss of customers. The result of all this would be a dramatic increase in consumer prices.

This said, precisely because Trump’s universal tariff would function as a 10 percent sales tax on all foreign goods, it would somewhat reduce consumer demand. Make products less affordable for Americans and they will be forced to buy fewer of them. As consumers reduce their purchases, inflation could theoretically slow.

But don’t worry, Trump’s comprehensive (if unintentional) plan for juicing inflation accounts for this possibility.

Step 3: Enact massive, deficit-financed tax cuts

The Republican Party’s number one fiscal priority in 2025 will be extending the Trump tax cuts. Many provisions of the former president’s 2017 tax package are set to expire at the end of next year. Merely preserving those policies will increase the federal deficit by $3.3 trillion over the next decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB).

But Trump is not satisfied with merely maintaining America’s current tax rates. Rather, his team hopes to further reduce the corporate rate from 21 percent to as low as 15 percent. That would further swell the deficit by $522 billion, under conventional assumptions, according to the Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The president also hopes to enact a large middle-class tax cut, according to a recent report from Reuters. Specifically, Trump and his advisers are considering a cut to the federal payroll tax and/or a reduction in marginal income tax rates for middle-class households. Since the scale of these cuts has not been specified, it is impossible to say how much they would cost in fiscal terms. Since America’s middle class is large, any substantial reduction in its tax burden would be very expensive in fiscal terms.

At first brush, a middle-class tax cut might seem like it would make life more affordable for Americans, at least in the short term. This would be true if such a policy came with no risk of triggering a resurgence of inflation, but unfortunately, it would entail precisely that hazard.

If you increase Americans’ post-tax incomes by hundreds of billions of dollars, they will suddenly be able to dramatically boost their purchases of goods and services. If the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services does not increase at the same pace, then demand will outrun supply and consumers will bid up prices.

Theoretically, Republicans could enact non-inflationary, multitrillion-dollar tax cuts without sparking inflation, but this would require offsetting the fiscal impacts of tax cuts with spending reductions.

The combination of extending the 2017 tax cuts and slashing the corporate rate to 15 percent would cost nearly $4 trillion in foregone revenue. Tacking on a large middle-class tax cut could easily bring that sum total north of $6 trillion. During both the Trump and George W. Bush presidencies, congressional Republicans ultimately didn’t have the stomach to enact spending cuts anywhere near that large.

Critically, offsetting the inflationary impact of tax cuts in 2025 and 2026 would require slashing spending immediately, not years down the line. Republicans have no appetite for cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits for existing beneficiaries. And coming up with $6 trillion in spending reductions without tackling entitlements would require gutting all manner of popular social programs.

The path of least resistance would therefore be to deficit-finance the bulk of Trump’s tax cuts. This would likely lead to faster price growth and more interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve.

Granted, if Republicans somehow found a way to rapidly increase the US economy’s productive capacity, then their tax cuts would be less inflationary and the typical American might come out ahead (at least, until the consequences of gutting future funding for Medicare and Social Security caught up with them).

But Trump’s team plans to do the opposite. The final plank in their pro-inflation agenda involves abruptly shrinking the supply side of the US economy.

Step 4: Shrink the American labor force

As the New York Times reported in November, Trump and former White House adviser Stephen Miller have hatched plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants during his second term in office, even without Congress’s cooperation.

Currently, due process rights constrain the government’s ability to deport undocumented immigrants en masse. But Miller and Trump believe they can scale back those rights under existing executive authorities. They intend to make all undocumented immigrants who’ve been in the country for less than two years subject to expedited removal. In other words, the government would be empowered to remove such immigrants without first giving them an opportunity to challenge their deportations at a legal hearing.

Current law makes it more difficult to summarily expel longtime US residents, but Trump’s team thinks it can force millions of them out of the country anyway. First, they would scale up raids of workplaces and other areas where undocumented immigrants are believed to be present. Then, they would condemn the captured immigrants to indefinite detention in federal camps. These detainees would still have the right to contest their deportations in court but they would need to wait out that often years-long legal process in confinement. Miller reportedly bets that most will choose to leave the country instead of tolerating de facto incarceration.

In my estimation, there are strong moral reasons to oppose these policies. But even Americans who have no empathy for their undocumented compatriots have economic incentives to oppose mass deportation.

As scholars at the Brookings Institution noted last fall, the upsurge in immigration since the pandemic is one major reason why the US managed to bring inflation down without suffering a recession: Foreign-born workers increased the economy’s productive capacity, helping supply to catch up with rising consumer demand.

Conversely, if America abruptly deported all undocumented workers, labor shortages would devastate myriad industries, from housing to agriculture to the care economy, and prices would soar.

Some Americans might consider such labor shortages beneficial. After all, when labor is scarce, workers can demand higher wages. But there are more undocumented workers in the United States than unemployed ones. Purging America of the former would not leave the US with the same economy with higher wages for the native-born. Rather, it would leave the country with a smaller economy, where millions of existing jobs simply would not get done. When you slash the agricultural labor force, food gets scarce and thus expensive. The same principle holds for construction, hospitality, leisure, or health care.

Put all of this together and you have a recipe for making the inflation rate 9 percent again: Slash the dollar’s value, insulate US producers from competition, juice demand with tax cuts, and then throttle supply with mass deportation, and prices are bound to soar.

Unfortunately, Trump’s proposals and their economic consequences appear to be largely lost on the American electorate, possibly because neither have attracted much media attention. If that does not change between now and November, the country could pay a heavy price.


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