April 1, 2016
Who is Donald Trump? Right now he is the GOP’s front runner. He is a businessman. He has been a reality TV host. He has been in the news for years, and he is news today. But what does a Donald Trump policy agenda look like? It is unclear.
First, a look at his campaign website shows that he hasn’t put out that many position papers so far. Second, listening to what the candidate actually says he would do on a variety of issues reveals an incredible lack of consistency and no fixed principles that we can identify.
Leaving aside the fact that the candidate has changed his mind a few times about what he believes when it comes to healthcare reform, his plan is not really a plan. It is a list of policy positions he likes, whether or not they contradict each other.
Take, for example, his claim that he would repeal Obamacare but maintain Obamacare’s protection for people with pre-existing conditions. That makes no sense, since forcing people to buy insurance by threatening them with a tax penalty is what allows for the protection of people with pre-existing conditions without destroying the whole insurance market.
His plan also makes it clear that he doesn’t know much about health care policy. Case in point: He would “allow” health savings accounts. This is all well and good, aside from the fact that they have been around for more than a decade. (For more on the Trump plan go here.)
More disturbing is how much he has contradicted himself, not just over the years but also in recent months. He has gone back and forth on whether or not he supports the Obamacare mandate, he has praised the single-payer system in Canada—but then said he wants a free-market system in the United States—and he has said that he wants to give health care to everyone and wants the government to pay for it. Yet he still thinks his plan will be an improvement over Obamacare. If anything, his plan is one of the many examples of how unfamiliar the candidate is with most policy issues.
Back in June 2015, he said that he would impose a one-time 14 percent tax on the wealthy to pay down national debt. His math doesn’t work—and the impact on the economy would be unquestionably negative—but at least it shows that he is aware of our gigantic debt. In fact, while I have no idea what he bases his claim on, he has said that “If debt reaches $24T, that's the point of no return.”
So far his main budget reduction plan is to push some functions, such as education and environmental protection, back to the states. He would also cut waste. There’s nothing wrong with those ideas, except they won’t do much to address our $19 trillion (and growing) debt.
Trump has also said that he would cut defense spending. However, considering that he also wants to use nuclear weapons a fair amount—as we will see later—it is unclear how he will achieve that goal. He also wants to reform NATO, which he finds “obsolete” and unfairly burdening to the United States. He does have a point, a loose one at least. While the U.S. funding to NATO seems to be based on a reasonable formula, the size of the U.S. defense budget compared to other countries means that Americans shoulder a larger security share than European countries.
His weak budget cut proposals are even more problematic considering that he has repeatedly said he won’t touch the drivers of our future debt like Social Security and Medicare. His website has no section on entitlement reforms.
He has, however, justified his desire to not touch Social Security by explaining that “Social Security isn't an ‘entitlement’; it's honoring a deal.” It’s not actually. For one thing, in 1966 the Supreme Court ruled that there is no deal and Congress can change the law, hence benefits, at any time. As for the program’s solvency problem, Trump thinks he can address that by getting rid of the “tremendous” waste that plagues the system.
Interestingly, while there is a lot of waste in Social Security, its nothing like the waste and improper payments in the health care side of government spending. However, as far as I can tell, he won’t touch Medicare or Medicaid.
His unwillingness to significantly reform the drivers of our future debt is quite disconcerting in light of his preferred tax reform plan. First, the plan is a mixed bag of typical free-market policies (reduction of the top marginal tax rate on the personal and corporate side) and not-so-free-market ones (continuation of the punishing worldwide taxation of foreign income or the double taxation on income saved and invested.)
To be sure, even with its flaws, his plan would be an improvement over the current system. However, it has one major drawback: according to the Tax Foundation, the plan would increase the deficit by “$10.14 trillion over the next decade when accounting for economic growth from increases in the supply of labor and capital.” As I have explained before, I am all in favor of non-revenue neutral tax plans, if and only if, it is coupled with serious reductions in spending and entitlement reforms. Which are completely lacking in Trump’s proposals.
On trade, Trump also breaks with the imperfect but traditional Republican support for free trade (at least for the last 60+ years) to embrace “fair trade” (a very leftist concept). His website reports: “America has always been a trading nation. Under the Trump administration trade will flourish. However, for free trade to bring prosperity to America, it must also be fair trade. Our goal is not protectionism but accountability.”
However, his policies do sound very protectionist. For instance, while his main beef is with China, a country on which he wishes to impose a 45 percent tariff on imports, he would also like to impose a 35 percent tariff on cars made in Mexico. Unfortunately, while he claims that trade would prosper under his regime policies, economists disagree. An extensive body of economic literature shows that protectionism is costly to American consumers, and slows economic growth, while doing nothing to address some of the real unfair trading practices around the world.
The website reads: “When Donald J. Trump is president, China will be on notice that America is back in the global leadership business and that their days of currency manipulation and cheating are over. We will cut a better deal with China that helps American businesses and workers compete.” The plan is also to “Reclaim millions of American jobs and reviving American manufacturing by putting an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers.”
Leaving aside the fact that currency manipulation is not a problem unique to China (our Federal Reserve has engaged in currency manipulation for years with its zero interest rate policy); that export subsidies aren’t unique to China (the United States has many such programs including the crony Export-Import Bank); that currency manipulation isn’t as big a problem as Trump claims; and that sweatshops are often the only way out of misery for poor people in very poor countries—it is hard to see how he will achieve his stated goals. At the core of Trump’s plan on trade is mostly the businessman’s belief that he is such a great negotiator that he will manage to extract concessions from China like no one has before.
Donald Trump believes that, until he came around, immigration reform’s only purpose was to implement open borders. He points to the Schumer-Rubio immigration bill as his evidence. Never mind that the bill was nothing like what he describes and that many people before have proposed immigration reforms that didn’t equate to “amnesty, cheap labor and open borders.” He is also very fast to ignore the many benefits that American workers get from low-skilled and illegal immigration.
His position, which isn’t much different from many other Republicans, is incredibly different from the position held not so long ago by Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.
Trump would deport all illegal immigrants (or not) who he thinks “populate many criminal gangs;” build a wall to stop them from coming back, while making Mexico pay for it; hire a large number of Homeland Security bureaucrats to enforce immigration laws; impose a significant cost on employers by implementing nationwide e-verify; end federal funding to sanctuary cities; and hope that with a booming immigration bureaucracy we will be able to track down immigrants who overstay their visas.
While most of his policies are guaranteed to fail at keeping out the people who really want to get in, the policies will unfortunately increase the deficit, shrink the economy, and destroy privacy.
In all fairness, he isn’t too crazy about high-skilled immigration either, and he certainly does not want to increase its current level as other conservatives have argued. In his opinion, we should freeze the number of green cards issued each year.
However, his most controversial and shocking immigration position still remains his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, at least temporarily.
Trump has described himself as “a very strong person on the Second Amendment.” His website explains his view on the second amendment in more details. He notes, “The Second Amendment to our Constitution is clear. The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed upon. Period.”
While he used to support restrictions on guns like banning some assault weapons and extending the waiting period for purchases, he now thinks that “Gun and magazine bans are a total failure. That’s been proven every time it’s been tried.” In January, he noted that “gun violence is inevitable; regulations won’t help,” and now he doesn’t support a “limit on guns; they save lives.” That’s unless you are a violent criminal or the government has identified you as mentally ill and a possible threat to people or yourself.
He blames some of the gun violence on the Obama Administration and a lack of enforcement of drug laws in cities like Chicago and Baltimore (revealing that he is also a very strong person on the failed drug war). He believes that harsher punishment from gun crimes would reduce gun violence.
He particularly likes a program implemented in Virginia called Project Exile, that “if a violent felon uses a gun to commit a crime, you will be prosecuted in federal court and go to prison for five years—no parole or early release.” It is hard to tell what he would do to either implement this kind of one-size-fits-all punishment at the federal level or to force other states to adopt it. Indeed, we do not know if Donald Trump is a strong person on the Bill of Rights or will be a strong person on the abuses of executive powers.
He also believes that “Mass shootings are due to a huge mental health problem.” He does not explain what policies he would use to manage those the government identifies as dangerous before they even commit a crime—or to get them “off the street before they can terrorize our communities.” I can see millions of ways where this idea could turn into a massive violation of privacy and people’s rights.
The best way to describe Trump’s foreign policy is “all over the place.” It departs in important ways with tradition American positions of the last 50 years. For instance, he wants to deal with “the maniac in North Korea” with nukes. He doesn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State terrorists. He wants to allow Japan and South Korea to own nuclear weapons.
He also acts as a serious irritant to most Republicans in many of these issues. For instance, he has called NATO “obsolete” and complains loudly that European governments should stop relying so heavily on our military dollars, ideas that most Republicans oppose. He even said he would cut the defense budget, an almost unprecedented position coming from a Republican candidate.
There is much more to say about Trump’s policies. However, one thing is sure, an overview of many of his positions reveals that are better described as opinions and attitudes than policy statements. Also, it reveals that one would be hard-pressed to but a firm political or ideological label on the candidate. What it means for the future of the Republican Party if he ends up being the nominee is everyone’s guess.