Trump and the Issues

Breaking down key topics under the new administration

The president himself may have said it best: “History is watching us now.”

Those were Donald J. Trump’s words in July, when he became the Republican nominee for president at the party’s national convention in Cleveland. Now the Trump presidency is well under way, with an ambitious lineup of policies and proposals that trigger broad questions about the future of America.

Social scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences—three from political science, three from economics—were asked to dissect issues in play under the new administration: immigration, trade, the economy, health care and political movements. They explored the key elements underpinning these topics and what’s at stake.

There’s broad agreement that immigration in America is broken, Tichenor said—but coming to consensus on a solution is another matter.

Dan Tichenor—Immigration

Professor and Philip H. Knight Chair, Department of Political Science

Interests: immigration politics and policy, American presidency, national security and civil liberties, social movements, race and religion

All sides agree that the immigration system in America is broken. But none of them seem ready for the concessions necessary in a comprehensive solution.

That’s according to Dan Tichenor—the political science professor has studied the politics and policies of immigration for more than 20 years. He examines the role that social, economic and political forces play in shaping how newcomers are governed.

On the right side of the political aisle, legislators say immigration laws aren’t enforced and our borders aren’t controlled. On the left, they say that there is no pathway to citizenship for those here illegally, relegating them to second-class status. But reform is elusive because there is disagreement not just between the Republican and Democratic parties, Tichenor said, but within them.

“There’s a bitter pill for nearly every constituency,” Tichenor said. “That’s why we’ve been stuck in neutral for decades.”

LONG ODDS FOR REFORM: The administration’s focus on immigration has raised anew the calls for comprehensive immigration reform. But that’s an exceedingly heavy lift, Tichenor said. There are three broad categories of immigrants: legal immigrants, which includes refugees and others who are approved by the US to become permanent residents; undocumented immigrants, who enter without inspection or overstay their visas; and temporary foreign workers, sought by US businesses to fill jobs in high-wage sectors such as technology and low-wage ones such as agriculture.

There are four pieces to reform that must be included to win legislative approval, Tichenor said:

  • • Sanctions or other penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants
  • • Enhanced enforcement at the US-Mexico border and of laws already on the books
  • • A path to legal status for undocumented immigrants
  • • A system for addressing the needs of employers for temporary labor.

But at least one of each of these elements is a “deal breaker” for one major constituency within the Republican and Democratic parties, Tichenor said.

THE REPUBLICAN DIVIDE: On one side of the Republican Party are “classic immigration restrictionists,” Tichenor said—those who want to significantly limit both the number and rights of immigrants through strong enforcement of laws and increased security at the US-Mexico border.

But their priorities clash with the goals of the party’s “pro-business, pro-immigration conservatives,” Tichenor said. That group supports broad admission of laborers to fill high-end jobs that Americans can’t, and low-end ones that Americans won’t. The US Chamber of Commerce, for example, says immigrants “bring entrepreneurial energy that creates jobs for all who live in America” and “help fill gaps and labor shortages in our workforce.”

The pro-business group believes that “just as the free market promotes the economy through the easy flow of goods and services across borders,” Tichenor said, “workers should also flow easily across borders.”

For reform legislation to work, the pro-business group seeking a diverse workforce would have to accept stronger sanctions against employers who violate immigration laws—and that’s fundamentally at odds with their goals. The restrictionists, meanwhile, view employer penalties as beneficial—but would likely oppose steps to legalize temporary immigrant workers to meet employer needs.

DEBATES FOR DEMOCRATS: On the Democratic side are “liberal, immigration-rights defenders,” Tichenor said, who push for broad admissions and rights so that families can be reunited, hard-working laborers can enter and those escaping war and oppression can find asylum.

To reform immigration, this group would have to accept stronger enforcement of laws and penalties on employers in violation. That’s especially distasteful to them, Tichenor said, because workplace sweeps for undocumented immigrants can raise legitimate civil-rights concerns.

Opposite the immigration defenders, the Democratic Party is home to “economic protectionists,” Tichenor said—they worry that globalization and large-scale immigration threaten jobs and wages. In return for employer sanctions, though, they would have to embrace a broad program for citizenship, which runs contrary to their goals.

TAKING THE LONG VIEW: Although the current immigration debate is focused on where we are as a country, Tichenor said it’s also useful to consider where we’re going.

Given falling birth rates among whites and rising ones among minorities, demographers predict that at some point in the 2030s whites will no longer make up the majority of the population. That could bring greater openness to liberal immigration proposals among the non-white majority. Generational shifts in views on immigration also suggest that future policies, like the face of the nation itself, could have a very different look.

“Our future is one that is going to be very diverse, multiethnic and multiracial,” Tichenor said. “Immigrant communities are going to exercise far more economic and political power.”

There is no proof that the way to address the global trade deficit is through protecting US trade, Cristea said.

Anca Cristea—Trade

Associate professor, Department of Economics

Interests: international trade, industrial organization, applied econometrics

Which is the better path: making international trade as open and fluid as possible? Or protecting US industries by raising the cost of imports? What happens to the average worker under either scenario?

Cristea is an empirical trade economist who assesses trends through statistical analysis. She studies the global benefits of easy movement of goods, services and people and the impact of trade on the environment and workers.

Trade generally lowers the cost to make goods and services, but it creates winners and losers when production is moved to locales with lower labor costs.

It’s better for business to have easy access to the global playing field, Cristea said—but that can come at the expense of workers whose jobs are outsourced to non-US competitors.

RECENT HISTORY: For decades, the US has generally not taxed imports or taxed them minimally—say, 2 percent on manufactured goods. Manufacturers who ship a $20,000 car from Japan pay about $400 in import taxes, for example.

The theory, Cristea said, is that making trade free or inexpensive encourages countries to play to their strengths. Businesses stick to producing what they do best, export the surplus, make a profit and grow; they save money by importing what would be expensive to produce or procure domestically.

But the US has shed about five million manufacturing jobs since 2000, which critics blame on free trade.

CHANGING THE JOB POOL: The new administration is trying to reverse this trend; proponents of trade protectionism believe it will restore a substantial number of manufacturing jobs. But research indicates that advances in technology are more important than trade in explaining the decline in manufacturing employment.

“Protecting trade is not going to preserve jobs lost to increased automation and technological development, both of which tend to be cheaper than human labor,” Cristea said. “These jobs are not going to come back.”

As US employers have moved all or part of their operations abroad, manufacturing jobs have dropped. But some firms relocate only part of their business and the savings allow them to retain and expand higher-paying jobs in the US, Cristea said—jobs in research and development, marketing and sales, for example.

In fact, at the same time that the US was losing manufacturing jobs, it was adding 53 million jobs in services, Forbes magazine reported—in sales, housekeeping, nursing and teaching, for example. Of these new jobs, about 60 percent were in higher-paying occupations than the jobs lost.

TRADE DEFICITS: The new administration wants to correct trade imbalances with countries such as China and Mexico, Cristea said, but it’s important to understand the nuances of this issue.

A trade deficit means that the value of a country’s exports is lower than the value of imports. There are two kinds of trade deficits: bilateral and global. The former refers to trade between two countries; the latter, to the total value of a country’s exports minus the total value of imports.

It’s misguided to focus on bilateral trade deficits as a measure of economic health because those figures don’t factor in trade with third parties. Consider Mexico: In 2015, the US used almost 70 percent of that country’s imports for its own exports, although that’s not reflected in the $50 billion US trade deficit with Mexico.

It’s better to focus on global trade deficits and to keep them from growing in the US. The current figure—$500 billion—is about 2.5 percent of the value of all US goods and services. This is the important deficit to watch, Cristea said—countries continue to invest in the US economy but the global trade deficit could eventually raise concerns that they won’t get a return on that investment.

Rising health care costs must be slowed, Thoma said, but we haven’t arrived at a budgetary crisis.

Mark Thoma—Health Care

Professor, Department of Economics

Interests: debt, unemployment, interest rates, economic policy, health care

The difficulties Republicans have had replacing former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act leave the country with the same question that has persisted for years: How to control health care costs while ensuring or expanding coverage?

Millions of Americans get coverage under Obama’s signature health law—a record 6.4 million signed up in 2017, for example. But premiums for users and costs to government are rising significantly—the Congressional Budget Office warns that at the current pace, spending on federal health care programs will drive budget deficits and debt to record levels over the next 30 years.

Thoma is a macroeconomist who studies both monetary and fiscal policy, with a focus on the US economy. One of the most important issues for the economy is health care—and Thoma has followed it closely.

Thoma is well-known for his column in The Fiscal Times and his blog Economist’s View, which Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called “the best place by far to keep up with the latest in economic discourse.” Science Magazine listed Thoma as one of the 100 most-followed scientists on Twitter and he is a regular source for the national press.

The health care debate will ultimately hinge on a philosophical question rather than an economic one, Thoma said: Is health care a commodity or a right?

If the country decides that health care is no different from any other good, Congress could choose to give the health insurance industry more latitude in determining who receives coverage. However, if health care is seen as a right, that could impose a moral obligation on lawmakers to ensure that those who can afford it help pay for those who cannot.

In such a system, Thoma said, the government—not private insurers—would be a logical authority to oversee coverage.

THE ACA AND BEYOND: Regardless of whether the Affordable Care Act continues or is eventually replaced by a Republican alternative, Thoma said the underlying principle is the same. For government-run health insurance markets to work, people must be required to participate. If healthier people don’t have to buy insurance, Thoma said, everyone is in trouble.

Health care isn’t like other goods and services. The costs to individuals can be astronomical, arising without warning—costs to treat a serious illness or an injury. Most people can’t save enough to prepare for these expenses or afford them when they happen.

The solution is to pool money in an insurance fund—everyone pays and that money covers major expenses for the unfortunate. The snag, Thoma said, is the cost, or premium, to join. It’s an average of the expected costs for both healthy and unhealthy members, so it’s automatically a bad deal for the healthy—it’s more than their expected costs, so why not skip the expense and gamble on not getting sick or injured?

To avoid this scenario, the ACA forces people to buy health insurance by charging those who would otherwise go without. But it doesn’t charge enough, Thoma said—too many healthy people still leave the pool.

Without a mandate that everyone buy health insurance, or a steep penalty for going without, the downward spiral begins: As those in good health leave the pool, premiums rise among those remaining, more people leave and eventually only those with high health-care costs remain, facing premiums that they can’t pay.

That’s bad for everybody, Thoma said, because we’ll all end up paying more for health care. Those who can’t pay for insurance will get care in emergency rooms or through other costly means, and insurers will cover those costs by raising everyone’s premiums.

SWITCH TO SINGLE-PAYER? An alternative to people buying (or not buying) health care is the “single payer” approach—residents pay taxes to the state and it becomes the single payer, providing health care or contracting for it with private organizations. This approach could become popular, Thoma said, as more people join Medicare, a single-payer program that provides health insurance for older Americans who have paid for it through a payroll tax.

But regardless of the plan, Thoma said people need help making informed choices about treatment.

Say the issue is cancer—is surgery the answer? What about radiation or chemotherapy? Which hospital? Health insurers must provide guidance. With private insurance, insurers decide what procedures they will cover depending on how high a premium the client is willing to pay. Alternatively, government can regulate health care and determine which procedures are appropriate.

BENDING THE COST CURVE: Be wary of lawmakers arguing that a looming fiscal crisis makes urgent the need for a health care overhaul, Thoma said—rising costs must be slowed but we haven’t arrived at a budgetary crisis.

Rising health care costs drive increases in the national debt. But interest rates for loans remain relatively low and foreign stakeholders continue to buy up our debt—both suggest that the economy is sound and that there is no looming budgetary crisis.

Joseph Lowndes—US Populism

Lowndes predicts there will be populist movements on the left that will continue in the vein of the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements.

Associate professor, Department of Political Science

Interests: American politics, conservatism, populism and race

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election shocked experts and everyday people alike and triggered exhaustive analysis of the factors behind his win.

Publications including The New York Times and National Review said at least one of the forces appeared to be a burgeoning populist movement—that is, those who believe that everyday people are being exploited by the “elites” of society, be they politicians, the wealthy, bankers or others in positions of power.

Lowndes has studied political movements for more than a quarter-century. He is fascinated by the role that populism played in the 2016 election on both sides of the political aisle. His prediction: This movement will remain a significant presence on the political landscape for the foreseeable future, requiring attention from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Populist movements thrive when the government can be convincingly cast as corrupt,” Lowndes said. “That’s when the idea of ‘the people’ has real resonance—they often collect around an anti-establishment leader with whom they identify.”

THE FUTURE OF “SANDERS POPULISM”: On the left side of the political aisle, populism was driven by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who mounted a strong challenge to eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Sanders energized millions with calls to more heavily tax the wealthy and break up the nation’s biggest banks—those calls aren’t going away.

The movement is alive, Lowndes said, and strong in Oregon, where it’s rooted in the Democratic politics of Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio. Both advocate campaign finance reform to curb contributions by wealthy “1 percenters” and give more control of government to the people.

It’s important to remember that Sanders’ populist momentum began outside the party, primarily with the Occupy movement that protested social inequality, Lowndes said—it appears that this trend could continue.

“There are likely to be populist movements on the left that will continue in future Occupy-type movements, Black Lives Matter and the ‘sanctuary city’ immigration movement,” Lowndes said.

INSTITUTIONS AND IMMIGRATION: On the right side of the political aisle, a hallmark of populism is distrust of the government and other institutions, Lowndes said.

As an ostensibly populist president, Trump is likely to continue to challenge status quo institutions such as the courts, when they oppose him on matters such as national security, or the media, when he believes he’s been subjected to unfair coverage.

The bigger question is whether Trump will be able to translate his populist momentum into policy. That will hinge primarily on whether items in his agenda will require cooperation with Congress.

Where Trump is “unconstrained” by his need to work with lawmakers or other institutions, Lowndes said, he can use executive authority to advance priorities of his populist base.

And he already has, with regard to deportation. After promising to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants, the new president signed an executive order just days after taking office that unleashed the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport many of them.

TRADE WARS AND REAL WARS: Regarding proposals that require legislative support, Trump will be forced to balance preferences of the far right with those of the mainstream Republican Party.

Right-wing populists generally view the international arena as filled with competitors or enemies of their country, Lowndes said. That is echoed in Trump’s calls for tighter restrictions on foreign trade and an at-times adversarial stance toward international alliances such as NATO.

But making—or breaking—treaties must be done in conjunction with the Senate, where it’s unclear if a “protectionist” approach will prevail over conservatives who favor open trade and international partnerships, Lowndes said.

Waging war is a different matter. Presidents increasingly take unilateral military action without congressional support, as evidenced by Trump’s missile strike against Syria. Such moves score points with Trump’s populist base, Lowndes said, by framing military action in the context of “winning quickly and getting out.”

But, he added, the president will eventually need congressional approval for any sort of sustained military campaign.

POTENTIAL FOR PREJUDICE: Right-wing populism can also align with fringe movements that are intolerant of minorities, Lowndes said. He expects Trump’s win to bring into the political foreground nationalist sentiments in opposition to international influence and this country’s changing racial demographics.

There are direct connections, Lowndes said, between the new administration and such movements. Stephen Bannon, a key Trump adviser, was the head of Breitbart news, a website that Bannon claimed to have made into a platform for “the alt-right”—a loose affiliation of nationalists whose ideologies are linked explicitly to white supremacy, Lowndes said.

As whites lose majority status in this country, Lowndes said, “opportunities for the growth of powerfully racist, authoritarian politics will abound. Regardless of whether Trump is reelected, dangerous forms of white populism will likely develop both inside and outside the party system.

Craig Parsons—Populism Abroad

Professor, Department of Political Science

Interests: European politics, comparative politics

It’s an understatement to say that Britain’s divorce from the EU will be challenging. Parsons called it “one of the most complicated negotiations in the history of the world.”

The world has never been smaller.

The flow of people and business across national borders is at an all-time high. Global trade is rising. The planet’s biggest cities are extraordinarily diverse.

This trend causes some to worry that newcomers might overwhelm the status quo—they want to protect their nation’s jobs, public services and cultural identity.

In 2016, according to The New York Times and other news organizations, these concerns sparked a fundamental change to Europe’s political landscape: Great Britain voted to exit from the European Union, which oversees trade, immigration and services for more than 20 countries.

The theme of the “Brexit” vote, according to political scientist Craig Parsons, was “we want to control our country.” That idea is rooted in nationalism, which holds that a nation should govern itself free from outside interference and should preserve its identity—that is, shared characteristics such as culture, language and race.

“The Brexit campaign was about whipping up the people and pushing away external authority,” Parsons said. “Britain now faces serious questions as it tries to break from the EU because the Brexiteers can’t reclaim undivided national control without huge costs.”

POPULISM AND THE EU: The Brexit vote illustrates the rise of “populist nationalism,” Parsons said—the pursuit of nationalist ideas in ways that resonate with populists. Populists believe that everyday people are being exploited by politicians, the wealthy, bankers or others in positions of power. The populists leading the Brexit campaign persuaded voters that their national values and sovereignty had been “sold out” to the EU by elites and previous leadership.

YOU BREAK IT, YOU BOUGHT IT: The question for Britain now is whether populist-nationalists will get what they want in divorcing the EU, or whether more moderate positions will prevail. It’s an understatement to say that the process of splitting apart will be challenging. Parsons called it “one of the most complicated negotiations in the history of the world.”

The EU has stated that Britain must pay $50 billion euros to buy itself out of EU assets in the country and other commitments. There are also three million EU residents in Britain on passports and their citizenship is now uncertain; processing them all and granting approvals for residency within current rules would take 150 years, Parsons said—an impossible job.

But the biggest problem facing British government and its populist faction is the choice between economic vitality and controlling immigration.

Many Brexiteers want to control immigration. But the British economy depends heavily on access to the EU market, the world’s largest trading bloc—and the EU doesn’t open the market to countries that don’t allow free movement for EU citizens.

“The mandate the British government has drawn up for untangling from the EU is full control of their borders and, at the same time, major access to the EU market,” Parsons said. “Those conditions look to be mutually exclusive.”

NOT A DEATH KNELL FOR THE EU: Despite the spread of populist-nationalism across the continent, it’s unlikely that more countries will leave the EU and threaten its existence, Parsons said.

The movement succeeded in Britain because those skeptical of the EU gained control of the Conservative Party, one of British parliament’s two mainstream parties, and thus had the power to put the issue before the people. But most European countries don’t have a two-party system, making it much more difficult for a radical position to gain the legislative control necessary to put an issue up to a public vote.

MAY, MACRON AND LE PEN: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s move to hold a “snap” election June 8—three years early—is an attempt to secure her post for years and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations. But May’s nationalist party base is pushing her campaign in aggressive populist directions, which may make negotiations harder.

Meanwhile France is moving the other way. Centrist Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory over populist-nationalist Marine Le Pen showed the challenges populists there face in taking power. Mainstream politicians and voters refused to ally with the far right, limiting Le Pen’s appeal and empowering pro-EU leadership.

GERMAN ELECTIONS: Nor does Parsons predict big gains for populists in German elections this fall.

The country is beset by the same challenges that stoke populist feelings elsewhere—immigrant and refugee influxes and fears about foreign-born terrorists. But there aren’t the same concerns about joblessness experienced elsewhere in Europe, Parsons said—the country rode out the Great Recession better than any other large economy. In addition, the German parliamentary system is designed specifically to block small, fringe parties from making big legislative gains.

In the German election, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a major challenge from Martin Schultz, a candidate just left of center, popular for his charismatic approach to governance.

Populism’s rise in Europe is rooted in the failure of leaders to manage globalization and immigration. Schulz can tie Merkel to that narrative, Parsons said—she is the most prominent world leader to have welcomed vast numbers of Syrian refugees, some 400,000-plus, prompting violent protests in some areas.

The Trump administration is acting on several fronts as it manages the economy—but that’s a delicate dance, economist Tim Duy said, and the wrong move can cause the nation to stumble.

Tim Duy—The Economy

Professor of practice, Department of Economics, and director, Oregon Economic Forum

Interests: macroeconomics, monetary policy, local and regional economics

The US economy grew 1.6 percent in 2016, down from 2.6 percent the year before. Forecasts are for around 2 percent growth for the next 10 years.

Is that too fast? Too slow? Or just right?

Economic growth is the increase in the amount of goods and services produced over time, and it relates directly to the number of jobs available. If growth is too slow, jobs vanish; if it’s too fast, there aren’t enough workers to keep up, and that causes rising prices and inflation.

What’s a president to do?

The Trump administration is acting on several fronts as it manages the economy—but that’s a delicate dance, economist Tim Duy said, and the wrong move can cause the nation to stumble.

Administration officials are weighing increased spending and tax cuts as they debate the proper rate of economic growth. Were Duy privy to that discussion, he’d be counseling caution regarding any major moves.

FIRST, DO NO HARM: Despite job losses in manufacturing, President Trump inherited, overall, a healthy economy, Duy said—low unemployment, solid wage and job growth, rising workforce participation, low inflation and low interest rates.

Stealing a page from the Hippocratic Oath, he said the best policy for the new administration would have been to “do nothing,” for fear of harming economic momentum.

Trump officials have other plans. The president has made tax reform a priority and has proposed broad-based personal tax cuts. Tax cuts that favor the wealthy might temporarily boost the economy, Duy said, but it would be more effective if those tax cuts went to the middle and lower classes.

Infrastructure spending—which Trump has also proposed—helps the economy if it raises productivity. Road projects, for example, can reduce shipping costs, which benefits producers and consumers, Duy said.

But other moves could slow growth, he added—restricting immigration, for example, hurts the labor supply in many sectors.

THE “D” WORDS:  Some people fear that a slowdown in economic growth could cause deficits and debt to grow.

Duy doesn’t share this worry. Annual deficits of $400 billion have pushed US debt to $20 trillion. But economists haven’t identified the amount of debt that is problematic for a country such as the United States, Duy said, which doesn’t truly face the prospect of bankruptcy. As a last resort, he noted, the country can pay off debt by printing more money—although that can trigger inflation.

Duy is more concerned that the administration will trigger excessive economic growth—that is, more than the workforce can accommodate. Because that can cause inflation, officials will likely try to avoid that scenario by raising interest rates, making it more difficult for businesses to borrow money and grow.

WHITHER THE FEDERAL RESERVE: Those officials are with the Federal Reserve—they set US monetary policy, and the makeup of their board is one of the most intriguing questions under the new administration, Duy said.

The Reserve’s job is to maximize employment and keep prices stable, and they do this by adjusting interest rates to keep the economy growing at a steady-but-sustainable rate. The current board would likely raise interest rates in response to a surge in the economy, to keep that growth in check, Duy said.

The operative term is “current”: Given upcoming departures from the Reserve board, Trump could appoint as many as seven members over the next two years, dramatically swinging fiscal policy from controlling growth with high interest rates to more likely freeing it with low ones.

“If you’re worried about the Federal Reserve offsetting your efforts to stimulate the economy,” Duy said, “you stack it with people who favor lower interest rates.”

He favors the appointment of “run-of-the-mill centrists” less likely to tip the economy into recession through extreme swings in interest rates.

—Matt Cooper

photos: Charlie Litchfield