Krugman was offering an explanation for why the Republicans are finding that their tax bill, their only major accomplishment under Trump, is so unpopular. It is a terrible bill, but so were the Bush tax cuts, and they polled much better. Krugman said that the American people have finally woken up, and realized that this bill cheats them. He said that Americans understand that Donald Trump can not be trusted, and therefore they are feeling a healthy skepticism for anything related to him. I wish I could believe that. In Donald Trump, we have a man who employs a fixer to make problems go away. We expect mob bosses to do that, not presidents. But Americans, even when they tell pollsters that their dislike and even distrust of Congress is at an all time high, want to believe that their government is at least trying to act in their best interests. That is exactly why the Bush tax cuts were popular. The reason the Trump tax cuts are unpopular is much simpler than Krugman realizes. It has to do with a variation on a question once made famous by a Republican: are you better off than you were a year ago?
Krugman probably is better off than he was. He is, deservedly, well compensated for what he does, and so his tax cut probably gave him more cash on hand than he had last year. But Paul Krugman, for all of his brilliance, does not live in my world. I am not dirt poor. I have a good job that pays me well above the poverty level, even as the sole bread winner for a family of four. But I am not better off than I was a year ago, and neither are most Americans. There are two main reasons for this, both of which completely consumed my tax cut before I ever got it. First, I live in area that is very poorly served by public transportation, so gas prices are a key part of my budget. They are much higher than they were a year ago. On top of that, I have had medical benefits most of the time through my employer since 1999, and I have never seen the cost of them jump as much as they did this year. Even without the cost of gas, that consumed my tax cut and more. Most Americans are feeling the bite of these two issues, and they blame their government for their plight. In the face of this, they regard their tax cut as a cruel joke. They understand that the tax cut only helped people richer than themselves. They don’t own the tax cut, because they can not see that it helped.
In light of all of this, it is worth asking if Americans are being fair. Are the rises in gas prices and healthcare the Republicans’ fault? Are they Trump’s fault? Let’s talk about healthcare first. This one is pretty clear cut. Last year, Donald Trump tried to get the Republicans in Congress to keep a long standing promise to get rid of Obamacare. He failed, because voters let their Representatives and Senators know that they had come to depend on the protections embedded in the Affordable Care Act. But Trump, with the blessings of Republicans in both Houses, did everything he could to destabilize the insurance market. Premiums are higher this year because the uncertainty and instability this created, and that was the plan. Trump and his allies hoped to create enough pain to justify getting rid of the ACA at some point in the future. The tax cut bill itself also repealed the individual mandate in the ACA, which will only make things worse going forward.
Oil prices are harder to pin down. Barack Obama does not get enough credit for getting oil prices down to the levels they were at by the end of his presidency. He did this by continuing, and even expanding, a program started by George W Bush to promote domestic production. The Trump administration and its allies are, if anything, even friendlier to oil producers. Trump is willing to abandon any environmental concerns in the name of the all mighty dollar, and that certainly applies to the oil industry. But there were two other important reasons why gas prices fell so much under Obama. Obama did everything he could to pursue peace in the Middle East. Some specific conflicts were intractable, and they remain volatile now. But Obama used a shrewd combination of diplomacy and military force as a last resort, to get and keep oil flowing from places like Iraq and Syria. In contrast, Trump has not even hired ambassadors to some oil producing nations, and his bellicose manner in international affairs has threatened to jeopardize the flow of oil. Until last week, however, it was hard to point to anything specific that Trump had done that made oil more expensive. Breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran and threatening new economic sanctions changed that, and there was an immediate reaction in the price of oil futures worldwide. The other Obama initiative that helped tame gas prices was an aggressive push to promote alternative energy sources. Trump brought that to a screeching halt almost as soon as he took office.
Now you might think that things can’t possibly be as bad as I say. After all, the economy continues to expand. Unemployment is at a historic low. Where are the signs of the distress that I allege makes people dislike the tax cut bill so much? Actually, the signs are there for any who care to read them, and they are getting clearer. Yes, the April jobs report showed that unemployment fell below 4% for the first time since 2000. But job creation was actually pretty weak; unemployment fell because 236,000 people dropped out of the workforce. In addition, the stocks of casual dining companies have been down all year, because people are eating out less. And there have been 11 bankruptcies in the retail sector this year. That is a record for this time of year, and includes the demise of Toys R Us. All of this will translate over time into job losses, and will further strain the economy. The stock market can continue to defy gravity for some time, as corporations continue to use their tax cuts to buy back shares, instead of raising wages as the Republicans promised. Wealthy individuals will continue to need someplace to put their tax cut loot to work, and it won’t be any place that increases consumer spending or creates jobs. But the stock market is not the economy, and there will have to be a reckoning at some point.
So there you have it. Americans reject the tax cut bill not because of some great awakening in consciousness, but simply because they have less money now than before they got their tax cut. I wish Paul Krugman was right, but I don’t see it.