Donald Trump's catastrophic ignorance
The general election has begun, and Donald Trump is clearly trying to pivot to the center. As my colleague Jeff Spross points out, he's backed away from his monstrously rich-tilted tax plan, suggested more government borrowing might be in order, and raised the possibility of increasing the minimum wage.
It's very clearly an attempt to win middle- and working-class votes for the general election. Looking past his outrageous bigotry, there's just one problem with this strategy: Trump's spectacular policy ignorance. It's going to be hard to capture the center when one has only the vaguest idea of what that even means.
As the various fact-checking crews never tire of pointing out, Trump is constantly making one outrageously false statement after another. Many of them are just simple lies about how rich he is, whether or not his steaks exist, how well he's doing in the polls, and so forth. But many other times it's Trump genuinely trying to opine about some issue, and falling flat on his face because he doesn't know what he's talking about.
There was the time that Marco Rubio landed a rare clean hit on him during the primary debates by demonstrating clearly that Trump has no plan whatsoever to replace ObamaCare, or on another occasion when it was stone obvious that he has no idea how the old Cuba embargo worked, or what the newly opened relationship entails.
President Trump renames Obamacare to 'Trumpcare.' 'it's good now, I fixed it.' Trump declares
— raandy (@randygdub) August 26, 2015
More recently, Trump said several times that Puerto Rico (suffering a serious debt crisis) should simply declare bankruptcy. That's a good idea except that it's illegal, which is actually the subject of a proposal being fiercely debated in Congress. That's the entire problem in the first place. He's not just ignorant, he can't even be bothered to pay attention to the most basic content of what's happening in Washington.
More alarmingly, he also suggested on Thursday that should the U.S. ever run into any debt problems, he would just force creditors to accept a reduction in the value of their bonds (or "haircut"). This means at least partial sovereign default. As U.S. debt is the foundation of the global financial system, this would quite literally threaten economic Armageddon — and clearly comes from a misapplication of business logic to government policy, as Matt Yglesias notes. Trump made his money by borrowing a lot, investing in rapidly appreciating real estate, cashing out the equity, then declaring bankruptcy if there was a crash later, as economist Hyman Minksy detailed at the time.
That's a sensible if parasitic approach to business. But it's no way to run a nation. Government policy creates the underlying economic framework that allows businessmen to take risks like Trump did building up his fortune. U.S. government debt, as the world's safest economic asset, is a key part of that framework. Treating it like a corporate junk bond would make it massively more risky that previously thought, creating a financial shockwave that would reverberate through the entire world and cause a global economic panic.
More to the point, there's no reason to do such a thing. Businesses borrow because it's one way to get money. But governments can create infinite money out of thin air. With the world's reserve currency, the U.S. government is most concerned with workers, infrastructure, raw materials, and inflation, not using bonds to make a quick buck.
There's probably a limit to how much this sort of alarming bungling will hurt Trump. He seems to vaguely understand that people like higher wages and welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, which will do him some good, and it must be admitted that a great many voters don't have the slightest clue about public policy.
Still, to the small extent that anyone trusts economic journalists and pundits anymore, this sort of thing will create a deluge of coverage portraying Trump as an incompetent maniac who's going to obliterate everyone's job. That's going to make running to the middle a tough sell.