In an interview with The Economist, President Donald Trump whiffed on a batch of economic facts. He got the Canada-U.S. trade balance wrong, misplaced the U.S. in the world ranks of tax burdens and claimed to have coined an economic phrase that’s been familiar to economists for some 80 years.
A look at some of his assertions to the magazine:
TRUMP: “We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world.”
THE FACTS: Trump has repeatedly made variations on this false claim. The overall U.S. tax burden is one of the lowest among the 32 developed and large emerging-market economies tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Taxes made up 26.4 percent of the total U.S. economy in 2015, according to the OECD. That’s far below Denmark’s tax burden of 46.6 percent, Britain’s 32.5 percent or Germany’s 36.9 percent. Just four OECD countries had a lower tax bite than the U.S.: South Korea, Ireland, Chile and Mexico.
Trump qualified his claim later in the interview by saying the top marginal corporate tax rate, specifically, is higher than in similar industrialized countries. That’s more or less true, although the higher rate is moderated by tax breaks not available in some of those other countries.
Trade deficit with Canada
TRUMP: “Right now the United States has ... about a $15 billion trade deficit with Canada.”
THE FACTS: His numbers are upside down. The United States actually ran an $8.1 billion trade surplus with Canada last year, according to the latest numbers available from the Census Bureau. A $24.6 billion U.S. surplus with Canada in the trade of services, including tourism and software, outweighed a $16.5 billion deficit in the trade of goods, including autos and oil.
Trump, who regularly decries the loss of American manufacturing jobs, tends to emphasize trade in goods and ignore trade in services. His comment about Canada came as his administration seeks a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
The U.S. last year ran a deficit of $750 billion in goods with the rest of the world but recorded a $249 billion surplus in services.
‘Prime the pump’
TRUMP: “You understand the expression ‘prime the pump’? ... I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do. We have to prime the pump.”
THE FACTS: He didn’t coin that phrase. It’s a well-worn metaphor for generating faster growth, first made popular as an economic analogy more than 80 years ago during the Great Depression.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary people quickly tweeted that the phrase “priming the pump” has been around since the early 1800s. Literally, it’s about pouring water into a pump to allow it to create suction. The phrase was commonly used by mining publications during the 1920s, but it took on new significance after the economy cratered during the Depression.
By 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promoted the idea of flushing money into the economy to stimulate stronger growth with his New Deal policies. Such policies rankled Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover.
“One of the ideas in these spendings is to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said in a 1935 post-presidential speech. “We might abandon this idea also, for it dries up the well of enterprise.”
China and currency manipulating
TRUMP, on backing away from his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator: “They’re actually not a currency (manipulator). You know, since I’ve been talking about currency manipulation with respect to them and other countries, they stopped.”
Treasury Secretary STEVE MNUCHIN, pitching in: “Right, as soon as the president got elected, they went the other way.”
THE FACTS: Trump persists in taking credit for something that happened before he even started running for president. China manipulated its currency, the yuan, lower for years before stopping in mid-2014; Trump’s presidential run began a year later.
A weak yuan helps Chinese exports because it makes them cheaper to buy. It disadvantages goods from the U.S. and other countries because they are more expensive to get in China.
Until 2005, China pegged the yuan to the dollar at a specific level. When it loosened the peg, the yuan began to rise steadily against the dollar. Worried that a strong currency would hurt their exporters, Chinese officials bought dollars to prevent the yuan from rising even faster.
The value of the yuan peaked in early 2014, as the Chinese economy slowed after years of torrid growth. The yuan then began to fall relative to the dollar, but not because Chinese officials were once again intervening to push it down. China was actually doing the opposite: selling dollars and buying yuan to prevent its currency from going into a free fall.