I was thinking about last year’s Federal government shutdown the other day. There are two million+ Federal workers. They make an average salary of just above $90,000 a year, which is 50% more than the typical worker in the US. Add in health insurance and pension benefits and their total compensation is double the national average.
On the surface, it seems odd to me that Federal workers began to run out of money almost the minute Mr. Trump laid them all off late last year. On second thought, though, given their apparent job security and generous benefits, there’s arguably no urgent reason for them to build up savings. Maybe they do live at what for others might be right on the edge.
That might explain the outsized negative impact laying Federal workers off en masse had on the economy, given that they represent only about 1.3% of the workforce? If each consumes as much as two average workers, which I think is a reasonable guess, then the layoff does the same damage as 2.5% of the total American workforce becoming unemployed.
This is bigger than you might think. A 2.5% rise in unemployment is what happens in a garden-variety recession. No wonder the economy appeared to fall off a cliff in January.
Consider, too, the effect of the Trump decision to withdraw from international associations in favor of waging country-to-country trade warfare. The resulting flurry of highly targeted tariffs and retaliatory counter-tariffs has made the US, at least for the moment, a uniquely bad place for new capital investment. That’s even without considering the administration’s policy of restricting domestic firms’ ability to hire highly talented foreign technicians and executives–a policy that has made Toronto the fastest-growing tech city in North America. Again, no surprise that new domestic capital additions sparked by tax cuts have fallen far below Washington estimates. And, of course, tariff wars have lowered demand for US goods abroad and raised prices of foreign goods here.
My point is that–apart from the ultimate merits of administration goals–they are being pursued in a strikingly shoot-yourself-in-the-foot way.
Yes, Federal workers are back on the job. I can’t imagine that they will resume their old spending habits, though, given the new employment uncertainty they are facing. Last week the administration discussed disrupting the supply chains of American multinationals with operations in Mexico. Yesterday, the talk was of a possible $11 billion in new tariffs on imports from the EU …and the retaliation that would surely follow. Even if none of this materializes, their possibility alone will increase the reluctance of companies to operate inside the US. The negative effect of all this may be much greater than the consensus thinks.
now the Federal Reserve
This central bank’s official role is to set monetary policy through its control of short-term interest rates. Its unoffical role is to be a political whipping boy. It takes the blame for (always) unpopular rises in interest rates that are needed to keep the economy from overheating, and on track to achieve maximum sustainable long-term GDP growth.
The two instances where the Fed has succumbed to Washington arm-twisting–the late 1970s and the early 2000s–have created really disastrous outcomes, the big recessions in 1981 and 2008.
Despite this, Mr. Trump has apparently decided to offset the negative economic effects of his tax and trade policies, not by stopping doing what’s causing harm, but by forcing the Federal Reserve into an ill-advised reduction in interest rates. His first step down this road will apparently be the nomination of two loyalists without economic credentials to fill open seats on the Fed’s board.
If the two, or similar individuals, are nominated and confirmed, the likely result will be a decline in the dollar, the start of a residential real estate bubble and a further shift of corporate expansion plans away from the US. We may also see the beginnings of the kind of upward inflationary spiral that plagued us in the late 1970s.
Replying to a comment on my MMT post, I wrote:
“Ultimately, though, the results would be a loss of confidence, both home and abroad, that lenders to the government would be paid back in full. That would show itself in some combination of currency weakness, accelerating inflation and higher interest rates. Typically, bonds and bond-like investments would fare the worst; investments in hard-currency assets or physical assets like real estate/minerals, or in companies with hard-currency revenues would fare the best. I think gold, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would go through the roof.”
I think the same applies to Mr. Trump gaining control over the Fed.