24 January 2017

How Trump really can make America great again

By Todd G. Buchholz

President Donald Trump’s winning campaign spent more on red hats and mugs that say “Make America Great Again” than on pollsters, consultants and all the other expenses that usually fuel a presidential race. Those hats sold well, and so did the message. Americans thirst to taste greatness again, after a decade-long slump in incomes at home and failed foreign policies abroad.  

In The Price of Prosperity I lay out the five factors that bring down great nations, forces that undid the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, the Venetians, and the Romans. Trump must tackle all of them – and he confronts tougher odds than he ever faced on the golf course or in his casinos. But tough odds are not impossible odds.

Work Ethic

When Trump shows up for work in the Oval Office, he will encounter worrisome statistics showing that 95 million Americans are out of the workforce. Even as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the labour participation rate continued to slip.  

One in six able-bodied men aged 25-54 choose to stay at home, possibly playing video games, rather than reporting for a job. History shows that when a rich nation shatters, people don’t go hungry. They just stop waking up early.  

The US also has a disability crisis. Jobs are safer than ever before, especially since many factories have shut down. And yet 10 million collect disability payments from the government. Trump must inspire hard work, and also adopt policies to encourage it. I have proposed signing bonuses to induce the unemployed back into the workforce.

Falling Birthrates

To make America great again Trump may have to make America mate again. When countries grow rich, people have fewer babies. The US birthrate has been dropping to the lowest level on record. This trend shows up throughout history, from Victorian England back to Ancient Rome.  

We used to size up a man by counting his children. Now we count Rolex watches, six-pack abs, and Twitter followers.

So what? Don’t fewer babies mean less whining, crying, and spitting up? Yes, but with older people living ever longer, it also means fewer young workers to serve as neurosurgeons in hospitals or as manicurists in salons. Without young people entering the workforce, the U.S. must rely on immigrants, which brings cultural challenges.  

Globalised Trade

Nations cannot grow and stay rich without trading.  If a country does not trade, it grows stale and fetid, like North Korea, a place whose slogan should be “one country, one leader, one haircut”.

But there is a downside to trading.  It shakes the customs and character of a country.  Moreover, weak companies get stomped into bankruptcy by foreign competitors, throwing employees out of work.  

Mr Trump has targeted Mexico and China for unfair trading. I suggest he follow the example of President Reagan, who managed to promote free trade while picking some strategic battles to pry open foreign markets.

Rising Debt and Bureaucracy

President Obama racked up nearly as much debt in his eight years in office as all prior presidents combined. But it is not his problem any more. It is Mr. Trump’s.  

As nations grow rich, they inflate their debts and hire more bureaucrats. Each American is now stuck with $61,000 in government debt. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats end up writing excessive regulations that further bind the economy.  

Here is an example. Hair stylists in the state of Arizona must take 1,600 hours of classroom instruction. A policeman only takes 600. Apparently, it’s almost three times as dangerous to handle a blow-dryer than a Glock.

Building Patriotism Amid Multiculturalism

The US Mint in Washington engraves American coins with the motto e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). In the past few decades, our schools have exalted the pluribus but have disparaged the unum. A school in Brooklyn cancelled the annual Thanksgiving Day celebration for fear that immigrant students might be offended (the Thanksgiving Pilgrims were immigrants!). The student council at the University of California, Irvine voted to ban the American flag from campus, because it purportedly represents imperialism and colonialism. The movement spread through Instagram and Snapchat.  

I would urge Mr. Trump to require all immigrants and all native-born students seeking a loan from the government to get their passport stamped at historical landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.  

For America to survive, much less find greatness, Mr Trump must stimulate work outside of Washington, while curtailing the work of bureaucrats within the city. He must inspire young people to care more about whether their nation holds together – and less about Instagram, Snapchat and all the other social media that Mr Trump dominated in order to win the presidency.    

Todd G. Buchholz is a former White House economic adviser and the author of The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them