The author lives in Goleta.
A recent defense of President Trump penned by Joe Armendariz in the Voices section served to remind me once again of one of the most widely held fallacies that affect political decision making in this country. That fallacy is that the president of the United States of America is responsible for the operation and performance of the country’s economy. I am unsure how this fallacious notion ever took hold in the nation, but it has become such a widely and commonly held article of faith that it may qualify as the country’s only universally shared religious belief.
The factors that combine and interact to determine the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the economy are so varied and complex in their interactions that highly intelligent scholars who dedicate their entire lives to the study of economics are unable to accurately predict long-term economic outlooks or to agree on a consistent theoretical basis for guaranteed beneficial economic outcomes. Furthermore, no single person, even one unencumbered by the restrictions in power built into the Constitution of the United States, has the power, authority or wisdom to single-handedly manipulate the economy in a manner so as to achieve a desired outcome. Presidents, therefore, should be ascribed neither sole credit nor sole blame for the performance of the economy during their respective tenures.
At least since Herbert Hoover somehow got blamed for the Great Depression, we, as a nation, have been blaming presidents for bad economic times and alternatively giving them credit when the good times roll. A quick perusal of the 13 or so paragraphs of Article II of the Constitution, which outline the powers and duties of the executive, should disabuse anyone of the notion that the president of the United States controls and is somehow responsible for the economy of the nation. At its most powerful, the executive may concur with or veto laws and budgets passed by Congress that may have some effect on the economy.
The president is not vested with any sweeping powers that would materially affect the operation and performance of the nation’s complex economic engine. Yet we insist upon laying blame on Hoover, Carter and Bush for economic contractions, and praising the economic genius of Roosevelt, Clinton and Trump for economic expansions. At best, these presidents played roles consistent with their constitutionally limited powers in both economic failures and successes, but more likely each was either so unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
To be sure, international relations, including trade policy, legislative action, domestic public policies, and manipulation of the supply of currency can all affect the economy; and the president has a role to play in all these activities. However, the president is not the sole architect of governmental action that results in economic impacts. Also, while the actions of government, whether legislative, executive or judicial, may produce good or ill economic effects, such actions are seldom, if ever, the primary driver of economic growth or contraction.
Sometimes actions intended to alleviate some economic problem, or produce some positive growth-inducing outcome, backfire and have unintended consequences both large and small. Still, in a relatively free market society such as our own, the government’s ability to power and steer the economic ship is very limited. We are to a great extent at the mercy of powerful conflicting forces not entirely under our control.
By and large, we have come to trust the market to operate according to what we have come to believe are the laws of supply and demand. We understand that the market is not a moral entity and does not care if people are harmed by economic fluctuations. To a certain extent, we attempt to use policy to ameliorate any harm produced by such fluctuations and attempt to prevent them from happening in the future. However, fixing one problematic aspect of the economy quite often creates other problems.
Again, it is not just the president that takes such actions, but also the other branches of government, the banks, the investors, the workers, the inventors, the governments and citizens of other countries, the weather, and on and on. There are a lot of moving parts to this thing. The poor hapless resident of the White House is only one of them, and a small one at that.
The president does have serious powers that determine how government operates and how the laws are enforced. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president holds the life or death of millions in his or her hands. The power to appoint the judiciary has the effect of presidential input into the interpretation of the law and the Constitution. While only Congress may declare war, we have been led into all the wars we have fought by a president. These powers are not trivial, and the effects of presidential action can be profound and lasting for both good or ill. It is important to carefully consider and soberly choose our president every four years. Who holds the office matters greatly.
However, choosing a president based on past performance or future promised performance of the economy is basing the choice on criteria outside the authority and power of the office. Why we insist as a nation on linking the operation and performance of the economy with the office of the president remains a mystery to me.