In a new book published this month, New York Times reporter Jim Tankersley set out to get to the bottom of the problems in the American economy. "The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America's Middle Class" traces the changes that have shaped Americans' jobs and lives in the second half of the 20th century and recent decades, diagnosing what has gone wrong and how politicians have failed to offer solutions.
A primary target of the book is President Donald Trump's vision of American society, in which immigrants supposedly compete for scarce jobs and white working-class men are tossed aside in favor of other groups. This perspective, Tankersley makes clear, does not match reality —even if the media erroneously lent it credibility. Workers are not actually pitted against each other in the American economy, and racial minorities and women have often suffered along with if not worse than white workers encountering hard times. Fixing what ails working Americans involves getting everyone to see that their interests are aligned, not in tension.
Tankersley also dismantles Trump's frequent claims that he kept his 2016 campaign promises and built an economy that works for everyone prior the coronavirus, a central theme of the Republican National Convention. This just isn't true, and the pandemic and economic crisis have revealed that devastating fissures in society remain pernicious sources of unjust inequality and disadvantage. Even before the crisis hit, Tankersley argues, we weren't on a sustainable path to creating a secure and prosperous economy for everyone.
I spoke with Tankersley about the book and how he understands the ongoing economic crisis, as well as Trump's leadership. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Cody Fenwick: You’ve clearly been working on this book for a while, but it actually discusses the pandemic and the current economic crisis extensively. How much did recent events change or affect your thinking?
Jim Tankersley: Like you said, it’s years in the making. Which is cool. But we had basically put it to bed around New Year’s. And then here comes this pandemic in late February and early March, and we knew right away that we needed to update it because this was going to be a huge economic crisis. So I did. I ripped out probably 5,000 words and wrote an additional 5,000 on top of that, so I probably changed or added 10,000 words while I was balancing with my day job covering the crisis for the Times.
So I think, in retrospect, this crisis just makes the themes of the book that much clearer. The people who had been hurting, even in our recovery, are the ones who were dramatically, lopsidedly, the most damaged by this crisis. I’m glad we were able to get some of that in.
That’s interesting. Obviously there’s this idea that Trump is running on that before the pandemic, everything was going fine in the country. That’s pretty explicitly his message. But obviously, you argue that a lot more was going on. But doesn’t he have something of a good case? There were a lot of strong economic indicators coming out.
There were. First off, we have to judge Trump based on his own promises. And on that, it’s clear he didn’t live up anywhere close to what he said. He said you’d have 4 or 5 or 6 percent growth, you’d pay off the entire budget deficit, he’d bring millions of jobs back from overseas. None of that happened. It didn’t come anywhere close to happening. And in fact, what did happen was that he basically had a 21st-century replacement-level economy for a second-term president — he just happened to get a recession at the end of his term, not at the start.
So Obama and George W. Bush both inherited economies that are both basically in recession or falling toward it, in Bush’s case. And then they spend their first terms digging out. And then their second terms look almost identical in terms of growth rates to Trump’s, both for employment and GDP and for wages.
But the difference for Trump is he inherits an economy that is getting closer to full employment. Low unemployment already. It’s been growing for several years in a row. It becomes the longest expansion in American history. And so that allows him to claim credit for the rising wages and things that happen at the end of his third year in office.
And he also just dumps a bunch of fiscal and monetary stimulus on it. I’m not critical of those moves — they kept an expansion going — I just don’t think they’re long-term politically sustainable. You’re just not going to have low interest rates and high budget deficits forever. And, you know, recessions come along. And that’s the other part of this. It’s true that for the first three years Trump had, like I said, a stretch very comparable to Obama or Bush’s first three years of their second terms.
But we can’t really deny the fact that the fourth year looks really bad. So to compare his record to Obama’s — Obama’s included a recession too. So I think it’s fair to judge it on those merits.
Yeah. One thing I’ve written about is that while Trump likes to claim credit for the economy, but a lot of the economy is just on autopilot for a president. They’re not actually creating jobs every day. And what you really want to worry about is what happens when things go wrong. So how are you assessing how he’s handling things now that things are going wrong?
I think there’s two things. First, his economic team back in February was incredibly dismissive of the idea that the coronavirus was going to affect our recovery. The chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers — I was in this briefing with reporters — when he was asked: “Are you worried about coronavirus?” And he said: “No, I’m not worried about it at all. I think it’s overblown.”
And there were some in the White House who were very worried about it, but the initial response was shaped in part by this idea that they had built this bullet-proof recovery. Which they hadn’t. Obviously, no country in the world has been able to escape the difficulties of this pandemic on their economy. Then, I think, once we get into it and the decision is made to shut down economic activities, state by state, city by city, you obviously can’t blame the president for that.
But what we’re starting to see as we’re coming out of it, particularly as the numbers start to slide again, is this real damage of opening up the economy before sufficient tracing and testing, and other ways of getting the virus under control, in place first. And it’s that impatience which — and Trump absolutely was impatient about this. He wanted the economy open again by Easter. That impatience, I’m increasingly hearing from economists, held back the recovery. Officials and others are saying Trump has been so eager to claim recovery is happening that the country has not really done the work to make sure we have the systems in place to track, trace, test, and otherwise reassure American consumers that they can get back to something like normal life with the virus still raging.
And so the economy is going to be held back so long as that’s not under control.
Do you have any theory of why Trump still polls relatively well on the economy?
First off, his numbers have slipped on the economy. They used to be his strongest suit — I think they still are his strongest, but I’ve seen several polls this summer where he had fallen even or fallen behind Biden on economic questions.
I think the president is a very good economic storyteller. And a lot of people who support him — not just his white working-class base, but a lot of his Republican donor class — still really buys this idea of his approach of low taxes, low regulations. And there’s perhaps varying degrees of buy-in to his trade policies. But there’s this idea that he had a business acumen that could get the country back going.
And I think a lot of people underrated that narrative in its ability to capture voters in 2016, and I think it’s very sticky for people. And he’s also just relentlessly selling the idea that the economy is doing well. The vice president the other day was on television the other day bragging that they had created more jobs in two months than Obama had created in his presidency. That is chutzpah! But it is relentless messaging. I don’t think there’s any sorcery behind why the president’s popular on the economy — I think he’s relentlessly selling the idea that he’s good on the economy, and for a long time he had the levels on low unemployment to sell that.
And even now — there’s been no reshoring of jobs from China — [but] you still see people telling pollsters that they think he brought back a lot of jobs. And I just think that’s really effective political messaging.
So I wanted to get to the core idea of the book, as I interpreted it, that the president and much of the media push this false idea that there’s a zero-sum competition between white, male working-class workers and a lot of other groups. Can you summarize what you think is the best evidence against that idea?
I think there’s a lot of evidence against that idea. The best evidence in part is just the idea that we have seen times when white male workers were the best, the middle-class boom of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, have also been amazing for women and when immigrants who came in weren’t “stealing” jobs. And wages were going up for everybody.
The central argument of the book goes beyond that, to show that in deep economic research, 40 percent of the U.S. per-worker growth since 1960 has come from the improved allocation of talent. Which is a fancy way of saying breaking down barriers of discrimination to education and job opportunities for women, for Black men, for people who aren’t white guys.
It’s an intuitive but cool-when-you-think-about-it idea. There’s no rational reason why 95 percent of all doctors, lawyers, or engineers in the United States should be white men. That’s on its face evidence of discrimination. So when you start opening up opportunity for other people to fill those jobs, you get better performance from those jobs. And that better performance helps lift the entire economy.
So this idea that workers are in tension rests on this idea that the economy would be working better if it was only filled with workers who look like whatever your preferred worker group is, and that adding more diversity only weakens it. But the opposite is true. Immigrants make the economy more entrepreneurial, for example. They create jobs. Women flooded the workforce between 1950 and 1980 with basically zero impact on male labor force participation.
What we have seen are structural economic changes that have harmed all of these workers who have fallen. And I think the recent experience is a good example. The idea that white guys working were hurt by immigrants and Black workers and women with comparable education levels in the 2000s just doesn’t show up anywhere in the data. The opposite is true. They were maybe being hurt a little less than comparable Black or Hispanic workers.
So the argument of the book is that this false narrative is really easy politically. You can point at jobs and say: “Job X used to be filled by a certain type of person, and now it’s filled by a different type of person.” But that’s been true throughout American history, and it’s often not even a person. It’s often a robot or a computer that takes that job.
But what tends to happen in American history in the good times is that better jobs appear to replace the jobs that workers lose. We haven’t had that. And my argument is that the reason we haven’t had that in any way like we had it in ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s is that we just have not finished the work of empowering the people who would be creating those good jobs. And I argue that’s people who are not just white guys who went to college.
It’s a striking and persuasive argument. But one thing that concerned me about it is that it seemed very much like the argument Hillary Clinton was making in 2016. But for some reason — for many reasons — Donald Trump’s demagoguery won the day. Maybe she just wasn’t the right messenger, but does it concern you that no matter how persuasive the case may be, maybe it’s not a good political argument? Maybe the demagoguery is better for winning votes?
Well, I think American history shows that pitting workers against each other — it’s always easier when you have a villain. And that is not, by the way, something that is confined to the current president, or populists in general, or to Republicans. I have seen so many politicians over so any years run against a particular set of villains and tell people: “If we could only topple this villain, everything would be better.” It’s just not true.
It’s not an easy argument to make. I agree. I covered Clinton’s economic messaging in 2016, and it’s quite clear it was muddled. She had a lot of detail and wonky plans. She did not make a singular case for why people should trust that she would be someone would bring good jobs to these workers.
But I encounter this in the book and in talking to people. People want to know exactly where the jobs are going to come from. And it’s a very difficult thing to say: “Look, I know you lost your good job in a steel mill. But I’m confident that if we do these things, and empower these people, that a better job is going to appear.”
And often you are asked: “Well, where is it going to come from? What industry? Tell me where that industry is.”
And unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer. I don’t think it’s predictable at the time. Certainly, there are areas that seem ripe for the kind of job creation and innovation that put Americans with particularly skillsets who are being underutilized right now by the economy — people who are good with their hands, for example — back to work at higher value. I think there’s been a longtime hope that clean energy could do that. There’s some real hope that health care could do that.
But I’m really wary of saying that this job program X is going to result in industry Y creating all these good jobs. So I get it. One of the things the book wrestles with is that this is not an easy answer. If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago.
And it was somewhat accidental and driven by necessity that it happened in the post-war era. The fact that women went to work during the war was not a policy Americans voted for at the ballot box. It’s just what we had to do. But it changed things, it started a movement of change. And Civil Rights was obviously not just about economics. It was about justice, and human rights, and all the important things that equality brings. But it had massive economic benefits.
So I agree. It’s not an easy political message, and there’s not an easy packaged platform in this book for a candidate to run on. And there are plenty of other books out there purporting to give people those sorts of things. I just think the answers aren’t that easy. Perhaps it’s the luxury of being an economics reporter and not a politician to say: “Hey, it’s really hard! But if we all changed our attitudes and really started to treat each other like people to invest in, and not competitors for a shrinking pie, we could have a bigger pie where everybody gets larger slices.”
I believe that’s true, but I also recognize the difficulties of selling people — particularly a jaded public like we have now, based on the last thirty, forty years of the economy — I recognize the limitations of trying to sell people on that.
You may not realize it, but I feel like you sound a lot like Hillary Clinton in 2016. The way you articulate your message is a lot like her. Like — “Stronger Together” — that was her slogan.
I know! I know. I spend a lot of time, that I include in the book, in this interview that I had with her and the way she talked about it. And I know some of the economists who were advising Hillary Clinton from very powerful positions in 2016.
And there are parts of my argument that are drawn from economists that are to the right of the spectrum from Clinton’s advisers. And I also think there’s a reason why it’s a difficult sell from someone who is seen as elite. Because people are really distrustful of elites. And I think one of the really fascinating things about Trump is that he’s a very rich man who travels in very elite circles, and yet he managed to portray himself as a crusader against the elite.
I think it’s difficult to be apart of the elite and to make a message that says, “Trust us, the elites have an idea for you that’s going to work.”
And that’s why, in the book, I acknowledge my own position in the role of the villains here. There’s a group of people that has done the best in the economy of the last forty years. They are white guys with college degrees. Elite white guys with college degrees — I am one of those. I’ve definitely benefited from the structure of the economy.
It would be a difficult political message to say: “Vote for me, I’m the villain.” But it’s easier to lay that out in the book.
This is perhaps why you should trust me on this because I’m in some ways arguing against my own short-term self-interest here. Though, long term, I think it’s in everyone's self-interest to get this right, including the winners of the economy over the last few decades.
Are there any particular trends or features of the economy that people are missing as warning signs of something deeper going wrong that we should be paying more attention to?
No. We’ve talked a lot about it, but the thing I worry most about in this crisis is this double-barrel health and economic impact on the most vulnerable workers. Black and Hispanic workers entered this recession with very little wealth, especially compared to white workers. They have been disproportionately on the front lines of the crisis, where they are having to choose between having to go to work and risking infection, and not working and losing income. They are less likely to be in jobs where they can work from home. And what we’ve seen in the health statistics is that their communities have contracted the virus at disproportionate rates. If you designed a recession to devastate the people who I am saying we need to invest in to rebuild the middle class, we have it right now. And that is really, really bad.
Something that policy needs to pay a lot more attention to is these workers — we can’t just get them back on the job. We need to figure out how to help them build wealth and help them to build an infrastructure as a country that will protect them better in any future crisis like this, economically and health-wise.