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Fact-checking Clinton, Trump claims on taxes, economy

There was plenty of heat in the first presidential debate about the economy, but not much light shed on the candidate's proposed economic policies.

Most of the often acrimonious discussion on taxes, trade and the economy between Republican hopeful Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton involved attacks on their opposing positions.

Some of what they said was true.

Here are the highlights:

The 1990s "Clinton" economy

A key focus of Clinton's economic message has been a reminder to voters of the period of prosperity characterized by her husband's two-term presidency.

But Trump has blamed Bill Clinton's role in the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 for the wave of U.S. manufacturing jobs that have been lost to competition from other countries.

The issue flared up again Monday night:

CLINTON: I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again ...

TRUMP: Well, he approved NAFTA ...
(CROSSTALK)

CLINTON: ... million new jobs, a balanced budget ...

TRUMP: He approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.

CLINTON: Incomes went up for everybody. Manufacturing jobs went up also in the 1990s, if we're actually going to look at the facts.

Economists are divided on the long-term impact of NAFTA, but Bill Clinton was not its chief architect. The treaty was negotiated over several years by the administration of George H.W. Bush, who signed the deal with the leaders of Canada and Mexico in 1992. It was then ratified by Congress, with support from both Republicans and Democrats, and signed by Bill Clinton in December 1993.

Hillary Clinton is correct that the 1990s saw one of the country's longest and strongest economic expansions.

She is also correct in claiming incomes went up for all rungs of the economic ladder. The median household income, adjusted for inflation, rose from $52,684 in 1990 to $57,790 in 2000.

But since then, incomes increased more slowly and flattened out for most of the recovery from the Great Recession. Households got their first real raise in a long time last year, when incomes rose to $56,516. Trump is correct when he said Monday that the median income is still lower than it was in 1999, when it peaked at $57,909.

Clinton is right that that there was a revival of goods-producing jobs beginning in 1992, from a low of about 22 million to nearly 24.5 million by 2000. That number fell to about 17.5 million at the depths of the Great Recession, though it has recovered by about 2 million jobs during the Obama administration.

It's less clear how much credit her husband can claim for that growth.

There were multiple forces propelling the booming economy of the 1990s, including a sharp drop in short-term interest rates — from 7 percent at the end of 1990 to 3 percent two year later — to offset a recession brought on in part from the crisis in the savings and loan industry. The decade was also marked by a historic boom in the computer and telecom industries, which not only sent stocks soaring but is widely credited with boosting the productivity of the U.S. economy.

Since then, productivity growth has slowed markedly — for reasons economists are still debating. That's one reason the recovery from the Great Recession has been slower than most.

Trump went further than many, declaring "Now, look, we have the worst revival of an economy since the Great Depression."

This is partly true. If you use employment as an economic benchmark, the recovery may have been slower than many, but it was not the worst. The jobless rate has fallen in half from a peak of 10 percent in 2009.

But Trump is correct that the overall growth in gross domestic product remains slower than any other post-war recovery. One reason, some economists argue, is that the Great Recession was unlike other downturns because it was caused by the crisis in the financial system, which inflicted much more damage on the economy than other recessions.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Once again, Trump attacked Clinton for her initial support of a sweeping trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that the Obama administration has negotiated over seven years with 11 other countries.

Many business groups support the deal, but it faces stiff opposition in Congress.

Trump: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it's the finest deal you've ever seen.

Clinton: No.

Trump: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.

Clinton: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated …

Trump: Not.

Clinton: … which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn't.

Clinton did support the deal during the negotiation stage, saying in 2012 that it "sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field."

But a year ago, she reversed her position, saying that despite the Obama administration's best efforts, "the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it."

Trump claimed Monday night that bad trade deals have left the U.S. with "a trade deficit with all of the countries that we do business with, of almost $800 billion a year."

This is not true. The U.S. trade deficit in goods — the difference between what America buys from other countries and what it sells overseas — came to $762.6 billion in 2015. But the trade deficit also include services, which produced a trade surplus of $262.2 billion. So the overall trade deficit last year came to $500.4 billion.

Trump also said that American companies continue to move jobs offshore, but he was not correct when he said that "Ford is leaving. ... Their small-car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio, they're all leaving."

Not true. Ford has said that the company is moving small-car production from Michigan to a new plant in Mexico, but will continue making a different model at the Michigan plant.


Taxes

Both candidates have proposed changes in the tax code to spur growth and create jobs. While the potential impact of those plans is hard to assess, it hasn't stopped Clinton and Trump from making bold claims about the benefits of their plans — and attacking their opponents' proposals.

Clinton claimed that "independent experts" have said that Trump's proposed tax cuts "would blow up the debt by over $5 trillion and would in some instances disadvantage middle-class families, compared to the wealthy. … We would lose 3.5 million jobs and maybe have another recession."

Any prediction about the impact of a tax plan on the economy and job market needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. So both candidates are reaching when they attach precise figures to these proposals.

Tax policy plays an important role in promoting economic growth and creating jobs, but estimating the impact requires making a number of assumptions that may or may not prove correct.

It's also highly unlikely that either candidate's proposal would survive intact through the inevitable, fierce battle in Congress and become law.

That said, several tax and budget watchdog groups have taken a shot at making sense of Clinton's and Trump's proposals.

One group, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has estimated that Clinton's plan, which includes tax increases on the highest earners, would add $200 billion to the national debt over a decade.

Trump's plan, which includes broad tax cuts, would increase the debt by $5.3 trillion, the group estimates.

Measured in relation to the overall economy, the debt would rise to above 86 percent of GDP under Clinton's plan and 105 percent under Trump, according to the group's recently updated analysis.

Jobs

Both candidates' promises to grow jobs by a specific number are problematic at best, because their economic proposals involve more than just changes in the tax code.

Clinton, for example, has proposed spending more than $2 trillion on infrastructure and other programs, which would produce a short-term hiring surge. But it's not clear how many of those jobs would be temporary.

Trump's economic proposals have shifted somewhat, but his signature plan to build a border wall would also create jobs. Those would be offset, however, by the impact of his pledge to deport millions of undocumented workers.

Moody's Analytics' chief economist, Mark Zandi, after analyzing the candidates proposals, has written that "Secretary Clinton's economic proposals will result in a somewhat stronger U.S. economy."

He also predicted that if all of Trump's proposed policies are enacted, the economy would suffer an extended recession with some 3.4 million jobs lost over the course of his term.

But Zandi noted that Congress likely won't fully agree to either candidate's proposals, which makes their pledges of meeting specific economic goals even less meaningful.