Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Fact-checking rural issues in the State of the Union address

In his first State of the Union address last night, President Trump struck an optimistic tone heavy on American exceptionalism, with conservative crowd-pleasers like faith, family, gun rights, and supporting police and the military. He also included some tough language on America's competitors and enemies. Here are some highlights of the speech that touched on rural concerns, along with fact-checking and commentary. For further reference, see the annotated scripts of the speech by The Washington Post, NPR, and Politifact.

"We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world," Trump said. There is no such thing as clean coal, and efforts to make it a reality have stalled.

Trump touted the nation's economy, noting that the stock market is at an all-time high and that unemployment claims are at a 45-year low. Both are true, though rural unemployment continues to lag and most of the world is in a bull market.

The president said the U.S. has created 2.4 million new jobs, with 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. NPR's Scott Horsley notes that this total includes job gains from November and December 2016 as well as January 2017, when Barack Obama was still president, and that job gains were 2.7 million in the last 14 months of Obama. But the past year's slowdown in job growth isn't a slam on Trump; Horsley writes: It means the economy is nearing full employment.

Trump also said the U.S. is finally seeing rising wages after years of wage stagnation. However, Politifact says this is mostly false: "By the most common measure, wages did go up for the first three quarters of Trump's presidency, but they fell in the fourth, wiping out all the gains on his watch and then some."

Trump also talked about the recent tax cuts, which he said were the biggest in American history. But when gauged by their share of the gross domestic product, 0.9 percent, they're only the eighth biggest since 1918 (the income tax was imposed in 1913), Fact Checker Glenn Kessler reports for the Post. And though the cuts may benefit the middle class and small businesses in the short term, Politifact notes that the wealthy will enjoy a disproportionate share of the cuts.

The president touched on international trade, saying "We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones" and that he wants "fair" and "reciprocal" trade relationships. But his protectionist tendencies have hurt agriculture and meatpacking, as when he pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And failing to reach a compromise on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is in its sixth round of negotiation, would likely hurt agriculture and many rural counties, especially in the South. And Trump's tough talk on China, coupled with the new solar panel tariffs, may spark a trade war that would hurt soybean farmers even as it helps coal.

Trump also vowed to keep fighting the opioid epidemic, saying "We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge." Paige Cunningham of the Post found it troubling that he cast the crisis as mainly a law-enforcement problem. He said in passing that better addiction treatment is needed, but offered no details.

The president called on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investment. Politifact disputed Trump's claim that a minor road-building permit can take 10 years: "Recent government studies say the permit approval time ranges from 4.6 to 6.6 years. The only study we found that claims a 10-year approval is common comes from an anti-regulation group, which raises questions about its reliability."

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