The other day I noticed that Holabird political expert Nick Nemec claimed on Facebook that “contrary to recent reports,” he actually coined the term “priming the pump.” I didn’t understand the reference until this morning, when another friend forwarded this incredible transcript of Donald Trump explaining economics to editors from The Economist:
[The Economist] Another part of your overall plan, the tax reform plan. Is it OK if that tax plan increases the deficit? Ronald Reagan’s tax reform didn’t.
[Trump] Well, it actually did. But, but it’s called priming the pump. You know, if you don’t do that, you’re never going to bring your taxes down. Now, if we get the health-care [bill through Congress], this is why, you know a lot of people said, “Why isn’t he going with taxes first, that’s his wheelhouse?” Well, hey look, I convinced many people over the last two weeks, believe me, many Congressmen, to go with it. And they’re great people, but one of the great things about getting health care is that we will be saving, I mean anywhere from $400bn to $900bn.
Mr Mnuchin: Correct.
President Trump: That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.
But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll…you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
We have to prime the pump.
It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just…I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.
Yeah, what you have to do is you have to put something in before you can get something out [“Transcript: Interview with Donald Trump,” The Economist, 2017.05.11].
Jonah Goldberg of National Review hits Lexis-Nexis and finds several examples of Trump and his team using the term “prime the pump” last year. Quin Hillyer of National Review recalls President Reagan crafting a fine joke with the term in 1983. President Reagan also included the phrase in a 1986 radio address. A historian in 1990 described the 1958 Federal Highway Act as an effort to “prime the pump.” President Hoover used the term in a speech in 1935. Merriam-Webster dates the economic use of “pump-priming” to 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s frequent use of the term inspired this editorial cartoon showing President Franklin Roosevelt pouring buckets of water hauled by taxpayers into a leaky pump—the waggish caption reads, “What we need is another pump.” Linguistics blogger Ben Zimmer finds several more editorial cartoons using the term, including two from 1921.
But Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine explains that Trump not only didn’t invent the phrase but isn’t using it correctly:
…Trump did not invent the phrase “prime the pump.” It has been around since at least the 1930s and is extremely familiar to economists. Nor does it describe his plan. Priming the pump refers to a program of temporary fiscal stimulus to inject demand into an economy stuck with high unemployment. Trump is instead proposing to permanently increase the deficit in an economy with low unemployment. Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap” [Jonathan Chait, “Donald Trump Tries to Explain Economics to The Economist, Hilarity Ensues,” New York Magazine: Daily Intelligencer, 2017.05.11].
As a bonus, Chait cites this chart showing that Trump’s claim that “we’re the highest-taxed nation in the world” is also false:
I don’t know if we need a new pump, but we need a new President, one who can get basic facts straight.