Don’t Peak Too Soon

Years ago, when I was having dinner with another professor in our school’s cafeteria, a student approached my friend to ask about a grade. Why had she gotten a “C” in his course? Considering that she had gotten 90s in the first two exams, shouldn’t she have received at least a B for the term?

peaked too soon

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My friend smiled at her and then asked how well she had done on the other three exams? She admitted that she had gotten two 70s and a 60.

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He smiled at her, and then observed, “Barbara, maybe you peaked too soon.” I wasn’t sure how she would take this, but she seemed to appreciate his explanation.

Professors tend to reward students who finish strong. A student who gets a relatively high mark on the final usually gets bumped up a letter grade above her test average over the entire term.

Similarly, voters reelect presidents who finish their terms in a blaze of glory – even if their first two or three years were much less successful.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are prime examples. Early in Lincoln’s first term eleven Southern states seceded from the union, and during the next two years, the South won several major military victories. But in 1864, when Lincoln easily won reelection, the North was well on its way to a decisive military victory.

In 1940 our nation faced another existential threat posed by the rapid military expansion of Germany and Japan. When Japan destroyed our Pacific fleet in a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, our survival as a nation was at stake. But by 1944 the tides had turned, and we and our allies were clearly winning the war. Roosevelt was reelected to an unprecedented fourth term.

Over the last two decades our nation has been heavily involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the last few years in Syria as well. Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 as a “peace candidate,” promising to bring our troops home. But once in office, he apparently could not resist at least some serious saber rattling in the Middle East and in East Asia.

In general, presidents running for reelection have won when our nation was enjoying peace and prosperity. In 2020, will President Trump be able to credibly make that claim?

Right now, our economy is certainly prosperous. During the first quarter of the year we enjoyed a relatively high rate of economic growth, and in Apriil, our unemployment rate fell to a fifty-year low.

Still, Trump has apparently initiated what may be a long trade war with China – a war which could spread throughout the world -- even setting off a global depression. And perhaps during the next few months – especially if tariffs keep rising – not only could the stock market tank, but our economy could sink into a recession.

On the military front, Trump’s provocative moves toward China and Iran – and possibly once again toward North Korea – could bring us very close to getting ourselves involved in a major shooting war. Despite his stated plan to bring the troops home, there are no guarantees that our nation will remain at peace over the next eighteen months.

If the presidential election were held today, I think that Trump – despite his consistently poor poll numbers – would stand a decent chance of being reelected. But we may have peaked too soon. By the fall of 2020, our nation may not be as peaceful or as prosperous as it is today.



About the Author

Steve Slavin
Steve Slavin has a Ph.D. in economics from NYU, and has written twenty math and economics books, including “The Great American Economy: How Inefficiency Broke It, and What We Can Do to Fix it.” The 12th edition of his introductory economics text came out in September.