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President-elect Donald Trump says he will double the nation's growth rate. NPR's John Ydstie reports that will be a difficult promise to keep.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Trump isn't talking about a temporary boost in growth. He says he can make the economy grow long term at the rate of about 4 percent a year. Most economists think America's potential growth is only about 2 percent a year. And most agree there are only two ways to make it higher - get more people working and make those workers more productive.
If you don't do that, stimulating the economy with government spending or tax cuts will just boost growth short term and cause inflation. So let's start with the challenge to get more people into the labor force.
ROBERT GORDON: We have a huge wave of baby-boom-era people retiring.
YDSTIE: That's economist Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University whose latest book is titled "The Rise And Fall Of American Growth."
GORDON: Right now, we've got a shortage of construction workers. We've got a shortage of long-distance truck drivers. We've got a shortage of many kinds of skilled workers needed to work in manufacturing.
YDSTIE: So what's the solution to this mass retirement of baby boomers?
GORDON: The best way to counteract that is through immigration.
YDSTIE: In fact, in the past couple of decades, half the growth in the labor force has come from immigration. But, Gordon points out, Donald Trump has said he will deport millions of immigrants. This is from an interview with CNN.
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DONALD TRUMP: They're called illegal immigrants, and they're here illegally. They're going to have to go, and they're going to have to come back in legally.
YDSTIE: Those were chilling words for Jose Aguiluz, a 27-year-old operating room nurse at Adventist Hospital in suburban Washington, D.C.
JOSE AGUILUZ: His rhetoric was very negative during the election. But now he has to contemplate and analyze reality.
YDSTIE: Aguiluz came to the U.S. at age 15 for a life-saving surgery after a car accident in his native Honduras. He and most of his family stayed illegally. Then, Aguiluz says, an executive order from President Obama provided two-year deportation deferments for young, undocumented immigrants like him. Donald Trump says he'll rescind that order. Aguiluz says if he could talk to Trump, here's what he'd say.
AGUILUZ: I am a very contributing individual in the American society. I save American lives in the OR. They don't care about my immigration status. What they care about is that I'm a very capable nurse that will carry them through the surgery.
YDSTIE: In fact, about a quarter of all doctors and nurses in the U.S. are immigrants. Steve Moore, who has advised Donald Trump on his economic growth policy, says Trump isn't against immigration, just illegal immigration. Moore says, personally, he believes even some undocumented workers shouldn't be deported.
STEPHEN MOORE: People who are in this country - are working and productive Americans, who are contributing, I personally would not like to see those people deported.
YDSTIE: Moore argues that a faster growing economy will attract even more unemployed American workers back into the labor force, including some retirees. Most economists are skeptical that could provide enough workers to get to a 4-percent growth rate.
So what about the other side of the growth equation, making workers more productive? Moore says that will come from big tax cuts for businesses that will boost investment in new equipment and technologies, like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.
MOORE: And we could see very rapid rises in the productivity that is a key part to making growth possible.
YDSTIE: But professor Gordon believes it will be several decades before those two technologies have much impact on U.S. productivity. And, Gordon notes, that neither the big Reagan tax cuts nor the big Bush tax cuts boosted U.S. productivity.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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