Trump, The Problems of Living Memory, and the Limits of Free Trade
During the fall of 2015, legendary travel writer Paul Theroux released a book titled Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads. I have not read the book, but Amazon states the book is about sections of the United States that have been ignored and left behind in the various booms of the late 20th and 21st centuries. To promote his book, Theroux published an article in the New York Times on the “hypocrisy” of helping the poor. Theroux argued that
the strategy of getting rich on cheap labor in foreign countries while offering a sop to America’s poor with charity seems to me a wicked form of indirection. If these wealthy chief executives are such visionaries, why don’t they understand the simple fact that what people want is not a handout along with the uplift ditty but a decent job?
Vox writer and Free Trade advocate Dylan Matthews tweeted that this was one of the worst things the New York Times has published.
Less then half a year later, the Republican Party is set to nominate an openly-protectionist, racist, vulgar, authoritarian, xenophobic demagogue in the form of Donald Trump. His voters are largely those who were left behind. There are some who remain unconvinced on Trump’s chances to win the nomination as Super Tuesday approaches, but an increasing number of political writers and observers from across the political spectrum still see Trump as a dangerous force in and to American Democracy.
There has also been much ink spilled on whether the Republicans or the Democratic Party is responsible for the rise of Trump. However, the real source of the rise of Trump is probably anger. As Jed Lund notes,
Anger isn’t something that Beltway pundits recognize, let alone understand because everyone employed in media or in politics in and around Washington DC is pretty well off. Even ink-stained wretches pull down five-figures – and, unlike everywhere else in America, since journalism is built on documenting nonsense, there’s some real job security in documenting Washington. Television people fare even better, because TV money is stupid money. Thinktank malefactors reap great sums from the aggrieved heartland or from industries looking to build a canon of falsified data, and Congress and the attendant lobbying is a helluva racket.
Anger is pretty easy to miss when it’s something pretty difficult to feel. When you sit at the center of the world and are unlikely to ever lack for the basic materials of self-sufficiency, the idea of blind, gnawing resentment – let alone of feeding that resentment even with irrational aims – is ineluctably beyond your ken.
The argument from libertarians and neo-liberals for the past few decades is that free trade will make us all wealthy via subtle and sublime benefits. Neo-liberals argue that free trade agreements would come as part of grand bargain with a healthy and generous welfare state that would help maintain standards of living for working class Americans. Libertarians argue that the best way to increase wealth is to increase absolute wealth, even if most of the money ends in the hands of a few. Libertarians love the slatepitch of praising income inequality.
I can’t deny that globalization has brought cheaper consumer goods in many cases. I also can’t deny that globalization and free trade have raised the standards of living in countries like Bangladesh. The elephants and questions in the room are to what degree these gains have been shared by all.
The United States has benefited from cheaper and better consumer goods, but does the ability to get European wines in Oklahoma matter if you were a factory worker working three jobs for little money and no benefits? The welfare state promised since NAFTA has not materialized. We are still far, far away from anything resembling a guaranteed basic income. Job retraining programs have questionable success rates.
Trump argues that he will renegotiate or break trade agreements like NAFTA. These promises are probably pie-in-the-sky dreams and get trade agreements wrong. Trump’s protectionist pleas are counter to his actions. But they do appeal to a lot of people who live in communities that are permanently in recession.
I have often heard and read advocates for globalization and free trade ask why they should prefer policies that benefit the working class of the United States (or any other Western Country) over the poor of Bangladesh. And to be true, there are good reasons to support policies that benefit the poor of Bangladesh. There are problems, though. The United States went through several decades of recent history with a very broad prosperity which included people earning comfortable incomes for unskilled or semi-skilled work. At one point, there were millions of people benefiting from this system. Now, however, they see themselves and their children having to deal with lower standards of living and economic uncertainty. Perhaps this is returning to historic norms, but if so the ride is not going to be pretty.
What strikes me about the arguments from free-traders is simply their inability to admit that globalization might have negative consequences; that there can be losers. Nothing lasts forever. There is no right for a way of life to continue, but free trade advocates seem gobsmacked that people are not going to accept their arguments without a fight — especially those who held the manufacturing jobs that went overseas.
There are times when I expect or wish that a free-trade advocate would just scream the following in frustration: “Working-class Americans and maybe all Americans are just going to need to get used to a lower standard of living and economic insecurity.” That none will do this is because it is tantamount to admitting that the gig is up and free trade does not benefit everyone or the benefits might be lop-sided.
I don’t think there are any easy solutions to this problem. There might not even be any solutions. There are benefits to free trade, and many of these have been massive. But why is it so hard to admit that there are also people left behind? We need to be able to acknowledge this and that something needs to be done or we will all get Trumped.