David Griswold, a fellow at George Mason University’s free-market Mercatus Center, had an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Monday arguing that globalization has not hurt U.S. manufacturing but, rather, should be lauded for boosting American manufacturing by 40 percent over the past 20 years.
The catch? Manufacturing isn’t the same as it was two decades ago. Oh, and it also produces fewer jobs.
“We produce more manufacturing value with fewer employees than in years past because today’s workers are so much more productive,” Griswold writes. “They are better educated, equipped with more sophisticated capital machinery and turn out more valuable products than their parents’ generation. And as a result they are better paid, with total manufacturing payrolls rising during the last decade even as the number of workers declined.”
Well, this is all very nice for manufacturers. And it’s very good for workers who are more sophisticated and better educated than the high-school educated workers who used to fill traditional manufacturing jobs. But Griswold avoids addressing the concerns of reasonable people unhappy with our trade deals.
Here’s a question: Why do smart people always think they understand other people’s interests better than those people understand them? And why do so many “principles worth fighting for” seem ever so conveniently to align with the interests of the smart set?
Democracy is, at some level, about competing interests. Middle-class and working-class voters have been on the losing end of elections a long time now. The winners have either been woefully unable to persuade them that they have their back or are stubbornly missing something important. You cannot ask people to heroically vote against their own interests cycle after cycle and then be surprised when they say, “Enough!” It’s not wrong for them to ask what’s in it for them and the answer had better be perusasive or they will fall back on the easy promises of free stuff or the validation of a sincere, if only vague policy sympathy.
These voters have been dwindling from Republican rolls for a generation. The conservative response has been to tout their “social conservative” credentials as a way to keep them turning out against Democrats. But the power to impress these voters with social issues is now gone. Conservatives have failed miserably to defend the common culture that also was of deep concern to these voters. They are now viewed as weak and ineffective (“Sad!” as Donald Trump might say). So these voters are mobilized and justly angry.
Some liked Bernie Sanders because they figured they might as well “get theirs”; others like Trump because he openly questions free-trade absolutism. This isn’t about principles. This is about interests. And for now, these voters view their interests as having very little to do with the people they view as inhabiting “the establishment.”
This could have been avoided. Republicans might have done a better job of attending to both a common culture (immigration; picking intelligent battles in the culture wars) and to our common interests (sometimes, the little guy needs to win!). Instead, GOP leaders were more concerned about policy “correctness” and abstract notions of what was best for other people without looking at the actual and immediate effects of their policy preferences.
So what are the smart guys saying in response? They tell us that the working class voters are just ignorant or backward and it’s clear theydon’t know what’s in their own best interest. This is a losing strategy, to say the least. For smart people, they are very short sighted.
Their long term interests (to say nothing of the interests of the nation) are better served by a more politic response to the question of free trade. The result will be something even worse if we destroy whatever thread of hope we have at persuading working- and middle-class voters that more freedom is generally a good thing in trade. Free trade absolutism—of the kind that does not take into consideration particulars of circumstance and politics—elevates the short term economic interests of the few to the level of “principle” and, worse, it betrays its backers as either ideologues or a faction. Actually, maybe they are both.