As an unabashed supporter of Donald Trump and a conservative who has long been of the paleo-populist persuasion, I frequently find myself engaged in online debates with “regular” conservatives, and one of our most common and contentious topics is the virtues of free trade. One of my frequent foils on the matter recently directed me to this op-ed by radio talk show host and senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, Ross Kaminsky. It is tellingly entitled “Trashing Free Trade Isn’t Economics – It’s Pandering.”
Not surprisingly, I did not find the article to be the slam dunk logical defense of free trade that my intellectual sparring partner thought it was. I saw the article as an excellent illustration of why the purist case for free trade has trouble gaining traction outside the echo chamber of the already convinced, much to the chagrin of all the supposed experts and other purveyors of the conventional wisdom.
First of all, a word about terminology. The term “pandering” suggests insincerely telling voters what they want to hear. Accusing Hillary Clinton of pandering on trade is entirely justified. Hillary is a long time neoliberal who vocally supported NAFTA in the early 90’s and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) until she found herself in a difficult primary battle with anti-TPP Sen. Bernie Sanders. Then she suddenly discovered that she had reservations about the deal. Hillary’s mid-campaign change of heart was transparently politically motivated. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been advocating the same economic nationalist message since he first became a public figure in the 80s. Trump was anti-NAFTA before it was cool to be anti-NAFTA on the right, while Hillary and her husband, President Bill Clinton, were pimping for NAFTA against the wishes of the Democrat’s labor base. You may believe Trump is wrong on the issue of trade, but you can’t fairly accuse him of pandering because there is no reason to doubt his sincerity on the issue. He has been very consistent about his displeasure with US trade policy for decades.
It’s not surprising that Kaminsky would see any objection to free trade as pandering, however, because he has the certitude about his position that only a good theory can impart. Any opposition must be either uninformed or insincere because “all the experts agree.” “It’s just so obvious.” I was previously familiar with Kaminsky through some interaction at the old American Spectator comments section. Kaminsky is an ideologue. His bio describes him as an Objectivist/libertarian. He knows the answers before the questions are asked. Free trade is a good because his tidy little theory tells him so, unemployed factory workers be damned. Few things are as potentially harmful as an ideologue armed with a good theory.
This is typical of the conventional tin ear case for free trade which usually goes something like this: “All the experts and important people agree that free trade is a good thing, because our theory says so, so you yahoos need to quit your griping and listen to your betters.” Unfortunately for free trade advocates, voters in Flyover Country aren’t policy wonks, and I highly suspect that most of them wouldn’t know David Ricardo from Ricky Ricardo, and neither do they take too kindly to experts and mouthpieces of the conventional wisdom telling them that a neat theory trumps what they see with their own eyes.
What Average Joe in Flyover Country sees when he drives through the countryside is dilapidated old mill towns where half the population that remains is on disability and hooked on OxyContin and the other half works at Walmart or McDonald’s serving the few professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, etc.) that remain in town and people that commute to the nearest big city who still have some disposable income. This kind of economy is not sustainable long term. Average Joe in Flyover Country remembers what it was like when the mill was in operation, and he sees what it's like now, but the experts remain dumbfounded why he is skeptical of their perfectly good theory. He just knows what he sees and can intuit from common sense. The mass movement of manufacturing overseas and south of the border is a bad thing for his community, his neighbors, his friends and his family. And his country.
Kaminsky comes armed with some numbers of course. Free trade advocates usually do, but you know what they say about statistics. Kaminsky writes, “Here in Colorado, we have an advanced, technological economy, a highly educated work force…” Yes, I’m sure Denver and Boulder and Vail are doing just fine, but what about rural Colorado? What about that member of the workforce who isn’t highly educated? “Ah,” the smug advocate of free trade will reply, “he needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps and get an education.” But what if his IQ, through no fault of his own, is 85? Is he going to train to be a thought worker in Kaminsky’s 21st Century economy? Or is he relegated to a life of flipping burgers and living in his parent’s basement, and that’s if he’s responsible enough not to knock up his girlfriend and the whole lot of them wind up on government assistance of one kind or another ultimately paid for by taxes on said thought workers and ever accumulating debt.
I found this factoid in Kaminsky’s column rather telling. “Our top exports include beef, computers and other industrial machinery, and medical instruments.” Hmmm… what do all those things have in common? They’re all tangible things that somebody had to toil to make. “Our top imports from NAFTA members include vehicles, electric and industrial machinery, and plastics.” Hmmm… notice a pattern here? Does the irony of this not smack Kaminsky in the face? You can only have so many thought workers and the low skilled service workers who hover around the economy they create. What is the broad swath in the middle supposed to do? The whole middle economy can’t be radiology techs and car salesmen. Somewhere somebody has to be either growing something, digging something up or making something, or the whole enterprise will eventually collapse under its own weight.
The question is where are we going to make it? Here or in Bangladesh? We don’t have to make it all here, which is where rational trade policies would come in, but unless Kaminsky and company are willing to openly advocate for a two tiered economy with a vanishing middle class, a trend that is already well under way, we have to make something here. The problem with Kaminsky and other likeminded free trade ideologues is that they are economic reductionists who see human beings as simply freely interchangeable economic units. For them national borders are mere contrivances that hamper efficiency and the free movements of goods, services and labor, that enough multilateral free trade agreements will minimize to the point of insignificance leading to one big well-oiled global economic zone. The problem for this well laid plan is that people are not just freely interchangeable economic units and national borders are not just troublesome impediments to maximally efficient economic activity, and said people are not inclined to view them and theirs as such or their country as a mere contrivance. Darn that reality. It has such a nasty habit of messing up a perfectly good theory.
Thankfully, Average Joe is neither as Utopian nor as foolish as Mr. Kaminsky and company, and recognizes he is being sold a bill of goods. Average Joe in Flyover Country has long been trending Red, but the thought leaders of the Red Team, such as Mr. Kaminsky, have been giving ideological cover to trade policies that benefit the elite donor class (which have been trending Blue, by the way) at the expense of the inhabitants of Flyover Country who actually vote for the Red Team. And the thought leaders scratch their heads and wonder why the yokels won’t listen to their betters and stop their whining about manufacturing jobs going overseas and have responded in such large numbers to a “panderer” who rejects the received wisdom of the thinking class. Perhaps those thought leaders aren’t as smart as they think they are.