Donald Trump is an optimist. He believes there is nothing wrong with America that autarky can’t fix.
Trump’s economic speech this week was a high-octane assault on the American free-trade regime that has been a matter of a bipartisan consensus for decades and a bulwark of the post-World War II international order — not to mention an article of GOP economic orthodoxy.
It’s not necessarily a problem that the Republican presidential nominee is crosswise with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or is speaking in a more populist voice, or is mindful of the human costs that are often neglected in the elite consensus in favor of open trade.
One can imagine a Republican candidate doing all those things without lurching into cut-rate AFL-CIO economics. Trump thinks he can appeal to Bernie Sanders voters. He’d be right if all the Sanders cadres cared about was the simplistic, conspiracy-tinged belief that the American economy is “rigged” and can be righted only by government intervention — a view shared by their socialist champion and the Republican business mogul.
If policy on this issue is all that mattered, the protectionist Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown should be on Trump’s VP short list as well as Hillary’s.
Of course, Trump is more robustly nationalistic than his left-wing counterparts. In his speech, he wrapped his case in the great nationalist cause of the hour, Brexit. But now that it has won the referendum to exit the European Union, the Brexit leadership is seeking exactly what Trump inveighs against — free and open trade wherever it can be had.
Trump never says he opposes free trade as such. Few protectionists will ever avow, “Yes, dammit, I’m a protectionist — come and get me, copper.” They couch their protectionism in opposition to existing free-trade agreements and in the promise of somehow reaching wondrously different and better agreements — once all the existing ones are ripped up.
This is the Trump tack. He argues that every trade deal is deeply flawed, but not because there’s an inherent problem with free trade, nor because any negotiation always involves trade-offs, but because in roughly 70 years we have never once produced a competent negotiating team. What are the odds?
The Trump/Sanders story is that the middle class has been devastated by these trade deals, especially in the manufacturing sector. To make this case requires ignoring much of the evidence, in favor of a stilted morality tale.
The truth is, if the metric is employment, U.S. manufacturing was sliding before anyone thought of the North American Free Trade Agreement or the WTO. As the indispensable Scott Lincicome of the Cato Institute points out, manufacturing began to decline as a share of the U.S. workforce in the 1940s, and the absolute number of manufacturing workers has been dropping since 1979.
The main cause is technology-driven productivity gains that make it possible to do more with fewer workers. The American manufacturing sector is more productive than ever. If Trump really wants to relieve the glory days of the old American factory, he’ll have to make America less technologically proficient again.
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Breaking Now Trump picks Bernie Sanders as his running mate.
“I’m FEELING THE BERN. This guy gets it when it comes to trade.” DT LOUDLY PROCLAIMED