It seems this blog overlaps one just published by my colleague Jeff Haymond. But I will publish mine anyway, since it nicely supplements his.
Donald Trump has been saying quite a bit recently about the disappearance of (especially) manufacturing jobs in the South as well as the “Rust Belt,” blaming those lost jobs on the trade policies of both Democrats and “establishment” Republican politicians. But in addition, an article appeared recently by Kevin Williamson, or at least is scheduled to appear, entitled “The Father-Fuhrer,” in the National Review. I have not been able to read the entire article because I am too stingy to pay for it, but I have read some excerpts on it from other commentators who have. Williamson’s thesis is that many of Trump’s supporters live in declining industrial areas, which have lost millions of jobs. This includes both manufacturing urban areas and more rural or old suburban areas that contained factories or mines. Williamson bluntly argues that the residents there, who seem to want protection from competition, are for the most part living on welfare and “oxycontin” (as he so delicately put it). His advice is that those areas ought to “die” and their residents should leave (rent a U-Haul one said) and find jobs elsewhere instead or moping and complaining-and voting for Trump in the hopes that he will return their areas to their former glory. Here is a long quote from the article:
“It [pandering to these communities] is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t. The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.”
Well, that is pretty harsh. But I will argue it does have a certain truth to it. Before the reader gets too worked up, I am a West Virginia native, and I have seen plenty of job loss and decline in prosperity. That state has yet to recover since the early 1960s! And that makes me sad. But it also makes me a little angry. In all those years, the state government (until very recently) has done almost nothing to ameliorate the economic disaster that was West Virginia. The tax laws discouraged investment and business, the legal system encouraged lawsuits of anything that moved and damage awards were unseemly. The latter was directed mostly against the “big, bad capitalist” business owners. Regulations multiplied, and as usual, were especially burdensome on all businesses, including small ones. Unions gained a foothold and pushed up wages to untenable levels, and at the same time produced work rules that severely hurt efficiency (and raised cost). Industry left. It couldn’t compete and the citizens wouldn’t adjust to the changing environment. Despite all this many people, tied to the land and their locality, remained and went on welfare programs of all sorts, state and Federal. But they have refused to move to find better jobs—or any jobs at all. Instead they voted to implement more of the same damaging policies. In the meantime, they have consistently complained about the jobs that have either moved away or disappeared altogether, and when the opportunity presented itself, they have voted for protectionist candidates and policies.
The same situation can be seen throughout regions such as Appalachia—Eastern Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, parts of New York, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, and some areas of Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama, among others. Old industrial cities and mining towns, largely in severe economic depression, but whose populations have remained.
The residents have found a voice in Donald Trump, collectively blaming policies that failed to “protect” them from competition, but refusing to move to find new and different jobs—as many Americans have done in the past (witness the migrations to California by the “Okies” and other Midwesterners during the Depression of the 1930s). In the “old days” people didn’t wait around for the government to “do something.” They did something. And they thrived.
Richard Epstein has also contributed an article on the subject of protectionist policy. It is the March 14, 2016 edition of Ideas, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and is entitled “The Rise of American Protectionism.” It might as well have added the word “Again,” as this idea has arisen numerous times when populist rhetoric begins to circulate. Epstein decries the rising hostility to free trade, which is exploited by Donald Trump. Epstein writes, in addressing the problem, that
“One answer is that things have not gone well in the United States. Standards of living have been static at best, and people feel economically insecure. In this environment, it is easy to blame the obvious culprits, like the tide of imports and the systematic movement of American jobs overseas to locations where the regulatory environment is more favorable and where the cost of labor is cheaper.”
He acknowledges these facts but adds that the populists and protectionists have missed the actual problem:
“But putting the story in this fashion conceals the key benefit of free trade. Free trade offers an uncompromising indictment of, and a powerful corrective for, America’s unsound economic policies. Private investors have been voting with their feet in response to such policies. Simply put, the reason that local businesses outsource from the United States is the same reason why foreign businesses are reluctant to expand operations here. Our regulatory and labor environment is hostile to economic growth and there are no signs of that abating anytime soon. The United States has slipped to eleventh place on the Heritage Organization’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom. And it is not just because other nations have moved up. It is also because the steady decline in freedom and productivity inside the United States has continued apace. Ironically, the strong likelihood that the next American president will expand protectionist practices will only make matters worse: firms, both foreign and domestic, are more reluctant to invest in the United States, and the risk of a trade war by other countries such as Mexico is a live possibility, especially if Trump imposes high tariffs on automobiles made there for the American market.”
The real problem may lie in policies pursued by our governments, Federal first, but also states. In fact, jobs have moved to states that, as Epstein puts it, “govern well.” And where the Federal government makes life worse everywhere the jobs go to other nations or disappear.
This article is too long already so I will close with one caveat. I support free trade, not “fair trade” in its populist sense, but in reading (or trying to read the trade agreements, such as TPP, I am a little suspicious that what is billed as a free trade agreement (good) may conceal some cronyism that artificially helps some nations at the expense of others such as the United States. I will reserve final judgment for now, but my hope is that the Senate will actually read the agreement (am I asking too much) before voting for it.
In conclusion, Kevin Wiiliamson has a point. He may have overstated his case a bit, but it is important in that is focuses our attention on some of the real problems that are obscured by protectionist rhetoric.