“Blaming freer trade for the loss of manufacturing jobs fails to tell the much bigger story of economic transformation that has swept the world over the past several decades. Technological change, automation, productivity improvements and other factors have eliminated old-school manufacturing jobs all over the world. Mr. Sanders cannot bring back the U.S. economy of the 1960s, and it would be harmful to try.”
I have in this space been an unsparing critic of the policies that Bernie Sanders is promising to implement if elected President. I have been particularly dismissive, admittedly without citing support, of Mr. Sanders’ efforts to articulate a coherent foreign policy.
In this first of several post that will critique aspects of Mr. Sanders’ foreign policy platform or introduce the criticism of others, I will actually step between Mr. Sanders and his critics.
In the above linked article, the editors of the Washington Post offer their rebuttal to the underlying logic of Senator Sanders’ proposed foreign trade policy. It is an eloquent and poignant critique of the protectionism that oozes from Mr. Sanders’ foreign policy.
And yet I find myself siding against the Post on this item.
The Ebb of Globalism
For most of my life I have been a trade globalist, endorsing the idea that freer trade is broadly beneficial. Yet even as a callow young B-school student I understood that there are limits to the macroeconomic assumptions that support free trade. History has proven that international trade systems are only as good as their most abusive participant. As long as everyone agrees that the system is more important than the needs of any individual nation, the system will thrive. But when enough participants – or one participant of sufficient scale – begin to game the system, the game becomes beggar-thy-neighbor again.
While the Bretton Woods free trade system managed to address a constant patter of abuses, it appears increasingly unable to contain the challenge posed by China – a single, giant global player determined to game the system, and large enough so that in doing so it gives lie to the system itself.
We thus appear on the verge of an era where global free trade is replaced by a resurgence in protectionism and the replacement of the WTO with a series of bilateral accords and multilateral trade arrangements.
Against that background, the Washington Post’s protest that protectionism will not bring back manufacturing jobs is correct. Unfortunately, the Post doesn’t address the larger question: is trade free enough? Or is it too free already?
Regardless of your reaction, the answer is that the time has come for us to have this debate in America. The effects of trade policy are felt by all – it is no longer sufficient to allow the matter to be handled by elites. If the case for trade is compelling for America, let’s make it. Let’s demonstrate that the benefits will redound to the least prosperous among us as well as the affluent.