Even in this Alice In Wonderland electoral cycle, most analysts agree that the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are fueled by deep fissures of heretofore underestimated anger among voters in both parties.
There’s less agreement on the sources of that rage. Some, but not all, Trumpites are expressing racial animosity; others a mixture of that old bigotry with a new version of anti-immigrant Nativism. Still others, are gripped with a generalized antagonism toward so-called elites—political, financial, academic and journalistic.
Correlations of census data with Trump’s support show that the person most likely to vote for him is an unemployed white male high school dropout living in a trailer park. If you go at the question via public opinion research, the person most likely to support the failed Casino operator is someone who openly expresses racial hostility.
On the Democratic side of the equation, Sanders’ supporters are the young and the anxious. The former are worried about futures that seem in nearly every important way less promising than those of their parents. The latter are apprehensive over the unexpected fragility of their own situations, unstable real estate prices, growing income inequality, the stagnation of wages and salaries in so many sectors and the staggering increases in the cost of the higher education their children can’t afford to do without.
For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the great wellspring of anger across the board in our politics is insecurity.
In fact, for many, perhaps most Americans this country now is a much less secure place in which to work, raise a family or plan for retirement than it was just a few decades ago. The reasons are multiple and complex. For most of the great post-war expansion, the U.S. economy was dominated by what the Catholic commentator and public intellectual Michael Sean Winters has called “the stakeholder” model.
A large company would be primarily sited in a headquarters community with a long-term—usually unionized—workforce and a stable customer base. When major decisions had to be made, there was a process of give-and-take that roughly balanced the interests of management, community and labor. Obviously, things didn’t always work that way—and certainly never were free of contention—but more often than not they did. In the intervening years, that balancing process has been replaced by the “investor” model. Today, only the short-term financial interests of stockholders matter: communities are interchangeable, workers dispensable cogs. No security for anyone involved, no matter their efforts or loyalty; just a relentless pursuit of quarterly returns.
For many, perhaps most Americans this country now is a much less secure place in which to work, raise a family or plan for retirement than it was just a few decades ago.
Once layoffs by profitable firms became an acceptable and commonplace tool for boosting stock prices, the bonds that once tied workers and their employers in a common effort, simply dissolved. At the same time, the federal government stood silently by while one firm after another abandoned defined benefit pension plans for their workers, forcing them to rely on the vagaries of the stock market through their 401(k’s), thereby transforming what was meant to be a supplemental retirement savings account into most workers’ sole hope for a decent retirement. No security there—but full employment for the financial services industry. Against that backdrop, the events that have so preoccupied Trump and Sanders partisans—-the third great immigration and Washington’s embrace of free trade– felt to many like even bigger nails in the coffin of their American dream.
In fact, both immigration and free trade have been of measurable and substantial benefit to the majority of Americans. Since NAFTA was adopted in 1993, during the Clinton Administration, the amount Americans paid for goods excepting energy and food has fallen every year. As the Economist recently reported, “Clothes now cost the same as they did in 1986; furnishing a house is as cheap as it was 35 years ago. More trade brought more choice, too. Robert Lawrence and Lawrence Edwards, tow economists, estimate that trade with China alone put $250 a year into the pocket of every American by 2008. The gains from cheap stuff flowed disproportionately to the less well off, because the poor spend more of their incomes on goods than the rich.”
Economists at UCLA and Columbia have estimated that if the United States cut off free trade or imposed ruinous tariffs—as Sanders and Trump say they will do—Americans would loves 29% of their purchasing power over night. The poorest among us would suffer a catastrophic 62% reduction in their access to goods.
That’s not to say that the free trade has not injured some Americans economic well-being or that such harm has been as equally distributed as the benefits. If you worked in the textile, shoe, tire or a host of industrial assembly industries, you probably lost the job you had in 1993. The worst job losses occurred after China joined the World Trade Organization—we have no free trade agreement with Beijing—and their goods became a mainstay of U.S. retailing. Since the turn of the century, 20% of all this country’s vanished factory jobs were lost to Chinese competition. Between 1991 and 2013—the last year where the numbers are complete—China’s share of global manufacturing output went from 2% to 19%.
Similarly, with immigration: the net benefit to the United States in economic and cultural terms has been decisively positive. However, if you were a dry wall hanger in the building trades, a landscape gardener or a slaughter or packing house worker, the newcomers either took your job or depressed your wages. (To those who object to immigration on racial or ethnic grounds. . .well, get over it.)
The insecurities—and consequent anger—created by free trade and immigration occurred because those Americans who benefited simply ignored their responsibilities toward those who were being disadvantaged. Seen that way, we have here is not bad or mistaken economic policies, as Sanders and Trump would have it, but a titanic and inexcusable failure of social policy, a moral failure of colossal consequence.
The events that have so preoccupied Trump and Sanders partisans—-the third great immigration and Washington’s embrace of free trade– felt to many like even bigger nails in the coffin of their American dream.
Instead of raging against free trade or advocating the kinds of viciously retaliatory tariffs that helped to make the Great Depression a global morass, the presidential candidates ought to be advancing policies to help those already disadvantaged by trade and immigration—and those who will be injured by future disjunctions. Those policies might include, but not be limited to, reformed vocational retraining along the lines of the German model; portable defined benefit pension plans that could be rolled over from one employer to another with mandatory employer contributions from each pay check; federal job exchanges to oversee retraining and placement of workers who lose their jobs to trade imbalances. Finally, there needs to be some form of federal and state “wage insurance” so that those forced to take jobs that pay less than their lost positions will have at least a substantial percentage of the difference covered for a reasonable transitional period.
Those would be the elements of a genuinely progressive agenda and not the sort of wooly blabber that currently is coming from candidates in both parties. People uncertain of their present prospects and fearful of their future are angry people. In politics, anger and irrational choices go hand in hand.