Are American Workers Just Getting What They Deserve?

Ian Fletcher
If you don’t think American workers are being inexorably scr*wed by our governing establishment’s embrace of “free” trade, stop reading right here.  If you do, I have a dark question for you, one that may have occurred to you in private already:

Did we bring this whole mess on ourselves?

That is the gauntlet thrown down recently by, among others, one Ray Buurmsa, a columnist for the Holland Sentinel in Michigan.  He writes:

So you’re an American employee. Maybe you make car parts. Maybe you’re an engineer or designer. Maybe you’re an accountant, store clerk or tradesman. Whatever you do, you’re probably stupid or lazy. Yes, I wrote it, and I mean it. You are either stupid or lazy. Maybe both. 

Now, I’m not referring to your work ethic or job performance. No, most of you are competent and devoted to your profession or vocation. I’m addressing the way you view economics and employment. I’m challenging your gumption to advocate for yourself and your fellow Americans. Here’s what I mean.

Remember the Reagan standard? Are you better off today than you were a decade ago? Two decades? Three? Unless you make more than $380,000 a year, the answer is no. In fact, your standard of living over the last quarter century has actually decreased while millionaires have added 30 percent to their net wealth. Why? Two reasons. 

First, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs went overseas while the politicians you elected did nothing to stop them. Yet you continue to elect leaders who offer nothing but tax cuts, as if that would stem the flow of disappearing jobs. 

Did you demand your leaders address America’s trade imbalance or continuous outsourcing of jobs? Did you demand your leaders require foreign countries to buy a dollar’s worth of American goods for every dollar of goods they sell here? 

No and no. You didn’t bother. You simply crossed your fingers and prayed, “I hope my job’s not next.” You made concessions to your employer and hoped that would stem the exodus of jobs, or at least yours. How’d that work for you? 

Not exactly polite or patriotic, is it?  Feel-good journalism this is not.

But then again, without self-criticism, we can all just ride to hell in a handbasket while smiling all the way.  Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t tell Americans, “Way to go, boys. You’ve done great. Just keep at it and everything will be fine.”  They told us when we were wrong.   Sometimes things won’t be fine.  And yes, sometimes the mess is our fault.    

So—can ordinary American workers be blamed for their economic plight?

To some extent, they can, simply because yes, they did vote for the clowns who have made the mess we’re in.  (Or didn’t vote at all, which isn’t much better.) But there are important caveats to this fact.

For a start, let’s remember the fact that, in the words of that great Los Angeles philosopher, private eye Phillip Marlowe, “Voters elect, but party machines nominate.” So have we had real political choices, or just two slightly-different dishes (from the same kitchen!) on a steam table of political school lunch food?

And that’s leaving aside, of course, any number of value issues concerning the integrity of elections or the fact that the courts have removed any number of key decisions from electoral control.

Could we have “demanded,” as was suggested above, that things be otherwise? Perhaps. But the problem is that for millions of ordinary people to “demand” something, this takes leadership.  An elite. The “e” word.  A million people marching for civil rights on the Mall in Washington in 1963 was an inspiring sight, but those people didn’t just materialize. They were organized to be there, a process that went back decades and required a small number of talented individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Without leadership, no mass movement.

Here’s where I get pessimistic, because the hard fact is that most of the people capable of exerting leadership in our society have been bought.  For a start, there is the blunt fact that trade policy, and economics more generally, is both complex and relevant to making money.  So most people who are able to master it are able to hoist themselves into the top 10-15% of population whose interests on trade issues diverge from everyone else’s. As a result, American society is, to a significant degree, self-decapitating with respect to all economic problems where the interests of the mass and the elite diverge.

Where’s the leadership on lob loss, outsourcing, and trade giveaways to foreign nations going to come from?  Frankly, there ain’t much now.  The organization I work for is one of the few groups operating on a national scale on this issue.  I never fail to be amazed how there are much larger and better financed organizations out there working on issues that, frankly, aren’t multi-trillion dollar issues of national economic survival.  (Don’t get me started on how much political effort in this country is wasted on causes that are, by comparison, small beer.)

I know.  I know.  There are the unions. They’re a part of our coalition here at the Coalition for a Prosperous America. But frankly, they’re a mixed bag.  I’ve seen unions like the Steelworkers and the Teamsters be pretty sophisticated about what’s wrong with “free” trade.  On the other hand, the United Auto Workers still doesn’t seem to get it—as evidenced by their recent crumb-guzzling sellout on the Korea Free Trade Agreement —despite the fact that they may have been hurt worse than anybody.

Unions depend, in the final analysis, on solidarity, i.e. people seeing their economic fate as dependent upon the fate of others.  If you don’t see the world that way, you can starve to death without ever trying to join a union. And the entire thrust of American culture since the late 1960s has been in favor of radical individualism. You can see this in everything from sexual mores on TV to the most abstruse academic economics. So the bottom line is that Americans may be simply too selfish to solve their own economic problems.

That’s the real nightmare scenario we’re fighting against here, because if that’s true, then we don’t have a chance against any of the other nightmares. Our likely fate, if this comes true?  We’re going to get beaten by high-solidarity societies—from the Confucian tyranny of China to the technocrats of Japan to the Social Democrats of Europe.

As Rousseau said, “a tyrant need not worry that his citizens hate him, so long as they do not love each other.”  Our problems may not be entirely our own fault, but we sure as hell aren’t going to get a solution from anyone else.

Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor. He was previously Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank founded in 1933 and before that, an economist in private practice serving mainly hedge funds and private equity firms. Educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.
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