29 September 2017

False choices on trade

Thomas Friedman seems to have several ideas mixed up in his mind. In his latest column, Friedman writes: 'We got rich by being “America Connected” not “America First.” Apparently he's trying to equate isolationism and protectionism, finding each equally inadequate to keeping up with an increasingly interdependent world. Today, he suggests, the U.S. should build its wealth "by having the most connections to the flow of ideas, networks, innovators and entrepreneurs." President Trump, he implies, prefers "a world of walls where you build your wealth by hoarding the most resources." Apparently Friedman is also trying to equate protectionism with mercantilism, though what resource Trump wants to hoard is unclear. Jobs, perhaps? In any event, the first sentence I quoted isn't even true if by "America First" Friedman means a protectionist trade policy, since Republican governments were committed to tariffs throughout the post-Civil War surge in industrial productivity. Unfortunately, it's actually fairly common for tariffs to be equated with walls, as if the latter actually prevented the importation or sale of goods from abroad. Tariffs are often described as "trade barriers," when the usual intent is more along the lines of leveling the playing field to compensate for foreigners' cheaper labor and/or economies of scale. You could still buy imports if you found them superior enough to justify the greater expense, and if the cheaper domestic product was crap, it would fail unless price was purchasers' only consideration. However people actually chose a century or more ago, economic growth did occur under protectionist trade rules, though whether growth correlated with protection or was merely coincidental is for economic historians to explain. But while Friedman goes on deploring Trump's presumed ignorance and Democrats' lack of imagination, his real beef seems to be with a mentality that entitles Americans to cling -- to use a provocative word -- to their current jobs. After his dubious history lesson, he goes off on our need to adapt constantly, both on a societal if not cultural level to climate change, but also on an individual, intellectual level to constant technological changes in the job environment. "Change" has been the neoliberal mantra since Bill Clinton's time, and "Adapt!" has been its commandment. But while the capacity to adapt is an admirable survival trait, so is the critical faculty that refuses to obey every command without question. Neoliberals treat the market as a force of nature, if not as the irresistible spontaneous order idealized by libertarians, but for the very reason that the market is a collection of individual, personal decisions we should reserve the right to question its supposed dictates on the sometimes-reasonable suspicion that they are something other than objective imperatives. It may be true sometimes to say "adapt or perish," but we should never assume that that's true every time it's said. That may sound isolationist to some ears, but it may just be an understandable reluctance to adapt to the point when you exist only to adapt and identity itself becomes all too adaptable. The market is not a climate. It is, in theory, easier to master, and it's indisputably easier to say no to when necessary. Anyone who'd have us renounce our capacity to master markets arguably wants us to adapt into something less than fully human. 

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