Cheap pop­ulism helps no one

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— With de­feat now the likely out­come for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, the blame shift­ing has be­gun early and in earnest.

To some partisans such as Sean Han­nity, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ex­pected loss — as well as for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Supreme Court picks and “what­ever il­le­gal im­mi­grants do” — lies with Never Trump con­ser­va­tives. Whether or not Han­nity is the sharpest knife in the drawer (a mat­ter of re­cent con­tro­versy), he leaves Oc­cam’s ra­zor rusty from dis­use.

Isn’t it more likely that Repub­li­cans are los­ing be­cause their can­di­date has com­mit­ted enough gaffes to tor­pedo 10 cam­paigns? Be­cause he has premised his ap­peal on prej­u­dice? Be­cause he dis­plays no ap­pre­ci­a­tion of con­sti­tu­tional val­ues and of­fers him­self as a strong­man? Be­cause he has no knowl­edge of, or in­ter­est in, pub­lic pol­icy? Be­cause he is an er­ratic nar­cis­sist with a com­pul­sive need to crush and hu­mil­i­ate his crit­ics? Hold­ing Never Trump forces re­spon­si­ble for all this is akin to blam­ing the spec­ta­tors in Lake­hurst, New Jer­sey, for the Hin­den­burg dis­as­ter. The point­ing and gawk­ing did not cause the flames.

A more so­phis­ti­cated form of blame by other con­ser­va­tives goes like this: Yes, Trump is a poor ve­hi­cle for the blue-col­lar, pop­ulist re­volt, but that up­ris­ing was in­vited by the ar­ro­gance and in­dif­fer­ence of glob­al­ized elites, in­clud­ing Repub­li­can elites. CEOs, politi­cians and Wall Street types live in a bub­ble of af­flu­ence, car­ing lit­tle for Amer­i­can in­ter­ests and lack­ing sym­pa­thy for their fel­low cit­i­zens who are sink­ing into de­spair, ad­dic­tion and the flood­wa­ters of Louisiana.

For the record, I am in fa­vor of the Davos set be­com­ing more sen­si­tive to the strug­gles of their coun­try­men. But all these fat cats at Coca-Cola, Mon­santo, Pfizer and Mi­crosoft de­serve at least a bleat in re­sponse. They are lead­ing par­tic­i­pants in an eco­nomic sys­tem — with its global sup­ply chains, freely mov­ing cap­i­tal and rapid in­no­va­tion — that, dur­ing the last 20 years, has taken about a bil­lion peo­ple out of ex­treme poverty around the world. This is ar­guably the great­est hu­man­i­tar­ian achieve­ment in his­tory. With this eco­nomic growth has come mir­a­cle drugs, vac­cines, improved san­i­ta­tion and bet­ter agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy. Global life ex­pectancy in 1960 was 52.5 years; to­day it is 71.4. In the early 1930s, Amer­i­can life ex­pectancy was about 60 — what it cur­rently is in Malawi. Now Amer­i­can life ex­pectancy is nearly 80.

The United States has ben­e­fited


from be­ing the most en­gaged and adapt­able econ­omy in this global sys­tem — sell­ing goods in other coun­tries, and buy­ing goods (cars, smart­phones, cloth­ing) that have dra­mat­i­cally improved the daily lives of nearly ev­ery Amer­i­can. But rapid eco­nomic change has also laid waste to whole in­dus­tries and the com­mu­ni­ties sus­tained by them, re­sult­ing in toxic stress and ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing. Since the 1940s, Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing out­put (as a per­cent­age of GDP) has been re­mark­ably sta­ble. But man­u­fac­tur­ing em­ploy­ment has fallen by about two-thirds (as a per­cent­age of the U.S. work­force). This is not so much the re­sult of CEOs mak­ing a quick buck on out­sourc­ing as a re­flec­tion of au­to­ma­tion and global com­pet­i­tive pres­sures.

Our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem has been neg­li­gent in help­ing mil­lions of Amer­i­cans adapt dur­ing a pe­riod of rapid eco­nomic change. But those on the left and right who prom­ise to re­verse the process of glob­al­iza­tion are eco­nomic char­la­tans. Their main pol­icy re­sponse — tar­iffs and other forms of pro­tec­tion­ism — is a proven path to trade wars and global re­ces­sion, which hurt the vul­ner­a­ble most. Conservative eco­nom­ics of­fers three pos­i­tive alternatives: Pro­vide a growth-ori­ented eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment (in­clud­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to sell over­seas). Give work­ers the ed­u­ca­tion and skills to suc­ceed in a mod­ern econ­omy. And sub­si­dize the wages of low­er­skill jobs to pro­vide a de­cent liv­ing.

Who are the ob­sta­cles in pur­su­ing such poli­cies? On the lat­ter two, it is not glob­al­ized elites; it is more likely to be conservative ide­o­logues. Thirty Amer­i­can CEOs at Davos would come up with sev­eral ideas to im­prove, say, ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards. Thirty mem­bers of the House Free­dom Cau­cus would op­pose all of them on prin­ci­ple. In fact, conservative pop­ulists are now work­ing along with ed­u­ca­tion unions to un­der­mine rig­or­ous ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards, ap­par­ently on the the­ory that ed­u­ca­tional fail­ure is ac­cept­able so long as lo­cal of­fi­cials do the fail­ing.

The re­sponse to these eco­nomic ar­gu­ments from pop­ulists is usu­ally ad hominem: Of course an elit­ist would say some­thing like that. Which is par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing com­ing from conservative elites, who are em­brac­ing the cheap­est form of pop­ulism, in­volv­ing no in­tel­lec­tual en­ergy, no pol­icy in­no­va­tion and no ac­tual help for those in need. The poor de­serve bet­ter tri­bunes.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­

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