All Commentary
Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sanders and Trump on Trade: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Having been supposedly vanquished by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders persists in being a naughty little monkey despite the Democratic party’s best attempts to domesticate him. Sanders has said he will vote for Hillary in November, but he has yet to fully endorse her much to the chagrin of Democratic Party loyalists who find his aloof pose “condescending.”  Not to defend Bernie, but Clinton sycophants are the last people who should be making that particular accusation.

However, they do have a point.

Populist See, Populist Do

If Bernie keeps harping on his populist opposition to “free trade,” he will only be helping Donald Trump lead a rare bipartisan reality show of monkey, see monkey do. Just a few weeks ago, this would be of little concern. The party elites thought they had populism on a leash. Then Brexit happened.

We each contain multitudes of classifications that betray the populist, short-term appeals of our politics.

The elites in both parties have tried to poo poo the Brexit vote by calling the “Leave” camp every dirty name in their playbook. They have raised the ever-present hobgoblin of global “disorder” both in military and economic terms. They have suggested many people were ignorant of what they were voting on—as though this is somehow something rare for democracy—and have thus called for a mulligan. They have stoked generational antagonism by suggesting that younger Brits in general are angry at their “isolationist, bitter and short-sighted” elders—as though this is the first time the young and the old have disagreed—but “here’s the paradox,” admits the Washington Post, “So few of these young people voted, relatively speaking.”

For once, the ruling-class’ motives here are transparent. Put simply, they have a great deal to lose if the populists win. Decades worth of fragile plans trampled underfoot. Complex networks of cronies usurped by a new set of chums. This would all be really boring stuff for us little people if not for the elites’ overblown reaction. To hear some of them talk, you would think the populists were stringing up politicians and crony bankers from the lamp posts left and right.

All that said, the UK’s decision to leave the EU, right or wrong, should serve as a wake up call to the establishment: listen to the populists in your ranks or pay the price at the polls.

In kind, Bernie Sanders warns the Democratic party in an op-ed for the New York Times that they need to wake up to this populist reality:

“Surprise, surprise. Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children…

…Could this rejection of the current form of the global economy happen in the United States? You bet it could.

During my campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, I’ve visited 46 states. What I saw and heard on too many occasions were painful realities that the political and media establishment fail even to recognize.”

On the same day Sanders’ op-ed was released, Donald Trump gave a speech on jobs and trade in front of a backdrop of compacted trash, saying in part:

“The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape.

But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal.

Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.

Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache…

…Our friends in Britain recently voted to take back control of their economy, politics and borders.

I was on the right side of that issue – with the people – while Hillary, as always, stood with the elites, and both she and president Obama predicted that one wrong.”

Monkey see, monkey do.

Let Traders Make Us Rich

With all this generational sniping and stoking of resentment towards the “globalized” economy, I cannot help but think of Oscar Wilde’s quip, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” Despite being a nominally young man, I have found the terms “old,” “middle-aged,” and “young” to be quite relative. Depending on the context, I have felt myself to be all three—old and gullible, middle-aged and cynical, young and sophomoric—and I am happy to accept this paradox of my own personal history.

But this paradox doesn’t merely apply to my own relative age, but to many issues defining our political age as well.

Take poverty for instance.

When I take the long view of human enrichment, it is apparent I am today able to command wealth beyond the wildest dreams of kings and emperors of old. I am reminded that, as a lower middle class American, I am much richer than most of the world’s poor.  I am reminded, contrary to populist narratives proffered by the likes of Bernie Sanders, that abject poverty has been cut in half in the last decade or so. I am reminded by Deirdre McCloskey that more than any economic factor or theory of exploitation or institutional arrangement, our ideas are what enable us to flourish as a speciesin particular, our ideas regarding bourgeois virtue and bourgeois equality.

Instill virtue and respect people’s equal liberty to pursue their own betterment through trade and innovationrather than subservience and propitiation to domineering political authoritiesand watch this wondrous party of enrichment continue. Celebrate the creative, enterprising, and tinkering “town folk” of the world by granting them the right to become as rich as they wish, and we will all be made better off in the long runeven the most “wretched” and “least” among us.

Such is what McCloskey calls the “bourgeois deal.”

I am willing to take this deal. I can get behind this sort of politics. This is why I got into political public discourse in the first placeto make my fellows as free as possible so they may pursue a peaceful and prosperous future.

And so it is: when I take the long view, it is apparent we each contain multitudes of classifications that betray the populist, short-term appeals of our politics.

I have never found Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” all that radical, visionary, or coherent.

Yet, I am told by demagogues on the right and the left that as part of the struggling, helpless middle-class, I should be resentful towards the wealthy because I am not getting a fair shake. Well, excuse me you mountebanks, but I will be the judge of what is fair and whose hand I wish to shake (though I suspect you would not grant me the liberty to do so). For the life of me, I do not understand why so many Americans like being spoken to in such a tone of voice. Why are so many Americans so quick to believe any politician, populist or otherwise, on how to better their economic station?

So, blame it on my youth if I may sound like an impudent know-it-all, but the populist appeals of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do not impress me one iota. As much as the prospect of political decentralization is appealing to me, to witness the American people inveighing against “globalism” and “globalization”—as though the two are synonymous terms—makes me worry the nation has, indeed, become the land of nincompoopery. The American people en masse are playing the part of the old, middle-aged, and young all at once, and accordingly, come across as downright gullible, cynical, and sophomoric.

Real Maladies, Fake Remedies

In particular, I have never found the elderly Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” all that radical, visionary, or coherent. His left-wing populism has certainly stumbled upon some of the major issues that have always puzzled the human race—poverty, inequality, injustice, and war—but Bernie has merely offered quackery in his diagnosis (wealth inequality) and remedies (minimum wage hikes, free college education, single-payer healthcare, etc.) which would destroy opportunity for the vast majority of the world’s poor.

That said, from a purely political perspective (where truth is perverted by being made to serve the passions of the democratic hordes,) Bernie Sanders is correct to warn the Democratic Party that they must not let Donald Trump seize on populist resentment against current trade policies if they wish to win the election. This rise of populism is real, and Sanders correctly sees the impetus of this popular resentment as the “globalized” economy, saying in his op-ed nearly identical to Trump on the issue of trade:

“The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite. We need real change…

…We need to fundamentally reject our “free trade” policies and move to fair trade. Americans should not have to compete against workers in low-wage countries who earn pennies an hour. We must defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We must help poor countries develop sustainable economic models.”

I agree, Bernie. We do need real change. Unfortunately, you are not offering it, Donald Trump is not offering it, and don’t even get me started on Hillary Clinton.

Senator Sanders and Donald Trump both blame “free trade” policies for our problems, but rather than damning the economy as “globalized,” populists should start damning the “cartelized economy” if they wish to avoid jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I say this because there is a grain of truth in their critiques of our current “free trade” agreements. What has been advanced under the auspices of free trade has really been centralized political control of markets via customs unions. Yet, I do not expect either old Bernie or blinkered Trump to change their minds on this.

Bernie, for one, is so obsessed with wealth inequality, he fails to see the effects many of his policies would bring about—vast inequities in the use of state power and further cartelization of the American economy. Bernie (as well as Trump) is so hell-bent on protecting the American middle-class, he fails to see the effects of his “fair trade” policies—a retarded division of labor, higher costs and less choices for consumers, and shoddy relations with other nations. As Henry George said of protectionist policies in 1886:

“Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same—to prevent trade. The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading. What protection teaches us is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.”

Beyond this, by saying he doesn’t want Americans to have to compete with the world’s poor, Bernie Sanders would harm most of the world’s poor contra his narrative of caring for them. And as much as Sanders and Clinton have railed against Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric, their calls for further domestic regulation of the economy, say a minimum wage hike, will only serve as a means of destroying low paying jobs for undocumented workers. Whether you’re an impoverished foreign worker or an undocumented immigrant, Bernie Sanders would rather you have no job at all over a having low wage gig to scrape by.

I suppose I’m hoping for a draw between the establishment and the elites.

If populists such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump really want to help the old, middle-aged, and young, they would see things such as poverty, inequality and the balance of trade between nations, just like age, as relative terms. If Bernie Sanders really wants to help the world’s poor or if Donald Trump really wishes to enable Americans to achieve economic progress, they would call for America to adopt immediate, unilateral free trade with all the world’s nations. If these populists really wants to help the “poor” middle classes of developed nations, they would call for dismantling customs unions, central banks, undemocratic regulatory regimes, and more generally, the state.

But, unfortunately, as much as my heart may cheer for the populist against the establishment, I cannot say I am eager to see them tear down the status quo. I suppose I’m hoping for a draw between the establishment and the elites. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bipartisan populist reality show of monkey see, monkey do with glee. As H.L. Mencken so impishly noted, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage,” and indeed what a glorious spectacle it is to behold.