There was one post yesterday, “A Protectionist Moment?”:
Busy with real life, but yes, I know what happened in the primaries yesterday. Triumph for Trump, and big upset for Sanders — although it’s still very hard to see how he can catch Clinton. Anyway, a few thoughts, not about the horserace but about some deeper currents.
The Sanders win defied all the polls, and nobody really knows why. But a widespread guess is that his attacks on trade agreements resonated with a broader audience than his attacks on Wall Street; and this message was especially powerful in Michigan, the former auto superpower. And while I hate attempts to claim symmetry between the parties — Trump is trying to become America’s Mussolini, Sanders at worst America’s Michael Foot — Trump has been tilling some of the same ground. So here’s the question: is the backlash against globalization finally getting real political traction?
You do want to be careful about announcing a political moment, given how many such proclamations turn out to be ludicrous. Remember the libertarian moment? The reformocon moment? Still, a protectionist backlash, like an immigration backlash, is one of those things where the puzzle has been how long it was in coming. And maybe the time is now.
The truth is that if Sanders were to make it to the White House, he would find it very hard to do anything much about globalization — not because it’s technically or economically impossible, but because the moment he looked into actually tearing up existing trade agreements the diplomatic, foreign-policy costs would be overwhelmingly obvious. In this, as in many other things, Sanders currently benefits from the luxury of irresponsibility: he’s never been anywhere close to the levers of power, so he could take principled-sounding but arguably feckless stances in a way that Clinton couldn’t and can’t.
But it’s also true that much of the elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict. I hope, by the way, that I haven’t done any of that; I think I’ve always been clear that the gains from globalization aren’t all that (here’s a back-of-the-envelope on the gains from hyperglobalization — only part of which can be attributed to policy — that is less than 5 percent of world GDP over a generation); and I think I’ve never assumed away the income distribution effects.
Furthermore, as Mark Kleiman sagely observes, the conventional case for trade liberalization relies on the assertion that the government could redistribute income to ensure that everyone wins — but we now have an ideology utterly opposed to such redistribution in full control of one party, and with blocking power against anything but a minor move in that direction by the other.
So the elite case for ever-freer trade is largely a scam, which voters probably sense even if they don’t know exactly what form it’s taking.
Ripping up the trade agreements we already have would, again, be a mess, and I would say that Sanders is engaged in a bit of a scam himself in even hinting that he could do such a thing. Trump might actually do it, but only as part of a reign of destruction on many fronts.
But it is fair to say that the case for more trade agreements — including TPP, which hasn’t happened yet — is very, very weak. And if a progressive makes it to the White House, she should devote no political capital whatsoever to such things.