Scott Sumner  

Race and progressivism

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Pat Buchanan used to complain about imports from Asian and Hispanic economies, but was strangely silent about our large trade deficits with mostly white northern Europe. Donald Trump makes similar complaints. Now Kevin Williamson says that Bernie Sanders likes to complain about imports from Asian and Hispanic countries, but is strangely silent about our large deficits with northern Europe:

Like most of these advocates of "economic patriotism" (Barack Obama's once-favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people -- Asians, Latin Americans -- but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is not much different from our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn't rail about the Canadians and Germans stealing our jobs -- his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Latin Americans

Perhaps that's because when asked about their views on socialism, Sanders' supporters often point to the Nordic economies, even though these countries are actually highly capitalist economies with large welfare states. They didn't get rich with the sort of autarchic economic policies now fashionable on the American left. They relied on privatization, deregulation, free trade, large private multinational corporations and relatively low taxes on capital income.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, Sanders's supporters are mostly white. Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the tension between progressivism and minority rights:

The bad run-ins with #BlackLivesMatter activists that Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley had at the Netroots Nation conference were in part verbal gaffes, failures to identify in a linguistically appropriate way with the specific claims about racial justice that BLM activists are trying to advance.

But Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, points out that there's a deeper tension between economic populism and the cause of racial justice.

"Populism," she writes, "identifies elites who are to blame for oppressing the masses" and generally "calls for majoritarian processes to alleviate the problem."

. . .

Obviously, you can be for criminal justice reform and also for raising taxes on the rich or whatever else.

But what you can't plausibly do is cram the issue of structural racism in the criminal justice system into a frame that's about the perfidy of economic elites. Prosecutors, cops, and correctional officers aren't economic elites, they're hard-working middle-class Americans who often enjoy the labor union protections and collective bargaining rights that populists want to stand up for.

It's not just the racial specificity of BLM that is tough for populism, it's the focus on institutional reform. BLM charges that public sector institutions -- in this case, specifically the ones focused on law enforcement -- can perform poorly for reasons that are not explained by underfunding or by "revolving door" corporate capture. If that's true of police departments, then maybe it's true of schools and mass transit systems and any number of other public agencies.


That's a very perceptive point about the internal contradictions of American-style (left) liberalism. If we abolished all corporate influence and let unions run the show, where would we end up? Here's one indication:

Although opponents of legalization initiatives typically have not managed to raise much money, Kampia thinks California might be different. "First of all, the opposition tasted victory in Florida," he says. "Also, California's the only state that's consistently had major opposition to its serious criminal justice reforms. The narcotics officers and the prison guards in California have real money, and they're willing to spend it."
Hundreds of thousands of black and brown prisoners languish in jail because their freedom is less important that the economic well being of our mostly white criminal industrial complex. (Didn't we used to have an agricultural system run on that principal?)

I'm always bemused when white American liberals regard libertarians as "conservatives." It shows you where their priorities are. Apparently those liberals view economic issues like campaign finance reform, Dodd-Frank and net neutrality as being more important than hundreds of thousands of unfairly imprisoned blacks and Hispanics, or minorities getting shut out of jobs by occupational licensing laws, or millions of poor people being shut out of the US by our immigration laws. I suspect that there are lots of black and brown people all over the world that have different priorities. Perhaps that partly explains the racial make-up of Sanders' crowds.


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COMMENTS (36 to date)
Jim Kramer writes:

I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that our trade deficit with China was generally at least three times as big as that of the entire group of nations that make up the EU. in 1997, the first year that the census tracked our trade deficit with the EU, it was three times smaller than wa our trade deficit with China. It's also kind of noteworthy that our trade deficit with Europe as a percentage of value exchanged is miniscule compared to China. Not to mention the fact that Pat's critique didn't focus so much on the trade deficit as it did on the hollowing out of the rust belt through out-sourcing. Those jobs weren't going to Europe.

E. Harding writes:

The U.S. trade deficits with Germany and Ireland are more than balanced by its trade surpluses with the Netherlands and Belgium:
http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/highlights/toppartners.html
"Hundreds of thousands of black and brown prisoners languish in jail because their freedom is less important that the economic well being of our mostly white criminal industrial complex."
-For like a couple days:
http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/01/05/marijuana-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/

E. Harding writes:

"Apparently those liberals view economic issues like campaign finance reform, Dodd-Frank and net neutrality as being more important than hundreds of thousands of unfairly imprisoned blacks and Hispanics, or minorities getting shut out of jobs by occupational licensing laws, or millions of poor people being shut out of the US by our immigration laws."
-The two Presidential candidates who most succeeded at permanently grabbing the Black vote from Republicans were FDR and LBJ, who were not famous for doing anything about these things (except LBJ and opening immigration). The war on marijuana had its beginnings under FDR.
Also, notice:
http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/black-republicans-break-barriers-mia-love-and-tim-scott-win-big

Scott Sumner writes:

Jim, I don't know of any economist who thinks bi-lateral deficits matter. Germany's overall CA surplus is about as large as China's. Japan has a roughly balanced current account.

And Germany is much more inclined than China to produce the sort of sophisticated manufacturing goods that the US would otherwise make.

Buchanan used to talk about wages, ignoring the fact that Japan didn't have particularly low wages.

Scott Sumner writes:

E. Harding, I'm not quite sure what point you are making. Why not say our deficit with China I "balanced" by surpluses with various other countries? And as I said to Jim, bi-lateral deficits are meaningless. Lots of stuff exported from China is actually made elsewhere, and just assembled in China.

Michael N. writes:

The main problem for the left is that supporting big labor and opposing free trade automatically pits them against the poor non-white immigrants who would come and help drive down labor costs. Protectionism favors incumbent majority members.

E. Harding writes:

The U.S.'s third-largest trade deficit is with Japan. Also, Scott's right about Japan not having very low wages. Maybe Buchanan was thinking Japan was a miracle country that could, with its protectionist policies and booming economy, take a substantial amount of jobs away from U.S. workers in medium-to-high skilled tradable sectors.

Also, Japan has more (as in quantity) highly numerate people than the U.S., if PISA results are anything to go by.

"E. Harding, I'm not quite sure what point you are making."
-Northern Europe as a whole is not a substantial contributor to the U.S. trade deficit.

But Sumner still makes a good point here. There really is a greater sense of friendship in the U.S. with countries with majorities that are more like those of U.S. Whites (e.g., Australia, Britain, Norway, Germany, Austria).

E. Harding writes:

"The main problem for the left is that supporting big labor and opposing free trade automatically pits them against the poor non-white immigrants who would come and help drive down labor costs."
-Why so? Wouldn't that supposedly create more jobs for the immigrants? Republicans are here to protect the U.S. from foreign immigration, and Democrats are here to protect the U.S. from foreign goods and services.

Tom DeMeo writes:

I think you make a valid point. The counter argument from someone like Sanders would probably be that their primary complaints about imports are about a lack of environmental and labor protections. Essentially, the argument is that America "loves to compete", but some countries "cheat". I guess he doesn't think Germany cheats.

E. Harding writes:

"their primary complaints about imports are about a lack of environmental and labor protections"
-From Korea and Japan?

RobF writes:
I'm always bemused when white American liberals regard libertarians as "conservatives." It shows you where their priorities are.
Interesting! I can kind of see where you might get this, but I have the opposite take: Most self-professed libertarians in the U.S. *do in fact* align themselves with conservatives (i.e the GOP) because the liberties that successful libertarian pundits seem to cherish most are the Randian liberties of the GOP rather than the ACLU liberties of the left. Notable exceptions: you, Julian Sanchez, Conor Friedersdorf, a few others. Maybe we're both being uncharitable (me more so, no doubt). Here would be a potential reality-check: Take a poll of GMU's self-identified libertarian bloggers to see how they've voted over the past 20 years for senators, congressmen, governors, and presidents. If there have been more votes cast for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates, I would be refuted. Actually, I would admit error on the lightest of evidence: If you state in the comments that the GMU libertarians you've communicated with tend to, on balance, vote Democratic rather than Republican, I'll send $100 to the charity of your choice.
Michael N. writes:

E Harding, that was my point. Unions do not want wage competition from poor immigrants. Incumbent businesses do not want competition from abroad. It just so happens that this is easier to sell when it's immigrants from poorer countries. Conservatives tend to use more nativist and rule-of-law arguments.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Most production comes from high income countries. Production moves to countries with rising wages - practically as a mathematical axiom, if you think about it. So, on the margin, offshoring tends to move to countries with low but rising wages. A position against liberal trade and against offshoring is an elitist policy whose result is to stultify the incomes of the world's aspirational poor.

Andrew_FL writes:

In fairness to O'Malley, he ran into trouble with the "#Black Lives Matter" crowd not so much because of tension between progressive politics and addressing racial injustice, but for having the temerity to express equality between the races!

MikeP writes:

Most self-professed libertarians in the U.S. *do in fact* align themselves with conservatives (i.e the GOP) because the liberties that successful libertarian pundits seem to cherish most are the Randian liberties of the GOP rather than the ACLU liberties of the left.

While I agree with the observation, I disagree with the reasoning.

Most libertarians in the US align with conservatives because the liberties opposed by liberals are far more fragile than the liberties opposed by conservatives. Basically, liberal talking points can do more damage than conservative talking points.

Fortunately, most Democrats and Republicans moderate from their talking points once they have power. Nonetheless, since all libertarians get to do is talk, they respond to the talking points -- which are worse from the liberal side.

E. Harding writes:

"Unions do not want wage competition from poor immigrants."
-Actually, they want poor immigrants to join them:
http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/22/opinion/hasty-call-for-amnesty.html
"than the ACLU liberties of the left."
-Like the freedom to use eminent domain on a wedding cake.

Michael N. writes:

Sure, if they let them in, then make them join and drive up wages. Perhaps it applies more aptly to outsourcing.

Lewis writes:

In my field, transportation, this is obvious. Progressives tend to favor costly rail lines with low coverage and frequency, with lots of knock-on effects on real estate values--"development." Minorities benefit from upgrading old buses and raising frequencies on core routes, and from dial-a-ride services for the elderly and disabled. Likewise, progressives favor high salaries and benefits and protections for transit workers. No one acknowledges the tradeoff but the result is lower frequency and poor maintenance for a given volume of money. On the whole, my view is that progressives favor epic systems where the few employees are happy, regardless of ridership or consumer surplus. It is like they just want a little slice of Europe here in America to look at. Recently, there has been a fad for a sort of worst-of-both worlds approach in which federal grants pay for electric buses.

Scott Sumner writes:

Tom, Japan cheats and Germany doesn't?

Rob, I don't know how others vote, but I vote libertarian.

The other GMU bloggers certainly don't come across as Republican go me. in any case, I was talking about the liberal/conservative split, not Democratic/GOP.

Lewis, Excellent comment.

TravisV writes:

In the link above, Julia Azari also noted this post by Seth Masket, which I thought was excellent:

"Bad Guys are Lobbyists, Good Guys are The People"

http://www.mischiefsoffaction.com/2015/04/bad-guys-are-lobbyists-good-guys-are.html

TMC writes:

MikeP, I agree with your reasoning, but you can add the direction each party is going. The Dems more statist, and the Repubs less every year.

Bostonian writes:

People may fear competition from Asia and Latin America more because they worry that the only way to compete with low-wage countries is to have similarly low wages here. They think the U.S. will be able to compete with high-wage countries.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Scott -
re: "Jim, I don't know of any economist who thinks bi-lateral deficits matter. Germany's overall CA surplus is about as large as China's."

But now you're moving the conversation from politicians to economists. If we stick with Sanders - not an economist - he almost certainly cares about China because of how much larger the bilateral deficit is. The other thing about China and Mexico vs. Japan and Germany (you don't hear much about Japan anymore these days and they're Asian), is that that China and Mexico are the recent identified threat. One day that'll subside and they'll be treated like Japan and Germany are today. I don't think we've really got evidence of racism here.

John Thacker writes:

Here's an interview with Bernie Sanders. He's asked about immigration, with Ezra Klein suggesting sharply increasing legal immigration:

Sanders: Open borders? No, that's a Koch brothers proposal.

Klein: Really?

Sanders: Of course, that's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially that there is no United States...

... [various interruptions]

Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn't it?

Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer-- you're doing away with the nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes that.

Lee Waaks writes:

@ Daniel Kuehn:
I don't think we've really got evidence of racism here.

No, the left is promoting institutional racism. :)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Everyone is promoting institutional racism - that's why it's institutional :)

Scott Sumner writes:

Bostonian and. Daniel, But Japan is not a low wage country, so why does Sanders complain about Japan?

If that's not racism, and you are probably right that it isn't, then 99% of the conservative views that get labeled racist are also not racism. For instance, couldn't opponents of affirmative action claim that they were motivated by free market principles, even if the actual effect was to hurt minorities?

John, I'm not surprised by that, American liberals seem to care more about our relatively well-off poor, than the extremely poor people of other countries.

Andrew writes:

Scott --

You forgot about our government education system where minorities graduate at much lower rates than whites.

Minneapolis public schools spend $21,000 per student and only 25% of black students can read at their grade level.

Charters? Vouchers? Heck NOOO. Just keep shoveling more money at the same teachers and administrators.

RPLong writes:
Everyone is promoting institutional racism - that's why it's institutional :)
I personally believe there is a categorical difference between participating in racist institutions (such as being employed by a firm that pays unequally by race) and promoting the institutions of racism (such as actively working to expand the scope of already-racist government programs and policies).

Under this paradigm, Sumner's point makes perfect sense when applied to the likes of P. Buchanan and Sanders.

Also: Kevin Erdmann's comment is absolutely spot-on.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Scott -
I agree, 99% of what conservatives say that gets labeled racism isn't racism (assuming we're leaving institutional racism out of this).

Justin D writes:

My sense is that politicians focus on trade concerns about China, Japan and Mexico because they aren't experts who look at the data, rather they focus on what gets reported by the media - and when is the last time the media focused on trade deficits with European nations specifically, rather than Japan or China?

Additionally, they likely draw from their own personal experience. All sorts of things regular people buy are made in Asia - clothes, electronics, toys, Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais, Kias, Subarus, etc. It's harder to think of European products that regular Americans buy. Sure, there are VWs and Fiat, but those brands aren't nearly as successful as the Asian brands are in the US. Germany also has BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Porsche, but those are car brands the middle class generally doesn't buy. Other than that, what is the typical household buying that is European? Perhaps beer, wine, chocolates and pharmaceuticals (and who knows how many Americans can correctly identify that Bayer is German Or Nestle is Swiss).

(Yglesias): "BLM charges that public sector institutions -- in this case, specifically the ones focused on law enforcement -- can perform poorly for reasons that are not explained by underfunding or by "revolving door" corporate capture. If that's true of police departments, then maybe it's true of schools and mass transit systems and any number of other public agencies."
Free marketeers made this point decades ago: in mass democracies, the majority will dominate political processes while in market-ordered production of goods and services some businesses will have a strong incentive to serve minorities who receive poor service from majority-dominated enterprise. School is a perfect example. Who gets the wretched schools in the US? Blacks and Hispanics. Who gets the wretched schools in Hawaii? Hawaiians and Samoans. Who's in prison in the US? Blacks and Hispanics. Who's in prison in Hawaii? Hawaiian's and Samoans. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically-adept parents.

(Scott): "If we abolished all corporate influence and let unions run the show ..."
Please do not do this. Unions, even "public sector" unions are (private, 501-c(5)) corporations. State and local governments are corporations.

(Scott): " ... those liberals view economic issues like campaign finance reform, Dodd-Frank and net neutrality as being more important than ... millions of poor people being shut out of the US by our immigration laws."
Party at Scott Sumner's house tonight. Dibs on the Guinness and the couch after 1 a.m.

Scott, the US is a corporation. The assets of that corporation are the property of US citizens. If you want to surrender your share to some impoverished Somali, perhaps there's a way for the two of you to swap nationalities. Go for it.

Bostonian writes:

@Malcolm Kirkpatrick
"Who gets the wretched schools in the US? Blacks and Hispanics."

Wretched students make wretched schools. If a mostly white neighborhood becomes mostly black and Hispanic, academic achievement will decline, even if they are going to the same school building with the same teachers.

Larry writes:

Headline: minimum wage raised. Women, minorities hardest hit.

Martin-2 writes:

"Perhaps that partly explains the racial make-up of Sanders' crowds"

Scott Alexander warns against this line of reasoning here:
http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/02/11/black-people-less-likely/

ThomasH writes:

In griping about imports from China stealing “our jobs” more than imports from Europe, Trump and Sanders need not be, and I’d guess are not, displaying some kind of secret racism (Trump's is not even secret), but rather a kind of Stolper-Samuelson intuition that trade between a labor-abundant country and a labor scarce country will lead to factor price (wage) equalization.

In the related question of the “tension” between “progressivism” and minority rights I think Yglesias is on firmer ground. What Sumner calls “American (left) liberalism” suffers from the inability (ignorance of economic trade-offs) or unwillingness to confront the uncomfortable truth that reforms that confer benefits on large numbers of mainly lower income people, require higher taxes on consumption of a not insignificant number of higher-consumption people.

This leads to attempts to “do good by stealth.” The many costs of health care finance reform were hidden. A proposed transfer of income to low paid workers is to be achieved through a higher minimum wage not a higher EITC. Efforts to reduce CO2 emissions take the form of fuel economy standards, “green energy” set-asides, and command-and-control regulation instead of a carbon tax. When costs cannot be hidden they are claimed to fall on “malefactors of great wealth,” “fat cats” or “the 1%;” terminology evolves.

That Libertarians glory in exposing the stealth -- that the actual policies of progressives do (gasp!) have costs (“unintended consequences”) -- is good fun and could even be enlightening if they went on to analyze the trade-offs between sub-optimal policy whose costs they “discovered” and alternative polices that would produce benefits commensurate with their cost. Too often, however, they limit themselves to concluding that progressives are either knaves or fools.

Exactly how favoring Dodd-Frank stands in the way of criminal justice reform (entailing the decriminalizing of drugs) or reform of occupational licensing (both state issues) escapes me.

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