Most economists hold that “past major trade deals [NAFTA, Chinese entry to the WTO] have benefitted most Americans.”[1]  Now we’re facing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  There is no doubt that this is true.  Still, lots of working people think that an open world economy has turned into a disaster.  Naturally, in an election year, all sorts of candidates—from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton to Boris Johnson—are having road to Damascus experiences.  It’s how you get ahead in a competitive environment.

How is this possible?  On the one hand, there is a certain gap between quantitative-based reality and perception-based reality.  While economists calculate that “trade deals benefited most Americans,” most Americans (55 percent) calculate that they did not.[2]  Who is right?

On the other hand, Economics is the greatest of the “social sciences” that arose at the end of the 19th Century.  Those social sciences (Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Marketing) all study the behavior of people in the aggregate to discover “laws” of human behavior.  The thing is, people don’t live their lives in the aggregate.  They live their lives individually and for themselves.  “Most” people can be doing really well, while a minority are doing badly.  The minority takes no consolation from the happy situation of the majority; apparently, the fortunate majority gives little thought to the hardships of the minority.

However, some research indicates that this is too simple an answer.  Lots of people who oppose free trade are not individually harmed by it, but they believe that the country as a whole is harmed by it.  It has been suggested that isolationism plays a role; that nationalist feelings of “cultural superiority” plays a role; and that racism (couched as “ethnocentrism”) plays a role.  People who have less education are more likely to be isolationist, nationalistic, and “ethnocentrist” than are the better educated.  Gregory Mankiw has a funny coda to this story: once people have more education, this nonsense will pass.[3]

There is another possible explanation.  Many people recognize that America is still a racially segregated society, but not many people recognize that America is still a class segregated society.  My father taught people to drive and eventually bought the business[4]; his brother had some experience in construction and some training as an engineer in the US Army, and then became a consulting engineer[5]; their brothers-in-law were a mill-hand at Weyerhauser, a ship-wright at Vic Foss Boatyard, and a salesman-turned-entrepreneur.  My beloved[6] in-laws graduated from Ivy League colleges, often went to grad school or law school, are “professionals,” and have lovely summer homes on the Eastern Shore, in New Jersey, and in Nova Scotia.  All the same, if the people losing from globalization mostly come from one social group, then maybe their extended families and friends intuitively or out of human sympathy push back.  Their own family and friends also suffer from economic change.  They recognize that they themselves may suffer in the future.  Class solidarity trumps [NPI] economic “rationality.”

Maybe, shock absorbers against the impact of trade deals are best?  Or maybe not.

[1] N. Gregory Mankiw, “Trade Is Good, But Voters Aren’t Buying It,” NYT, 31 July 2016.

[2] This may be an example of what Marxism terms “false consciousness.”  People think that they are something different from what people in authority tell them they are.  Alas.

[3] Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, has a funny coda to Mankiw.  People always suffer from relative lack of development

[4] My Dad taught me how to tie a necktie and had a couple of suits, but he didn’t wear a jacket or tie to work.

[5] Basically a burr under the saddle of construction companies trying to cut corners on jobs that they had bid.

[6] I’m not being arch here.  They’re wonderful and incredibly generous human beings with a Hell of a lot more social conscience than I possess.

1 thought on “NAFTA You.

  1. This is me being pedantic. Uncle Johnny was a cabinet maker and finish carpenter at Vick Franck, a high-end yacht builder. The Vic Franck shipyard was just east of the Fremont Bridge. I went to high school with Dan Franck, Vic’s son, who told me that he (Johnny) was the best-loved employee there.

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