This morning, I happened to catch a few moments of The McLaughlin Group. The subject had apparently turned to economics and trade, and Pat Buchanan was railing about his idee fixe, the idea that our "trade deficit" with China was evidence of a purposeful policy of Chinese economic sabotage.
OK, to start with, there is no such thing as a "trade deficit." Trade is the exchange of economic goods. If I give the gas station $3 and the gas station gives me a gallon of unleaded, do I have a "trade deficit" with the gas station?
The United States has, relative to China, a surplus of wealth. China has, relative to the United States, a surplus of labor. Chinese labor produces goods which are then exchanged for American wealth. There is no "deficit" in the pejorative sense suggested by Buchanan.
If U.S. manufacturers could produce fireworks as cheaply as do the Chinese, then I wouldn't buy Chinese fireworks. In fact, the Chinese make fireworks so cheaply, no U.S. manufacturer even attempts to compete with them, and I don't even have a choice: If I'm going to buy fireworks, I must buy Chinese fireworks.
Why is this? Well, we are a wealthy nation, fireworks manufacturing is dangerous work, and people in wealthy nations do not do dangerous work cheaply. Also, the United States has a lot of tort-happy trial lawyers who'd sue a fireworks maker into bankruptcy the minute a stray spark ignites the kind of accidental explosions that routinely kill Chinese fireworks facctory workers. (e.g., "Fireworks factory explosion in China kills 13," "Second China fireworks factory blast kills 11," "16 killed in China factory blast," etc.)
In addition to such considerations, the U.S. has OSHA guidelines, EPA, food stamps, Medicaid, worker's compensation, minimum wage, etc., etc. These various mechanisms of the liberal welfare state have the effect of increasing labor costs and reducing incentives for work at the lower end of the wage scale.
If the United States were to implement free-market reforms that had the effect of reducing the anti-competitive impact of tort lawyers and the welfare state, U.S. manufacturing would be in a better position vis a vis China. This would not bring about Utopia ("Alabama fireworks factory explosion kills 14 illegal immigrants") but at least we wouldn't have to listen to Buchanan talking incessantly about imposing protective tariffs.
To the extent that the Chinese government is pursuing protectionist or quasi-protectionist policies (i.e., subsidizing industries for the export of goods at sub-market prices), the primary victims of this policy are the Chinese.
Just as there is no such thing as a "trade deficit," so is there no such thing as "dumping" of sub-market goods. If Beijing wishes to tax its citizens in order to sell us steel at sub-market prices, I say we take all that cheap steel we can get. If the steel lobby and the steelworkers' union cry foul, screw 'em. They can either reduce wages or do without a job, but there is no point in making workers in every steel-dependent industry suffer on their behalf by imposing steel tariffs.
Now, I have recently scolded my friend David Frum over his 2003 attack on Buchanan (and Buchanan's friends, including the late Robert Novak) in regard to the Iraq War. I dare risk Frum's enmity on this score because (a) Buchanan's criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been amply vindicated, and (b) Frum resurrected the accusation of anti-Semitism against Buchanan & Co.
It is irrelevant (or, at least, should be irrelevant) to a discussion of U.S. foreign policy whether Buchanan is or is not an anti-Semite. It's a free country, and Buchanan's personal hatreds are his own business. But if the invasion of Iraq was a bad policy, undertaken without honest debate and in the absence of accurate intelligence or adequate planning for the post-invasion phase, then criticism of that policy ought to be respected, whether the criticism comes from Buchanan or John Kerry or Louis Farrakhan.
Tangling up Iraq policy discussion with the toxic charge of anti-Semitism isn't helpful. A thing can be true even if a bad person says it. Trying to pre-emptively disqualify an adversary's argument by saying that he is a bad person -- "A notorious former colleague of Michael Gerson!" -- simply won't do.
Moreover, these sorts of accusations of mala fides invite the question of whether the irrational prejudice alleged -- e.g., that Buchanan hates Jews -- actually causes harm.
Suppose that it is alleged that David Frum hates fat women. Evidence of this hatred is adduced in that Frum's wife Danielle Crittenden is thin and, even when he was single, Frum was never known to date fat girls, nor even girls who might be described as "pleasantly plump." Furthermore, it is remembered that Frum once harshly criticized Hillary Clinton (who isn't exactly Olive Oyl, if you get my drift).
Ah, so Frum now stands credibly accused of hating fat women. And Frum's defense is, "So what? Lots of people hate fat women. What's your point?"
Exactly right. And while it may be shown that, in terms of group averages, fat women have lower income than thin women, that they have less education, fewer social advantages, higher crime rates -- the usual sorts of evidences of "victimhood" -- you still haven't proven that David Frum's irrational fatchickaphobia has resulted in any particular harm to any particular fat woman.
Now, this probably sounds silly as an analogy for anti-Semitism, but on the other hand, so far as I am aware, the evidence that Pat Buchanan has ever done actual harm to any particular Jewish person is non-existent. It's one thing to say that, vis a vis U.S. Middle East policy, Buchanan's positions are as wrong as that thick-thighed Hillary Clinton's, but . . .
Having personally felt the sting of irrational prejudice against Appalachian-Americans -- no, I've never cooked moonshine, my parents weren't first cousins, and I don't even own a banjo -- I understand the sensitivity about such crude bigotry. But how can anyone claim to be doing good for the conservative cause by indicting Buchanana for bigotry so subtle as to be indistinguishable from the sentiments of most liberals, including pudgy-bottomed Hillary Clinton?
I guess what I'm I trying to say is, can't we all just get along? Jews and Jew-haters, David Frum and fat chicks like Hillary Clinton, protectionist fanatics and soon-to-be-exploded Chinese fireworks factory employees? Everybody hold hands and sing along.
Kumbayah, my Lord, kumbayah . . .
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