December 7, 2016
Trade, Facts, and Politics
“Part of the whole Trump phenomenon involves white working class voters rallying around a candidate who promised to bring back the coal and industrial jobs of the past, and lashing out at anyone who refuses to make similar promises. Yet the promise was and is fraudulent. If trying to get the analysis right is elitist, we’re in very big trouble — and perhaps we are.”–Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Krugman
by Paul Krugman
I see that Tim Duy is angry at me again. The occasion is rather odd: I produced a little paper on trade and jobs, which I explicitly labeled “wonkish”; the point of the paper was, as I said, to reconcile what seemed to be conflicting assessments of the impacts of trade on overall manufacturing employment.
But Duy is mad, because “dry statistics on trade aren’t working to counter Trump.” Um, that wasn’t the point of the exercise. This wasn’t a political manifesto, and never claimed to be. Nor was it a defense of conventional views on trade. It was about what the data say about a particular question. Are we not allowed to do such things in the age of Trump?
Actually, maybe not. Part of the whole Trump phenomenon involves white working class voters rallying around a candidate who promised to bring back the coal and industrial jobs of the past, and lashing out at anyone who refuses to make similar promises. Yet the promise was and is fraudulent. If trying to get the analysis right is elitist, we’re in very big trouble — and perhaps we are.
So what would a political manifesto aimed at winning over these voters look like? You could promise to make their lives better in ways that don’t involve bringing back the old plants and mines — which, you know, Obama did with health reform and Hillary would have done with family policies and more. But that apparently isn’t an acceptable answer.
Can we promise new, different jobs? Job creation under Obama has been pretty good, but it hasn’t offered blue-collar jobs in the same places where the old industrial jobs have eroded.
So maybe the answer is regional policies, to promote employment in declining regions? There is certainly a case in principle for doing this, since the costs of uprooting workers and families are larger than economists like to imagine. I would say, however, that the track record of regional support policies in other countries, which spend far more on such things than we are likely to, is pretty poor. For example, massive aid to the former East Germany hasn’t prevented a large decline in population, much bigger than the population decline in Appalachia over the same period.
And I have to admit to a strong suspicion that proposals for regional policies that aim to induce service industries to relocate to the Rust Belt would not be well received, would in fact be attacked as elitist. People want those manufacturing jobs back, not something different. And it’s snooty and disrespectful to say that this can’t be done, even though it’s the truth.
So I really don’t know the answer. But back to the starting point: when I analyze the effects of trade on manufacturing employment, the goal is to understand the effects of trade on manufacturing employment — not to win over voters. No, dry statistics aren’t good for political campaigns; but that’s no reason to ban statistics.