What Explains Working Class Conservatives? Part 2

This is the 2nd in a series. Part 1 is here.

Historian Corey Robin and his critics reject “false consciousness” as an explanation for working class support of anti-labor legislators.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that it is a thing.  False consciousness theory posits that voters may support a politician who pursues policies that objectively harm them.  A Pew Research poll released this past January on the Trans Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) exemplifies this phenomenon.

If the TPP is anything at all, it is a “free trade” deal. If enacted, it will eliminate as nearly as possible the transaction costs of trade among its various nation partners. According to Pew, a small minority of Americans – 20% – believe that international trade leads to more jobs here. An even smaller minority – 17% – see international trade as positively impacting on wages. Democratic voters are slightly more pessimistic about the ramifications of free trade than Republicans.

Nevertheless, 71% of Democrats say trade is good for America and 59% say the TPP specifically is a good thing. For all Americans the numbers are 68% and 55% respectively. The vast majority of Americans recognize that the TPP will neither create jobs nor lead to higher wages and yet we support it. Somehow, we have been deluded into backing a policy and the politicians who champion it that we know full well is likely to undermine our own economic security. We are victims of a false consciousness.

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4 Responses to What Explains Working Class Conservatives? Part 2

  1. Shade says:

    At first blush it seems odd that one would argue, at least from an ugly American perspective, that third-world countries (like China) using virtual slave labor to manufacture and ship us goods at pennies on the dollar (compared to if produced here) is disadvantageous to our country. Products that would otherwise cost us substantial portions of our gross domestic income have become inexpensive and disposable (recyclable), and the resultant quick replacement cycle has encouraged technological & manufacturing innovation (such as with computers & TVs).

    So why is the general consensus (including mine) that American manufacturing is necessary for regrowing our middle class? The answer is that by involving more Americans in the production of goods and wealth, more U.S. workers must get paid, and thus domestic production more fairly distributes the wealth it generates (i.e. less to the 1% and more to the middle class). The fair distribution of wealth is also synergistic to our economy in that it enables more people access to the financial capital with which to innovate; this innovation then leads to the creation of additional wealth.

    The fact remains however that inexpensive imports do create some advantages to many Americans (not just rich corporations), else imports would have never have gained their current dominance in the American marketplace. It is also clear (at least to me) that overly protecting our manufacturing workforce for extended periods (decades) will ultimately only lead to our manufacturing workforce becoming stagnant & permanently uncompetitive in world markets. So what do we do?

    The U.S. will likely never again be able to compete with third-world countries in the production of goods that require a high amount of unskilled labor. But can the American workforce carve a niche out of the remaining world markets in which it can compete? I think so, and this should be our goal. The U.S. needs to capitalize on what it has the potential to do best… produce goods & provide services that requires a workforce who possesses high levels of education and that therefore has the skills to quickly adapt to changing technology and market conditions.

    Will the U.S. ever again be able to dominate the world in the production of everyday consumer goods? Highly unlikely, but for the sake of the fair distribution of wealth throughout the world & the resultant lessening of political and economic tensions that might otherwise lead to wars, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Is the TPP agreement compatible with the above stated desirable goals? Well, President Obama would say yes, but the terms of the TPP are currently highly secret and from what I’ve heard to date, I’d have to say no. I agree with Bernie Sanders who states that fair trade is a good thing, but unregulated free trade opens the door for too many abuses (many of which I previously spelled out here: http://halginsberg.com/the-tpp-is-a-bad-deal/#comment-5303).

  2. halginsberg says:

    Thanks Shade – I think the problems arising from “free trade” are manifold. Here are three: 1) In the most general sense, we impoverish ourselves as we have sent much more of our wealth offshore than we have taken in. 2) As you point, the jobs that have been lost due to off-shoring have tended to be relatively high-paying ones filled by relatively less educated Americans who often have no realistic options that will allow them to live a middle-class life. 3) As you also point out, the benefits from trade tend to be wildly uneven and on balance have exacerbated wealth inequality.

    I disagree that protecting Americans manufacturing jobs from cheap overseas labor will cause our workforce to stagnate. If we enforce antitrust laws, then there can be more than enough competition intra-nationally to keep American labor (and management) on its toes. Probably we would have been better served if the feds had never let GM consolidate from five or more manufacturers into one. The experience of Germany which protects its workers yet has an extremely efficient workforce would seem to belie the contention that protected labor is spoiled labor.

  3. Shade says:

    If you happen to have a job, then cheap imports from China seem wonderful. You get good value for what you spend and you certainly pay less than if the product was made in the U.S. Quality isn’t always what it should be, but unless it is a safety issue like melamine in baby food, one can consider the items purchased as disposable and the next one purchased will probably make up for any problem experienced.

    A primary reason imports are so cheap is that we aren’t paying the true costs that imports require to manufacture. Virtual slave labor and a blatant disregard for the environment are two costs that we aren’t paying. These are issues that we should address with tariffs as part of any fair-trade deal. Unfortunately, fair tariff amounts are very had to calculate and they become subject to all sorts of special interest manipulations.

    In favor of imports, one does need to consider that countries being mutually interdependent on their trade relationships tends to reduce the likelihood of wars. Trade also tends to slowly modernize the third world in ways that their populations will eventually appreciate (though in some ways their populations may be worse off for several generations or more, especially if corporate interests and entrenched corrupt political regimes have their way).

    The “impoverishment” we experience in buying imports is interesting in that the problem created is primarily one of income distribution. Although we pay more for our imports than we get for our exports, one might argue that the imports we buy are worth much more than we pay. The problem that occurs when consumers buy imports is that the transaction, being controlled by wealthy corporations, tends to enrich the wealthy in this country while the rest of our nation is left with debt.

    The biggest problem typically identified with importing so many of our goods is that it tends to take good-paying jobs from workers in the U.S. However, there is certainly a need for U.S. workers to do other things… like rebuild our infrastructure and upgrade it to be more Green. Having more adults (not involved in childrearing) work would also be good for many of our societal ills. Again, as was previously mentioned, the problem is perhaps not so much the imports themselves as it is the resultant unfair distribution of income that we as Americans allow. (Unfortunately, the TPP agreement may add new jurisdictional problems that we don’t currently often experience.)

    I think the jury is still out on the ongoing success of Germany’s economy, but you are right that they do seem to do a lot of things right. The problem with manufacturing in the U.S. is not only anti-trust enforcement. Unlike in the U.S., unions and management seem to work together in Germany to form successful strong businesses and quality products. In the U.S., one often can’t tell which of these two special interests does worse for a company’s long-term domestic viability. Both unions and corporations seem to think only of their own short-term interests, and regardless of current profitability, most corporations seem primarily interested in how fast they can ship their manufacturing abroad.

  4. halginsberg says:

    Not much more to add to what you’ve written Shade. Here’s a really interesting analysis of how Germany does it by Harold Meyerson. I note that the model which relies on keeping the most highly skilled work in Germany while offshoring less demanding tasks is probably not easily replicable. Moreover, Germany’s labor empowerment laws which require that public companies include 50% labor representation on their boards plays a major factor. Obviously, our political environment would never generate such legislation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/germany-shows-the-way-on-labor/2015/04/29/b9bc811c-ee9e-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html

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