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Economic Missteps: The Sanders-Trump Protectionist Pas De Deux

Rich Barlow: "This year's two populist candidates have a view of trade as fanciful as any Harry Potter tale." Pictured: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a campaign rally in St. Charles, Mo. Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump in Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio, Monday, March 14, 2016. (Left to right: Jeff Roberson, Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Rich Barlow: "This year's two populist candidates have a view of trade as fanciful as any Harry Potter tale." Pictured: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a campaign rally in St. Charles, Mo. Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump in Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio, Monday, March 14, 2016. (Left to right: Jeff Roberson, Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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Goaded by the success of his protectionist message in winning Michigan last week, Bernie Sanders is campaigning on the same theme in Tuesday's Democratic primaries in Ohio and Illinois. Donald Trump has hit similarly protectionist notes to drown out his Republican opponents, calling for a literally medieval policy of mercantilism, in which we’d sell gobs to the world while using hefty tariffs to discourage Americans from buying foreign goods.

Fate handed Sanders a particularly convenient target in Hillary Clinton -- wife of the president who negotiated NAFTA and secretary of state for the president who’s pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Our trade imbalance with China is “the greatest theft in the history of the world,” Trump declares. Like an avenging superhero, the Donald would punish that crime by zapping the Chinese with a 45 percent import tax on their goods entering the States. Meanwhile, Sanders, citing data from the labor-supported Economic Policy Institute, says NAFTA sheared 850,000 jobs from the American workforce, while granting special trade status to China vaporized 3 million more. Vermont’s self-appointed Captain America has a POW! of his own to land on behalf of workers: He vows to reverse these allegedly job-evaporating trade agreements.

Here’s the thing: This year's two populist candidates have a view of trade as fanciful as any Harry Potter tale. Sanders in particular could endanger progress on issues like climate change (which, last I checked, he called “the single greatest threat facing our planet”) if he reneged on trade deals.

It’s true that advocates have oversold free trade, speaking as if it hasn’t contributed at all to income inequality, when even free-trader economists admit it has. Give Sanders credit for worthy ideas about blunting that effect, from tuition-free public colleges to creating well-paying public works jobs. But my personal go-to guy on trade is Paul Krugman, who shares Sanders’s progressive politics and won the Nobel in economics for his trade research. And Krugman says that “globalization is only one of several factors behind rising income inequality, and trade agreements are in turn, only one factor in globalization.”

Indeed, a Brookings Institution study credited globalization with “the fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen.” Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service splashed cold water on both die-hard opponents and advocates of NAFTA. Analyzing several studies, its researchers concluded, “NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters.”

For all Sanders’s talk about the loss of manufacturing jobs, those began dying before globalization kicked in, as Krugman documents. And while protectionists like Trump have long bemoaned our trade deficits, Krugman says those result less from free trade and more from factors such as the strong American dollar.

But kicking trade, the Chinese and soulless multinational corporations gets more votes than conducting economics seminars. Fate handed Sanders a particularly convenient target in Hillary Clinton — wife of the president who negotiated NAFTA and secretary of state for the president who’s pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton’s free trade policies,” Sanders tweeted before his Michigan victory, demonstrating he’s better at cheap shots than economics: Fact-checkers noted that Detroit’s auto industry was on the ropes before these supposed bogeyman trade deals, KO’d by superior Japanese cars, automation and the flight of auto factories to the American South with its weaker unionism.

Reneging on NAFTA, Chinese trade status, et. al., would torpedo the country’s credibility with those nations at precisely the moment we need their help on climate change.

I doubt Sanders intends to deceive; he’s a true-believing ideologue, the flip side of Trump and Ted Cruz. But while Bernie backers chalk up Republicans’ religion as unthinking rigidity, they seem to think their own man knows what he’s talking about. In reality, Krugman argues persuasively that if you care about climate change, bailing on our past trade deals would be lunacy. Reneging on NAFTA, Chinese trade status, et. al., would torpedo the country’s credibility with those nations at precisely the moment we need their help on climate change. (Bernie backers apparently have amnesia about December’s Paris climate accord, which they cheered.)

The working class to whom Sanders aims his appeals, and whose allegiance Trump has more successfully corralled, has desperate needs in an economy that’s leaving it behind. But chasing votes by indulging knee-jerk instincts and pandering to ignorance won’t solve those problems. The trade dust-up offers more proof of Trump’s policy illiteracy. As for Sanders, I’ve argued that he might govern as pragmatically from the White House as he did when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Yet his embrace of left-wing myths, exemplified in his trade-bashing, makes me wonder.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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