The Losers from Free Trade (and Donald Trump)

Thomas Frank writes in the Guardian that when Donald Trump “isn’t spewing insults, the Republican frontrunner is hammering home a powerful message about free trade and its victims”.

It’s a challenging point about a central aspect of what Frank calls “Econ 101”, but we understand as EC114, Introductory Macroeconomics: comparative advantage. The idea that all countries specialise in the things they are comparatively better at (rather than absolutely better at), and as a result we all do better. So Mexico produces air conditioning units, while America produces the designs for awesome Apple computers (made in China).

However, what does that mean for those who used to produce air conditioning units in America? Or those here in the UK who used to build ships?

As we pointed out in the lecture, free trade doesn’t mean all benefit. However, free trade does envisage that those displaced from industries that a country is not specialising in are able to move into those industries that a country is specialising in. So why hasn’t that happened in so many parts of the UK, and the US? Undoubtedly the article written by Frank could be applied here in the UK to the rhetoric of Nigel Farage and Ukip.

It’s tempting to say that we’ll find an answer at some point in the rest of the course, yet the reality is that depressed parts of the UK have been depressed for decades now, and things never seem to change – which suggests that the problem hasn’t really been solved as yet… or has it?

Frank concludes with a tirade against free trade but more: “Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll.” To what extent have bank bailouts left us with a banking system unwilling to extend credit to firms willing to move into depressed areas of the country and create jobs?

Even if that’s true, however, most depressed areas of the UK have been depressed for longer than just the time since the Financial Crisis…

What’s wrong with populist policies?

Last year Jeremy Corbyn overwhelmingly won the Labour Party’s leadership contest here in the UK, on what is widely regarded as a “populist” platform – a range of policies that are popular amongst those on the left of the political spectrum. These include the renationalisation of utilities and other industries like the railways, and a more pacifistic approach to national defence. Corbyn also had the advantage of not being the “establishment” candidate, the one tainted with previous government, and the one perceived to be a “typical politician”.

This year the next President of the United States of America will be determined in a November election, and as current incumbent Barack Obama has served his two terms, both Democrats and Republicans are currently determining who will be their nominated candidate for the November election.

Last night, both of the non-establishment candidates won handsome victories in New Hampshire, one of the many contests around the US that contribute towards determine who is nominated by each party. For the Democrats, Bernie Sanders won apparently by a 20 percentage point margin – a huge win. For the Republicans, the controversial Donald Trump won, again by a large margin.

What does this mean? The common thinking is that as both candidates are more populist, and appealing to non-standard political audiences (Sanders, aged 74, is massively popular amongst younger voters, something that happened for Corbyn here), that the likelihood is of more populist policies in the future.

What are populist policies? Very simply, they are ideas that are popular amongst a substantial proportion of the population. As such, can this really be a bad thing? Populist policies are often disparaged by mainstream, or “establishment” politicians, because although they may be popular, they are probably quite unrealistic in their nature. Those “tainted” by government likely know the kinds of compromises that need to be made in order for policies to be practical and workable, and the kinds of interest groups and power factions that impact eventual policy outcomes in the political decision-making.

Perhaps as a result such “establishment” politicians tend towards promoting what they view as more work-able policies, which are less popular due to appearing watered down. This maybe explains why many people felt at the last General Election here in the UK that there wasn’t very much between the two major parties.

Hence if populism simply means some candidates proposing popular policies, with others arguing against them, this can hardly, in itself, be a bad thing? Debate about policies is surely important, as is a wider engagement in the political process, since the outcomes of elections do matter so much to many of us. Jeremy Corbyn has ploughed a lonely furrow in recent months arguing in favour of refugees displaced around the Middle East and Europe, even visiting the camps in Calais and Dunkirk – and being mocked in the press and by other politicians, including the Prime Minister, for doing so.

There is an additional element, however. Even if Trump and Sanders become the party candidates in November, only one will win, and even if they win, there is the likelihood they could not enact all the populist policies they wish because of the role Congress plays in decisionmaking in the US – current president Obama has repeatedly be blocked in attempts to take action by a Congress dominated by Republicans. The Labour Party in the UK is widely expected to perform miserably at the next General Election, meaning that for all the time spent developing interesting policy debate, there may really be little actual impact on policies, which will be conceived by and put into place by Labour’s opponents, the Conservative Party.

The big question, as it is often put, is whether politicians should follow their “principles” given that those principles risk making them “unelectable”. If unelectable, then the policies in question will never be put into practice, it is argued, and hence to a large extent any ensuing debate is pointless.

Regardless, these are interesting times when it comes to political events, and given that so much of politics is policies, and so many policies are economic in nature, there’s never been a better time to be studying economics!