A few weeks ago I wrote about the anomie that enveloped me when I attended the Aspen Ideas Festival. The sense that what was taking place in our economy and society was the effect of forces outside our control. The term used for this notion is globalization. So yesterday the New York Times put out a long piece about how through a combination of carrots and sticks we had gotten the Japanese auto manufacturers to put plants in America and hire American workers. The article asked this question.
For years, high-tech executives have argued that the United States cannot compete in making the most popular electronic devices. Companies like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which rely on huge Asian factories, assert that many types of manufacturing would be too costly and inefficient in America. Only overseas, they have said, can they find an abundance of educated midlevel engineers, low-wage workers and at-the-ready suppliers.
But the migration of Japanese auto manufacturing to the United States over the last 30 years offers a case study in how the unlikeliest of transformations can unfold. Despite the decline of American car companies, the United States today remains one of the top auto manufacturers and employers in the world. Japanese and other foreign companies account for more than 40 percent of cars built in the United States, employing about 95,000 people directly and hundreds of thousands more among parts suppliers.
I posted the article on my Facebook page and got this rant back from John Papola.
Why should the corrupt crony thugs in DC prevent Americans from trading with other people just because of some stupid line on a map. The “globalization gospel” is called “freedom” and “free exchange” and its the roots of western civilization. Are you seriously proposing mercantilism? The 17th century called. It wants it’s defunct doctrines back.
But my response to John is that his vision of freedom in America is a mirage. In the U.S. those with power use it to insulate themselves from competitive forces by winning favorable tax treatment and other forms of what economists call “rent seeking.” I reject the notion that all of these changes that make it so hard to find jobs for people without college educations, are just the inevitable forces of technological change. Globalization was a choice on the part of capital to weaken the bargaining power of workers by using outsourcing. As the auto “insourcing” model proves, there is no inherent reason why U.S. workers can’t be just as productive as Asian workers. Because the Reagan administration (and every one to follow) made it easy for companies to close down factories and move jobs offshore, the rent seekers triumphed.
The irony of course is that I know John Papola hates rent seeking crony capitalism as much as I do. For a liberal like myself, it is anguishing that both Clinton and Obama have been just as obsequious to the wishes of Wall Street as Reagan, Bush 1 and 2. What we need is a new reform politics that will combine elements of market choice (such as our discussion on school vouchers) with a simple set of regulations that bring the extraordinary power of capital to heel. We will still need a smart government to build the roads, run the police and fire departments and provide a social safety net. My guess is that the Democrats are less in the bag to the 1% than the Republicans and so they are better positioned to be the messengers of reform. As I have said before, cashiering Tim Geithner and hiring Joe Stiglitz would be a good start for Obama’s second term.