Tariffs are the new picket lines

Update: I now think that the caveats in the final paragraph of this blog post outweigh the points that I was trying to make in the post itself, and I’m going to try to explain in a new post.

A month and a half ago, during a wide-ranging email conversation with a friend about the kinds of madness and extremism that are at large this election season, I admitted that “I have been daydreaming about writing a long blog post about all the ways in which upper middle class liberals are blind to the hatred of them, and to the reasonable motivations for that hatred, experienced by people outside their class.”

I never did write that blog post, in part because my friend and I continued our conversation, and I put most of my ideas into one of my later emails to him. I offer the email here, as a fragment, because even though the issues remain current, I don’t seem to have the stomach to polish it up into even a proper blog post. The only change I’ve made to my original email is to add links to document some of the claims.

To follow the thread of the argument, all you really need to know is that my friend had suggested, in an earlier email, that the economic power of the highly educated was resented nowadays almost as if it were a kind of sorcery.

My reply:

I don’t think that what the symbolic class has done is in fact as mysterious to the working class as you’re describing. I think it’s pretty simple, actually: the symbolic class enriched itself by shipping offshore the manufacturing jobs that used to employ the working class here in America, thereby increasing profits for companies whose stocks the symbolic class owns, rendering cheaper the goods that the symbolic class still has the money to buy, and rewarding themselves with high salaries in recognition of their improvement of their employers’ bottom lines.

Piketty claimed that contra classic economics, the progress of capitalism has been widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The only rebuttal of Piketty that persuaded me was one that pointed out that although he’s right, empirically speaking, about what has happened in America and Western Europe, he’s wrong about what’s happening on a global scale. In other words, globally, the classic economic model remains valid: overall, financial inequality is diminishing with time. But what that means, on the ground, is that wealth in the BRIC nations is increasing at the expense of the wealth of the poor and middle classes in America and Western Europe. Globally the normal distribution of wealth still obtains, but in order for wealth to find its natural level, now that most of the dikes and dams that used to isolate the nations have fallen, the Chinese worker has to be paid more than he has been, and the American worker less.

I dissent from your idea that this looks like sorcery. In fact, I think everyone pretty much knows what’s been going on. Or rather, I think many working-class people know what’s going on, though perhaps some of the woolly-minded symbolic elite have preferred to look away. Classical economics claims that free trade always improves everyone’s lives, and that if some manufacturing jobs are lost to a low-wage competitor, new jobs will take their place. But lately there’s been some economic evidence of what everyone already knows: those jobs are service jobs, lower in prestige and status and pay than the manufacturing jobs that have been lost.

The elite have responded to their own perfidy in two ways: the brutal and cynical among them choose to see themselves as supermen, above the communal morality that restrains the herd. The more thoughtful of the elite believe that the shift they have helped to engineer, and that they have profited from at the expense of less-privileged fellow-citizens, was inevitable, because of globalization, but have the decency to feel that they do owe something to the peons they have dispossessed of their livelihood. And so they support expanding and strengthening the welfare state. Thus all the millionaires at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey who donate to Clinton. They feel a bit guilty, but the dispossession of the American working class was going to happen even if they themselves didn’t have a hand in it, and all they can really do is offer a bit of compensation in the way of affordable housing and pre-K programs. What these liberal elites don’t realize, or would prefer not to realize, is that their condescension is even more roundly hated by the people they have harmed than the brutal, openly avowed selfishness of their fellow expropriators. The displaced worker is upset about his loss of dignity, and he’d rather that his enemy reveled in the theft than patronized his victim with “concern.”

Is this rational on the part of the dispossessed worker? No. Rationally considered, his best option is to take whatever handouts he can get from the upper-bourgeois managerial class. But it sticks in his craw. He doesn’t want to be the “good” object of charity. He wants to be what he once was: the ambivalently regarded, somewhat menacing worker who was an independent source of economic value. He’d rather, if need be, be “bad,” in fact. Trump is offering to give this worker back his independence and dignity. He’s salted the offer with a bit of crypto-white grievance, which is what the elite liberals have focused on, but I think Trump’s main appeal is the (phantasmatic) restoration of dignity and place in society. Unions have been delegitimized, politically, in America, but Trump’s vow to restore tariffs has the appeal of making America’s national borders serve as a kind of massive proxy union. Tariffs become the new picket lines, as it were.

Postscript: A few corrections and for-the-recordses. Trump’s winking invocations of racism and political violence are of course dangerous and increasingly seem a central part of him. The trade wars he threatens to wage wouldn’t achieve what the unions of the early twentieth century achieved, and are instead likely to do great harm. It may well be, moreover, that the elite symbolic class was correct and that globalization couldn’t have been delayed, let alone dodged. A sign of the inevitability: offshoring is now happening even to white-collar jobs. And finally, confusingly, despite a dispossession of the white working class that has spiked deaths among them by suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, American manufacturing is at an all-time high, if measured in dollars rather than employees—thanks to robots.