To read the mainstream press, you would think that using national policies to assure that American workers have decent jobs is the most flat-earth sort of protectionism.
But consider this. The social contract of the booming postwar years was designed so that the U.S. and other nations could protect workers from exploitation, accept strong trade unions, create full-employment economies, contain the excesses of financial speculation and make sure that prosperity was broadly shared.
Keeping predatory capitalism from playing one nation off against another required national rules. And the rules of that era worked well, both economically and politically.
There was plenty of trade, but trade deals were not used to dismantle national regulation. Ordinary working people thrived. There was no appeal of neo-fascism.
That protected form of managed capitalism must have been doing something right, for not only did the economy turn in an annual growth rate of close to 4 percent for three decades, but the economy became more equal. The bottom gained income faster that the top. Far from America prospering at the expense of our neighbors, Europe and Japan grew even faster. And Latin America grew at a far better rate than in the free-market globalist period that began in the 1970s.
In the U.S., blacks actually gained at a slightly higher rate than whites, less because of the civil rights revolution (which occurred towards the end of the postwar boom), but because most blacks were working class and the working class as a whole gained.
Here’s the point: there is more than one brand of globalization. The ground rules of the brand of globalism created after World War II allowed room for nations to manage capitalism in a broad public interest. The other sort of globalism, the one that resurged after the 1970s, was intended to liberate private finance and weaken labor.
This was great for the 1 percent. Not so great for working people or for democracy. Punish ordinary people long enough and you get the likes of Donald Trump.
And this brings me to the strange case of Stephen Bannon. As I learned in my unexpected interview with Bannon in the American Prospect, Bannon actually has a very shrewd and coherent strategy that blends white nationalism with economic nationalism.
Bannon tutored Trump on how to bash immigrants, demonize Mexicans, do the dog-whistle routine with the far right and cultivate race consciousness on the part of alienated white people for whom life used to be a lot sweeter. Hence: Make America Great Again. This history is well told and thoroughly documented in Josh Green’s must-read book on Bannon and Trump, Devil’s Bargain.
Bannon wanted to bait Democrats and liberals to do the right thing on race and stand up for people of color, immigrants and sexual minorities. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
To bookend the strategy of white nationalism, Bannon hoped to sell his boss, President Trump, on economic nationalism. This included getting tough with China, renegotiating NAFTA and other trade deals, and investing seriously in infrastructure. But here, Bannon ran into a brick wall, otherwise known as corporate America.
Trump had no intention of delivering for American workers, except at the level of rhetoric. His actual policies are viciously anti-labor. His infrastructure program is a complete phony, using privatization of vital public facilities with no net increase in public investment. The Goldman-Sachs wing of the administration has taken control of trade policy, and with Bannon gone that control will be complete.
It’s a good thing Bannon did not prevail on the economic nationalism part of the package, because the combination of white nationalism and economic nationalism might actually have improved Trump’s dwindling popular support, though an a manner more reminiscent of Mussolini than Roosevelt.
Now that right-wing economic nationalism is defunct, there is an opening for progressive economic nationalism. It would include serious spending on public infrastructure and a green transition both to modernize made-in-USA technology and to create good domestic jobs. If taxpayer dollars or public debt is funding these investments, it’s perfectly fair play to demand that they produce made-in-USA employment.
It’s also fair play to ask countries that don’t respect decent labor or environmental standards to pay a social tariff so that we don’t import the wretched standards along with the products (and under Trump, America could barely pass such a test). It’s time to clean up our own act.
We could also use a Tobin tax on speculative financial transactions, which would damp down Wall Street abuses and provide revenue.
These are some of the ingredients of progressive economic nationalism. They would be sound economics and smart politics. Let’s make them national policy.
A Happy Labor Day to all.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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