Donald Trump promises to make American manufacturing great again. Yet all of his policies would do just the opposite.
America was going to get tough on NAFTA, right? The goal was to “rebalance” trade among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Well, a parade of corporate lobbyists demanding that we keep NAFTA has caused the administration to put off negotiations.
If NAFTA is renegotiated, the changes will be mostly cosmetic. And anyway, NAFTA is only a small part of American manufacturing woes.
If we were serious about restoring good blue-collar manufacturing jobs, what would it take? For starters, we’d need an industrial policy, something that both political parties have rejected as meddling with the market.
One place where we actually have a modest industrial policy is at the Energy Department, where government spends $300 million a year supporting new technologies to help American companies compete in emerging industries such as solar energy and wind turbines. Oops, the Trump administration proposes to shut all of that down — too associated with Obama and who needs green industries when we have coal?
If we were serious about manufacturing, we’d take a much harder line with China’s strategy of luring American industry to move to China with a combination of subsidized factories and cheap labor, with the proviso that U.S. companies share their trade secrets with Chinese “partners.” Where’s Trump on that? Nowhere — he foolishly thinks that if we tread lightly with China on trade issues, Beijing will help restrain the North Koreans.
And if the U.S. were truly committed to state-of-the-art manufacturing, we would have a large-scale commitment to rebuild our out-of-date infrastructure. That would generate new technologies, as well as millions of made-in-America jobs.
Trump has talked a good game on infrastructure, but no program has emerged. Why not? One reason is that Trump and the Republican Congress would rather give away on tax breaks for corporations and rich individuals the trillions that we need to modernize antiquated public systems.
Trump’s sometimes adviser and sometimes nemesis Steve Bannon speaks of a new economic nationalism that would help bring good jobs back to America. He is recruiting challengers to contest the senate seats of Republicans who Bannon considers too corporate.
But when you get down below the level of slogan, not a single one of the candidates who Bannon has talked about recruiting is serious about an industrial policy for America. All of them would prefer tax breaks for the rich to large scale spending on infrastructure. Even on NAFTA, where there are a handful of hawkish Republicans, the odds are that in the end the corporate wing of the Republican Party will prevail.
A key question going forward is whether, and when, the people who voted for Trump will wake up and realize that he is screwing them.
Scarcely a day goes by without a story that illustrates the disconnect between Trump’s policies and the interests of the people who support him. Last week, the Senate voted 51-to-50, with Vice President Pence breaking a tie, to overturn a consumer protection rule that prohibited binding arbitration in cases of a wide range of corporate consumer abuses, denying aggrieved citizens access to the courts. Nearly every Republican voted on the corporate side.
Mark Twain famously observed that it’s easier to fool a person than to convince him that he’s been fooled. The next time Trump promises to restore the greatness of American manufacturing, take a close look at the details. If you still believe him, I have a (crumbling) bridge to sell you.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton, 2018)
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