Recently Dan McLauglin asked: “Why Did Almost Nobody See The Trade Issue Coming Before Trump?”
Good question. I'm a free trade guy, but right now I’m re-thinking it a bit. At least I’m rethinking the sort of total, Randian, there’s-never-any-reason-to-manufacture-underwear-in-America view I used to have. Maybe there have been some flaws in my thinking about free trade.
I once read an analogy about muscles and SUV’s. If I remember this right, the writer and his next-door neighbor started working out together. I don’t remember the specifics exactly, whether it was something like cross-fit, but I do recall it was a strenuous routine. So strenuous that there was some question about whether there was any point to a couple of office guys in their mid-thirties trying to stay that fit? Seriously, why bother? Then one day (yes, you knew this was coming) there was a major storm that knocked down trees all over the place, including between their houses. The storm was so bad that trees were down everywhere, and it would be days or longer before they’d be able to hire crews to clear the downed trees out of their driveways.
So they got out their chainsaws, and started cutting wood and hauling branches. If you’ve never done that sort of work you have no idea how hard it is. But they got it done – driveways cleared, wives happy - all was good with the world. Because when the emergency came, they had strength available that they normally didn’t need. The writer’s point was that SUV’s are like that, and maybe that’s why people buy them. Yes, those big, powerful engines use a lot of gas – much as big muscles take a lot of work and energy to maintain – but maybe someday you’re going to need that power, and you’re going to need it fast. So you buy an SUV even though it’s expensive to maintain and most of the time the SUV’s full power is unneeded.
What if blue-collar people are like America’s muscle? Maybe when their jobs go away, the muscle starts to get flabby. Or worse. Maybe the rest of us don’t care at the time because buying underwear made in Haiti is cheaper than buying underwear made in Pennsylvania, right? But now those people who used to work in those factories - that demographic muscle - are sitting around, trying to figure out how to get on disability, developing heroin habits, and/or doing that other stuff that Kevin Williamson writes about.
And let’s not forget that muscle also happen to be the people we count on to do the actual fighting when "we" go to war.
No, I’m not saying free trade is the cause of bad behavior in lower income whites, or anybody else for that matter. But I am saying unemployment caused by jobs disappearing cannot help.
Maybe we should consider spending some money if we have to, in order to get those demographic muscles strong again. Maybe it’s worth paying more for my skivvies if it means my blue-collar neighbors are working, and feeling both productive and appreciated. Maybe our society would be stronger and better prepared to handle unexpected things. When muscles are flabby and weak, they get hurt more easily. When muscles hurt, they complain, and when you don’t pay attention to complaining muscles, they may betray you just when you need to count on them. And to Dan McLaughlin’s point above, maybe if we were taking better care of our metaphorical muscles, Republicans wouldn't be standing around like we’ve been poleaxed by Donald Trump’s primary rampage.