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If You Thought a Trump Presidency Was Bad ...

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Washington Post
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The Washington Post editorial page decided to lecture readers on the meaning of progressivism. Okay, that is nowhere near as bad as a Trump presidency, but really, did we need this?

The editorial gives us a potpourri of neo-liberal (yes, the term is appropriate here) platitudes, all of which we have heard many times before and are best half true. For framing, the villains are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who it tells us "are embracing principles that are not genuinely progressive."

I'll start with my favorite, the complaint that the trade policy advocating by Warren and Sanders would hurt the poor in the developing world, or to use their words:

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"And their ostensible protection of American workers leaves no room to consider the welfare of poor people elsewhere in the world."

I like this one because it turns standard economic theory on its head to advance the interests of the rich and powerful. In the economic textbooks, rich countries like the United States are supposed to be exporting capital to the developing world. This provides them the means to build up their capital stock and infrastructure, while maintaining the living standards of their populations. This is the standard economic story where the problem is scarcity.

But to justify trade policies that have harmed tens of millions of U.S. workers, either by costing them jobs or depressing their wages, the Post discards standard economics and tells us the problem facing people in the developing world is that there is too much stuff. If we didn't buy the goods produced in the developing world then there would just be a massive glut of unsold products.

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In the standard theory the people in the developing world buy their own stuff, with rich countries like the U.S. providing the financing. It actually did work this way in the 1990s, up until the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. In that period, countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia were growing very rapidly while running large trade deficits. This pattern of growth was ended by the terms of the bailout imposed on these countries by the U.S. Treasury Department through the International Monetary Fund.

The harsh terms of the bailout forced these and other developing countries to reverse the standard textbook path and start running large trade surpluses. This post-bailout period was associated with slower growth for these countries. In other words, the poor of the developing world suffered from the pattern of trade the Post advocates. If they had continued on the pre-bailout path they would be much richer today. In fact, South Korea and Malaysia would be richer than the United States if they had maintained their pre-bailout growth rate over the last two decades. (This is the topic of the introduction to my new book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, it's free.)

It is also important to note that the Post is only bothered by forms of protection that might help working class people. The United States prohibits foreign doctors from practicing in the United States unless they complete a U.S. residency program. (The total number of slots are tightly restricted with only a small fraction open to foreign trained doctors.) This is a classic protectionist measure. No serious person can believe that the only way for a person to be a competent doctor is to complete a U.S. residency program. It costs the United States around $100 billion a year ($700 per family) in higher medical expenses. Yet, we never hear a word about this or other barriers that protect the most highly paid professionals from the same sort of international competition faced by steelworkers and textile workers.

Moving on, we get yet another Post tirade on Social Security.

"You can expand benefits for everyone, as Ms. Warren favors. Prosperous retirees who live mostly off their well-padded 401(k)s will appreciate what to them will feel like a small bonus, if they notice it. But spreading wealth that way will make it harder to find the resources for the vulnerable elderly who truly depend on Social Security.

"But demographics -- the aging of the population -- cannot be wished away. In the 1960s, about five taxpayers were helping to support each Social Security recipient, and the economy was growing about 6 percent annually. Today there are fewer than three workers for each pensioner, and the growth rate even following the 2008 recession has averaged about 2 percent. On current trends, 10 years from now the federal government will be spending almost all its money on Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements and on interest payments on the debt, leaving less and less for schools, housing and job training. There is nothing progressive about that."

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There are all sorts of misleading or wrong claims here. First, the economy did not grow "about 6 percent annually" in the 1960s. There were three years in which growth did exceed 6.0 percent, and it was a very prosperous decade, but growth only averaged 4.6 percent from 1960 to 1970.

I suppose we should be happy that the Post is at least getting closer to the mark. A 2007 editorial praising NAFTA told readers that Mexico's GDP "has more than quadrupled since 1987." The I.M.F. data put the gain at 83 percent. So by comparison, they are doing pretty good with the 6 percent growth number for the sixties.

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Dr. Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University. (more...)
 

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