Mitchell’s Musings 9-5-16: Labor Day Thoughts

03 Sep 2016 1:54 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-5-16: Labor Day Thoughts


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Labor Day – which happens to fall on the date of this musing – traditionally features news articles that rehearse the decline of organized labor and then add some pundit observations as to whether unions will ever “come back.” Possibly, because this is a presidential election year – and because of the Trump candidacy – there will also be some observations about whether international trade and/or immigration is good or bad for labor. “Globalization” will likely be cited.


There is no doubt that economic forces have a role in providing an understanding of the Trump phenomenon. The standard view seems to be that underlying it all is that there is a segment of the workforce – mainly white males with less than a college degree –  that has been disadvantaged by the decline of good jobs in manufacturing and that the political elite has not responded. So, in this view, Trump supporters have turned to an outsider candidate who promises to do something about it – block illegal immigration, negotiate advantageous trade deals, or whatever.


At that point, the analysis tends to run two ways. One is that globalization - a loose concept which seems to include both trade and immigration – is an inevitable trend so the Trump supporters have picked an anachronistic cause and a leader who is misleading them. Another is that what’s bugging the Trump supporters is really the loss of good manufacturing jobs to technology – also an inevitable trend – so Trump is deluding his followers by promising to do what he can’t do.[1]


A variant is that there are things that could be done (and maybe should be done), but the political elites of both parties refuse to do them out of ignorance and/or self-interest. Trump is promising to do something, but actually – if he were elected - he won’t. So, again, his followers are deluded. And the basic cause is economics.


Still another variant is that Trump has mixed up racist messages with his economic message so that what he says on economic issues, assuming he loses in November as current polls suggest, will be incorrectly discredited. Within this approach, it is possible to pick and choose between immigration and trade as the valid issue which Trump’s defeat will kill.[2] (Of course, current polls could be wrong or what they show could change between now and November.)


But as noted, there is an assumption throughout most of this type of prognostication that the base of the Trump phenomenon is economics and jobs and that the racial and other “social” messages are a kind of gravy on top of the campaign, albeit unfortunate gravy.


Now nobody with an economics PhD (such as yours truly) is going to argue that economics is not a factor in the Trump phenomenon. But other issues including the “guns and God” issues that then-candidate Barack Obama made famous (or infamous), may not be just a product of economic concerns. If you look at Big Issues in American history, “social” issues stand out. Yes, before the Civil War, there were tariff disputes (economics) between the North and South. (The North favored high tariffs; the South, low.) But would there really have been a Civil War over tariff levels? Slavery was an economic issue for the South. But for the North, it was a social issue, a moral issue, even a religious issue. The “truth” that John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave for is not lower tariffs.


Or consider Prohibition. Amending the U.S. constitution is a difficult process and is rarely done. But the issue of Prohibition sparked two amendments, one putting Prohibition into place and the other repealing it. Prohibition was predominantly a social (and religious) issue. It would be hard to argue that the anti-liquor forces had an economic interest in implementing Prohibition. And there was more to Prohibition’s repeal than job creation in breweries.


Those on the left want to see a linear, economics-based story – and some on the right who are anti-Trump seem to share that desire. Economics (loss of good jobs, etc.) leads to discontent which gets expressed in dysfunctional ways that really run against the interests of those doing the expressing. Trump supporters are deluded in thinking he will fix their jobs problem because a) it can’t be fixed due to inevitable globalization and/or technology or b) if elected, he won’t do the things that would be a fix. Perhaps we should be empathetic to the plight of Trump supporters, in the view of some liberal observers.[3] But empathetic or not, the real story is economics leads to “guns and God” (and racism).



There is a more nuanced view, however. Perhaps for some – even many – Trump supporters, the key appeal is “guns and God” and economics/jobs is the side show. The Pew poll in the accompanying graphic shows significant overlap in Trump support in all groups except blacks.[4] Trump supporters are not just angry older white males without college degrees who have been displaced from manufacturing. Trump gets support from about a third of women, about a third of the young, and about a third of the college-educated.


The fact is that even on Labor Day, jobs are not the whole story.

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[1] http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/2016/09/middle-class-lost-election/.

[2] For an example where immigration is taken as the valid issue, see http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/rich-lowry-donald-trump-immigration-214205.

[3] https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2016/09/01/why-many-red-states-back-politics-contrary-their-own-self-interest/CBgJxmatmzjwcVrSjNwpCK/story.html.  

[4] http://www.people-press.org/2016/07/07/2-voter-general-election-preferences/.

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