Trade treaty arguments’ conspicuous omission

In the wake of yesterday’s extensive coverage of the latest development (whatever it was) in the Obama administration’s quest to enact new “free-trade agreements” like the Trans Pacific Partnership, I realized there’s something notable about the associated arguments that I had not noticed before.

Sherlock Holmes memorably observed once, of the non-reaction of a dog at night, “that was the curious incident.” Even with this model before me, it has taken quite some time, but today I finally picked up on a similar absence from advocacy of new trade treaties:

Proponents aren’t promising jobs.

On the surface, this is easy to overlook because “jobs” are still part of the arguments. Mostly, however, in the form of opponents warning that these treaties will result in loss of many Americans’ jobs. Treaty proponents mostly, so far as I can tell, tut-tut and then attempt to change the subject to rosy forecasts for “growth,” or to disingenuous scoldings about protectionism, or to booga-booga-China-scary xenophobic jingo.

What I realized today is notable, however, is that not only are proponents saying little to refute directly the claims of job losses, they aren’t promising job creation. In 2015 American politics this is almost like not including an appeal for money. It’s so strange you might not even notice its absence at once but when you do it’s simply shocking.

Follow me, here. What isn’t promoted with promises of “creating jobs?” Certainly next to nothing around here in Northeast Ohio. Tax breaks for movie shoots? That’ll create jobs. A casino? That’ll create jobs. A useless new stretch of freeway? Jobs. More money for schools? Jobs! Not to mention big public subsidies for ridiculously profitable private sports franchises! On this last point, at the very least, I know Cleveland is not an outlier either. As chronicled daily by the Field of Schemes blog, there’s hardly a state or major city in America that is not constantly being hit up for arena funds, using a carrot-and-stick argument of “we’ll move the team away or we can remain here and create jobs!!”

Indeed anything having to do with building anything has a job-promise tacked on. The KeystoneXL Pipeline? Jobs! Jobs!!!

Day in, day out, whatever the subject, jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs. Legalize pot it will create jobs. Admit more immigration it will create jobs. Crush unions it will create jobs.

Approve new international trade treaties, it will… … …? …Hello?


I’m not sure why “jobs” aren’t promised by trade treaty proponents. Such promises and the accompanying numbers usually seem so sketchy, it’s hard to believe no one can cook up at least one study claiming the Trans Pacific Partnership will create 14 million new jobs, e.g. Maybe it’s just, at least for now, a stretch too far. Maybe too many otherwise supportive economists would revolt? Maybe proponents just figure that “trade agreements cost jobs” is too solidly embedded in American belief and that advocacy might as well focus on other lines of argument. That may be; if so, it sheds an interesting light on the thinking behind this agenda.

I really don’t know how significant proponents’ silence on jobs is, but I certainly find it interesting, given the difficulty of selling these treaties to the American public. There are, I’m certain, reasons aplenty for that difficulty which may or may not be overcome. Still I can’t help thinking that said difficulty is an interesting contrast with all the many, and absurdly varied, wheezes which seemingly have only to promise “jobs” and thereafter sail right ahead.

There is at least something notable, here, if only a comment on our times. Trade treaty proponents promise “growth,” which is also a popular promise certainly, and yet it seems not to be helping much here no matter how big the numbers attached. For my part, it’s ridiculous that anyone who has been awake through the past decade or so is expected to believe that “making America richer” by however many billions or “growing the global economy” by however many trillions will improve my lot by one penny. The rich have gotten quite good at getting richer while the rest of us go nowhere, if we can manage even to do that well. Absent any persuasive reforms to this system, I regard promises of “growth” as essentially meaningless; I would like to think that Obama’s failure to sell new trade agreements even to many corporate-friendly center-right Democratic politicians is a sign that my own skepticism is increasingly shared, though I’m aware of the risk of projecting.

Still, I think there must be some insight in the facts that “jobs jobs jobs” is the most popular selling point for marketing almost any kind of coordinated agenda to the public… yet a powerful and motivated lobby for trade agreements is not promising “jobs,” but instead “growth,” which doesn’t seem to be approaching the desired magic effect.

I suspect that, in terms of trade treaty politics, this is basically just one more of multiple misjudgments by treaty proponents, nearly all of whom are members or associates of the elite. I think they have misjudged the bailouts and NSA’s and ongoing corporate shenanigans’ steady erosion of trust; the argument that “we always negotiate these agreements in secret” may be valid but it’s now foolish to presume that makes it persuasive. I think the Obama administration has certainly misjudged its credibility as a guarantor of progressive values; “just trust me I’m one of the good guys” might have been effective in the early years, but too many holes have opened up in that credibility since.

Most of all, though, as usual many elites have probably failed to recognize the difference between what are entirely abstract ideas of “economic disruption” to them, but is very real experience of indignity, frustration and dire choices for the working class. As for why these elites haven’t been promising “jobs” anyway, when it’s such a popular tactic elsewhere, I still don’t know. Perhaps it’s just a matter of degrees, and direction of a project like the Trans Pacific Partnership takes place at such an elite level that many participants are so out of touch, they aren’t even aware of the vast gulf which lesser elites at least recognize, even if their response is only cynical exploitation of working class anxiety rather than engagement with its causes.

Ultimately I’m just guessing here, though. As usual, furthermore, this kind of “strategic analysis” quickly becomes kaballistic sophistry. I believe that political pundits would usually be better to skip it and just say what you believe should happen. Applying my own advice in any degree of detail, here, would require a whole series of posts, but very briefly I would suggest that policymakers pull their heads out of their asses and not only recognize that “jobs” is probably a better sales pitch than “growth,” but also recognize and engage with the reasons for this preference: growth no longer helps the American working class, whereas jobs are at least some potentially real form of participation, and participation is key. It’s 2015, and you cannot have a serious discussion of economic policy without making participation/distribution central to that discussion. “Well yes we know about that but in this instance we just” is not enough. Central to the discussion.

It has been more than 20 years, and it’s time to throw out the Clinton-era maxim “It’s the economy, stupid.” As usually perceived in elite discussion, “the economy” of GDP and stock prices and “growth” is only compelling to working class life as a negative; yes, bad news in these statistics still “trickles down” quite efficiently, but good news doesn’t. In what passes for “normal circumstances,” promises of boosting the view-from-Elysium economy are unpersuasive. If that’s the core of your economic policy, start over from a new core.

“It’s the distribution, stupid.”

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