Can We Bemoan Inequality as We Push Policies to Increase It?

We know it would be too much to expect that New York Times reporters might have some knowledge of policies that the United States had in place twenty or even ten years ago. After all, that would require some memory or some knowledge of history.

Anyhow, for those of us who do have some memory, it was rather striking to see the first paragraph of an article reporting on the expected Senate approval of measures that are explicitly protectionist:

“Faced with an urgent competitive threat from China, the Senate is poised to pass the most expansive industrial policy legislation in U.S. history, blowing past partisan divisions over government support for private industry to embrace a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar investment in building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge.”

So now the United States faces an “urgent” competitive threat from China.  Note this this is a news story, not an opinion column.

This framing contrasts sharply with what we saw in the first decade of the century, when the United States was losing millions of manufacturing jobs to China. This led to the destruction of towns and cities across the Midwest, which were overwhelmingly dependent on these manufacturing jobs. Back then, this was simply a story of free trade benefiting the economy, not a problem of an urgent competitive threat.

But now, when the jobs being subjected to competition are those of are most highly educated workers, software designers, biotech engineers and others with advanced degrees, free trade is no longer good. And, instead of U.S. companies like GE and Walmart benefiting from cheap Chinese labor, our leading tech companies are worried about going head-to-head with more efficient Chinese competitors.

We can all see why there would be urgency now. Oh well, this should help sustain the market for hand-wringing books and articles about inequality.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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