Monday, March 14, 2016

Incremental Politics is a Tough Sell

Extremism ... for the win!

Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca is quoted as saying, "The heart is great which shows moderation in the midst of prosperity". And here we are: the most prosperous nation in history. Yet immoderate populist politicians tell the electorate how much we're suffering and losing. While Seneca was warning against waste and profligacy, the same warning might be offered to voters fed up with the status quo and looking for a quick fix.

In a post about free trade and protectionist politicians, economist Ed Dolan writes about retaliatory tariffs:
For example, one study found that a tariff imposed on Chinese tires in 2009 saved 1,200 American jobs, but did so at a cost to $1.1 billion in higher prices to American consumers. That comes to more than $800,000 per tire worker’s job. And it does not even try to account for the fact that consumers, after paying more for tires, had less to spend on other goods, meaning that American jobs in other sectors were threatened. 
It would be far more reasonable to employ direct forms of aid. Retraining, adjustment assistance to workers or employers, income support, or wage subsidies are some of the possible remedies. None would come close to costing $800,000 per job.
If that $800,000 showed up as a line in the Federal budget the deficit/debt hawks would be shrieking. But since the burden fell on consumers as an incremental cost in the products they bought, few politicians noticed and consumer objections were muffled. Even if the budget was in surplus, tax Scrooges would be clamoring for tax cuts rather than free trade and transition assistance.

When I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, a voter told me, "Moderates don't believe in anything." And I guess moderation and incremental change are a tough sell, lacking catchy slogans and scapegoats. But when our country is pretty great already, strong-willed moderates need to find their voice to drown out the carnival barkers.