For much of the past year, the primary economic debate in the United States pivoted around outsourcing. China and India with their huge populations, low wages and educated workforces, were held up as the new peril to the American worker. Labor unions and Democratic Party activists detected a wedge issue that could inflame the passions of white-collar workers who felt threatened by computer programmers in Bangalore and cell phone designers in Guangdong. Sen. John Kerry even made sure to slip the term into his discussions on foreign policy, with his oft-repeated rumination that the Bush administration “outsourced the job” of catching Osama bin Laden “to Afghan warlords.”

Zac Peskowitz

Most of this was cheap posturing with a tincture of jingoism that left out the uncomfortable, at least for Democratic political candidates, truth that a major chunk of outsourcing business goes to countries like Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic. It’s usually considered a bit impolitic to pummel countries that have a large number of their descendents living and voting in the United States and the Democrats, unsurprisingly, abstained.

Of course, this outsourcing strategy was ineffective. Kerry lost the presidency and in an even more portentous sign, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) won a hotly-contested race for his state’s open Senate seat. His opponent, Inez Tenenbaum, sported crass anti-trade arguments in her campaign literature and public appearances while DeMint championed trade even in hostile settings like South Carolina’s textile regions. DeMint’s triumph as an uncompromising free-trader was made all the more impressive by South Carolina’s long history of protectionism, a struggling state economy that lost about 70,000 jobs in a three-year span and the dire condition of the state’s textile industry. The Democrats bet that exploiting trade fears would be a successful gambit, but trade failed to be a major concern for voters.

These disastrous electoral results might have forced Democrats to re-evaluate the merits of this strategy. Fresh off their stumbles on Nov. 2, the party has decided to focus its efforts on the next culprit of the global economy: Wal-Mart and its relationship with Chinese manufacturers. The Center for American Progress, a quasi-think tank run by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta, has been at the forefront of these efforts. Unlike labor unions, which have spent the majority of their energy criticizing the company’s domestic labor practices, CAP has a new twist on this approach that blames Wal-Mart for the United States’s trade deficit with China and the loss of American jobs. On a more whimsical side, the organization is giving away a poster entitled “The World of Wal-Mart” for a mere $100 donation. The print features a map of the world with the size of the countries based on how many Wal-Mart items are manufactured in each of the countries. While Wal-Mart has been implicated in some horrendous labor practices, there is no shame in the company’s reliance on China for much of its production.

The economic assumptions behind the neo-protectionist arguments reek of discredited mercantilism and can be easily refuted. But the much more worrying trend for those who still believe in the Democratic Party is the tendency for the party to fall back on the cheap appeal of economic jingoism when it runs out of substantive policy ideas. This position is made all the more ironic by the Democratic Party’s tradition as a party of immigrants.

In 1950, Earl Browder, the secretary of the American Communist Party, and Max Shachtman, the leader of the Workers Party, had a public debate in New York City on the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Toward the conclusion of the debate, Shachtman recited a long list of party apparatchiks who had met their deaths after falling into disfavor with Josef Stalin. Then pointing at Browder, Shachtman boldly exclaimed, “There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!”

The central problem with the Democrats’ strategy is that it elevates an accident of geography, the nation of a human being’s birth, to an issue of existential importance. If you live in America (or are lucky enough to obtain a visa to get here) we will take care of you. But if, through your own poor fortunes, you were born impoverished in another nation, well then you’re on your own.

Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *