At Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders attacked American trade with Mexicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and presumably all other foreigners who might try to steal our jobs. Sanders harangued Hillary Clinton,
NAFTA, supported by the Secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest. Permanent normal trade relations with China cost us millions of jobs.
Look, I was on a picket line in early 1990’s against NAFTA becauseyou didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.
... And the reason that I was one of the first, not one of the last to be in opposition to the TPP is that American workers ... should not be forced to compete against people in Vietnam today making a minimum wage of $0.65 an hour.
Look, what we have got to do is tell corporate America that they cannot continue to shut down. We’ve lost 60,000 factories since 2001. They’re going to start having to, if I’m president, invest in this country — not in China, not in Mexico.
First, let's note his dodgy job numbers. As Dan Griswold noted in 2011, in response to a similar claim about jobs "lost" from the "trade deficit" with Mexico,
In the first five years after NAFTA’s passage, 1994-98, when we could have expected it to have the most impact, the U.S. economy ADDED a net 15 million new jobs, including 700,000 manufacturing jobs.
Behold, the horror unleashed on US manufacturing jobs by trade with Mexico:
As Griswold noted, even in good times, 300,000 Americans file for unemployment each week. The US economy creates and destroys more than 15 million jobs every year. This alleged displacement amounts to less than one day's worth of job losses.
It's true that, in the long-run, manufacturing jobs have been in decline in the United States. But this is not because manufacturing is in decline. The myth (promoted by the other nationalist blowhard in the race) that United States "doesn't make stuff anymore" is not just wrong — it couldn't be further from the truth.
Real US manufacturing output is the highest it has ever been. Simply put, the US makes more stuff than ever.
It's simply not true that trade devastated the US economy and wiped out millions of jobs. Employment has shifted within the US economy, out of industry into service jobs, and manufacturing has shifted around the globe, aligning production with the comparative advantages of each country's labor and capital markets.
The resentment stoked by nationalists like Trump and Sanders is based on a nonsensical proposition, a mirage of high-paying blue collar jobs stolen by conniving foreigners, which we could reclaim if only we had the will to wage a trade war.
But the machines and global production chains are here to stay, and the jobs being done in Vietnam and China for fifty cents an hour are on the extreme low end of the value-added chain — which should be obvious, when you think about it, since they pay so little. (On the back of every iPhone is a short economics lesson on this point: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.")
Do we really want to "bring those jobs back"? Do we envision a future where the American middle class is sewing textiles in sweatshops for a dollar an hour? Of course not. Americans today likely wouldn't do those jobs at any wage, but especially not at the wages paid to low-skilled workers in developing Asian and Latin American countries. Those jobs only exist at those wages; at higher wages, they are scarcer, higher-skilled, and more capital intensive.
True, we could make t-shirts and Happy Meal toys in the United States, but we'd be doing it with far, far fewer workers and a lot more capital. Instead of 30 workers at fifty cents an hour, it'd be one person with a machine for $20 an hour.
The real difference would be that everyone would be poorer as a result: consumers paying higher prices, foreigners working in worse conditions and for less money, and American resources being diverted away from where they are most productive.
This is where economic ignorance stops being morally neutral and becomes a real threat to the life and well-being of the poor, especially in the developing world.
Not content to merely keep Mexicans from working in the United States (where, thanks to US capital and infrastructure, they could earn three or four times more than they make in Mexico), Bernie Sanders now objects to the right of Mexicans to work in Mexico, if they dare to sell goods and services to Americans — or, God forbid, try to compete with American firms.
For a champion of the poor like Sanders, there's a double irony here, in that poor Americans are already much wealthier than poor Mexicans, and that tariffs also make goods more expensive for native consumers, disproportionately hurting the poorest Americans. Not only are poor Mexicans made worse off, by losing access to the US market and thus losing jobs, but poor Americans are also made worse off by having less disposable income, which is thus not spent elsewhere in the economy to sustain other American jobs.
And this is just the first order effects of closing off trade with Mexico. When the Mexican government inevitably retaliates, US exports to Mexico (which totaled $236 billion in 2015) will also be devastated and more jobs will be lost. And of course, simply multiply this orders of magnitude for China, Vietnam, and every other country on the nationalistic hit list.
Who gains from this? In the long run, nobody, which is why (after decades of gradual reform) we finally got relatively free trade with our closest neighbors, signed into law by a liberal Democrat. But in the short run, a few US corporations and labor unions would benefit from trade tariffs — at the expense of both poor foreigners and poor Americans as a whole.
(For those keeping score, this makes it an ironic hat trick for Sanders, whose tirades against free trade and open borders are laced with fear-mongering about "corporations.")
Finally, let us ponder Sanders' Alice-in-Wonderland solution to the imagined ills of free trade:
It's anyone's guess how Sanders imagines he could force factories not to close and order companies to stay in the United States, but the "you can't shut down" solution is almost directly lifted from "Directive 10-289," the order that Rand's antagonists use to try to "stabilize" the economy: