There a few things I constantly see in discussions of pressing issues in the media that really piss me off, and I’d like to get them off my chest:
One is on the topic of trade. If you think of the word trade, you think of something very specific. I have something you want; you have something I want, and a mutual exchange would be in both of our interests. The classic example I always think of is trading baseball cards. We each have a different set of players. You have a player I desire, and I have players I’m not interested in. However, the players I’m not interested in DO interest you. And so we trade baseball cards.
In the past, trade was often of natural items that could not be grown or made locally. For example, wine that comes from grapes that only grow in a specific region due to soils, rainfall, and so on. Or a special kind of cheese. Or tropical foods like bananas, coffee and chocolate. Or of items that are unequally distributed around the earth’s crust. Some places naturally have gold, silver, tin, copper, and so on. Or sometimes one country’s workers may have special skills, like Swiss watchmakers. This is trade as it is described in all of the textbooks.
Economists generally refer to these “mutually beneficial exchanges” as trading, and it forms the core of their theories. One early economist (Ricardo) famously used the example of English wool and Portuguese wine–two items that each country was famous for producing where the quality was much higher than what the other country could produce, or that the other country could not produce for reasons of geography, climate, skills, etc. This should be what we mean when we talk about trade.
The dictionary definition of the verb trade is:
Exchange (something) for something else, typically as a commercial transaction; and Buy and sell goods and services.
However, think about the debates on trade. They have nothing to do with trade!!! I don’t know why this is never, ever brought up. The word simply does not apply.
The classic example is Apple. Apple is an American company which designs and markets electronic products. It is headquartered in America. It sells many of its products to Americans. Yet when we talk about “trade” with China, much of the debate centers around Apple, and not the products of any Chinese companies. Why?
Because Apple creates, designs, markets and programs all their products in America, but has them assembled in China. Those products are then shipped back to the U.S. to be purchased by American consumers. So the definition of “trade” becomes “American products made by American companies sold to American consumers, but assembled by foreign workers.” And it’s the same with any wealthy corporation – the owners, designers, managers, and marketers are all in wealthy countries, but the product is assembled in poor countries and then shipped back to the countries that designed them to be purchased (this is oversimplified, of course, but the point is valid).
HOW IS THAT TRADE??? You can use a number of terms for that activity, but “trade” is not one of them. How does any of that square with the above definitions/descriptions?
I thought of this while reading an article in some economics blog talking about how potential tariffs would harm American businesses. Their example, if I recall correctly, was an orchard owner in Washington state who ships his apples to China (the specifics do not matter). This article about “trade” was pointing out how much tariffs would hurt his business and others like him if they didn’t have access to the distant export markets they now have access to. The subtext was obvious–“look how businesses would be hurt by restricting ‘trade.'”
But this is, ahem, an apples-to-oranges comparison! These economic activities are as different as sleeping and skydiving! Why, then do we use the exact same term–trade–for both of them?
After all, the creation of an actual apple is done in America by American workers on American soil. The product is then shipped to China. In return, we may get, I don’t know, rice or pork. That is genuinely trade as we commonly use the term-an exchange of surplus goods produced by specialists in different countries.
But what Apple does is nothing like that. Nothing whatsoever. And most of the debate about “trade” is about what Apple does—American corporations using foreign labor to construct American products sold to American consumers, whether cars or computers or air conditioners. Yet we insist on using the term “trade” indiscriminately to refer to both these activities! It’s insane! No wonder we can’t have a rational debate about these things.
The only way these would be analogous would be if the American apple grower shipped his seeds to China, they grew the tree, picked the apples, put them in bushels, and then shipped them back to the U.S. Clearly that is not done. But often times that is exactly what is going on when we have these discussions about so-called “free trade.”
The counter analogy would be if America made iPods, and China made, I don’t know, DVD players, and we both decided to “trade” these items between our two countries. That is truly an exchange. But there is no national exchange in modern style free trade. Rather, it is wealthy, globalized, Western corporations using Chinese and other inexpensive Third-World labor to make their products. THAT’S NOT TRADE! We don’t buy “Chinese” products; we buy American products designed and marketed by American companies which are just assembled elsewhere. Yet we refer to this activity as “trade!” WTF???
The “English wool for Portuguese wine” analogy commonly deployed by economists has nothing to do with this so-called “trading” in the real world. What we see in the real world outside of economics textbooks is American companies using foreign labor in place of domestic labor. Why, then, do economists, who theoretically should know better, use the exact same words, the exact same terminology, the exact same theoretical framework, and the exact same arguments to justify it? This seems to be deception and charlatanism of the highest order! How can anybody else not notice this? Maybe the reason we can’t have a serious discussion about this is the fact we indiscriminately use the word trade for very different activities that have nothing to do with each other. Perhaps it’s a fundamental flaw in the English language, or something, I don’t know.
I wish we would stop playing into the economists’ and politicians’ hands by referring to all this stuff as “trade” irrespective of what it actually is. That allows them to perennially recast trade as something always and inherently good when we are really talking about fundamentally different activities. Trade–true trade (i.e. not the stuff Trump ran on) is usually good. The other stuff that gets called trade BUT IS NOT TRADE (outsourcing, global wage arbitrage, the race to the bottom, etc.) is not. It’s something else. Let’s stop pretending these things are in any way the same.
2. Move to Where the Jobs Are
One thing you constantly hear in the media is that the inhabitants of “depressed” areas of the country – the decaying post-apocalyptic hellholes that most of Middle America has become in the age of globalization- should just move to the booming bi-coastal cities. Once they hit the bright lights of the big city where jobs are growing, the thinking goes, the former coal miners and shelf-stockers will get one of the new exciting “jobs of the future” (programming!), and this will solve the problems of unemployment without any nasty “government intervention” (which is always bad).
It’s part and parcel of a consistent theme I detect in the American media. Specifically, the fault is never with the economy or its organization, or the changing economic conditions—it’s always solely and squarely the fault of American workers themselves. I’m sure you’ve heard these all before—not enough education, living in the wrong place, having too many kids, “immoral” behavior, “frivolous” spending, etc.
The idea is that once these modern-day Tom Joads make their way to Boston or Seattle from Coalton, West Virginia, the American dream is theirs for the taking. My question is this:
How can anybody take this seriously?
I mean, how can the economics commentators in the media, most of whom live cosseted lives in Manhattan and Washington D.C., constantly spew this drivel and not be ridiculed on a daily basis? I suspect this might be one reason why a good portion of America—both people who self-identify on the Left and the Right—regard most of the mainstream media as a joke.
What would happen if all the people from the small towns of the Rust Belt and Appalachia actually did what the commentators are telling them to do? Let’s say they packed their families into the rusty pickup and made their way Boston or Seattle or Palo Alto or Boulder. Would they just be handed a job on arriving? If you listen to the commentators in the American media, apparently so. That must be hard to rectify with the fact that these same cities are already full of low-paid service workers who can barely make ends meet, and have increasingly dire problems with housing affordability and burgeoning homelessness.
No, what would actually happen is this: assuming they could somehow pay to keep food on the table and a roof over their head in a country with effectively no social safety net—a dubious proposition at best—they would simply be competing with the people already there for the limited amount of low-wage service jobs. This would make the already dire situations of low wages and lack of housing even worse than they already are.
Yet if you listen to the vacuous propaganda spewed by the American media, all you have to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road, like Dorothy, to the magical Emerald Cities of the coasts, and the Wizard will pin a nice, shiny “job of the future” onto your chest. Um, I don’t think so. Anyone who actually knows what it’s like to be poor in America (like I do) knows this is total horseshit.
Rather, such people would just be even more low-paid workers struggling for the limited pool of jobs and housing. That’s all that would happen. Poor people moving to rich areas does not magically cause new jobs to appear, despite what the media tells you. It seems the real purpose of this argument is to assuage the guilty consciences of the “winners” and tell them that there is no fundamental problem with the economy. The “losers” are just too darn stubborn and hidebound to save themselves, hence they deserve what they get! It’s all their fault!!!
I propose we use the presence of this argument as way of determining what media outlets are even worth listening to anymore.
Another thing that pisses me off in the media is the constant refrain that “skilled” workers have literally never had it better!
Who, then, are “skilled” workers? Why, those with a college degree, of course! Especially a degree from an expensive, elite college. After all, the more expensive and elite the college, the more highly “skilled” the worker must be, right? Just like the richer you are the smarter you must be, right? After all, it can’t have anything to do with social connections and affiliation, right??? No, it’s clearly “da skillz.”
And, of course, the greatest “skills” of all belong to those financial professionals and clever bankers in those same bi-coastal cities. By contrast, the people who have seen their wages stagnate for the past couple of decades—truck drivers, nurses, welders, salesmen, managers, teachers, well, I guess they just don’t have enough “skills” to compete in the “new” globalized economy.
Once again, the subtext is clear—all one has to do is pony up and pay the crushing toll to the college cartel to get the “skills” you need, and you will be richer than you parents ever dreamed of! After all, rewards to “skills” have never, ever, been greater, right? What that means is that the people who are falling behind have only themselves to blame for not getting enough “skills.” Again, it’s not the fault of the economy, everything is fine—it is just the “lazy” individuals who refuse to take the proper actions.
Why don’t these commentators just admit the truth–how well you do in American society is based on how much college you can afford to purchase, and do away with this “skills” bullshit? Every time I hear some vacuous, overcompensated media blowhard talk about “skills” or the lack thereof, I want to punch them in the face. By their argument, someone filling out Excel spreadsheets in a cubicle all day is “skilled,” whereas someone who can frame out an entire house in a day is “unskilled” because the former paid $70,000 for a piece of paper from the college cartel. It’s an insult to the very word in the English language, perpetrated by “highly skilled” economists who probably couldn’t boil water or pump their own gas.
Yes, there are highly skilled people in the economy like surgeons and engineers. Yes, they make a good living. They always have. But the idea that it’s somehow entirely “skills” or the lack thereof that is causing much of the country to spiral into poverty and destitution is asinine in the extreme. The biggest factors are where you are born and who your parents are. Can we just dispense with this insulting nonsense about “skills” please?
The common theme of all of the above, besides the violence done to pure common sense, is to obscure or deflect attention from very real problems to phony solutions/issues. With the American media reliably doing its job of, as the X-Files once put it, “Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate” it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come to grips with the ongoing deterioration and mounting decay of our society. You can’t take hardly anything seriously anymore. How are we supposed to come to terms with our mounting problems with this constant barrage of bullshit?