Centrists, Trade, And Supposed Lack Of Agency

To the ‘economic left‘, this hardly comes as a surprise (boldface mine):

But research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation’s bitter political divide….

Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by-district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically.

“It’s not about incumbents changing their positions,” said David Autor, an influential scholar of labor economics and trade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s authors. “It’s about the replacement of moderates with more ideological successors.”

Mr. Autor added: “In retrospect, whether it’s Trump or Sanders, we should have seen in it coming. The China shock isn’t the sole factor, but it is something of a missing link.”

…But Mr. Autor and his colleagues found that in districts with heavy minority representation, similar shocks can push more Democratic districts in the opposite direction. While whites hit hard by trade tend to move right, nonwhite voters move left, eroding support for moderates in both parties, the study concluded.

“There’s a deeper appreciation for the magnitude of the impact on workers who lose their jobs,” Mr. Hanson said. “But the nature of globalization changed after the end of the Cold War and it took a while for academics to catch up.”

Until the Nafta agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994, and especially the entry of China into the W.T.O., trade deals were mostly multilateral and the rise in manufacturing imports to the United States came primarily from other advanced industrial nations like Germany and Japan.

“China and the W.T.O. represented a shock that was way larger,” Mr. Autor said. “We hadn’t seen shocks like this because we were trading with rich countries, not highly productive developing countries with enormous labor reserves.”

But this is the part that slays me:

Exposure to import competition is bad for centrists,” Mr. Hanson said. “We’ve known that political polarization and income inequality track each other, but that pattern is simply a correlation. We’ve now found a mechanism for how economic changes create further political divisions.”

“Exposure to import competition” isn’t like an unfortunate thunderstorm, it was something that many of these very same centrists voted for and supported. They could have done something differently. They had agency in this situation. Now, they have reaped what they have sown.

If there’s a silver lining to this, it is that our democracy, as imperfect as it is, did respond to a need–in this case, removing those politicians who lowered their constituents’ quality of life.

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