Two Fridays ago, I expressed the hope that the Washington Post‘s big new series on the decline of the American middle class would deal realistically with the impact of decades of trade policy decisions. The reason should be obvious – these decisions have undermined employment and wages in the U.S. manufacturing sector, which both dominates the nation’s trade flows and boasts an unrivaled record of enabling working class Americans to lead middle class lives.
Now the final results are in, and unfortunately, my hopes proved unfounded. The series, by Post reporter Jim Tankersley, continued the Mainstream Media practice of portraying the harm done to American workers as the product of (to quote from my previous post) “impersonal forces that result from natural, and usually ultimately beneficial, changes such as new technologies that make international business networks much easier to establish and manage, or the adoption of free market practices by many low-income economies after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Completely overlooked (again, to quote the previous post) was “the role played by human decisions that were anything but inevitable – chiefly, the Cold War-era decision to build up and strengthen allies in Europe and Asia through massive import buying without insisting on reciprocity, and the post-Cold War decision to add to those policies trade deals with low-income countries that were tailor-made to foster production and job offshoring.”
Just consider these passages from the series’ December 14 installment on “The Devalued American Worker”:
>”[I]t was a particular sort of job that disappeared permanently in [recent American economic] downturns, economists from Duke University and the University of British Columbia have found: jobs that companies could easily outsource overseas or replace with a machine.”
>”North Carolina was one of the states that lost thousands of jobs due to the expanded trade and improved technology in the 2000s — the forces and federal policies that pushed work abroad or allowed employers to replace workers with machines.”
>”[MIT] research pins much of that loss on the effects of expanded trade with China, because Chinese factories made many of the same items North Carolina’s factories did, but at a much cheaper price….[MIT research estimates] that increased import competition from China killed at least 2 million jobs, on net.”
And that’s it. Companies apparently discovered that many types of jobs could be outsourced in a policy vacuum. Trade simply “expanded.” Import competition simply “increased.”
Yes, there was a tantalizing reference to “policies that pushed work abroad.” But nowhere did the articles explain what those policies have been, or how they have worked.
The Post series is certainly worth reading. Especially interesting is its running theme that, according to much research, “a thriving middle class fosters entrepreneurs and economic mobility.” Tankerlsey’s analysis of the damaging over-growth of the American finance sector is exceptionally well documented. And the articles are a wealth of useful, if overwhelmingly depressing, statistics. But if you’ve been looking for even a journalistic nod to the notion that many of the middle class’ woes have been Made in Washington, D.C. and in the boardrooms of offshoring-happy American multinational companies, you’ll need to keep looking.