Although I don’t know E.J. Dionne well, the Washington Post columnist has always been one of my favorite journalists. It’s not his politics – they’re too orthodox lefty for me. It’s been his personality – always respectful and open-minded in our limited dealings, and equally gracious, tolerant, and genuinely curious in print, despite being highly opinionated.
That’s why it pains me to write that his newest offering widely missed the mark on the first-order issue of identifying the U.S. government’s top economic priorities. It’s only saving grace is underscoring how wide the philosophical and worldview gaps have grown between the the Establishment Media (at least much of it) and the general public (at least much of it).
Summarizing a new book on the new world economy, Dionne commends the author for “painstakingly avoiding dogmatism” and taking care “in laying out the often-agonizing choices” created by globalization. For example, he continues, the rapid growth of international trade and investment,
“has ‘elevated the living standards of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide’ but also ‘has helped suppress the incomes of low-skilled middle-class workers in rich countries.’ Where do our loyalties lie? How do we balance obligations to our fellow citizens in the communities and countries in which we live against the interests of those far away?”
Excuse me, but “Time out”! “Where do our loyalties lie”? Not only should the answer be screamingly obvious to any American citizen, but just when did this become a legitimate question? It certainly would never be asked with any sincerity anywhere else in the world, except perhaps in affluent Scandinavia and elsewhere in guilt-ridden northern Europe. That undeniable reality alone should warn Americans against such cosmopolitanism. A U.S. leadership unsure whether its first obligations are to its own citizens is a poor bet to protect their interests adequately in a world where other major-power leaders aren’t nearly so confused.
Then there’s the democracy angle (which Dionne ironically deals with – from a different angle – in his following sentence). How many American voters do you know have elected public officials to pursue foreign interests – however morally compelling – over their own? Just as important, how many of those public officials themselves put America Last? At the least, aren’t they obliged to identify themselves clearly, so their constituents can know who they’re supporting? Private citizens of course have every right to set their own international priorities (provided, of course, that they don’t clash with or undermine official American diplomacy). But elected or appointed members of the U.S. government can’t legitimately enjoy this option – unless they’ve advertised their views before entering public life.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that the United States should never subordinate its needs and wants to those of others. Often in world politics, and politics in general, long-term gain can justify short-term pain. But if the pain is likely to last longer, and keep intensifying, the American people have a right to know about such consequences before the key decisions are made. Nor do I have any intrinsic problems with using U.S. assets to create overseas benefits for their own sakes (as opposed to self-interested goals like buying and keeping allies). But again, these choices need to be approved in advance by the voters. Otherwise, politicians would have free rein to be charitable and compassionate with Other People’s Money.
And in a sense, this is what Dionne and the author he lauds (former journalist-turned Washington think-tanker Steven Weisman) arguably, if unwittingly, are engaged in. For it’s much easier to call for more altruism in American policy when high incomes make such measures affordable. Unfortunately, the kinds of Americans who Dionne and Weisman at least recognize will bear the brunt of the price aren’t in this position.
There are also major policy reasons to doubt the wisdom of globalization policies that elevate raising foreign incomes over maintaining American incomes. As I’ve written repeatedly, offshoring-friendly U.S. trade policies that have had these effects bear much responsibility for the last financial crisis, which harmed the populations of first and third world countries alike. But that’s an argument that’s reasonably debatable on the merits. Acting as if foreign populations’ interests should outweigh Americans should be completely out of bounds – again, unless the public actively approves. And the fact that thoughtful commentators like Dionne even view this option as deserving consideration, whether as an “agonizing choice” or not, tells you most of what you need to know about why so many working- and middle-class voters nowadays are so furious at their nation’s elites.