A major test of a worthy journalist is whether he covers stories that clash dramatically with his own sympathies and/or those of his biggest fans, and David Cay Johnston’s latest piece – on the immense toll taken on third world economies by corrupt leaders – passes with flying colors. Moreover, Johnston’s work also strongly undermines a major emerging claim during this presidential campaign – that Trump-ian trade policies should be opposed largely because they would his close down a major growth engine for developing countries.
In his May 3 Daily Beast article, Johnston – a Pulitzer Prize-winner during his years at The New York Times – spotlights the work of “investigative economist” Jim Henry, whose research contends that, since 1970, crooked politicians have stolen just over $12 trillion from the third world countries they’ve ruled. As Johnston notes, this humongous figure represents about five cents of each dollar of total global wealth and about two-thirds of America’s current annual economic output. And he rightly observes that “Were all of the flight capital returned and invested smartly it would reduce human misery by raising living standards, especially by reducing child mortality while increasing both health status and life expectancy.”
According to Henry’s findings, almost a third of this stolen wealth has come from five countries – China, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Venezuela. The first has certainly made impressive progress reducing poverty largely via trade with the United States and other rich economies, and expanded trade with America in particular clearly has created a modern manufacturing complex – with all its wide-ranging benefits – in northern Mexico.
But if Henry’s work is on target, it means that some $9 trillion has been looted from much poorer regions – notably in sub-Saharan Africa – that have been left far behind as trade and investment have created ever more extensive economic integration between the world’s North and South. The political ramifications for the politics of American trade policy would be profound.
For during this presidential campaign in particular, Donald Trump’s rise to the threshold of the Republican nomination has prompted trade policy supporters to retreat into the argument that, whatever the harm they’ve done to the U.S. middle and working classes, recent trade deals and similar decisions deserve backing because they’ve achieved a major moral goal: reducing third world poverty.
In the words of James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “Even knowing what we now know about the possible impact on U.S. jobs, should Washington have somehow limited trade and overseas investment with China — even at the cost of higher global poverty? Certainly the humanitarian answer is ‘No.'”
And according to Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, “In the name of reducing U.S. inequality, presidential candidates in both parties would stymie the aspirations of hundreds of millions of desperately poor people in the developing world to join the middle class.”
Moreover, making explicit a point Rogoff left implicit, a writer from liberal website Vox.com used the same argument against Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders: “Limiting trade with low-wage countries as severely as Sanders wants to would hurt the very poorest people on Earth. A lot.
“Free trade is one of the best tools we have for fighting extreme poverty. If Sanders wins, and is serious about implementing his trade agenda…he will impoverish millions of already-poor people.”
In fact, this position has long been an article of faith even among avowed progressives who have been highly critical of current trade policies – to the point of fingering American protectionism as a leading obstacle to third world economic progress.
Henry’s research makes clear that developing countries and their self-styled champions can adopt a poverty fighting strategy that doesn’t require shafting American and other developed country workers – cleaning up their acts. Johnston deserves great credit for reporting on these findings. Any chance that America’s political leaders throughout the spectrum will start paying attention?