Not long ago, I attended a joint presentation by two former public servants at one of our local universities. Although the presentation was open to the public, it was technically off the record, and I will not identify them by name. Together they combined service in a White House, as an elected representative, and in a prominent bank. One is a Democrat and the other a Republican and I shall so identify them.
The subject of their presentation, in which the Republican took the lead, was international trade and President Trump's tariff policy. They both explained patiently and confidently that Trump's notions of international trade are obsolete and bear no relation to the realities of our place in the world economy. Trade deficits with individual countries, they argued, simply did not matter. Nor was trade the main cause of our de-industrialization: automation was. Neither one of them mentioned the intimate connection between trade deficits and domestic borrowing, which remains the only way to pay for them. The Republican did say a good deal about Chinese thefts of intellectual property and hoped that President Trump could persuade them to stop. They did make some good points. A real trade war with China (which they insisted, correctly I think, that we are not having now) would make life in these United States extremely difficult. The products we now buy from China include much of our prescription drugs, including penicillin and other antibiotics, which we obviously could not do without. Both of them, but the Republican in particular, stressed the rapid job growth we are now experiencing, and the Republican said at one point that no one should be concerned about the factory across the street closing if they could go to work in an Amazon warehouse instead. I don't think either one of them said anything about union rights or minimum wages. At one interesting moment, the Democrat said that the Republicans had traditionally been the free trade party while the Democrats had expressed more reservations. That is very dubious. Republicans were the high tariff party from the Civil War until at least the 1930s, and Democrats in the 1990s were fully on board with NAFTA and other free trade agreements.
The two presenters spent more than half an hour taking questions, and I finally manged to get recognized just before the end.
"What you have given us, it seems to me," I said, "is the conventional wisdom that we have been hearing from both parties for some decades now. I am not saying that it is wrong. However, Donald Trump is in the White House--which I regard as a very serious matter--because he defied the conventional wisdom on this subject, as well as on others. That allowed him to defeat a slew of traditional Republican candidates and to win the general election narrowly. That tells me that a large number of our fellow citizens simply aren't buying this piece of conventional wisdom, and I wonder how you both see that particular problem."
The Republican, who had been skeptical about Trump all along, immediately replied, "It's still working for him!" and speculated (as most Wall Streeters do these days, it seems) that he would be re-elected. The Democrat said that our rhetoric had to be less divisive and "more aspirational," but added that we simply couldn't be too disturbed by people who say their ambition is to be coal miners. That didn't strike me as a particularly critical group of voters. Like nearly all of our politicians--including Donald Trump--these two evidently represented our elite, and have lost touch with millions of their fellow Americans. The same can probably said of the Democrats who spend their time obsessing about the Mueller report and other transgressions, and about issues of race, gender and sexual orientation. They too are living within a particular part of our population and simply assuming that everyone shares their concerns. The question of how, and whether, we can bridge this gulf in the immediate future seems to me critical.