In a testament to the facile trivialities to which nuanced and weighty policy issues have been reduced, Hillary Clinton’s campaign recently advanced a line of attack against Donald Trump’s economic policy which claimed the fact that various items from Trump’s clothing line are manufactured overseas proves the hypocrisy of his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
The series of ads, one of which features a New England-based shirt manufacturer as a means of debunking Trump’s claim that producing goods in America is impossible advances the rather trite premise that it is impossible to make America great without “making things in America.”
That the Clinton campaign has devoted so much air time to this rationale speaks to the high degree of relevance populist sentiment has on the election. Economic nativism has a long marriage with populist sentiment, though it is historically rooted in agrarianism and is vehemently against industrialism. Trump’s ability to so effortlessly shift populism to a resurgence in domestic manufacturing, and Clinton’s need to realign the message to fit her own campaign’s promises, should not be downplayed as politically transformational.
Clinton has a point. Trump has repeatedly hammered American companies which have moved production overseas. Most notably, Trump promised during the primary to never eat an Oreo again after Nabisco announced it was moving its production to Mexico and campaigned in Indiana primarily by highlighting the detriment manufacturing giant Carrier’s reallocation to Mexico had on the state’s jobs market.
However, while Trump may be a hypocrite, Clinton’s message of economic nativism is woefully ignorant of the complexities of trade. Yes, domestic production is important. But so are relationships with America’s trade partners. It is not enough to simply engage in multinational trade; business partnerships require a back-and-forth in a number of levels.
Clinton’s campaign messaging assumes that American economic revivalism comes with a resurgence in domestic production, but how exactly is this defined? Is it enough to assemble products in America, or must every material that goes into the construction of every product be sourced in America? To really leverage the effectiveness of the dollar, some might make that argument.
Can we only sell American products to Americans, making sure every dollar is kept in the domestic economy, thus bolstering jobs, wages and national welfare by increasing the tax revenue?
The problem with such thinking is wealth cannot increase exponentially in a closed system. At some point, the markets become saturated with goods, the production, hiring and purchasing powers of manufacturers and consumers is tapped out.
Adam Smith, perhaps the most famous of the laissez-faire economists, was actually an economic globalist, argued that real economic freedom depended on keeping markets open and free. The bigger the market, the more opportunity for growth existed, particularly where labor was concerned. This is actually a free-market argument for economic globalism, not nativism.
Is it possible to make America great again through overseas production? Yes. Further, it’s necessary. There is, of course, a balancing act which must occur between domestic manufacturing and international trade.
But this requires a level of nuance that cannot be properly expressed through glib turns of phrases packaged in overly-emotionalized 30-second campaign ads and which is antithetical to populist sentiments. Populism plays on fears, fear of exigent crises which change threatens, made all the more powerful by the sliver of truth within. In this case, both Clinton and Trump’s economic nativism contains some validity: American production is threatened by imbalance. However, there is far more to the issue. It is up to the voters to force Clinton and Trump to address the substance, not just the fear.