It would be exceedingly difficult to overstate the absurdity of this presidential election cycle. The past few months have felt like watching the world’s longest and most gruesome car wreck with equal parts horror and fascination, ensnared by our morbid curiosity as we revel in the madness unfolding before our very eyes. In this spirit, and not to be outdone, self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialist” and Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has decided to get in on the act. For his incredible feat of blatant hypocrisy, Mr. Sanders has decided, in his infinite wisdom, that it might be a good time to take a break from the campaign trail in order to travel to the Vatican with the goal of lecturing the world on his idea of what constitutes a “moral economy”. Of course, by “incredible”, I literally mean “not credible”. I say this because Bernie Sanders is, literally, the last person who should be lecturing anyone on morality with regards to the global economy.
Let’s take a look a Bernie Sander’s extensive denigration of trade agreements specifically and free trade in general. A comprehensive review of his positions on foreign trade would suggest that Mr. Sanders is not exceptionally well learned when it comes to most matters economic. He proclaims with regularity that free trade is responsible for the plight of American workers across numerous industries, manufacturing jobs in particular, promulgating the fallacious idea that US citizens are in direct competition with foreign workers willing to supply their labor for pennies an hour. He further fantasizes that this automatically relegates a large portion of the American workforce to less lucrative service jobs, and, when paired with his general disdain for corporations and free market capitalism, this encapsulates the candidate’s justification for his protectionist views. This all makes for a pretty convincing argument until one actually examines the evidence. The truth of the matter is that US manufacturing is at an all-time high in terms of production levels. While it is true that the efficiency brought on by the use of modern technology has increased productivity and, thus, reduced the number of jobs available in the manufacturing industry, this hardly means that US workers have nowhere else to turn for gainful employment. Nor is it true that the outsourcing of relatively low skill tasks to foreign countries with cheaper labor costs signifies the decimation of potentially prosperous job opportunities for Americans. Ultimately the productivity of American workers precludes them from having to take on the burden of such monotonous and arduous labor for what would almost certainly only amount to minimum wage compensation. In fact, the outsourcing of jobs signifies the specialization that free market capitalism affords each individual, country and region of the world. For example, outsourcing frees up much of the American labor force to concentrate on what it currently does best, which brings me to my second point of contention with Bernie Sanders’ most recent remarks: American service jobs are not less lucrative than manufacturing jobs, not by a longshot. Just look at the data. Recent data from this year indicates that the average salary for an individual working in a service job is actually higher than that of a person working in a manufacturing job.
But Bernie Sander’s economic illiteracy does not end there. There’s a whole other side to the equation that we haven’t even touched on yet, and this is one aspect of free trade and free markets that Mr. Sanders typically likes to ignore altogether: the fact that free trade leads to more affordable products for consumers around the globe. This incontrovertible verity is inconvenient for opponents of free trade since anti-trade policies invariably have a negative effect on consumer prices. The simple truth of the matter is that Americans take for granted the fact that low wage labor available in relatively low productivity foreign countries is what makes it possible for consumers in the US to purchase many of the products we use every day, cheaply. This means that the very people Bernie Sanders is claiming to protect through his restrictive trade policies will undoubtedly experience the burden of price increases that are disproportionately more onerous for lower income workers who depend on the myriad of useful and affordable products imported from abroad. This reality is further obfuscated by the misrepresentation of trade deficits as inherently bad, which in and of itself is a strange notion given that trade would not take place were it not beneficial to both parties. That there exists a trade imbalance between exports and imports is, for the most part, inconsequential.
Which brings me back to the point of why Bernie Sanders has absolutely zero credibility when it comes to the morality of global trade. Even if we were to stipulate to the notion that foreign trade on the whole has a potentially negative effect on the American economy (which of course no credible economist would ever concede, and yet crazy ‘ole Bernie forces us to entertain such ridiculous hypotheticals) the effect of foreign trade on the lives of BILLIONS of impoverished people around the globe is resoundingly beneficial. In 1981, the share of people on earth living in abject poverty (less than $2 per day) was over half the global population. Today that figure is less than one in five people. This is the result of the very same expansive trade policies that Mr. Sanders has bemoaned as “unjust”. Instead, Bernie would rather cease trading with countries that don’t implement comparable wage structures and environmental protections to those that exist in the United States. Aside from the fact that these demands, if instituted, would instantly render any developing economy uncompetitive and unsustainable, the notion that the leading voice of morality in economics would advocate cutting billions of indigent people off from the resources that would allow them to improve their circumstances is incomprehensible and somewhat astonishing. Under most common conceptions of morality, one might assume that improving the lives of the largest number of people possible would seem a laudable goal, however, Bernie Sanders’ warped views would seem to preclude this consideration in its entirety. For him, everything must conform to his idea of fairness, a one size fits all concept that doesn’t bend to the realities of the global economy as it exists today. And because of his intransigence, the Candidate Bernie Sanders is about the least perfect messenger imaginable to admonish us about the intricacies of a moral economy.