Kevin Drum and the “Free Trade” Straw Man

Kevin DrumKevin Drum made a huge mistake in an article last week, “Free Trade” Is an Election-Year Nothingburger. I’ll get to his more general point in a bit, but he really blew it. And he even knows it. He wrote, “It’s always dangerous arguing with [Dean] Baker…” Yes! Yes it is! And when you find yourself writing things like “This is probably a bad idea, but…” you probably shouldn’t write it!

What he did was totally straw man Baker’s argument that globalization has been a one-way street. Baker has long argued (because it has long been true) that it has been free trade for manufacturing workers and others who don’t make a whole lot of money. And it has be big time protectionism for highly paid people like doctors and lawyers. This is, of course, not the only problem with globalization, but it is a really important one.

Kevin Drum calls foul, saying it “really doesn’t hold water.” So how is that? Well you see, when manufacturing jobs go overseas, the stuff they make still has to “meet American standards.” But that wouldn’t be true of the doctors who were coming to the United States! Because as we all know, French and Japanese doctors (who make half what American doctors make) are no good at their jobs! That’s why people die so young in those countries. Oh, wait

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” —Kevin Drum

But here’s what really makes me mad about Kevin Drum’s argument: Dean Baker has addressed this issue virtually every time he’s talked about free trade as it applies to highly paid professionals. He’s always going on about foreign doctors training to American standards. In fact, I’ve been somewhat annoyed about it. I’ve thought, “Enough! I get it!” But apparently, he didn’t say it enough because Kevin Drum, who is really smart and who I greatly admire, did not get it.

What bothers me in a more general way, however, is that Kevin Drum’s article is mostly a defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Well, maybe not a defense. It’s more, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Most people don’t see trade deals as having hurt them, so who cares?! Well, that’s the way it is with large scale processes. Certainly Kevin Drum would never make the argument that global warming isn’t happening because some town in Mississippi has actually seen a slight decrease in temperature over the last two decades. He wouldn’t see that as a reason to do nothing about global warming. But when it comes to trade, he’s willing to make that argument.

There are, of course, many people who know that all our “free” trade agreements have affected them directly. Erik Loomis highlighted one in a recent article, Capital Mobility and Trumpism. A Carrier factory is being moved to Mexico. And an executive kindly told the laid-off men and women, “Workers there [in Mexico] typically earn about $19 a day — less than what many on the assembly line here make in an hour.” As Loomis noted, “The doctrine of unrestricted free trade has been basically bipartisan for many decades now. But no one ever thought hard enough about what this would look like when all the manufacturing jobs were gone.” That’s because those in power didn’t and don’t care, at least for as long as there isn’t a fascist takeover of the country.

What’s particularly bad is that Kervin Drum is not alone in his apologetics. I’ve been seeing a lot of liberal cheer leading recently for the TPP. Did a secret memo go out? It’s especially interesting when Paul Krugman, who has always been very pro-free trade, is now backing away from new trade deals. So it is a very good thing that people like Dean Baker keep hammering away at them. Kevin Drum should know better than to create a straw man out of Baker’s arguments. Just what does Drum think he’s doing?

Afterword: Dean Baker Responds to Kevin Drum

Dean Baker responded to Kevin Drum’s article, Kevin Drum Strikes Out Big Time on Trade. I don’t think he made his strongest case, probably because he likes Drum.

Afterword: the Battle Continues

Kevin Drum was right to be worried about a fight. After Baker’s article, Drum wrote, Dean Baker Needs Better Trade Comparisons. It’s a face-saving article. Basically, Drum is conceding the point but trying to argue about the specific case with doctors. But this is why, “It’s always dangerous arguing with Baker…” Dean Baker is having none of it, More on Kevin Drum’s Protectionism for Doctors. Unfortunately, this is not a “pass the popcorn” moment, because Baker and Drum are more or less in agreement. Still, it is pretty funny because of Drum original comment. It is always dangerous arguing with Dean Baker no matter who you are.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Kevin Drum and the “Free Trade” Straw Man

  1. Lots of people – lots of people – specifically predicted that neglected infrastructure and trade deals with dictatorships would lead to mass destitution. We were told to shut up; we were told we were ignorant fools, and yes, even ‘purists’.

    These outcomes – well, duh. Obvious. Those that are surprised really ought to get out of public administration in favour of intelligent, caring people.

    • This comes back to the Thomas Frank quote. This is a problem when all your advisers come from the same intellectual class. Things can seem obvious that just ain’t true. Remember how Ross Perot was mocked at the time of NAFTA?

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