Sacrifice is OK for Principle, not People

Noah Smith, a recently minted econ PhD with some fame as a blogger, argues in a piece for The Atlantic that the Seattle Protests of 1999 were right about everything. (Actually, he said “on nearly every count.”) It’s an interesting piece, because it highlights the unexpected callousness of bleeding hearts. Consider:

The clearest example is competition from foreign workers, which really has slammed the American working class. Economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson did very careful empirical work and found that competition from China lowered wages and increased unemployment for American workers who were in competition with Chinese imports.

I don’t question the science here. I question the values. While American workers in direct competition with Chinese workers are doing worse, Chinese workers in direct competition with American workers are doing better. This is jingoism wrapping itself in the flag of humanitarianism. Later in the post, Smith says that he cares about the health of Chinese workers when it comes to pollution, but apparently his empathy is politically convenient. When it suits him for the welfare of Chinese workers to be irrelevant it gets ignored. When it suits him to be relevant, it goes on prominent display.

It reminds me of the way the American left frequently talks about our need to sacrifice by lowering our standard of living in order to reduce energy consumption and decrease carbon pollution. OK, so we’re willing to lower American standards of living to decrease carbon emissions, but not to raise the standard of living in the developing world?

2014-01-07 Battle in Seattle

Of course, Smith doesn’t address the issue of whether or not the widespread violence and vandalism was one of the “nearly every counts” on which the protests were right. Anarchists are so cute and cuddly when they’re smashing someone else’s windows, right?

4 thoughts on “Sacrifice is OK for Principle, not People”

  1. I’m not sure why the entire “American left” has to be indicted for one protectionist editorial. Doesn’t seem constructive to me. But yes, complaints about how globalization hurts American workers have always seemed incongruously tribalistic to me.

  2. I think it’s useful to be able to use generalizations. I say “American left” because I think it’s a more neutral and baggage-free term than one like “liberals”.

  3. I think this is an uncharitable reading of Noah’s post. We can be quite sure that he doesn’t think anarchist black block protesters were right, and that capitalism should be smashed. Nor is he championing protectionist policies. He addresses at the end of the post that millions of the global poor have been lifted out of poverty thanks to free trade. His focus, to me, seems to largely center on vindicating the concerns of labor that trade unmitigated by worker protections, by environmental protects, by domestic redistribution schemes designed to offset externalities and buoy the losers, combined to immiserate a large number of workers. However misguided the economic prescriptions of the Seattle street protesters, their *concerns* have absolutely been proven right vis-a-vis the “Trade Lifts All Boats, Always, and Nevermind the Social Safety Net” crowd. Which is pretty damn important economic news warranting a hearty “I told you so” from most of the residents of Ohio.

  4. I think this is an uncharitable reading of Noah’s post.

    Well I guess now you know how I feel about every David Brooks column you lampoon like, ever. :-D

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