At least one Republican presidential candidate (Roemer) is actually good on trade issues. At least one (Romney) may be at least o-kay if he really means what he says. At least one (Cain) is an odd mix of very good and very bad. And at least one (Perry) seems to be just naïve and corrupt on the subject.
But I have yet to report on a candidate who is proactively, deliberately, ideologically wrong on trade as a matter of high principle.
Until now. His name is Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich is, of course, already familiar to Americans from his unhappy stint as House Speaker in the mid 1990s, a stint which ended up disappointing both Democrats and his own Republicans. Republicans, of course, abandoned him as leader in 1999 after he led his party to the worst-ever Congressional loss by a party not in control of the White House.
And there was all that nastiness in 1997 about allegedly using tax-deductible charitable donations to fund a non-charitable college course he taught—and of then lying about it to the House Ethics Committee. Was he innocent? Well, the House voted 395-28 to fine him an unprecedented $300,000 as part of a deal to avoid a full hearing, if that helps the reader any.
Gingrich seemed, as recently as a year or so ago, to have been relegated to well-paid has-been land—decorated, of course, with the polite fiction of his being an elder statesman of the party.
During this earlier career, Gingrich racked up a record of supporting every major wrong move on trade issues the United States has made in recent decades. To wit:
· In 1993, he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Which wasn’t even enough, according to him. He wanted to eventually add Chile to the deal with the aim of eventually expanding it to cover the entire New World.)
· In 1994, he voted for creation of the World Trade Organization and American membership.
· In 1998, he supported Most Favored Nation (now known as Permanent Normal Trade Relations) status with China.
Gingrich has been openly contemptuous of American sovereignty when it comes to trade. He said, in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in June 1994,
I am just saying that we need to be honest about the fact that we are transferring from the United States at a practical level significant authority to a new organization. This is a transformational moment. I would feel better if the people who favor this would just be honest about the scale of change.
This is very close to Maastricht [a key European Union treaty], and twenty years from now we will look back on this as a very important defining moment. This is not just another trade agreement. This is adopting something which twice, once in the 1940s and once in the 1950s, the U.S. Congress rejected. I am not even saying we should reject it; I, in fact, lean toward it.
Gingrich’s naiveté with regards to America’s most formidable economic adversary, the People’s Republic of China, is astonishing. The following PBS interview excerpt is almost painful to read, pure Thomas Friedman fantasy:
INTERVIEWER: Was it a good thing to allow China to become an open trading partner?
NEWT GINGRICH: Absolutely…Trade increases the likelihood that you and they will engage in win-win activities. The difference between politics and trade is that in politics I may take something from you to give to somebody else, even though you don’t want to lose it, so I raise your taxes. I charge you a fee. I confiscate your farm. In a free market you only do the things that make you happy in order for me to get the things that make me happy, and if we’re not both happy the trade doesn’t occur. So free markets dramatically lower the friction of human relationships and increase the relative pleasure and the relative success of human relationships. The more the Chinese and Americans [sit] down together to create more wealth, the happier they’ll be with each other, the less likely we’ll have conflict.
No concept of state capitalism at all. No concept that under state capitalism, capitalism strengthens, rather than disciplines, the state. No concept of mercantilism, or the idea that trade can be practiced by foreign nations as rivalry, with a deliberate agenda to weaken the U.S.
Gingrich doesn’t seem to have wised up since, either. If one consults his current campaign website’s section on jobs and the economy, there is no mention of trade issues. I guess they’re just not that important, despite a $500 billion-a-year trade deficit. The closest he comes to trade issues is to suggest some policies to “strengthen the dollar.” While I’m sure the use of the word “strengthen” may make some conservative hearts beat faster, a strong dollar is actually something that has been inflicted on us by Chinese currency manipulation, it is a bad thing, and we need to go in the other direction if we ever expect to balance our trade.
How did Gingrich end up with these appalling ideas? I can’t plumb his personality, but one of his worst liabilities, on a personal and political level, is his astonishing pseudo-intellectualism. Intellectually pretentious politicians are a dime a dozen in, say, France, but they are quite rare here, so he stands out for this. As a PhD and former history professor, he seems to instinctively believe that his thoughts go on a higher level than other politicians.
This is a recipe for disaster.
First, intellectuals rarely make good politicians. It’s just a different skill set. A historian can spend a lifetime pondering a question and then give a carefully hedged and nuanced answer. A politician must vote Yea or Nay today. A physicist can discover a theory than only a dozen other people in the world understand, win the Nobel for it, and deserve it. A politician in a democracy must think and act in ways that millions can understand.
This doesn’t mean politicians shouldn’t be smart, but it does mean that they generally shouldn’t be intellectuals.
It’s no accident that we haven’t had a decent intellectual president since Teddy Roosevelt, who could have gotten tenure teaching history at any university he wanted and whose naval history of the War of 1812 is still a standard work on the topic. The Founders’ generation had a lot of highly intellectual political figures. But that’s unsurprising, as this was a time when the ideology this country is based on was new, so it took genuine brains to understand and fight for it.
What’s even worse is that Newt Gingrich isn’t even an actual intellectual so much as a pseudo-intellectual. He’s not somebody who has mastered an actual intellectual discipline and takes seriously the idea of intellectual discipline—that is, thinking not however one might wish, but in accord with certain canons derived from objective reality. He’s more somebody who just loves ideas. Especially big ideas. I am told his staffers used to joke about having a whole filing cabinet labeled “Newt’s ideas” and a file folder labeled “Newt’s good ideas.” There’s a gaseousness, a love of big for the sake of big, a preference for the intellectually flashy over the boring truth, that runs through what he writes and says. And it’s thus no surprise he’s so hot for globalism, this being one of the biggest, flashiest, most gaseous ideas since the death of Marxism.
America has already had one go at being the lab for Prof. Gingrich’s speculations; we don’t need another.
Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor. He was previously Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank, and before that, an economist in private practice serving mainly hedge funds and private equity firms. Educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.