In the eyes of most of the world and in our own, to be an American is to be an optimist—entrepreneurial, positive-thinking, and future-oriented. It is not surprising, then, that our politics has not come to grips with the question of national decline. Yes, our governing elites have long debated America’s power in the world and whether it’s eroding. But about the future of Americans, as opposed to the future of the geopolitical hegemon, America, our most important politicians and pundits have much less to say. Despite the bitter public arguments over tax and budget policies, they share the implicit assumption that even harder times are ahead for the majority of Americans—if not 99 percent then at least 75 percent to 80 percent.
The boast that American workers are naturally superior to other workers and would therefore “win” in any fair competition is problematic at best and at worst, a pander to our national delusion of exceptionalism.
"Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you: America will always win.” —Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 24, 2012
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the latest act in the tragic farce of American trade policy. Earlier versions included the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S.–designed World Trade Organization, the opening of the U.S. market to China, and the signing of more than a dozen additional bilateral free-trade deals, including last year’s agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.
For three decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been making trade deals with elites of other countries that favor the interests of multinational investors over the interests of American producers and workers. U.S.-based banks and corporations get access to cheap labor and to the financial systems of other nations. In return, U.S. workers are exposed to competition from countries where wages are suppressed (Mexico) or where government runs effective industrial policies (Germany) or both (China).
By the mid-1970s, cracks in the American industrial base were already visible. For the first time in the 20th century, the United States began running trade deficits. Factory closings that had earlier been limited to apparel, shoes, and plastic toys spread to steel, small appliances, and auto parts. And the decision by the Arab states to control oil prices signaled that the era of cheap energy that had fueled American manufacturing was coming to an end.
These early signs of trouble set off this country's last serious debate over the question of whether the government should have a policy for supporting a healthy manufacturing industry -- that is, an "industrial policy."