America Bowling Alone


America Bowling Alone

The American Economic Forum reminded us that we can be our worst enemies.

Andrew Stuttaford and Mark Calabria at ISI’s American Economic Forum.

It will take a while, but it is something I am looking forward to doing with my nieces. My sister is having a baby and my older siblings are growing up. I am currently in the west visiting relatives. They would have fun trying to push a bowling ball as big as theirs. There are many supports available for children when they bowl together to help make the game more enjoyable for everyone. You have the slide, which allows gravity to do all that little arm can. There are also bumpers so that no one can roll twenty into the ditch.

Here’s a metaphor. My nieces were bowling alongside me growing up, using the bumpers every time. Although I was able to throw a few gutter balls, I beat them all the way. I am now able to throw better and can understand angles better. They get stronger and begin to grasp the geometrical structure of ten pins. The bumpers are now used strategically. They do not need to spin, they can bank shots. They begin to win. They win. I eventually tell them that this is unfair and they should learn proper bowling without the bumpers. I laugh at them (they will). My siblings and parents have bet on these games for years. The odds are better when the nieces were younger, so my family has been betting big on them. But I have been losing.

Unless you are like these kids, your country will be eaten by the world’s market. At the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Economic Forum, D.C. this weekend I was reminded that America has been playing with gutter balls and the rest of the globe is using bumpers. When we rebuilt Europe and pacified East Asia it made sense to give ourselves a head up and handicap ourselves. We traded our economic competitiveness in exchange for political benefits we believed would be worthwhile. The American leadership in policy thought that eventually there would be an economic transition from the political economy to sporting bowling, which is economic purism. The people at the back were having way too much fun, and they bet too heavily on the small guys. The not-so little-now don’t think they are stupid; they love winning. America has the option of continuing to lose and insisting on using bumpers, or she could choose to play whatever game is available.

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Robert E. Lighthizer insists for years that America’s refusal to impose tariffs on imports is a loss-making strategy. As the conference’s dinner keynote speaker, he did it again on Friday. He made it clear that conservatives were not libertarians and should not become slaves to a free trade theology. He said, “We have forgotten that economic policy’s purpose is to help people and not just things.” Trade policies were created for workers, not prices. Lighthizer preempted any accusation of innovation or influence from the left. He also recalled William F. Buckley’s quixotic bid for New York Mayor (Buckley stated that he would demand a recount if he won). Lighthizer said that Buckley’s performance in the final election exceeded all expectations because of the strong support from blue-collar union workers who are tired of liberal snobbery. It’s not new to see a conservatism speaking for American workers.

Lighthizer gave a talk titled “The New American System”, referring to the American System for internal improvements and protections against tariffs, which was started by Hamilton and other Federalists and long maintained by the GOP. The United States is a great example of a nation that has grown by producing and not by consuming. You should build things and not just buy them. The American tariffs were relatively low until the Second World War. The opening of American markets for political purposes against the Soviet Union was a policy innovation. A petroleum economy would then be underwritten in the U.S. dollars, so that everyone would accept our debt and our liberal values. For a while it worked, and at the very least survived international Bolshevism. Lighthizer stated that “We are in great competition with China” and refused to use bumpers.

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China was, perhaps, more than the American worker or the politically misleading measure of American GDP. As it had in years past, the conference revealed a division between the U.S. right-leaning coalition and those who believe economic law was brought down by Austrians less than 100 years ago and those who think Smith or Ricardo are men just as many other men throughout humanity’s long history in financial and technological advancements. Both sides were able to answer the question of why China was allowed to grow and what American leaders could do to stop it.

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The president of Heritage Foundation Kevin Roberts is a sort of avatar for conservatives to reconsider their orthodoxies.

Kevin Roberts is the president of Heritage Foundation. He described the CCP’s existential threat in his conversation with Johnny Burtka. This was an incitant for conservative establishment to reexamine orthodoxies. His opposition to CHIPS Act showed a willingness to assist already wealthy companies of questionable American loyalty to repatriate their semiconductor manufacturing. Heritage does not believe there are sufficient safeguards to prevent further investments in China.

This is perhaps the most significant tension in right-wing economic thought going forward. It’s caused by an ambiguity or ambivalence in global economic realities. Do you think that defending American workers from China and other emerging markets in manufacturing must mean choosing winners and losers, the old corporate welfare bugbear of conservative economy? China, like South Korea and Japan before it, has taken advantage of America’s openness to the market and its diplomatic generosity in order to promote and protect its national heroes. We will have to act on behalf of American businesses that use American workers if we want to change the current course of financial maneuvering, digital simulacra, and debt-based consumer economy. Some might be even the unworthy rich.

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Lighthizer recalled in his ISI comments that he asked a Trump colleague if all countries except America had strong trade protections. He said that America would insist on a free market in spite of a global economy. Market fundamentalists would answer yes. It is confusing, I think, to see the benefit of domestic commerce flowing freely in this extended republic and the hypothetical increase productivity of global arbitrationage. Many of the decision-makers, particularly those who call themselves conservatives, don’t actually play bowling. However, they view all this as part of a game. The American middle class is content to enjoy watching the international competition play, even though they don’t want to give up their bumpers. They are placing wagers that either pay up or down and don’t realize that they might be in the running for the top.

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