Some Lessons for Protectionists

The New York Times just published an article that could be a great case study for those clamoring towards protectionist policies.

Every time I decide to blog something about this issue I can’t get over how anyone could take issue with unrestricted trade policies. It takes acute short sightedness and a very narrow interest to do so.

What do protectionists want? Well, they want to protect a small group’s interests at the expense of everyone else. For example, GM and Ford workers argue that they are entitled to a job, regardless of whether or not they can work as competitively and cheaply as workers at Toyota or Nissan. Not only do they feel that Ford and GM owe them a job, but they should be paid handsomely for it as well. In the case of GM, if the company has trouble finding people to buy these cars at inflated prices, these prima donna workers are entitled to participate in the Jobs Bank Program, whereby they get to receive full pay and benefits regardless of whether they have work or not. Who do you think is paying the bill?

In a nutshell, protectionists feel that everyone should pay more for a Tahoe or Explorer simply because some workers want to shield themselves from the competitive pressures of the labor market. Protectionists like to use fancy terms like ‘exporting American jobs’ or make one-sided statements like we will hear a ‘giant sucking sound’ as American jobs are moved out of the country, but the truth is that we benefit in many ways.

What gets me is that they are ironically protecting themselves from any form of self improvement. Our economy, and anyone else’s for that matter, depends on increasing productivity gains to raise the standard of living while at the same time staving off inflationary pressures. These productivity gains essentially allow firms to make a product or provide a service at the lowest cost per worker hour.

What protectionists often fail to mention is that many overseas competitors actually create jobs in the U.S. that were supposedly exported. Using the auto industry again as an example, Toyota and Nissan have invested billions in the South to build new plants. What Toyota and Nissan and others like Mercedes Benz are NOT doing is creating these jobs in places up north like Detroit. Gary N. Chaison of Clark University in Worcester, Mass. is quoted in the Times article saying that ‘These international companies want a fresh start — not in a town like Detroit, with a long history in the auto industry, but in an empty field where people appreciate them.”

Toyota must be doing something right because it is now the number 2 automaker and is not far behind GM. Toyota is making a profit and GM is hemorrhaging cash. Toyota makes cars that people want at attractive prices and GM is doling out discounts as incentives to attract buyers. What the two automakers do have in common is that both are unapologetic for their performance. However, if I were Rick Wagoner I would reconsider this.

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