Maybe Working-Class Trump Voters Aren’t Racist, But They Are Comcast
It’s only been a week since the country was rocked by a seemingly improbable election result, and we are seeing an unprecedented level of protest and anger at both Donald Trump and those who voted for Trump. Much of the protesting appears focused on social and civil rights issues, which have been discussed fairly extensively in the media. (Personally, I think this guy has got my feelings covered.) In addition, there are many think pieces expressing frustration over how Trump voters either aren’t going to get what they voted for or won’t actually be helped by it. I certainly concur with these sentiments, but I also have my own economist-y reasons for being irritated with at least a particular subset of Trump voters. Allow me to explain via an analogy…
In the current social climate, I feel like we need the white working class version of SNL’s black Jeopardy! sketch- in it, we’d, like the Tom Hanks bit goes, unite in our shared values, namely that we all hate Comcast. So let’s unpack why we hate Comcast (I swear I have a point here, just go with it). From the consumer side, you probably hate Comcast because its prices seem out of line with the service that it provides, and you have some intuition that this is due to lack of competition. You might have even gotten mad when, for example, Comcast sued to prevent competition from Google Fiber and other providers. Economists, rather than being all “that’s the free market, bitches,” hate Comcast because it is “economically inefficient”- in other words, that they screw customers out of well more than a dollar of value (read, happiness) to get a dollar of profit. Those jerks, right?
Okay, now let’s talk about jobs and tariffs. A tariff is a tax on stuff we import, and they “bring back jobs” because they make stuff that we buy expensive enough that American companies can produce profitably despite their higher costs (both wages and other stuff). What this means is that tariffs *have* to result in large price increases in order to be effective, which means that the American people pay for the affected workers to get their jobs back. It’s up to you how you feel about this- myself, I guess I would never vote Democrat if I didn’t believe in “let’s help each other out” to some degree. But I have my limits, as I imagine most people do. In the 1980’s, trade restrictions on foreign cars cost consumers $160,000 (in the form of higher car prices) per auto job saved. Once you consider that the average auto worker at the time made maybe $40,000 or so, this is incredibly inefficient- more inefficient than I am willing to tolerate. (And no, the government isn’t making mad cash off the tariff, since the whole point was to curb the imports that would generate the revenue.)
Real talk: If you voted for Trump because he said he would enact tariffs to bring your job back, you are the Comcast of humanity. You are perfectly happy to cost society $4, as the above anecdote suggests, in order to get $1 for yourself, and you are cool with at least part of the $4 coming from individuals less well off than yourself. In economics, this is called “rent-seeking behavior,” which is a term usually reserved for companies you generally don’t seem so fond of. (see, for example, drug prices) Of course, it’s your right to vote your self interest, but it’s also my right to tell things like it is. (You said you liked that, remember?) Do I think that you should just sit there and starve then? No, of course not, I’m not a (complete) monster. But given that tariffs result in a situation that is almost surely worse than society just giving you money to sit on the couch, we really should be committed to doing better. What constitutes “better,” then? Personally, I’ve become increasingly open to the idea of basic income, or, perhaps better, financial capital endowments (i.e. money) that would enable all individuals to share in the returns to capital that are aided by automation, trade, and other things that are thought to kill jobs. More traditionally, there’s the retraining/relocation assistance route.
So let’s walk through the arguments against other solutions for lost jobs. One that I hear a lot is the people want jobs, not handouts. This is a perfectly fine mentality, but, as shown above, getting your job back via trade restriction is in fact a handout, it’s just masked enough that you’ve managed to convince yourself otherwise (or, to be fair, perhaps don’t realize, so sorry to harsh your buzz). Another is that people feel like they shouldn’t have to move in order to get new jobs. In a perfect world sure, but in a perfect world I’d always have a basket of kittens in my living room too. (notes on shopping list) Those of use that are not fueled by this supposed economic anxiety? Most of us have moved. My parents grew up in Youngstown (yes, that one), and when my mom couldn’t get a job when I was little, what did they do? They moved. And they got jobs and have a house and could help educate their kid, who is, except perhaps when writing angry blog posts, a productive member of society. My parents’ best friends from Youngstown? Dead, both of them. (For context, my parents are 65-ish, and this sucks big time.) So yeah, tradeoffs are a thing, but so is Skype, and it’s not logistically reasonable to expect new businesses to pop up in exactly the same geographies as those that went away.
Believe it or not, I’m not writing this with the goal of berating anyone. I realize that it’s at least as likely that working-class voters didn’t think through the consequences outlined above as it is that they are rent-seeking jerks who aspire to be Comcast when they grow up. Hell, the only reason I know these things is because it’s my job, and I am well aware that anyone who starts thoughts with “anyone who’s taken a basic college economics course” really needs to check, well, usually his, privilege. But here’s where I get back to the analogy portion of this conversation: I trust my mechanic to know more about cars than I do, even though he can’t predict when my car is going to break down. In return, I humbly request that he give me the same level of respect and consideration regarding the expertise I have that affects his existence. Maybe we can even share a Waffle House and sushi lunch and then watch a monster truck rally hosted by Lena Dunham- or not, because baby steps. Or because this sounds absolutely terrible, but at least that’s another thing we can all agree on.