In virtually every election cycle it seems as if we're subject to prolonged debates about phony issues. Not phony in the sense of imaginary, but phony in the sense of being so badly distorted by the press and/or public misunderstanding that the resulting discourse invariably leaves us all a little dumber on the topic.
Take for instance the 2010 U.S. Senate race here in California. Carly Fiorina -- the Republican nominee and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard -- was widely criticized for the layoffs that took place during her time with the company. That's fair enough. Candidates with business experience -- particularly when they use that experience as part of their rationale for being suited to office -- deserve to have their records scrutinized. But this didn't play out as a sophisticated discussion over whether or not Fiorina was culpable for the economic situation that compelled HP to let 30,000 workers go. It simply came down to this: laying off workers is bad.
That's an easy opinion to hold in the abstract, but its cash value is approximately zero. CEOs and small business owners alike aren't allowed the luxury of planting their flag in categorical imperatives like this for a simple reason: they have to balance the books. No one really likes firing people (not even Mitt Romney -- the great tragedy of that gaffe was that he wasn't even talking about cutting employees loose; he was talking about taking your business elsewhere when someone's providing you with a sub-par product). But often times business leaders are faced with enduring the short-term pain of a round of layoffs to attempt to preserve the long-term health of the company. It's the business equivalent of the principle of delayed gratification -- the hallmark of maturity. You don't throw a feast tonight if you won't be able to restock your empty refrigerator tomorrow.
The latest round of this kind of nonsense is coming over the outsourcing debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama. Interestingly, the Romney campaign is accepting this argument on the president's terms. While Obama alleges that Romney was behind massive outsourcing efforts during his time at Bain, Romney is hitting back with accusations that many of the policies of the Obama Administration have had the same effect. You can't help but notice that both sides are conceding the premise that outsourcing is an unalloyed bad.
As a practical matter, Romney probably has to do this. It's hard to imagine how he resets the argument with a soundbite. ABC News is not going to cover him behind a podium, reading glasses around his nose, expounding on David Ricardo to a group of bewildered rally attendees. As for Obama, I'm sure he really believes it. Thankfully, however, there are a few people in the media who aren't going to let them beg the question. One of them is Michael Kinsley -- a reliable voice of the left, but one who has a high immunity to what our own Mickey Kaus would call "liberal [bovine excrement]." Here he is in today's Los Angeles Times:
In the presidential campaign, President Obama is trying to paint Mitt Romney as an incorrigible outsourcer, as if it were obvious why this is so terrible. Maybe it seems obvious: People lose their jobs when companies transfer parts of their operations overseas. But most economists believe in the theory of free trade, which holds that a nation cannot prosper by denying its citizens the benefit of cheap foreign labor.
It's a hard sell because the victims are concentrated and easy to identify, while the benefit is diffused through the whole economy. That's why so many politicians pay obeisance to free trade in the abstract but oppose it in the particular...
Obama decries Romney's practice of outsourcing as if he thinks that all outsourcing is wrong, even if it can't or shouldn't be made illegal. Obama proposes a heavy dinner of grants, subsidies and tax credits to discourage outsourcing and encourage "insourcing" — bringing jobs from abroad back to America — all of which are bad ideas. Among other reasons, one nation's insourcing is another nation's outsourcing, and retaliation can quickly lead to a trade war in which everybody loses.
Who said this — "I don't want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany" —Romney or Obama? Early in the Republican primary campaign, China was the one subject Romney seemed genuinely agitated about. Imposing tariffs on Chinese goods was on the long list of things Romney said he was going to do on Day 1 of his presidency. Maybe he still is, but he doesn't play it up the way he used to.
Meanwhile, if Romney is a free trader at heart, faking a bit of protectionism, Obama seems to be a protectionist at heart, faking a belief in free trade. That quote in the previous paragraph is from Obama, and it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work. Trade is not a zero-sum game. There isn't a certain number of manufacturing jobs that will either go to China or Germany, or come to us. We want China and Germany to have lots of manufacturing jobs. The more they have, the richer they are, the better off we will be as well. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies don't work.
I don't expect this argument to carry the day with voters anytime soon. But I'm deeply grateful that those long odds haven't kept people like Kinsley from making it.