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America Bowling Alone

The American Economic Forum was a reminder that we are perhaps our own worst enemy.

finance panel ISI
Andrew Stuttaford, Mark Calabria, Oren Cass, Julius Krein, and Byron Smith at ISI's American Economic Forum.

It will be a while yet, but I look forward to going bowling with my nieces. I’m home out west this week visiting family—my sister has a newborn—and the older two are getting to be a handful. It would be fun to watch them try to shove a bowling ball nearly as large as they are. Of course, when we bowl with children there are supports for them to make it a better game for all. There is that slide of sorts, which lets gravity do the work little arms can’t. And there are bumpers, so no one is rolling twenty in the gutter. 

Here is a metaphor. Imagine my nieces growing up bowling with me, always using bumpers. I still beat them at first, despite throwing a few gutter balls myself; I can throw harder, and understand the angles better. But with time they get stronger, and they start to understand the geometry of ten pins, too. They start to use the bumpers strategically. They don’t need spin; they have bank shots. They start winning. Eventually I tell them this isn’t really fair and they ought to graduate to proper bowling, without bumpers. They laugh in my face (they would). Meanwhile, my parents and siblings have been betting on these games over the years, and the odds were made when my nieces were smaller, so they’ve been winning big, betting on the little ones. And I’ve been losing.


Verily, verily, unless ye be like one of these children, your country is going to get eaten on the global market. I was reminded this past weekend at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Economic Forum in D.C. that the U.S. has been bowling gutter balls while the rest of the world plays with bumpers. It made some sense, when we were rebuilding Europe and pacifying East Asia, to handicap ourselves and give them a leg up; we traded economic competitiveness for political ends we expected would pay off. I suppose American policy leadership assumed there might eventually be a graduation from political economy to really sporting bowling—economic purism, cleansed of politics, a global free market. But the people in the back have been having too much fun and made too much money betting on the little guys. And the not-so-little-now aren’t dumb; they like winning. It seems like America can insist on bowling without bumpers and continue to lose, or she can play the game on offer.  

Robert E. Lighthizer has been insisting for a long time now that refusing to put up tariffs is a losing strategy for America. He did so once again last Friday as the dinner keynote speaker at ISI’s conference. His message was simple, that conservatives are not libertarians, and that conservatives should not be slavish servants of a free-trade theology. “We forgot that the purpose of economic policy is people, not things,” he said. The sabbath is made for man not man for sabbath, and trade policies are made for workers not for prices. Preempting accusation of innovation, perhaps a dangerous thing for a conservative, or of influence by the left, Lighthizer recalled William F. Buckley and his quixotic run for New York mayor (Buckley said “I’d demand a recount” if he were to win). Buckley exceeded expectations in the final vote, Lighthizer explained, because of the support of unionized blue-collar workers tired of liberal snobbery. A conservatism that speaks for the American worker isn’t something new. 

Lighthizer’s talk was titled “The New American System” in reference to the American System of internal improvements and tariff protections begun by Hamilton and the Federalists but long carried forth by the GOP. Nations become great, and the United States was no exception, by producing, not by consuming. Build things, not buy things. American tariffs remained relatively high until after the Second World War. It was opening up American markets, for international political purposes contra the Soviet Union, that was an act of policy innovation; a petroleum economy would be underwritten by the U.S. dollar, and so everyone would take our debt, and with it, our liberal values. It worked for a little while—it at least outlasted international Bolshevism. But now, as Lighthizer put it, “We are engaged in a great competition with China for the future of the world,” and refuse to play with bumpers.

More perhaps than the American worker, or even the politically deceptive measure of American GDP, China was the consistent reference point of ISI’s American Economic Forum. The conference highlighted, as it has in previous years, a divide between those in the right-leaning U.S. coalition who think economic law was brought down from the mountaintop by some Austrians fewer than a hundred years ago, and those who think Smith and Ricardo were men as other men in humanity’s long history of financial and technological developments. But the answers both sides had to provide were why China had been allowed to rise and what American leaders should do about it. 

Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, is an avatar of sorts for the cautious reconsideration of orthodoxies by the conservative establishment. In his conversation with ISI president Johnny Burtka, Roberts described the CCP as an existential threat—a bold and arguable assessment in itself—and emphasized that economic policy “isn’t an academic exercise; it’s not just a Washington game.” Repeatedly clarifying that he was a conservative rather than a libertarian, Roberts condemned concentrated corporate power: “They take from the worker, and they rape the land, and they tell us that they’re a conservative or a Republican when really they’re all about the profit motive.” These twin opponents of the American people, the CCP and big business, seem to, for Roberts, put policy makers in a bit of a bind; his opposition to the CHIPS Act demonstrated a reluctance to help already very wealthy businesses of dubious American loyalty repatriate semiconductor manufacturing without, in Heritage’s opinion, sufficient guardrails against further investment in China.

And this is, perhaps, the major tension in right-wing economic thinking going forward, caused by an ambivalence or ambiguity in the realities of global economics. Does defending American workers against China, and other emerging manufacturing markets, have to mean picking winners and losers domestically, the classic corporate-welfare bugbear of conservative economics? China—but before it Japan and South Korea—has taken advantage of America’s market openness and diplomatic generosity to protect and promote its national champions. If we are to correct the course we are on, one of “efficient” financial maneuvering and digital simulacra covering a debt-based service and consumer economy, we are going to have to intervene on behalf of the American companies that employ American workers. Some of them might even be the undeserving rich. 

Lighthizer, in his ISI remarks, recalled asking a colleague in the Trump administration whether, if every country in the world except the United States had robust trade protections in place, he would still insist America have a “free” market, in the midst of an unfree world economy. The market fundamentalists would say yes—confusing, it seems to me, the good of the domestic free-flow of commerce in our extended republic with the purely hypothetical increased productivity of global arbitrage. Too many of our decision makers, especially those calling themselves conservative, are not actually bowling, though they think of all of this as a kind of game. They are content to watch the American middle class play without bumpers with international competitors who show no indication of giving up theirs. This establishment is placing bets that pay off up or down, and seem unaware that the time might come for them to be the pins.

This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.


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