Monday, December 28, 2020

Fish, Coal, and the Symbolic Value of Dying Industries

 by Michael C. Dorf

On Christmas Eve, the European Union and the United Kingdom reached a trade deal that prevents the latter from "crashing out" of the former, albeit by a so-called "hard" rather than "soft" Brexit. The UK will still be able to export and import goods to and from the EU without tariffs or quotas, but because the deal does not cover financial or other services, London will lose a good deal of business, which in turn will undercut economic growth for the whole of the UK.

Nonetheless, under the circumstances, the deal is about the best that the UK could have hoped for. Had EU leaders allowed the UK to exit on more attractive terms, it would have thereby encouraged other countries to do the same--to obtain the benefits of union without paying any of the costs--and that could have spelled the unraveling of the EU.

The EU may yet fail anyway. The continued membership of Hungary and Poland despite their ongoing devolution into autocracy poses a threat to the very idea of the EU as a union of liberal democratic states. While that crisis awaits, let's allow our friends across the pond and on the continent at least a modest sigh of relief. The more transmissible strain of COVID-19 might keep Chunnel traffic backed up at Dover and Calais for a while, but something like normal trade between friendly countries should resume eventually, albeit now with customs stops.

The Christmas Eve deal almost did not happen and for seemingly the most illogical of reasons. As was widely reported in the last week, the final sticking point was fishing rights of EU-flagged vessels in UK waters. Because fish exports account for about a third of a percent of UK exports, it made no economic sense to allow fishing rights to derail a deal for the remaining 99.6%. So why did that almost come to pass?

The answer is not the lobbying power of Big Fish. Rather, just as support for the dying coal industry in the US (and the UK for that matter) came to symbolize concern for the people living in what were once coal-mining communities, so aggressive assertion of UK sovereignty over fishing rights came to symbolize support for the Leave voters and the ressentiment they still feel towards the Remain voters concentrated in London.

What should we make of the prominent role of symbolism in Brexit and its American cousin, Trumpism?

In an article in The Atlantic, Tom McTague offers a sympathetic (if not wholly supportive) view of Brexit and the seemingly excessive attention to fishing rights in the final negotiations. He concludes:

Politics, like European fishing battles, is complicated. But it is reasonable to wonder whether we have paid enough attention to one of the lessons of the Brexit vote: that national life has to be about more than simple calculations of GDP. Being part of a wider unit—nation or confederation—means looking after the people and communities that make up that unit. Both fish and Brexit are reminders of that, whether it makes economic sense or not.

There's a sense in which that's clearly right, both as applied to rural and white working-class support for Brexit in the UK and Trumpism in the US. But at least on the most straightforward reading, the passage also gets something fundamentally wrong. One could readily read McTague to be saying that a nation ought to prefer a distribution of a medium-sized economy that provides a decent life to everyone--"looking after the people and communities"--to a grossly unequal distribution of a slightly larger economy that favors urban and suburban professionals. The problem with that proposition is not normative; it's factual; neither Brexit nor Trumpism ever really held out the promise of a better life for the supporters of these movements, because the leaders were and are fraudsters and because their solutions were based on a complete misdiagnosis of the problem.

Let's start with coal. Jobs in coal did not disappear because foreigners exploited the honest volk nor because tree-huggers shackled the industry (as Brexiteers and Trumpists would have it). They disappeared chiefly because of automation, globalization, and competition from cheaper alternatives.

To be sure, apologists for Brexit and Trumpism point instead to what they consider excessive regulation. If not for President Obama's "war on coal," they say, the industry would have been doing just fine. That's patently false. The accompanying graph based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the decline of coal mining jobs over three-plus decades through Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

It's true that regulation is at least a small part of the story recently. In addition to being somewhat cheaper, natural gas contributes less to climate change per unit burned than does coal, which has in turn led to a more favorable regulatory regime (although fracking to produce natural gas brings its own set of environmental harms, which makes natural gas at best a transition fuel en route to reliance solely on solar, wind, and other fully carbon-neutral energy sources). Yet the complaint by the deregulators is unjustified even in economic terms. Local and global pollution caused by coal imposes costs that an unregulated industry fails to internalize. Accordingly, deregulators effectively want the public to subsidize coal through dirty air and a hotter climate.

The notion that regulation is the main threat to any extractive industry is especially laughable when applied to fishing. If current trends continue, global fisheries will completely collapse within thirty years.

Trump and Brexiteers have barely taken measures to prop up the dying industries that have shed jobs in recent decades, but even if they had, the dismal long-term prospects of those industries would make such measures grossly inadequate as a means of what McTague calls "looking after the people and communities" whose sense of loss led them to support Trumpism and Brexit.

What, then, explains support for Trump and Brexit? Part of the answer has to do with misinformation. No doubt many of the people in these movements sincerely believe the false claims of pathological liars like Trump and Brexiteer Nigel Farage. It is often difficult for people who have not fallen for a con man's obvious con to understand how others have, but that's simply another way of saying that the con targets some people and not others. The inclination to accept as true certain false claims of fact depends only slightly on the rational faculties of the believers, instead depending mostly on the believers' affective dispositions.

Which brings us to the core of the appeal of Trump and Brexit--as a balm to the wounded pride of people and communities who feel aggrieved by the loss of status. Some of that is economic, although it's worth recalling that Trump voters are not for the most part down and out. On the contrary, they tend to be wealthier than their neighbors. But they also tend to be concentrated in rural areas that have lost power and prestige over time.

Is there a hopeful path forward? Perhaps. If the feelings of anger and grievance are truly rooted in the economic decline of whole communities, then addressing the underlying economic concerns should address the anger and sense of grievance as well. This view is what we might call the Bernie Sanders/AOC theory of the case. It sees Trumpism, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing populism globally as an expression of frustration with the embrace by center-left parties (the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK especially) of a neoliberalism that has done a poor job of maintaining or distributing prosperity. I have considerable sympathy for this view--especially because it explains why right-wing populism emerged roughly simultaneously in countries with very different political systems.

If the Sanders/AOC diagnosis is correct, then we should see the ugly racism and xenophobia that accompany Trumpism and Brexit as secondary. They are dangers, to be sure, but they are merely a means of displacing economic grievance onto scapegoats. Treat the underlying economic disease, this view says, and the worrying symptoms will also fade.

Despite my broad sympathy for the Sanders/AOC diagnosis, I have three main concerns.

(1) I doubt that there is the political will in the US for anything like the Sanders/AOC program. Partly that's a result of the rotten constitutional system in the US, in which even if the Democrats somehow win both Georgia runoffs, the median Senator will be Joe Manchin. Although his West Virginia constituents seem like the perfect targets for a left-wing populism that aims to defang right-wing populism, Manchin is at best a centrist on economic issues as well as social ones. More broadly, the Democratic Party is at best center-left; it's more like center-right by European standards. Thus, even if democratic socialism is the antidote to right-wing populism, it does not appear to be on offer. (The Labour Party these days is closer to its roots as a center-left party than under Tony Blair's leadership, and includes more than a handful of MPs who could be fairly characterized as democratic socialists of the Sanders/AOC sort, but to state the obvious, Labour as a whole, much less its democratic socialist wing, does not control Parliament.)

(2) Even if democratic socialists could get their programs enacted, it's not obvious they would work. To be sure, there is much to like in programs like the Green New Deal. It is also scandalous that the US still lacks universal health insurance. And there is no realistic possibility that anyone who would exercise real power in a Sanders/AOC-led Democratic Congress would turn the US into Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro. Likewise for the UK under a now-post-Corbyn Labour Party.

And yet, while many of the programs supported by the democratic socialist wings of the Democratic and Labour Parties are worth supporting, it is hardly clear that they are the solution to current economic woes. For just as we need not fear the US or UK becoming Venezuela, it's not realistic to hope that either country can become Denmark. Indeed, it may not be realistic to hope that Denmark can be Denmark--a prosperous liberal egalitarian democracy--except through social and immigration policies that smack of racial identitarianism. 

I'll return to race and immigration momentarily, but first I want to say a few more words about economics. If right-wing populism is a response to the failures of neoliberalism, and if democratic socialism is not the solution--either because it lacks political support or depends on racial homogeneity that we lack and shouldn't want--is there any other path forward? I don't have the answer to that question, but it's notable that the question has been almost completely absent from our politics.

In the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary campaign, the main issue was who had the best chance of defeating Trump. Biden's general election victory doesn't by itself prove that the party was right to coalesce around him. It's possible that Sanders or Elizabeth Warren (whom I supported) would have done as well or even better and might have had the coattails that Biden lacked. But it's also possible that Biden really was the best choice.

In any event, because the need to defeat Trump overshadowed everything else, the 2020 primaries did not really turn on policy disagreements. To the extent that they did, they replayed the familiar debate between the center and left of the party. Only one candidate articulated a view that was outside the familiar divide: Andrew Yang saw automation and the resulting chronic under-employment as the central challenge. He may be right about that, but if so, he will need to develop a program that includes more than universal basic income. Should he become Mayor of NYC, he will have the opportunity.

For the time being, however, an effective center-left alternative to neoliberalism remains to be articulated, much less implemented, regardless of whether Mitch McConnell spends the next four years stymying the Biden administration as the leader of the Senate majority or minority.

(3) I've noted my sympathy for the Sanders/AOC view that the failure of neoliberalism accounts for much of the rise of Trumpism and its associated counterparts elsewhere, but sympathy is not complete agreement. Xenophobia and especially racism are endemic to US culture rather than mere passing sideshows. It's true that they are more or less prominent in various periods and can be exploited or exacerbated by unscrupulous demagogues. But racism and xenophobia are not simply scapegoating tools for economic anxiety. They are at the core of Trump's appeal. And insofar as these are expressions of universal human psychology, they are likewise at the core of the appeal of other right-wing populist movements.


Greg said...

I read an article a while back describing why Republican women will often enthusiastically support candidates who openly want to do things like restrict their right to work, or to equal pay, or to other important economic opportunities.

The answer seemed to be that these women did the math on what would best help their specific family, where the husband worked and they didn't, and rationally decided that helping women generally was at best unimportant to them (because they didn't intend to enter the workforce) and perhaps a disadvantage if it meant their husband lost opportunities. These women then largely decided their vote based on other issues.

I think about this when reading articles like this one. Many times, individuals are trying to decide what they think is best for them and just don't care about the broader societal effects. If you're a coal miner or a fisherman, what you most want is to keep your current job. You don't care if global fisheries are collapsing or if clean energy is rendering coal mining unprofitably expensive, you just want your job protected. When one side says they will project your job (even if they're not fully truthful) and the other side says there is no way to protect your job, it seems rational to believe that the one who says they will protect you hasn't given up entirely on serving your best interests.

I don't think fixing this is as simple as changing how we talk about certain industries. Ultimately, all governing involves some picking of winners and losers, and there is no way to change that. The losers are going to be upset and may not vote for you.

Paul Scott said...

So, I think it is not a quick fix, but it is ultimately the correct fix. Government does a number of things, over and over that just don't make sense. They pass bills (like the Minimum wage law, for example) that set dollar figures, and they never date them. This is obviously stupid, but the next time the Federal minimum wage is adjusted the same thing will happen. All they need to do is set a date on how the money is to be evaluated and a mechanism for COLA adjustments and the law would never need to change again (unless COLA was badly calculated or circumstances changed such that the minimum wage needed real changes).

This is a general case for laws, even those that don't effect "everyday workers," but it is part of our problem with having people suffer in the ways discussed in the OP.

Secondly, we, as a nation, do a terrible job of dealing with random harm. This is true for dying industries and it is also true for policy choices.

Globalization is a great thing, generally. But it is a terrible thing for a factory worker in the widget factory that will now not have a skill useful in the United States. NAFTA did not create Perot's "giant sucking sound," but it did hurt a lot of Americans. We could have, at the time of NAFTA, recognized that people would be hurt and as part of the bill implementing NAFTA also funded and put in to place assistance for displaced workers. America as a whole benefitted from NAFTA. Part of those benefits could have been directed towards retraining programs for displaced workers, temporary aid for those workers while they were being retrained and permanent aid for those few workers that simply were incapable of retraining.

In stead, America kept 100% of the benefits of NAFTA and let the displaced workers find their own way to a new future where their prior job had been made obsolete.

This is a general way of behavior in the US. Unlucky people (either from Market action - like coal - or policy choices - like NAFTA) are allowed to suffer. This brings with it resentment and scapegoating. This is harm the Sanders/AOC part of the party is trying to address, even if they are not doing so directly.

Two changes are needed - one simple, the other far more complex - 1. pass a single law that states that all dollar figures found in all laws (past and future) are to be considered as expressions of dollar amounts in the year the law is passed and are to be adjusted to the current year; and 2. whenever a new policy is implemented that is likely to have predictable, negative effects on a portion of our society, the policy makers should ensure that part of the societal benefits of those new policies are set aside to mitigate that predictable harm.

If Democrats started acting with those principals, 50 years from now you would not have a party by which "the common citizen" felt abandoned.

Henry Baker said...

@ Greg, you said Republican candidates want to “restrict their right to work.” Out of curiosity, could you provide some citations to contemporary politicians who want to restrict women’s *right to work*? Are there actual Republicans who want to prevent women from being legally allowed to work? What forms do such policies take? Do they make it illegal for women to work more than a certain number of hours per week? Do they make it illegal for women to have certain jobs?

There was a small controversy a few years ago where the US Marines (along among the military branches) recommended against allowing women in combat roles — a recommendation which was rejected.

Is this what you’re referring to?

hardreaders said...

@Henry Baker

Without necessarily endorsing any substance of Greg's comment, and without attempting to put words in his (digital) mouth, I can think of at least a few examples of policies that tend to discourage women from working, or, conversely, put pressure on them to cease working. "right to work" is one of those contested bumper-sticker type slogans, so I'll refrain from entering the debate over what that's supposed to mean.

The policy examples are those that reduce or eliminate the following: (1) equal pay for women, (2) opportunities and subsidies for childcare (which tends to disproportionately impact women), (3) paid (and/or unpaid) maternity and other similar types of leave, and (4) protections against workplace sexual harassment. I'm sure there are many others, but the preceding are just currently top of mind.

Republicans would typically be the ones favoring the above types of policies.

I tend to doubt Greg had in mind the very discrete combat role issue, but he's certainly able to clarify if needed.

Greg said...

@Henry Baker

I had in mind the kind of things that @hardreaders stated, combined with statements that I am willing to concede many not have come from politicians themselves but rather from members of Republican political organizations advocating that a woman's place is inside the home. I agree that few mainstream politicians, especially at the national level, are likely to openly advocate that women should explicitly not be allowed to work outside the home.

@Paul Scott

I'm not sure that anything will ever be enough to make displaced workers "happy" and will have to settle for treating them fairly. My point in my prior post was that a lot of the people affected don't want help, they want things to stay the way they were. Offering retraining is fair, but isn't likely to be enough to satisfy those who lose their job because of government trade policies. There just isn't any way to tell someone "I'm sorry, but this thing that is bad for you (and your friends) is good for some other group of people, but we'll try to help you recover some of what you lost," and have them be happy with the result.

We should do what's fair, but ultimately have to accept that it may not be enough to recover voters who are negatively affected.

Michael A Livingston said...

I think the potential flaw here is the reference to wounded pride, loss of status, etc. Fish and coal are not just about economics or even economic status; they are a way of life. So it is difficult for people to be “rational” about them. Recognizing this, the logical answer would be to pay a certain number of people to engage in these industries, phasing that number down to zero over a multi-year period. Indeed, it might even make sense to pay people to mine coal (e.g.) and then throw it away, or save it as an energy reserve (I’m pretty sure it’s the burning of the coal, not the digging, that causes pollution). One possible response to this is that there are all sorts of lifestyles that are damage or destroyed by technological change, and there is less concern for these, probably because they are less geographically concentrated and hence less protected in our increasingly outdated political system. But that is a much larger matter.

Karst said...

@ Michael A Livingston

The harms from coal and coal mining are far more extensive than the mere burning. Strip mining (at the surface) leads to massive amounts of rubble that in Appalachia has been used to "fill" valleys, creating a variety of problems. Expensive reclamation of the stripped land becomes essential to prevent total devastation to the ecosystem, which would require millennia to fully recover. Blowing dust contributes to air pollution. Coal (and some of the associated shale layers) tends to contain pyrite (iron sulfide) so oxidation results in acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage can contain toxic metals, such as mercury. Trucks loaded with coal create additional problems on winding rural roads in the dissected Appalachian plateaus of Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Abandoned deep mines fill with groundwater, which becomes acidic and can leak to the surface. And of course, mining itself poses dangers to the miners in the form of black lung disease, explosions when methane gas (that leaks from the coal) ignites, rockfall, toxic gases released when coal is set on fire, etc. The number of underground coal mines burning worldwide is astounding. Google Centralia, PA or Coal seam fire for an example of a town that had to be abandoned due to a deep mine fire.