From Belgian Endive to Crocs

There are many reasons why the Dukakis Presidential campaign of 1988 will be remembered as one of the least inspired efforts in modern political history. Some will point to the ridiculous image of Dukakis in a tank. Others will note his emotionless, robotic (not in the Wall-E sense!) answer to the question of how he would react if his wife were raped and murdered. Still others will note how Lee Atwater et al snookered Dukakis with the Pledge of Allegiance and other cultural issues. For me, though, the best symbol of the problematic nature of the Dukakis campaign came early, when, trying to woo Iowa voters, he suggested that they should diversify from a corn (and soybean) economy to grow more exotic, high-value crops like Belgian endive.

In the 2008 Presidential election, the by-now standard media narrative casts Sen. Obama as the heir to Dukakis---much more charismatic to be sure, but still the choice of the egghead set, what right-wingers (and others) derisively call "latte liberals." And yet, there is a much more important, and more substantive, sense in which Sen. McCain is the logical heir to the Belgian-endive-to-the-rescue approach of Gov. Dukakis.

Given the cultural salience, Dukakis made a politically maladroit choice in arguing to Iowa farmers that they should grow Belgian endive, but his more important mistake was thinking that the economy of Iowa and other midwestern/Great Plains farm states could be revived dramatically by shifting from mass production of commercial grains to artisanal crops. The limitations of the latter model are (and already were) apparent in France, where essentially artisanal agriculture is economically viable principally because of government subsidies. Perhaps the elimination of agricultural subsidies worldwide, and a major shift away from corn-fed animal products in the American diet (which would be independently valuable on health, environmental and animal wellbeing grounds) would make a national endive policy sensible, but it wasn't viable in 1988 and isn't yet today.

As a matter of overall economic policy, there was a kernel of sense in what Dukakis was saying, but it probably was more applicable to the industrial than to the agricultural sector. As the U.S. economy has shed jobs in manufacturing, it has added jobs in services. Some of these are high-wage, but many aren't. Sensible industrial policy encourages the growth of industries in which the U.S. has a competitive advantage. In recent years, that has been the high-tech sector. The sensible industrial policy equivalent of the endive gambit would be something like a policy that encourages R&D investment in green tech.

Both Presidential candidates occasionally talk about a strategy along these lines, but Sen. McCain's talk seems the more, well, "endivish." He wants to keep taxes low to unleash the magic of the market. And he supports free trade so that the products of American ingenuity can be exported the world over. His key example? Wait for it . . . wait for it . . . okay: Crocs. That's right, John McCain wants, as his symbol of American ingenuity, a slightly more comfortable sandal. Here's the full quote from the NY Times:
This former small business now employs 600 people in Colorado alone, and sells over 50 percent of its products in 90 countries around the world. Building barriers to Crocs or any American company’s access to foreign markets will have a devastating effect on our economy and jobs, and the prosperity of American families.’’
Granted, they're comfy. Indeed, I'm wearing a pair of them now. Of course, I drink soy lattes and drive a Prius. So not only is the Croc a preposterous example of how to revive American competitiveness---virtually all footwear sold in the U.S. is now manufactured abroad, including Crocs. (Mine were made in Mexico.) But the Crocs example is culturally resonant with Belgian endive. However, because McCain-as-Dukakis does not fit the offical narrative, look for it to be ignored by the non-DoL media.

Posted by Mike Dorf