“America First”—A Possible Area for Collaboration?

By Mike Koetting December 6, 2022

One of the interesting themes in MAGApublican thought is “America First”. Commentators have identified this as a major belief for those inclined to vote Republican. It is hard, however, to know exactly what this means in the current context. Traditionally, the sentiment has been primarily a foreign policy instinct to keep America away from wars that don’t affect them directly and from treaties that have the risk of getting them involved in such wars.

While the contemporary use includes the traditional sense, it also seems much broader. For sure, it is a thinly veiled protest against diversity. And it is obviously an objection to the outsourcing of jobs. But it is equally obviously a primal scream of anger at “the elite” who have more of a global outlook–which has coincided with their economic outlook improving exponentially better than that of the working class. Never mind that the actual cause-and-effect model is murky.

If “America First” is used in the narrow, historical sense, one can imagine the policy implications. But in the vaguer, more amorphous use, it is not at all clear what an “American First” agenda would look like.

Somewhat peculiarly, I got focused on that question from reading an article about the water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The basic story is simple. These rivers originate in Turkey but Iraq and Syria are dependent on the water flow. The details are of course complicated—a difficult problem in the best of circumstances, but also with enough conflicted intent and incompetence on all sides to preclude any simple assessment of who’s right. However, the details aren’t important for our purposes. It is the essence of the story that is critical: Would a “Turkey First” policy suggest that Turkey use the lion’s share of the water for its legitimate uses?

The immediate caution for Turkey would be that the enmity created by such a policy would eventually bounce back to bite them one way or the other. So it is theoretically unlikely they would keep the water to the max—as, indeed, the real world event is playing out, although not without a fair amount of ill will on both sides. And difficulties for the ruling party in Turkey which appears to be “holding out” on its own citizens. Seems that even a “Turkey First” policy needs some degree of balance and compromise, something unappreciated by most sides.

In America

Back on this side of the ocean, it’s basically the same. “America First” is much more useful as a pollical rallying cry than a guide to policy. But given its reality in our politics, is there a way to defang the political bite? It may well be it is not possible. If this is just a different reframing of the culture war, no policy choice will satisfy.

But there may be steps that would take off some of the edge—and perhaps address some legitimate concerns as well.

I see two main strategies working together—remediation and balancing the scales. But before discussing these, I want to point out that what seem like the most obvious solutions are probably like using all of Iraq’s water—the end consequence will make matters worse.

Simply increasing tariffs and erecting high barriers for international trade are more likely to leave US consumers on balance worse off. Tariffs inevitably get paid by the consumer.

There is, no doubt, a place for specific and targeted trade barriers. It also makes sense to pay some premium for developing critical supply lines to be less dependent on international circumstances, as the recent action by Congress to support increasing domestic production of computing micro-chips. Still, there is a strong consensus among economists that the overall economic well-being of Americans is improved by the globalization of the economy

Help Losers, Charge Winners

But that improvement hasn’t been close to evenly distributed. There have been major league winners and losers. These extremes are what makes “America First” compelling to some people.

Accordingly, there should be significant emphasis on helping the situations of Americans who have been damaged by the internationization of the economy. Yes, this requires expenditures that are hard to get approved in a situation where polarization has made it hard to pass anything, perversely more so for things that would disproportionately benefit the base of the opposing party. But the bigger issue is that this is just damn hard. It is hard to identify those uniquely hurt and it is hard to create satisfactory alternatives. Blue collar workers from the rust belt don’t want to be retrained to code computers; they want their old jobs back. And simply providing welfare is a poor alternative. People are happier—and society demonstrably better off—when they have meaningful jobs that provide decent wages. So it will require some real creativity to come up with successful ways of protecting people who have been hurt by the global economy. One of the intriguing successes of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is the eagerness with which Red states have embraced the jobs created with support from that act—which received not a single Republican vote in either house.

More is needed. The changes in our economy have been fundamental and will continue as technology continues to evolve, maybe even accelerate. Since the dawn of the industrial age, economies have evolved and some people have always gotten mangled in the transitions. Still, a competent government will mitigate the damage from this evolution. It would be helpful if both political parties were working to protect those specifically hurt as best possible and to train the next generation of the workforce for a more flexible future. We are slowed in this endeavor by people who have a vested interest in pandering to the past rather than adapting to the future

Which brings us to the issue of balancing the scales. The yawning gaps in the American economy are not created by the internationalization of the economy. No doubt internationalization is a contributing vehicle. But the gaps in income have been created by the entire neo-liberal edifice built primarily by the Republican establishment. “America First” won’t solve this because those gaps have been created by, and stalwartly supported by, those Americans who benefit most from this arrangement, most of whom, as a matter of fact, happen to be Republicans.

Can’t Afford to Ignore

Regardless of causal reality, there is the political reality that a large chunk of the American population believes that Democrats are somehow selling out Americans in order to preserve their international advantages. If actual policy makes any difference, one part of blunting the partisan divide would be to link resources necessary for participating in global solutions to taxes on the rich. This will be increasingly necessary as the true global nature of our current situation becomes more apparent.

Henry Olsen, in a sobering piece in the Washington Post, suggested that participation in the recent UN-sponsored agreement for richer nations to compensate poorer nations for damage wrought by climate change is likely to create a populist backlash in the countries being asked to contribute. His analysis seems more than plausible; transferring American money to other countries is the antithesis “America First”.

On the one hand, the consequences of not recognizing the intertwined nature of our world will be stark. Walking away from this agreement, which is absolutely fair, would be morally reprehensible. If “America First” sentiment prevents us from participating in global solutions—as it did with the Kyoto Treaty—we will be paving the road to disaster.

On the other hand, we would be foolish to ignore the warning signals. Richard Trumka, late president of the AFL-CIO, has pointed that unless working people see the transition to a low-carbon economy as a just and fair transition, they will join climate deniers to block action on climate change. As it now stands, the working class, particularly the White working class, sees climate change policy is being driven by people who simply don’t understand how their world works and are intent on making modern civilization a luxury that only elites can afford. We can’t afford persistence of this impression.

One thing that might make sense is adoption of a substantial and visible effort specifically, indeed ostentatiously, focused on remediating the damages from the changing nature of the American economy underwritten by taxes targeted at “the elite.” That this was the explicit strategy of the IRA. Unfortunately, the specific taxing measures got watered down in Congress and public understanding largely lost in the wave of partisanship. But this is exactly the kind of approach that has a chance of blunting “America First” without letting ourselves be backed into an isolation-driven corner from which no one benefits over time.

As illustrated by the situation in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, it simply doesn’t make long run sense for a country to believe its resources are theirs alone and assume you can go it alone.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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