I wonder how many post-baby boom Americans – Gen Xers and millenials – can even relate to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “Make America Great Again?” What’s not great about it now? We’re the leader of the free world – the most powerful nation on earth. We have a high standard of living and every modern convenience you can imagine. We have cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. We make ten bucks an hour schlepping lattes at Starbucks and have nice little apartments where we can go to watch The Voice and Dancing with the Stars in the evenings. How much better could it get?
Undoubtedly, the once-great America that Trump remembers – an America that anyone under 50 is too young to have ever known – was the post-World War II America. It was a land of almost unimaginable industrial might. By the end of the war, the shipyards on the West Coast were building complete destroyers from the keel up in only two days. The Willow Run bomber plant in Detroit was cranking out a new B-24 bomber every hour, day and night, seven days a week. Other plants cranked out trucks and tanks by the thousands. And massive steel mills all around the country that stretched for miles kept all of these plants supplied. Neither Germany nor Japan nor any other nation on earth could even come close to matching that kind of industrial output.
When the war ended, industry transitioned back to a peacetime economy. The factories in Detroit resumed making cars and all of the other thousands of factories around the country resumed making appliances and every other product imaginable. American products were the envy of the world. European cars were laughable compared to American cars. I can remember taking Europeans for a ride in my car and their astonishment at the latest feature – cruise control. Hell, indoor plumbing and sanitation weren’t even commonplace in Europe back then. And Asia was downright primitive.
Anyone who was a high school graduate could get a good job at the local mill or assembly plant making enough money to buy a home and a car – as much money as a college graduate, though the college graduate would eventually earn more with experience and advancement. Not only was the pay good, but health care was often provided for free as a benefit. Co-pays and deductibles? Those concepts didn’t exist. And a good pension was a given. Companies competed for college graduates. Each could choose from a half dozen different offers.
The U.S. space program quickly left the Russians in the dust, putting men on the moon while the Russians had barely moved beyond sending monkeys up for a couple of orbits. America was the world’s bread basket. Even the Russians were dependent on American grains. And everything about American culture – our clothing, music, movies and magazines were the envy of the world.
That’s when America was great, in a way that those who didn’t live it can’t even imagine. But even while all this was going on, the seeds of America’s decline had already been sown. Weary of two world wars in as many decades, the time had come to address the high rates of unemployment in overpopulated nations like Germany and Japan that had fostered the rise of its fascist leaders. Eager to put their new, untested theory of free trade to the test, economists convinced world leaders that free trade was the route to global peace and prosperity. So in 1947 the U.S. signed the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or “GATT,” beginning the process of dismantling the tariff structure that had helped build America into the world’s preeminent industrial powerhouse.
What could it hurt? Sharing a little of the wealth seemed a small price to pay to prevent the next war, one that might doom humanity, in light of how the last one just ended with the dawn of atomic weapons. Besides, the economists convinced us, growth in the world economy would only add to the demand for American products.
It started innocuously enough. A few Volkswagens from Germany. Toys and souvenirs and trinkets from Japan. The words “made in Japan” became synonymous with “cheap junk.” Then came small Honda motorcycles, soon to be followed by cars of the same brand – cheap, two-cycle, chain-driven death traps that were painted paisley and sold as novelty items.
But that trickle quickly evolved into a tidal wave. By 1975 our trade surplus had vanished and our national debt, which had been shrinking dramatically since the end of World War II, began to rise again. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration passed NAFTA, exploding our trade deficit with Mexico and then, as its closing act, granted China “most favored nation” trade status. We all know how that went. 2016 marks our 40th consecutive year with a trade deficit. And the $13 trillion growth in our national debt during that period can be blamed entirely on the trade deficit’s cumulative drain on the economy.
Returning to post-war America, we were a nation of 150 million people with a seemingly boundless supply of resources and wide open spaces. During the morning rush hour, you had to wait through two traffic light changes to clear the intersection instead of one. President Eisenhower had just commissioned the construction of the interstate highway system. Freeways were virtually devoid of traffic.
The term “illegal alien” didn’t exist in those days. There were migrant workers who came to harvest crops that had to be hand-picked and, when the harvest was over, they were gone. Then, something changed. They didn’t leave. We began to notice large groups of Mexicans gathered in parking lots – “day laborers” waiting for pickup trucks to take them to some job site – probably a house under construction – where the contractor was happy to have the “off the books,” tax-free labor. Now, people who had lost their jobs in the auto industry and needed construction work found themselves displaced yet again. And our population that once grew by a million people per year began growing at two or three times that pace – even ten times that pace when you include the results of the amnesty programs for illegal aliens. Now we’re a nation of 325 million. In spite of that population growth, which economists call a driver of economic growth, good-paying full-time jobs are scarce and household incomes and net worth, for all but the top few percent, are declining.
Born two years after the signing of GATT, at the age of 67, I can honestly say that I have never once seen my country stand up for its citizens and workers. Oh, there’s been plenty of times when our military has asserted itself, often ill-advisedly, in some foreign conflict. But I’m talking primarily about trade negotiations, but also other diplomatic negotiations, like deals to keep North Korea in check or, more recently, Iran. Not one damn time do I remember the U.S. coming away with a deal that was good for American workers. Can you? If so, please feel free to refresh my memory.
There’s a very solid reason why free trade and globalization have failed Americans. It’s the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption at work. Instead of being an engine of economic growth, our population growth has been cancerous and toxic, eating away at per capita consumption. And by co-mingling our economy with those of grossly overpopulated nations, the effect has been accelerated. The result is that young Americans face the prospect of being the first generation to fare more poorly than their parents.
By far, the two factors most critical to restoring America to its nearly-forgotten greatness are first a dramatic shift in trade policy away from “free” trade to a focus on balance. All trade deals must be based on the premise that the U.S. will buy from its trade partners no more than they are willing to buy from us. Contrast that with today’s trade policy that says, “If you can make it and get it here, we’ll buy it.”
Second, run-away population growth that is fueled almost entirely by equal parts of both legal and illegal immigration must be reined in. Illegal immigration is the place to start. But even legal immigration needs to be dramatically curtailed.
Donald Trump is the first candidate in my long memory who has promised to do exactly these two things – to tear up existing trade deals and start over, putting America first, and putting an end to illegal immigration.
I personally don’t much like Donald Trump. Never have. It’s a shame that this message has been overshadowed by some of his antics and the things he’s said that have been caught by open mics. But as someone who attended an all-male high school, followed by an all-male university, followed by three years in the navy, you can believe me when I say I’ve heard worse things spoken more commonly than some would like to believe. But that’s not an excuse for his behavior.
It’s like this: imagine that we’re at war, and it’s going badly. We need to replace the general in charge. He’s a nice guy, one we’re all proud to serve under and be associated with, but ineffective. We have two candidates in mind to replace him. One is similar – a great person but just as ineffective and likely to yield the same results. The other is a foul SOB, but one who knows how to kick ass and get things done. Like I said, it’s a war. Do we want to win or don’t we? There are times when the latter choice is the right one, and this is one of those times.
In two weeks we have a chance to reverse America’s decline. We have a chance to put an end to our role as the host in globalization’s host-parasite relationship. It’s a chance that I began to doubt would ever come. It may not come again. Let’s stand up for America for a change.