Like many people, I have been observing the remarkable rise of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican Party primary race. Based on the fact that Super Tuesday failed to deal his candidacy anything close to a knock-out blow (though his continued candidacy and his prospects of winning the nomination are two separate considerations to track, and the latter is surely dead if it ever lived) I expect I will have the time to commit everything that I want to say about him to this blog in the fullness of time. However, today I want to focus not on the cultural issues which have come to dominate the media’s coverage of Santorum’s campaign, but on his economic message and policies.
Rick Santorum makes much of his humble, blue-collar, working-class origins. He has at times spoken movingly on the subject, such as his de facto victory speech following the Iowa caucuses, when of his late coalminer grandfather, he said “those hands dug freedom for me”. For anyone struggling to understand the appeal of Rick Santorum, I encourage you to watch this video:
You can say what you want about Rick Santorum’s views on the role of religion in government, on gay rights, on women’s healthcare, on education, energy policy and a score of other things – and believe me, I have a lot to say about them all – but you cannot deny that he is genuine. You can say the same of his fellow candidate Ron Paul, but not Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, the presumptive frontrunner. No, Rick Santorum meant everything he said when he lost his senatorial re-election bid by 16 points, and he says the same things now that he is running for president, and he stands by them. He believes, as Brutus did, that “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”, and that because of America’s current malaise, the rising tide of public anguish over America’s direction will lift his candidacy.
This all helps to explain his solid popularity among all but the upper-most income echelons of Republican primary voters. Also spurring his popularity among these groups is his strong support for a return to a manufacturing-based economy to improve the fortunes of America’s great so-called “middle class”, who have seen their incomes and living standards stagnate for decades. Again, he speaks movingly about the promise of America and every parent’s wish that their child will inherit a better world and greater possibilities.
But when he comes to his prescription to help these people, he could not be more wrong. From the Santorum campaign website’s “Made in America” section, a promise to:
“10. Eliminate the corporate income tax for manufacturers – from 35% to 0% – which will spur middle income job creation in the United States and will create a job multiplier effect for workers” (http://www.ricksantorum.com/made-america).
Though this point may be buried amid a list of 32 proposals to spur the US economy, it is one of his most constant refrains on the stump, and the area where a Santorum presidency would most betray many of those who support him.
Rick Santorum suggests that by eliminating corporation tax for manufacturers (presumably against his own vow not to “pick winners” if elected), this will somehow spur a huge renaissance in US manufacturing. Unfortunately there are several deep flaws in this argument. First of all, thanks to the byzantine tax code, no employer currently pays anything close to 35% corporation tax after taking account of the various deductions and loopholes that already exist. Reducing the tax on manufacturers would certainly make a marginal difference (and probably displease all those companies in the primary and tertiary sectors), but it would hardly be a magic bullet.
Secondly, like so many others, Santorum ignores the obvious reality that these manufacturing jobs are not coming back. They’re just not. Now I don’t know Rick Santorum so I cannot speculate as to whether he sincerely believes that his policies will have their stated effect or if he is just saying words to win blue-collar votes, but I do know that he is painting a picture of a future that can never be.
Thirdly, Santorum actually seemed to bristle at the notion of more Americans going to college and gaining some form of higher education to help them better compete in the new information-age workforce. He went as far as to call President Obama a “snob” for advocating higher education, and suggested that the only reason he did so was because he wanted to send as many young people into an environment where they would become indoctrinated into liberal ways of thinking. Sadly, those manufacturing jobs that do still exist are often more highly skilled and do require the very post-high school education that Santorum appeared to discourage.
Barring the reintroduction of massive trade barriers and tarriffs, most consumer goods produced in America (or in any advanced western country) simply will not be competitive with those produced in lower-cost countries and brought to market through a global supply chain. There are such things as absolute and comparative advantage in the field of economics, and no amount of trying can wish them away. It will always be cheaper to manufacture a shiny new iPad 3 device in China (or whichever country comes next as it moves up the developmental scale and nips at China’s heels) than it will in the United States. This will never change. Barring certain specific exceptions, the manufacturing jobs that America has lost will not return.
And perhaps among all of the things that Rick Santorum says that rile me up, this one makes me the most angry. He is peddling a Pleasantville-style, black and white, 1950s vision of a country where once again it is possible to live a comfortable middle class lifestyle with a decent sized family home and a couple of cars, paid for by the wages earned from assembling televisions, or refrigerators, or cars. And Republican primary voters, many of whom are in the squeezed middle class and have been let down by successive administrations, are listening to Santorum’s claims and gaining hope, and voting for him, even though he cannot in actual fact turn the clock back fifty years, even if he does actually want to. Whether he wins or loses the Republican primary and the general election, the persistence of this argument – and the belief that a few tweaks to the tax code and the drilling of a few more oil wells will spur a resurgence in unskilled and semiskilled manufacturing – simply dooms another generation of people to a life of stagnating or falling living standards.
People trust Santorum because, unlike the other main Republican candidates, he is so genuine. Why would he advocate policies that would hurt them, when he was one of them? And yet the policies that he proposes would either do little to bring back more unskilled or semiskilled manufacturing jobs, or would make the US population even less qualified to perform those jobs which already exist. And all the time that people hold out hope that a Rick Santorum or another politician like him can work this magic, it is time that they are not spending going back into training, or into college or university, and reskilling themselves for the jobs of tomorrow’s economy.
Rick Santorum says all of the things that the Republican Party’s blue collar base want to hear, but in many ways he is just a modern day Pied Piper, promising them a brighter future while marching them off a cliff.