Elections

Colbert Reports

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco, Calif., June 1, 2019. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
Senator Warren embraces dirigisme.

In a Democratic field that includes dingbat socialist Bernie Sanders, callow ward heeler Cory Booker, and eternal sophomore-class president Kirsten Gillibrand, it was perhaps inevitable that Elizabeth Warren would come to be known as the smart one. And yet, that reputation turns out to be unearned. She may walk tall with the dwarves, but in the great sprawling zany Disney World of American politics, she still isn’t tall enough to ride Space Mountain.

Every couple of years, the Democratic party goes full national socialist and begins to lecture the nation on “economic patriotism” — creepily fascistic language at the best of times, but worrisome indeed for a party that has drifted into tolerating open anti-Semitism. “Economic patriotism” is what the Democrats talk about when they want to out-Trump Trump. That ridiculous dope Ted Strickland, once the governor of godforsaken Ohio, bellowed on the theme in 2012, giving a Democratic National Convention speech about “economic patriotism” and Mitt Romney’s alleged lack of it. (That was about five minutes after the last Democratic lecture about how questioning the patriotism of our political opponents is a crime against humanity.) Barack Obama, chin tilted up at 60 degrees in his trademark Mussolini pose, delivered a homily about “economic patriotism” in Georgetown in 2014 and was hectoring Americans about the virtues of nationalism just a few years before Democrats began denouncing Donald Trump as a Nazi for using the term.

And now Senator Warren is talking up her “Plan for Economic Patriotism.” That plan consists of . . . a new federal department! And some job-training programs — of which the federal government already maintains, as the senator herself notes, nearly 50 spread out across nine federal agencies. And — here’s the interesting part — a truly massive campaign of new corporate-welfare spending accompanied by a great deal of foot-stamping/first-pumping anti-corporation rhetoric.

Which is to say, Senator Warren’s “economic patriotism” consists of calling the bosses at the Fortune 500 a**holes and then writing them a check for tens of billions of dollars. I suspect the gentlemen in pinstripes will find a way to endure the insult.

“Economic patriotism” is an old and stupid idea based on the belief that the economic interest of the American people are distinct from the economic interests of . . . the people of America, whose trade and enterprise must be curtailed and managed from Washington by specimens such as Senator Warren, whose idea of a good investment is posing as a Native American and allowing herself to be advertised as a “professor of color” by an institution that paid her a few hundred thousand dollars a year to teach one class.

“Economic patriotism” has been a popular idea in the United States for a century or so, but it is not an idea of American origin. It was a German idea in the 1930s, and an Italian idea during the Fascist era, and a French idea long before that, one generally associated with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a 17th-century politician who served as an economic and trade adviser to King Louis XIV. Like President Trump, he favored high tariffs and expensive public works, which he believed to have a stimulating effect on the economy. Like Senator Warren, he favored strict regulation of industry (noncomplying business owners were put into stocks; if Senator Warren really wants to lure those Bernie voters . . .) and active management of the labor market. These policies came to be known as dirigisme. They did not do much for France, and other countries that have tried to replicate them, such as India, inflicted catastrophic damage on their peoples and economies.

Senator Warren has taken a new and particular interest in one of Colbert’s favorite hobbyhorses: currency manipulation. She thinks we should be doing a lot more of it: “more actively managing our currency value to promote exports and domestic manufacturing.”

Senator Warren is worried that our currency value is too high — nefarious foreigners, you know, scheming to keep the dollar strong. Senator Warren argues that we should start using monetary policy as an instrument for fortifying employment. That is, as you may have heard, an idea that has occurred to some policymakers in the past: It is one half of the mandate of the Federal Reserve.

Another way of expressing what Senator Warren is talking about here is that she proposes debasing the currency to subsidize a small number of export-oriented businesses at the expense of regular consumers and anybody who has been forward-thinking enough to save money. Yet another way of expressing this is that she intends to imitate the Beijing model and artificially lower the standard of living of ordinary Americans in order to enrich the owners of a few politically sensitive and well-connected businesses.

The smart one?

Maybe compared to Ted Strickland. “Economic patriotism” sounds lovely, if you are naïve and have an IQ right around that of a not-especially-bright schnauzer, but how do these big ideas work out in practice? During Strickland’s governorship, major employers left Ohio in considerable numbers — one of them, National Cash Register, cited Strickland and his administration specifically — and, as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it: “By most economic measures, Ohio was in a worse place when Strickland left office than when he started. The unemployment rate had doubled at one point. The state lost nearly 368,000 jobs. Only two states lost more jobs over the four-year period.”

Senator Warren proposes to impose the same philosophy on the country as a whole.

She argues that the Export-Import Bank — the premier corporate-welfare program in the United States, sometimes known as the “Bank of Boeing” — does not spend enough money subsidizing American businesses. How much more should it spend? Senator Warren does not say, but she does note that the Chinese version of the Export-Import Bank spends about 100 times what its American counterpart does. Should we really be looking to replicate the success of China, a country that, if it does well for the next few years, will achieve a GDP per capita almost as large as Mexico’s? That does not seem to me the most obvious course of action.

What does “economic patriotism” really mean? It means that the owners, managers, and workers of American businesses will not do what they think is best for their businesses but will do what politicians want — or be forced through the power of the state to do what politicians want.

I would be a lot more comfortable with that if Senator Warren were not such an obvious, undeniable, and transparent fool.

And she’s the smart one.

Relatively speaking.

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