Friday, December 02, 2016

The more things change, the more they stay the same

by Leigh Pomeroy
Dec 1, 2016

It is now several weeks following the unexpected result of the presidential election. Both those who celebrated and those who decried its outcome have mostly settled back into their normal lives and the annual challenge of the not-as-long-drawn-out-as-the-campaign Christmas shopping season.

Few predicted Mr. Trump’s victory, including the once infallible number-cruncher Nate Silver and his vaunted website, FiveThirtyEight. Yet one young tour manager in Italy did. Let me explain.

My wife and I took a nine-day tour to Tuscany just before the election. It was blessed by fine weather, and we hit all the highlights of the nearby areas, including Florence, Siena and Pisa as well as the less well known sights of Cinque Terre, Lucca and San Gimignano. Despite being fall, it was still tourist high season, and we were surprised not only at the crowds but at the large number of Chinese among them. This shows you how the world is changing.

While Italy was essentially a U.S. campaign-free zone, I was still curious as to how the Italians were viewing the circus going on in this country. Towards the end of our stay, I finally got up the courage to ask our young tour manager, Alice (pronounced “A-li’-chay”), what she thought.

“You are about to make a big mistake,” she warned. “You are about to elect another Berlusconi. Don’t elect a businessman.” She was referring to the former playboy businessman Silvio Berlusconi, who served three terms as Italian prime minister between 1994 and 2011, when he resigned from office due to poor performance of the economy and amidst charges of corruption, conflicts of interest and sexual improprieties. In 2012 he was convicted of tax evasion.

I was struck by Alice’s comment in two ways. First, at the time Hillary Clinton was leading comfortably in nearly all the polls and appeared to have the election well in hand. Second, that Alice compared Mr. Trump to Mr. Berlusconi so readily, but then I guess that’s how anyone might view an election in another country — that is, comparing it to the circumstances one knows.

Of course, Alice turned out to be presciently correct, at least on the election part. We’ll see as to the other.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump the president-elect is evolving to be somewhat different than Mr. Trump the candidate. The boisterous, populist bellicosity has mostly been toned down, and he seems to be backing off from some of his more extreme policy stances.

Though I did not vote for him, I agree with him on several issues, like not privatizing Social Security and Medicare and looking harder at international trade agreements before accepting them lock, stock and barrel.

One of the great ironies of Mr. Trump’s “build the wall” position is that, by pushing for and signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mrs. Clinton’s husband exacerbated the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico. That’s because NAFTA encouraged the export of cheap grain, particularly corn, to Mexico, thus forcing small Mexican farmers off land that was no longer profitable into the cities looking for work. When there was none to be had, they then looked north to the United States for economic opportunity.

At one time the border between the U.S. and Mexico was more porous. Mexican workers could come across and return home fairly easily, resulting in a freer-flow of labor. But because of NAFTA more Mexicans were coming and staying. As a result, the U.S. tightened its border policies to clamp down on illegal immigration. Yet this only made matters worse as once in the U.S. no one wanted to return home to Mexico then attempt to come back again.

Unlike the European Union, which encourages the free-flow of both goods and labor, NAFTA promoted only the free-flow of goods. The consequence is that NAFTA benefitted large agricultural producers and manufacturers in the U.S., but it hurt laborers in both countries, just as many of its critics had warned.

So to a certain extent NAFTA led to Mr. Trump’s election. That said, a wall is not a practical solution from a humane, environmental and economic point of view. A more practical solution is to pursue another of Mr. Trump’s proposed policies: Renegotiate NAFTA.

I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day, so I’m thinking about what I should be thankful for: First, that the godawful campaign is over. Second, that money didn’t win the election, as Mrs. Clinton outspent Mr. Trump by about two-to-one. And third, that it appears we will have yet another peaceful transition of power on Jan. 20 for the 44th consecutive time, if my counting is correct.

Also published in the Mankato Free Press here.

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