Shadow Government

SOTU: Much mercantilism

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama jumped from issue to issue. At times, in all this leaping, he found himself on the opposite side of a stance he had taken minutes before.

Early on, he claimed success on his bailout of the auto industry (continuing a policy launched by Pres. Bush) and claimed it was a model that could be replicated:

"On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen...We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh."

Then, minutes later:

"It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."

One of the most striking themes of a generally hodgepodge speech was strong skepticism about trade. The president fully embraced the "lump of labor" fallacy, in which one imagines a fixed number of jobs in the world that are simply slung back and forth across oceans.

"Let's remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores…we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed."

The strong implication is that the rest of the world has been booming, enjoying all those factory jobs they swiped from us. It's difficult to find that in the data. But the president promised to chase down foreign wrongdoers with a new Trade Enforcement Unit.

He claimed previous efforts at trade enforcement, such as his tariffs on Chinese tire imports, had saved American jobs (1,000, in that case). This is interesting on several counts. First, he made the claim in the context of saying that "I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules." Yet the Chinese tire tariffs case never even alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Chinese. They were just selling at low prices.

Second, other observers have generally found no evidence those tariffs did anything to help American workers. The U.S. China Business Council, in a study, concluded:

"U.S. imports of the low-end tires involved in the case have actually increased substantially since the tariffs were imposed -- but have shifted from China to other countries. And, there is no objective evidence that the tariff boosted U.S. tire manufacturing jobs."

A Wall Street Journal report last week reached a similar conclusion. In order to be fair, the Journal offered the administration the chance to rebut, but reported: "Spokespeople at the ITC, the Commerce Department, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative say they have no comprehensive analysis yet of the broad effect that the tariff has had." That was last week. So how did the President determine that 1,000 jobs were saved?

The third point on this illuminating case is that -- even if his numbers were right -- the president thinks it would be a successful policy to charge tens of millions of Americans more for their tires if it protected 1,000 jobs. That's a fairly stark statement in favor of protectionism.

So much for what the president did say. What about the things he did not say? He made no mention of his vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership. Recall that two months ago, in Hawaii, this was a pillar of his administration's turn back to Asia. It is a highly ambitious undertaking and would require a huge administration effort, in close collaboration with Congress, if it were to conclude this year. The State of the Union is traditionally where an administration sets out its priorities for the year ahead. Yet not a mention.

Nor did the president say anything about the economic crisis in Europe. One hears that the White House considers it the biggest threat looming over a nascent U.S. recovery. If the president were truly trying to describe the State of the Union, Europe's predicament would seem to deserve some serious mention.

But it would fit awkwardly in a campaign speech and was thus, presumably, omitted. The topic, after all, seems to highlight the potential dangers of excessive borrowing, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels demonstrated in his response:

"In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe. But ours is a fortunate land. Because the world uses our dollar for trade, we have a short grace period to deal with our dangers. But time is running out, if we are to avoid the fate of Europe, and those once-great nations of history that fell from the position of world leadership."

That's certainly not an image the president wanted to invoke, as he moved on to a grab bag of new spending proposals and as his administration delays the release of his budget.

Thus, the state of our union: we're in campaign mode.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Maybe it is not so bleak on the academy-policy gap front

A favorite topic for FP bloggers is the so-called gap between practicing academics and practicing policymakers. I have weighed in, but see also contributions from Dan Drezner (here or here and Steve Walt).

It is an important topic (at least to "yakademics" like me -- I don't sense it has quite the burning appeal for my non-academic Shadow Government teammates) and well worth the focused attention it has received. There are several excellent programs designed to help bridge it, including one run by Eliot Cohen and Tom Keaney at SAIS, another by my Duke colleague Bruce Jentleson and Berkeley's Steve Weber and American U's Jim Goldgeier, and a third by Dick Betts at Columbia. There is probably room for more such efforts.

But at the risk of undercutting the urgent language used in grant applications, I think it is only fair to point out that the situation may not be irredeemably bleak. I just had the pleasure of reading through the most recent issue of International Security, the top academic journal in the field of security studies and one of the highest-impact journals in the entire discipline of political science. I was struck by how policy relevant the issue was, without sacrificing in any way academic rigor. Mind you, the articles were too long and perhaps on the academic side to make the reading list of, say, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. But policymakers would benefit from understanding the arguments contained therein and foreign policy specialists inside the administration would benefit from digging into some of the articles more closely. 

Consider the menu:

  • An article by Nuno Monteiro theorizing the conditions under which unipolarity conduces to peace or conflict. This is grand system theorizing in a form that is particularly "academic." I am not entirely persuaded by his argument, but I can easily see how speechwriters and strategists would benefit from understanding the framework. [Note to entering Ph.D. students seeking dissertation topics: this article also reflects the turning of the wheel of academic fashion as the field cycles through different levels of analysis. In the early 1980s, system-level work like neorealism and neoliberalism were hot; in the 1990's state-level work like democratic peace theory was hot; in the early 2000's transnational-level work on ethnic conflict and terrorism was hot; right now individual-level work on leaders is hot; it is about time for the system-level work like this about power transitions and polarity to have another run.]
  • An article by Michael Beckley rebutting the claims of declinists that a rising China is eclipsing the United States. Again, one can imagine ongoing academic (and policy) debate, but the work speaks directly to a topic of urgent policy priority.
  • An article by Ole Magnus Theisen, Helge Holtermann, and Halvard Buhaug presenting a sophisticated empirical test of the link between droughts and conflict and showing that, contra the repeated claims of policymakers, the systematic evidence of a link is missing. This is exactly the sort of policy relevant enterprise that academics are ideally suited to perform.
  • An article by David Elbladh tracing the influence of a Depression era historian on the formation of the security studies field. Ironically, in some ways, this is the article that is the least "useful" to policymakers, even though it is the one most directly focused on the gap question itself. It is, however, helpful to academics interested in closing the gap and so I still count it as supporting my thesis.
  • An article by David Kang reviewing three recent books on North Korean politics and economics. Given the long lead times of academic publishing, this is a serendipitous masterstroke. The sudden death of Kim Jong-Il has plunged North Korea into a regime crisis and the U.S. national security community is doing an urgent deep dive into the black box of North Korean politics. They couldn't do better than reading this detailed and insightful book review (and, as needed, the underlying academic books themselves).
  • An exchange of letters between Michael McKoy and David Lake about bargaining theory and the origins of the Iraq war. Most policymakers might give this a miss, but that would be a shame. McKoy's brief account of the bargaining dilemmas leading up to the Iraq war is one of the fairest and truest summaries of the dynamic that I have read. Academics have really struggled to explain the Iraq war and have all-too-often settled for distorted caricatures. This brief exchange rises well above that.
  • At the very end of the issue is an exchange of letters between me and two critics, Betts and Mike Desch, concerning my earlier article about civil-military relations and the surge. I will let readers decide who gets the better of the exchange, but regardless it, too, bridges the policy-academy gap.

Finally, note an interesting fact: the issue predominantly features the work of junior scholars, in some cases scholars not yet holding a tenure track position. (Interestingly, one of the IS authors has made his own useful contribution to the debate about the gap.) Perhaps the emerging generation has not gotten the word about the gap crisis. Or perhaps they are already well on their way to fixing it.