A personal reflection on the hazards of nationalist approaches to economic policy discourse
On June 23, 1982, Vincent Chin (no relation) died from injuries suffered after he was beaten outside the bar where his bachelor party was taking place, in Highland Park, Michigan, by Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens, with the help of his stepson, Michael Nitz. Ebens’ quote: “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” referring to the impact of Japanese imports on Michigan employment (Chin was a U.S. citizen of Chinese extraction). After a plea bargain, neither served any jail time, and were given three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. The judge said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
I must confess to have been somewhat naïve when, in college, I heard these events transpire. I had grown up in the multicultural Pacific Northwest. I had thought that my fellow citizens shared the view that we were all Americans, regardless of ethnic origin. That is why, when I hear the call “We want our country back”, I share that hope, but I suspect my interpretation differs from those who make those calls most frequently.
How does this relate to economics? Once again import competition is high. Several months ago, Republican Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra, running against Senator Stabenow, paid for a TV ad that featured an asian, speaking in pidgin English :
“Debbie spend so much American money, you borrow more and more from us,” says a young Asian woman riding her bike through rice paddies at the beginning of the 30-second ad. “You’re economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend It Now.’”
Certain individuals are now proposing that we pursue much more aggressive policy measures aimed against China. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to label China a currency manipulator   Sherrod Brown has also argued for more aggressive action.  These policy measures might or might not be justified (considering the Chinese current account balance shrinks rapidly toward zero ), but I worry about intensifying attempts to place primary blame on foreign economic entities for U.S. economic woes, as a means of whipping up populist support, a la Hoekstra. (I expect, relatedly, more “concerns” about whether individuals are truly American “in their heart”. )
I would be (slightly) less concerned about the nativist component of these moves if there was a commensurate Germany-bashing campaign. After all, Germany is running a substantial trade surplus, and by way of supporting an essentially contractionary eurozone wide fiscal policy, is weakening the euro. It might be that there are too many steps for some observers to make. Or it might be something else; I leave others to speculate.
In any case, my hope is that in the runup to the elections policymakers will refrain from imflammatory remarks that would complicate the coordination of international economic policies and unnecessarily incite domestic passions.