Is Buying American Racist?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," April 8, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The world against America: coming down hard on U.S. trade policy (search), demanding a bigger share of the American market, our American dollars.

We hear all about U.S. jobs going abroad, cheap foreign labor and a skyrocketing trade deficit. We all know what happened to the U.S. steel industry. Some of us like to buy American and call it patriotism. My next guest says that is racist.

I'm joined by Steven Landsburg, an associate professor of Economics at the University of Rochester. Professor, today's big question: So why is buying American racist?

STEVEN LANDSBURG, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER: I haven't said it's racist. I've said that it's ugly and it's ugly in the same way that racism is ugly.

If you take the rhetoric of politicians like...

GIBSON: Well, let me back up. The headline says, "Why protectionism is a lot like racism."

LANDSBURG: A lot like racism. Yes, it's a lot like racism. That's not exactly the same as being...

GIBSON: You can nuance it, but I get your drift. Why is it a lot like racism?

LANDSBURG: Well, the easiest way to see that it's a lot like racism is take the rhetoric of politicians who have pushed this issue, look at what they're saying about how we have to encourage companies to hire more Americans; we have to save American jobs; we have to buy American.

Replace the word "American" with "white" throughout that and you will not be able to tell any difference between that rhetoric and the rhetoric that we have from David Duke.

GIBSON: Yes, but we're looking at these pictures right now of a factory in Detroit. It's not white. They're black, they're Hispanic, they're white, they come from white...

LANDSBURG: Absolutely. And we are being asked to care more about those people because they happen to have been born in Detroit than other people because they happen to have been born in Juarez or Tokyo or wherever.

GIBSON: That's what nationalism is.

LANDSBURG: That's not a whole lot different from being asked to care more about people because they're white than because they're black. I don't see...

GIBSON: Well, no, but professor, you don't have to get elected to anything. Can you imagine a politician going out to the American public and saying, "You don't have a right to a job. That guy in Thailand has a right to your job, same as you have a right to it here. And in fact, we have an obligation to let him have that job, not you. And if we didn't, we'd be racist."

LANDSBURG: There was a time in the South in the United States when a politician could not have gone out and said — in many places in the South — "Blacks have the same right to work as whites do."

But the fact that that would have been difficult for a politician, I think, should not have prevented us from standing up for what is right.

GIBSON: All right.

Professor, look at this. Here's one of the things you said. "Both major parties are infested with protectionists who would discriminate on the basis of national origin no less virulently than David Duke," the noted Klansman, "or any other overt racist would discriminate on the basis of skin color."

Now, it seems to me you're being inflammatory to the extreme. It's hard to imagine any American saying, "Well, obviously they go into Wal-Mart every week and buy something cheap that they got from China. And they're obviously not married to the idea of buying American."

But once you say to them, "Well you shouldn't buy American, you should buy from somebody else because you owe it to them." I think they're going to say they lose you there, professor.

LANDSBURG: And, again, every argument that you make I think you find if you go through the exercise of replacing "American" with "white" and "foreigner" with "black" you're going to be shocked at how much you sound like a lot of politicians that you would not want to be associated with.

GIBSON: Well, fine. But that's what we're saying. I'm not saying "white". Look at this one: "I hold this truth..."

LANDSBURG: What's different?

GIBSON: Well, I can tell you there's a big difference.

"I hold this truth to be self-evident: it is just plan ugly to care more about total strangers in Detroit than total strangers in Juarez."

I hope you don't have to go to Detroit anytime soon.

LANDSBURG: Do you agree that it's just plain ugly to care about people…

GIBSON: No, I don't think it's ugly at all. Of course I care more about people in Detroit than I do people in Juarez.

LANDSBURG: ... who are white more than total strangers who are black? Do you care more about people who are white than about people who are black?


LANDSBURG: What's the difference?

GIBSON: Well, professor, they're my fellow Americans. I care about people in Juarez, they're nice Mexicans. But, my fellow Americans come first.

LANDSBURG: In one case they're people who share your nationality. In the other case, they're people who share your race. Why is one a legitimate difference to discriminate and the other not?

GIBSON: Well because it's not race! And professor, it's a bad example. There's a lot of black people in Detroit and I'm all for those black people in Detroit.

LANDSBURG: What's different about race? What's special about race?

What is special about race that makes it bad to discriminate on the basis of race, but not bad to discriminate on the basis of nationality? What's the difference?

GIBSON: "Stealing assets is wrong," you write, "and so is stealing the right to earn a living."

LANDSBURG: You don't want to answer it.

GIBSON: I don't think it deserves an answer.

"And so is stealing the right to earn a living, no matter where the victim was born."

Professor, I think what you're doing here is establishing a justification for moving jobs offshore in some sort of fear that the American public may rise up and demand they come back. And it's almost like the horse is out of the barn, the jobs are already gone. Why even bother making this argument?

LANDSBURG: Well, two issues are being conflated here. There is first the issue of whether we can, in fact, make ourselves more prosperous through protectionism. And the other is whether protectionism would be ugly even if it could make us more prosperous.

The answer to both questions is that protectionism can't make us more prosperous. Those jobs that are going abroad are allowing us to buy goods a lot cheaper. And it is true, that's disrupting the lives of some Americans, but on balance, it's making Americans wealthier.

I think the easiest way to see that is imagine if all these people abroad instead of working cheap, worked for free. What if they were sending us free cars, free clothes? It's very difficult to argue that that would make us better off. If they're sending us cheap cars and cheap clothes, that's not quite as good as sending free ones, but it's still pretty good.

So, that's one set of arguments.

The arguments that you're talking about here are a completely separate set of arguments, but I think the earlier point deserves to be made, too. And that is that even if it were the case that letting these people have jobs and letting these people trade were bad for us, it's not. But even if it were bad for us, it would still not be right to deprive people of their basic human rights to choose their trading partners.

GIBSON: Steven Landsburg, associate professor of Economics at the University of Rochester. Professor Landsburg, I guess I'm going to get some e-mail. We may have you back. We may have more questions answered. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, Mike Norman, founder of Economic Contrarian Update. And Mike, by the way, you can catch on "Bulls & Bears" during our special Sunday edition of our Business Block Sunday morning starting at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. "Bulls & Bears" — Mike's on there.

So, I know you are also not in favor of protectionism. Do you subscribe to these arguments?

MIKE NORMAN, FOUNDER, ECONOMIC CONTRARIAN UPDATE: No, absolutely not. These are the most extreme and convoluted and, frankly, bizarre arguments that I've ever heard. To try to equate, "Let's protect American jobs with racism," is absolutely ludicrous.

Look, we don't hear the professor criticizing the Chinese and the Japanese and the Taiwanese and the rest of the Asian countries...

GIBSON: For taking our jobs?

NORMAN: Right.

... for having barriers in order so that they're protecting their workers over there. Why isn't that racist on their part? We don't hear that argument coming from the professor.

Look, I happen to think we get the better end of the deal, and a lot of the jobs in America have disappeared because of technology, not just outsourcing overseas. But to try to claim that this is racism on our part — and you know what else, John?

The irony is that if we did put up protectionist policies to protect U.S. jobs, over time, the economies would kind of, rebalance, our trade deficit would shrink, and guess what, those other countries, they'd to have to stimulate their economies domestically. And it would be to the benefit of those workers, as well.

They're impoverished compared to us. And it's precisely because they protect.

GIBSON: OK. But Mike, you're on his side in terms of...

NORMAN: Only in terms of — I'm not saying it's racism! That's ridiculous!

GIBSON: Here's my problem: since you're on his side on the issue of protectionism, why do you find his arguments so uncomfortable?

NORMAN: Because I think he's going with some kind of a moral argument. This is not an economic argument. And he's taking it totally out of context. And it's inflammatory, as you said.

I think it's taking it to an extreme, which is unjustifiable from an economic standpoint. And that's why I'm uncomfortable with it.

I don't equate it to racism.

GIBSON: But you aren't a protectionist, so therefore, you're not a racist.

NORMAN: Look, I'm not a racist.

GIBSON: It's always good to be able to say on national TV, "I'm not a racist."

Mike Norman, thanks. Mike is not a racist.

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