Wednesday, 20 April 2016

From de Valera to Trump

            So many of Donald Trump’s aspirations for the US are un-American it’s hard to know where to begin. The reintroduction of torture, the banning of Muslims from entry into the country, the erection of the Great Wall of Mexico spring immediately to mind; yet each is so unconstitutional or impractical as to be unlikely.

            However, a trade war with China or Mexico could be distinctly on the cards should Mr. Trump be elected. We Irish learned all too well the consequences of trade disputes.

            In 1932 the Fianna Fail party came into government in the Irish Free State. Whereupon, its leader, Eamon de Valera refused to pay land annuities to the British Government for loans that had been granted to Irish tenant farmers in the 19th Century.  
This did not sit well with Whitehall and a trade war broke out that did serious damage to the Irish economy.

            Both my grandfathers – although from opposite ends of the political spectrum – opposed this war, though for different reasons.

            Even 30 years later one could not mention Mr. de Valera in my Fine Gael grandfather’s house as it could have driven this reserved cattle dealer to apoplexy; for in retaliation the British government put a tariff on the importation of Irish beef that wreaked havoc with his business.

            My maternal grandfather already had little time for “Dev” because of his internment of former Republican comrades. The fact that the Irish stopped buying his headstones during the economic collapse only added salt to his wounds.

            Both grandfathers, however, weathered the storm and lived relatively affluent lives. Not so the many who were forced to emigrate because of the lack of employment opportunities.

            Eventually the land annuities issue was settled but Mr. de Valera continued to maintain his economic wall around Ireland. He did so for the best of motives: many Irish industries were inefficient and could not compete with their British counterparts.

            And so Ireland struggled along, hemorrhaging its citizenry as hundreds of thousands emigrated until 1959 when Dev was kicked upstairs and his protégé, Sean Lemass, finally threw open the economic and sanctimonious curtain that had long suffocated the country.

            Free trade is hardly the answer to all US economic problems. Jobs are inevitably lost – often the best paying; unfortunately this is a cyclical reaction that began in the 1970’s and the US will not become a major manufacturing power again until wages rise appreciably in China, Mexico, and the Asian rim countries.

            But if Apple and the other corporate titans, whose products are manufactured overseas, were obligated to pay US taxes on their foreign profits then this lost revenue could help retrain US workers and rebuild a crumbling infrastructure that would in turn lead to more jobs.

            Still, the last thing we need right now is a trade war. Much as we might quibble about the prevalence of Chinese imports, we would be truly outraged were we forced to pay 20 to 30% more for them.

            Blowing off Trumpian steam is one thing but imagine what a trade war would do to our already jittery financial markets. The average American’s retirement savings are invested in stocks that are already trading up and down like well-oiled yo-yos. 

            Mr. Trump’s working class supporters should think twice before voting for this uber-wealthy man. His celebrity brand will continue to flourish no matter what bombastic miscalculations he makes; his deluded supporters, however, will be left to pick up the pieces. 

            Instead of venting their anger on Muslims and Mexicans they should urge their leader to demand a fair tax on financial transactions and a livable national minimum wage.

            These innovations would bring meaningful change to their lives but are hardly likely to resonate with Mr. Trump for they would impact on his profits and lack the sound bite appeal of erecting imaginary walls.

            Both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders are correct. The US is in need of change and hopefully a substantive debate will take place in the run up to November’s elections.

            We’re more likely to get a screaming match. But we, as citizens, have a right to demand a real debate of ideas and practicalities.  A trade war with any other country is the last thing we deserve.

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