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The Retired Investor: Why Protectionism Is a Close Cousin to Populism

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The number one issue on voter's minds in this election year is immigration. That may come as a surprise to some, but it makes a lot of sense if one believes that we have entered a period of populism.
Sixty-two percent of registered voters nationwide support a program to "deport all undocumented immigrants," according to a CBS News poll over the weekend. On June 3, 2024, President Biden signed an executive order that would ban migrants who cross the southern border illegally from claiming asylum to defuse this election issue. Faith-based charities, like Catholic Charities, which have a long history of providing shelter, food, and clothing to migrant families are targeted by anti-immigration activists. What has all this immigration anger have to do with American populism?
By now readers should be aware (if you have been reading my last three columns) that over the last 40 years middle- and lower-income Americans have seen their livelihoods dwindle because of government policies that favored a top-down approach to economic growth and fiscal spending. The flow of money from both the Federal Reserve Bank and the trillions of dollars in government spending has largely found its way overseas in a variety of forms. "Go forth and conquer the world" was the mantra our nation's leaders espoused pointing to the benefits of international free trade.
Every effort was made to encourage, expand, and at times, protect our overseas markets. Think of government contractors across a wide spectrum of U.S. industries importing goods and services from cheap overseas companies or their foreign subsidiaries. I have already written about the long-term trend by U.S. corporations to invest in plants and equipment in various countries.
U.S. companies have routinely imported basic materials from around the world to build our outdated infrastructure and still do. We must also add in the trillions of dollars in U.S. funding of dozens of foreign governments, while also supporting our troops in various conflicts abroad over the last couple of decades.
Here at home, as good-paying jobs disappeared, many younger Americans found that even their high-priced college educations might only qualify them for a minimum-wage job at a fast-food restaurant. Unlike in past generations, where only one spouse needed to work, now two were necessary, and even then it was not always enough to put bread on the table. Many jobs don't even cover child-care expenses.
Back in the day, they called America "the Sleeping Giant." Given the trends, it was only a matter of time before a large portion of the country woke up and asked the obvious question.
 "What about me?"
It is not the first time in our history we have asked that question. There have been many populist periods where economic or political dissatisfaction has translated into protests of immigrants and foreign influences in the form of protectionism. Protectionism is a policy of restricting imports from other countries through tariffs on imported goods, and quotas. and a variety of other government regulations that restrict the free flow of goods and services between countries.
Back in the 1930s, for example, during the Great Depression, as millions of workers lost their jobs, and populism surfaced, higher trade barriers were put in place. Those tariffs not only exacerbated the severity of the downturn but also worked to choke off any recovery.
This latest period of populism/protectionism found its voice through the ideas of MAGA. The Trump administration built walls along the Mexican border, levied tariffs on China and other countries, threatened to pull out of NATO, and provided a steady stream of anti-foreign rhetoric that was music to the ears of many Americans.
But like the 1930s, none of these policies worked. It only led to dislocation, losses for American farmers and other workers, and higher prices for consumers. Nonetheless, many Americans not only applauded these efforts but also supported even higher tariffs and more restrictions and deportations of immigrants.
The connection between protectionism and immigration is straightforward. Barriers to admitting immigrants are simply a tariff on another type of imported good and service that is entering the country — labor, both legal and illegal. The difference is that, unlike a tariff on Chinese semiconductors, an immigrant is someone who can be identified as such and is far easier to vilify. Immigrants become the embodiment of all that is wrong with globalization.
Making matters worse, thanks to COVID-19 and the failed economic policies and shortcomings of some governments, the refugees' rush to flee to the freedom and economic promise of the U.S. became irresistible. As such, we are assaulted through the news media with the spectacle of huge waves of immigrants at our borders, climbing fences, wading rivers, and dying in deserts. Unfortunately, they are also a visual reminder to all those generational Americans who have been left out of that economic promise, who see them only as a danger to our society and to job security.
Only now, thanks to the match lit by Donald Trump's oratory over the past several years, have politicians and corporations, begun to realize that the 40-year top-down, globalization trends that benefited a small segment of society have run into a brick wall of anger, resentment, and demand for change — or else.
Those who read my two-part column on immigration in March "Immigrants are getting a bad rap on the economic front," understand that immigrants have contributed far more than they have taken from the U.S. economy in recent years. In fact, throughout our history that has proven to be true.
But facts have never carried much weight in a season of discontent. As many who have tried reason in the face of conspiracy theories know, spouting facts in the face of this populist sentiment is a useless endeavor. 
The U.S. is not alone in using immigration as the favored whipping boy in an era of populism. In European elections last week, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy saw large advances by political parties that oppose immigration. The trend toward protectionism and de-globalization is gathering steam in Asia and Latin America as well.  Next week, I will examine similar times in our past when populism flourished. How long these regime changes normally last, what lessons we have learned, and why the coming crisis period we will encounter could usher in a change for the better over time.    

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.



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