Bernie Sanders' Protectionism & Nativist Economics is Neither New Nor Smart

The Vermont socialist running for Democratic presidential nomination once launched war on Chinese bobbleheads.


Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent-socialist Vermont senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a message for all youse fat cats out there:

Sanders has a nativist streak that extends to both economics and immigration policy.

Recall, for instance, that he tut-tutted about "open borders" as a "right-wing" plot hatched by the Koch brothers "that would make everybody in America poorer." (It's not a small point, but he's wrong about the effects of larger levels of immigration on Americans' standards of living.)

And when it comes to straight-up economic policy, Sanders is the sort of guy who can't say no. The Wall Street Journal just touted up his campaign proposals and found they would add $18 trillion in new spending over the next decade if implemented.

At the same time, his you-better-build-it-here-or-else Twitter threats are nothing new. Back in 2011, Sanders declared war on Chinese bobbleheads that were being sold at Smithsonian Institution museum gift shops in Washington, D.C. (Off topic but worth tossing out there: Why don't protectionists ever insist that Americans can only use American ideas and policies? It's weird that the one thing that right-wing and left-wing protectionists will always allow into the country of their minds is ideas that got from somewhere else.)

"In the gift shops," Sanders said, "we should not be selling statues of the founding fathers of this country that were made in China." At the time, the Smithsonian was selling items both made in America and in China. The foreign items cost almost half as much, partly because they were labor costs were lower and the quality more iffy. But thanks to Sanders' intervention and economic jingoism, the Smithsonian agreed to sell more American stuff. At higher prices, naturally. Who exactly is that good for? The customers who buy less stuff? The domestic manufacturers who move less merchandise? The shop staff whose hours are cut due to slumping sales?

But that's egghead-talk. "A museum owned by the people—a museum which talks about our own history—cannot even have products manufactured in the United States by our own workers?" said an exasperated Sanders. "We've got some very serious, serious problems."

Yeah, no. As Sallie James, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute explained, there's absolutely no reason to bemoan the loss of jobs in the on-the-grow souvenir thimble and bobblehead sectors.

"Why is it embarrassing that we no longer manufacture trinkets here?" James countered. "We still manufacture plenty of stuff in America. It's just not the stuff you see on the gift-shop shelves."

If and when Sanders wins the Democratic nomination and then the White House itself, expect to see him pushing for all sorts of closed-border actions. He's on the record denouncing China for selling us things at low, low prices and he hates trades deals such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (this last, by the way, is an attempt by a dozen countries to create a countervaling force to China's economy, the largest on the planet).

I'm willing to grant that when it comes to war and many social issues, Sanders is as close to libertarian positions as anyone currently running. He's against elective wars and is pro-marriage equality. When it comes to the drug war, he's not the pot-legalizing hippie Hillary Clinton and most Republicans assume him to be, but he's serious about loosening the leash on pot and emptying the prisons of non-violent offenders.

Good for him on all that.

But when it comes to basic economics, Sanders is totally out to lunch, which I assume he also believes should be free.

Indeed, his understanding of how markets work doesn't even rise to the level of off-base zero-sum economics. Not long ago, he went on an inspired rant built on the idea that consumer choice somehow meant that children must go starving: "You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country." This is not the type of guy you want helping to make rules for a country whose economy is not only complex but already burdened with a never-ending series of large and small regulations while battling increased competition from around the world.

Exit question: Would a President Sanders demand that the National Zoo's pandas be returned to China so that two American bears can get those jobs?

Watch "Bernie Sanders' War on Chinese Bobbleheads!," which was produced by Josh Swain and Michael Moynihan for Reason.tv back in 2011: