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Why I am alarmed by Trump

Ed Lotterman: Real World Economics
Ed Lotterman: Real World Economics

The election of Donald Trump as president could undermine the traditions and values that have ensured our peace and prosperity through the years. I know others feel differently based on their beliefs, backgrounds and values. I come to my view based on my career as a military man and as an international economist.

Yes, I have deep faith in our country and our people. Yes, U.S. democratic institutions are, as I argued a few weeks ago, broad-based and deeply rooted. Yes, this country can survive a lot. Yes, our nation’s economy is resilient and multifaceted. But I am very worried, and I think it necessary to explain why the prospect of a Trump administration causes me such concern.

I admire and yet am frustrated by the work of Milton Friedman. The Nobel laureate had some of the deepest insights of any 20th century economist. And he could also be remarkably obtuse about human behavior. Friedman strongly argued that economists were scientists who should be able to separate how they did economic scholarship from their personal experiences and values. That struck me as bunk decades ago and still does. It isn’t true for me and I don’t think it true for any other economist at any time — including Friedman.

If one’s experiences and values affect how one frames economic questions, then perhaps I should be explicit about where I, myself, am coming from.

I myself have never claimed to be “fair and balanced.” But, over 17 years now, I have written from the belief that there are multiple sides to all public policy issues and that both the political left and right have blind spots and make mistakes. My goal in this column has been to improve the level of public debate about issues rather than win people to my point of view. Here is why he bothers me.

I enlisted in the army two weeks after my 17th birthday and, in one way or another, served as a soldier for the next 35 years. At 18, I was sorting mail at Army Post Office 09676, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a heady time to be in that country, at the height of a repressive military government but also in a historic economic breakthrough and a cultural explosion. I fell in love with another country, another culture, and still am in love 48 years later.

In the reserve phase of my military career, I was commissioned and returned to the infantry where I had started. My units that trained with other NATO soldiers from Norway, Denmark and Germany.

Politically liberal friends laughed at me as a “Scoop Jackson Democrat” and said I had been brainwashed as an adolescent by reading John Noble’s memoirs of life in Stalin’s gulag, or Solzhenitzin’s “Ivan Denisovich” or Thomas Dooley’s little books about his medical work in Vietnam and Laos. But while I understood that Western democracies had many faults, they were morally and economically superior to Soviet totalitarianism, and it was important for democracies to work jointly for security and prosperity.

I had been a history major before moving to economics in grad school, and the importance of trade was clear to me well before I knew how Adam Smith or David Ricardo had laid out a theory of why.

I was working on an agricultural development project in Peru just as that beautiful and tragic nation emerged from 12 years of nationalistic military dictatorship only to slip into the horrors of the Sendero Luminoso insurgency. Some of my students lived in palaces; others clung to the outside of buses to make their way from the squatter settlements where they lived to classes on a squalid public university campus.

In Brazil, where I had gone back for a semester in 1972, and in Peru in 1980-1982, I watched as bad monetary policy stoked inflation that ended in economic crisis. And as a regional economist at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve for seven years, I observed the unintended and unacknowledged genius in the institutions of monetary policy in our own country.

All the while, I have taught economics, usually part time, but sometimes full time. Of the 4,300 or so students I have had over the last 35 years, perhaps 150 or so were Muslim. So was my good Indonesian friend in grad school and my Moroccan neighbor in university housing. So was the colleague who headed the econ department at Hamline University in St. Paul before returning to her native Bangladesh. So was the Iranian colleague at St. Kate’s whose students so cherished her. So were many more smart people I worked with.

All of my experience over decades convinces me that economic and diplomatic isolation is harmful, that the benefits of trade and commerce generally outweigh the harms, and that no culture is evil. Totalitarian regimes are bad. Demagogic populism often leads people into great self-harm. Economic autocracy, or absolute self-rule, is a dangerous pipe dream.

Others with military backgrounds cheered Hillary Clinton’s loss. I know that while virtually all economists disagree with Trump’s rhetoric, some may have chosen him as the lesser of two evils. I know how I myself think both candidates had deep character flaws and that neither was particularly strong on economics.

The bottom line is that I recoil at someone who says he would toss aside the collective security of relationships that we as a country worked to develop over 70 years and the international trade regime that we developed from lessons we learned from the Great Depression. Having experienced how we got close to fiscal sustainability in the late 1990s, only to throw it all away 2001-03, I detest promises to enact “the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan.”

I was raised a Calvinist, not a Lutheran. But readers will understand why Martin Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do nothing else” aptly describes where I am today.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at