Nunn attacks Perdue for dealing with reality

There was a time when supposedly centrist Democrats didn’t resort to economic know-nothingism. Maybe some of them still do, somewhere outside Georgia.

The word of the week for Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign is “outsourcing.” This follows the discovery of a transcript of a 2005 deposition of her GOP opponent, David Perdue, in an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against a company he once ran.

When asked by a lawyer about his experience with outsourcing, Perdue replied, “I spent most of my career doing that.”

Besides cloying and non-specific paeans to bipartisanship, outrage at this nine-year-old statement is about as close as Nunn’s campaign gets to what George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.”

The Democrat seized obsessively on this line in Tuesday night’s debate at the Georgia National Fairgrounds. Audience members could have been forgiven for thinking Perdue was responsible for the entire 35-year decline in U.S. manufacturing.

Since peaking in 1979, the number of jobs for Americans who make things has fallen by almost 6 million. The failure of Pillowtex, the company about which Perdue was being questioned in 2005, accounted for a fraction of 1 percent of those losses.

The jobs lost at Pillowtex are also outnumbered roughly three-to-one by the jobs Perdue says he created later in his career, at Dollar General. To some degree, that too reflects a national trend: The total number of private jobs in America grew by more than 43 million over the past three-and-a-half decades.

These changes reflect an economic principle known long before globalization became a staple of our lexicon. David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, introduced nearly 200 years ago, explains why so much manufacturing is done outside the U.S. these days. To put it in practical, broadly true terms, we might say this theory means it is mutually advantageous to us and other countries if we design, market and sell products they produce.

Now, right about here you may register a complaint that a job at a discount store isn’t as good as one at a textile manufacturer. Maybe, maybe not; it depends on the job.

You may also pipe up about the need to educate and retrain the workers who would have been making those sheets and towels. No argument there.

But neither case represents a failure by the manufacturer shedding jobs or the retailer adding them. Each did what virtually all businesses did when faced with the same realities.

Nor is this somehow a failure of free trade. When goods made in Place A can be shipped easily to any other Place B on the planet, free-trade agreements merely ensure consumers aren’t penalized for the comparative advantages at play.

It is, however, a failure of policymakers to ignore the things they do that distort the picture, such as making our energy and labor prices higher than they need be.

How we might address that failure, rather than blaming those who dealt with these larger forces as best they could, is a subject actually worth debating.