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Appease & entitle

| Thursday, June 9, 2011

WASHINGTON

Because government is inherently dangerous and often mischievous, the Constitution's Framers provided, and congressional rules have multiplied, mechanisms for blocking government action. These mechanisms can, however, also be used to force action. One is being so used in a dispute that has two remarkable facets.

President Obama is sacrificing economic growth and job creation in order to placate organized labor. As the crisis of the welfare state deepens, he is trying to enlarge the entitlement system and exacerbate the entitlement mentality.

Forty-four Republican senators have vowed to block confirmation of John Bryson, the president's nominee to be Commerce secretary, until the president submits for congressional approval the already negotiated free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The 44 are responding to this:

On May 4, the administration announced that it was ready to proceed with congressional ratification of the agreements. On May 16, it announced it would not send them until Congress expands an entitlement program favored by unions.

Since 1974, Trade Adjustment Assistance has provided 104, and then 156 weeks of myriad financial aid to people who can more or less plausibly claim to have lost their jobs or been otherwise injured because of foreign competition. Even if the injury is just the loss of unfair advantages conferred, at the expense of other Americans, by government protectionism. And even if the injury results not from imports but from outsourcing jobs.

TAA benefited 50,000 people at a cost of $500 million in 2002. In 2010, it cost $975 million for 234,000 people. Its purpose is to purchase support for free-trade policies that allow Americans to benefit from foreign goods and services, and from domestic goods and services with lower prices because of competition from imports.

The administration's stimulus included TAA in its policy of increasing spending almost everywhere in the hope the spending could be made permanent. Forty-one Democrat senators are supporting Obama's demand that the stimulus-level TAA spending, which expired in February, be resumed before the trade agreements will be submitted.

But there is this problem with TAA at any level: It is unjust to treat some workers as more entitled than others to protection from the vicissitudes of economic dynamism.

Consider a hypothetical Ralph, who operated Ralph's Diner until an Applebee's and Olive Garden opened in the neighborhood. With economies of scale and national advertising budgets, those two franchises could offer more choices at better prices, so Ralph's Diner went out of business. Should he and his employees be entitled to extra taxpayer subventions because they are casualties of competition• Why should someone be entitled to such welfare just because he is affected negatively by competition that comes from abroad rather than down the street?

Reactionary liberalism holds that existing jobs must be protected with policies that reduce the economic dynamism that would mean a net increase in American jobs. So the dreary probability is that even if the TAA entitlement were re-enriched to stimulus levels, Democrats would again move the goal posts, concocting new objections to the trade agreements.

Most Democrats oppose such agreements but lack the courage to express their controlling conviction, which is: Organized labor, which represents just 6.9 percent of the private-sector work force, must be appeased, even if doing so injures other American workers, or Americans who would be workers if policies such as TAA did not impede economic dynamism.

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