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Brux column: Economic scapegoating in the age of populism

This opinion column will address the economics of current policy issues. Writer Dr. Jackie Brux is an emeritus professor of economics and founder/director of the Center for International Development at UW-River Falls; and author of the college textbook, “Economic Issues and Policy.”

We've seen very kind and compassionate letters to this paper, along with biased and intolerant ones. We're talking here of the topic of immigration, though there are multiple related issues. I had hoped that a previous column put to rest the false argument that immigration is bad for U.S. jobs and the economy. I guess I was wrong — it hasn't.

The problem of economic scapegoating is stronger than ever, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Since the beginning of time, ruling parties have used a "divide and conquer" strategy that seeks the approval of disadvantaged populations by finding scapegoats on which to place the blame. And, they gain this approval by promising to fix the problem "caused by" these scapegoats. For example, a disadvantaged population in the U.S. struggles with unemployment, poor education and poverty. This population cheers to its president who promises to cut regulations, bring back coal, stop immigration, pull out of global treaties, enact trade restrictions, and promote populist policies they believe will help them, even though they will not. They are moved by leaders who claim to represent them against the scapegoats, which tend to be racial and ethnic minorities, people of different cultures or religions, foreign people, and foreign governments. They respond to someone who tells them that he has their backs, and he will fend off the "danger" that any of these other entities pose. And, it is logical that some people in this disadvantaged group will come to fear and oppose the scapegoats who are assumed to pose the threat. For a few, these attitudes can manifest in racism, bigotry, and even white supremacy; as well as attitudes that are anti-European or anti-Canada or Mexico, or anti-any foreign country that is perceived to pose a threat — and of course, any immigrant.

In Europe, much of the blame is placed on the surge of refugees fleeing violence in war-torn countries. In Italy, this month's election created Europe's first full-fledged populist government, with the new phrase, "Italians come first, then the rest of the world." Does this sound familiar?

The Czech Republic's new Prime Minister was elected on his pledge to fight Muslim immigration. He is called the "Czech Donald Trump." Protesters in Germany proclaim, "No

Islam in Germany." Similar movements take place in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and others. The Denmark and Sweden Nordic Resistance movement wants to protect its "white heritage" and "not allow in scum." I ask again, does any of this sound familiar? Does our president not refer to immigrants as animals, criminals, rapists, and murderers?

Tens of thousands of white supremacists in Poland recently rallied against "the dilution [of their] pure, white race." They charged, "pure Poland, white Poland." U.S. white supremacist Richard Spencer cheered on the rally. You remember Richard Spencer, of 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist fame: "As white people we'll take a stand. The South will rise again." When Trump was elected, Spencer bellowed, "Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!" as his supporters gave Nazi-style salutes. Of Charlottesville, Trump announced there were very fine people on both sides: the white supremacists and their protesters.

The existential problem, however, is that the disadvantaged group of Americans, including the poor and unemployed white people who comprise part of Trump's base, have been neglected under previous presidents of both major political parties. Policies of the past that have advanced our economy have not guaranteed that the benefits of our prosperity trickle down to all groups.

These include the structurally unemployed who, despite the benefits to our economy from trade, immigration, and regulation; have nevertheless lost their jobs. These include unemployed people who have been told that their problems are caused by precisely these policies: government regulations, trade, immigration, affirmative action, and environmental protection. Unless politicians promote economic policies that are both efficient and equitable, that assist all people, that educate all people, that employ all people, disadvantaged people will continue to be neglected and susceptible to scapegoating and misplaced blame.

In other words, immigrants are not the problem. Scapegoating is. As is our president.