Neil Irwin is trying to implicate the rest of us in his desire to subsidize Boeing and other big corporations through the Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank provides below market loans to select projects in order to help make sales in both directions. Irwin tells readers the debate over the bank provides:
"A fascinating case study in how modern economies really work, and the ways big business and big government are inevitably intertwined in ways that believers in free markets may not like — but may not be able to avoid. In short, we’re all crony capitalists, whether we like it or not."
Irwin argues that all foreign governments have similar sorts of subsidies for their businesses and that we would be operating at a serious disadvantage if we didn't subsidize our business deals.
There are two points worth noting on Irwin's argument. First, it goes directly against free trade 101. Remember how we call autoworkers and steelworkers Neanderthal protectionists if they support tariffs or quotas to keep their jobs? The argument that is the basis for dismissing these workers' efforts at protecting their livelihoods is the same argument that would be used against the Ex-Im Bank. (Other countries provide subsidies to their auto and steel industry also. In the standard trade models it doesn't matter.)
When Irwin tells us that we have to be crony capitalists "whether we like it or not," why don't we also have to be crony protectors of workers' livelihoods? It seems that there is a very fundamental inconsistency here. When it comes to business interests we are prepared to throw the economics textbook theory in the garbage, but when the question is worker's jobs, that textbook is the bible.
The other point worth noting in reference to Irwin's argument is the logic of the textbook story itself. The logic is that if we lose jobs in the steel or auto industry we will get jobs in other sectors that will offset these losses. This is not an absurd argument, although the new jobs are not likely to help the auto or steel workers. In the case of business as a whole, the argument would be that if we don't subsidize loans to favored businesses through the Ex-Im Bank, then we would sell less overseas. This would lead to a fall in the value of the dollar which would make our unsubsidized exports more competitive internationally and make our domestically produced goods cheaper relative to imports. In principle this market determination of winners and losers is more efficient than the government's designation through the Export-Import Bank.
People can come to different conclusions about the value of the Ex-Im Bank, but it is inconsistent to claim to be a free trader and to support the Bank. Anyone who supports the Bank is clearly willing to have the government subsidize certain businesses. If they claim support for free trade is the reason they don't care about losing auto or steel jobs to foreign competition, they are not being honest.