Rah, rah for the home team

Home-grown sports teams, airplane builders, and banks are reeling from competition and free trade, and the local mood is to beat up on the outsiders. Tempting, but is it smart?
Home-grown sports teams, airplane builders, and banks are reeling from competition and free trade, and the local mood is to beat up on the outsiders. Tempting, but is it smart?

My zeitgeist meter is buzzing. The theme: Cling to home products, as the world goes crazy and the economy nosedives. It's even affecting Washington state, supposedly the place where the free-trade religion is strongest. Allow me to present my evidence.

Today's big news, of course, is the Boeing victory over Airbus in the tanker wars. The home team workers and politicians and lobbyists may have kept that particular huge defense contract at Boeing, and the Government Accountability Office report of irregularities in awarding the contract to a consortium involving Airbus may send a signal that there will be precious little outsourcing of key defense jobs, even if that leaves the Pentagon with too little competition for these mammoth contracts.

Exhibit B is the Sonics fight, where we are clearly losing the home team sometime in the next two years but are enjoying bloodying the nose of the Oklahoma City owners who are raiding it. What's interesting to me is the way the story has been handed over to sports columnists who have an obvious conflict of interest (they need teams to write about) as well as a vast trove of abusive adjectives to hurl at the opposing team. (News reporters have to be more constrained in displaying their home-town passions.) The story might have been, in part, how infuriating it is for the private sector to deal with the City of Seattle and the Legislature, how selfish Seattle was as regards a regional solution, and how state House Speaker Frank Chopp has the power to "just say no" to ideas he doesn't like. Instead of a timely warning of how we are driving off business, maddening partners with our fishbowl processes, the story has been one long pep rally demonizing the Okies.

I now draw the court's attention to a May Elway Poll survey of statewide attitude toward free trade and globalization. In almost every category, Washington is turning more protectionist, more wary of free trade, more dubious about the benefits of globalization. Stuart Elway, who runs the respected polling firm, notes that a survey in 1999 ranked seven aspects of life according to the positive or negative impacts of globalization, with all seven being positive. In the recent poll, only three of the seven categories were still ranked positive, with all seven categories decidedly tipping toward the negative end. An odd but strong indicator from the most trade-dependent state in the nation.

We are scarcely alone in this shift, which explains why Sen. Barack Obama keeps flipping emphases on NAFTA and free trade. St. Louis is struggling to keep Budweiser beer out of the hands of Belgium brewers. Charlotte, N.C., is fretting over the woes of its two big banks, Wachovia and Bank of America, as they cut jobs and explore possible sales. The story has a strong echo in Seattle, now the fourth-ranked U.S. city as a banking center (behind New York, Charlotte, and San Francisco) but in jeopardy because of Washington Mutual's deep problems.

Stories like these offer the media two choices of narratives. One is to engage in some soul-searching, figuring that the troubles are partly self-inflicted. The other story line is to blame the outsiders and the malefactors of great wealth. Guess which one we've chosen?


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