There’s a cluster of HR-related political issues that I’ve been keeping an eye throughout the Presidential primaries and now the general election campaign: immigration, job creation, parental leave and support, and trade deals. Last night, in their first debate Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump touched on several of these but neither went into detail.
Domestic policies like parental leave and other social welfare programs weren’t touched on, with the candidates instead focusing on big picture issues like tax cuts (or increases), the national and regional affects of international trade deals, foreign policy and defense. Even immigration, Trump’s standby, took a backseat in this debate. The candidates’ by now well worn positions came through consistently on all of these — there were no surprises to be had here, though of course there were more than a few choice zingers.
Last night Hilary Clinton touted the economic rebound the country has experienced during President Obama’s tenure and said that you can expect more growth from her administration. Clinton says that her team will focus on making smart investments; rather than promising the return of manufacturing and mining jobs, she says they will work on creating jobs in developing sectors, where the economy has the most potential for growth. Clean energy, tech and health care are her go-tos for sectors with potential, which is in line with monthly Bureau of Labour Statistics’ (BLS) jobs reports showing that all of these industries are growing, where traditionally middle class sectors like manufacturing are struggling.
Trump, on the other hand, says that the best engine of job creation is not letting them leave in the first place. He pointed to the massive growth Mexican manufacturing has experienced since the start of the free trade era, and the technological refinement its industrial centres have seen more recently. Kia and Ford have moved much of their manufacturing to Mexico and tech firms like Facebook have begun to take advantage of Mexico’s competitive advantage in wages and taxes. As a result, Mexico has thriving manufacturing and tech hubs. Trump says that he will renegotiate international trade deals to prevent more American jobs being “stolen” by Mexico, China and other economies. He will have a very difficult time of it, indeed, if he does get the chance to reopen these complicated, multilateral agreements.
Trump also said that the unemployment figures Clinton shared — 4.9% unemployment and millions of jobs created since the start of the recovery — are, well, wrong, and that real unemployment was much higher than she says. He didn’t, however, make it clear where his suspicion comes from. The Clinton campaign’s information about job growth and unemployment comes directly from the BLS and their consistently non-partisan analysis has a long history. Nevertheless, next week’s September jobs report should give both candidates new fodder.
The President, though, isn’t job creator in chief. Neither candidate acknowledged that much of the work a President does with respect to the economy is slow, subtle and behind the scenes. Although government can support new or struggling industries through tax breaks, hiring incentives and investment funds, it cannot guarantee their success. Powerful though the US President is, global economic trends and competitive advantages are more powerful.
Trump emphasized, again and again, that he would take a second look at international trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, which he blames for the decline of American manufacturing. He also blamed the US trade deficit for its current economic “weakness.” Clinton took a different tack, saying she too would take a close look at future trade deals but refuting Trump’s claims that the US economy is weak.
But domestic economic struggles aside, America’s $17.95 trillion economy is still the world’s largest, accounting for 24.5% of the gross world product, and its trade deficits with China and Mexico don’t weaken it. And although free trade treaties ease barriers on international business and trade, they don’t cause all movement of business and labour. That is, NAFTA, TPP and similar deals aren’t the only reason that American businesses have moved operations off of American soil. Labour costs, tax rates and so many other issues including technology and the availability of suitable labour have influenced the global movement of labour and capital. It’s not just Americans who are watching their economy fundamentally transform — it’s the whole world. As Chris Mathews said at Fortune,
“Donald Trump’s argument that the American worker has been hurt first and foremost by two Clinton-era trade policy decisions is a vast oversimplification of the problems the U.S. economy faces. The United States would have likely faced increased competition from lower wage economies regardless of whether we accepted China’s entry into the WTO or made a trade agreement with Mexico. But the U.S. government could have done more to protect American manufacturing and improve the welfare of the working class.”
International trade deals are complex documents and can contain nasty surprises for even the strongest economies, but they aren’t the only reason that so many Americans have moved and will continue to move into different jobs — the things that we make, sell and buy are different today than they were in 1950 or 1980, and the way that we do business, work and live our lives has changed too. And whatever trade deals the candidates pursue the affect on American workers isn’t clearcut. Simply supporting American business doesn’t guarantee the fair treatment of workers within it — even in a candidate’s market, like the current tech industry, there are struggles between employers and employees over what’s wages, benefits, work life balance and even who gets the opportunity to work.
Trade deals are only part of the picture and the lack of specificity from both candidates leaves us with a big, as yet unanswerable question: just how much will these candidates be willing to turn their backs on globalization, something they’ve both championed in the past, in favour of protectionism, and what would that even look like? These kinds of trade deals have had a tremendous impact on the American economy and workplace — and the job market that we in HR and recruiting operate in — over the last few decades, so it’s an issue we should all keep a close eye on.
Moderator Lester Holt didn’t question the candidates about their immigration policies but we’re sure to hear more about their ideas in future debates. Still, we got glimpses of both Trump and Clinton’s stances through their comments on foreign policy, job creation and trade deals.
There was no mention of Trump’s famous wall or his promise to round up and deport undocumented workers, but when commenting on policing he claimed that there were “gangs of illegals” roaming American streets, making communities unsafe. He said that above all, America needs law and order, and that Black and Latinx Americans are “living in hell” thanks to rising crime rates. On the campaign trail Trump has emphasized that undocumented workers present an economic and a security threat and that his highest priority is protecting American workers. But by most measures, American crime rates are steadily declining and long term studies don’t show undocumented workers being an outsized source of violent or property crime. Crime is of course an incredibly complex social issue, complicated by economic factors and institutional bias in policing and sentencing.
The sense that immigration, whether documented or not, is a threat to the country disturbs me. Immigration has been and is a great asset to the American economy. Anti-immigration policies are a threat to economic prosperity and would make it harder for American businesses that rely on attracting the best talent from all over the world. And now that unauthorized immigration to the United States has levelled off at 11 million, some border states are facing a shortage of skilled and unskilled labourers. Everything from farm workers to drivers to skilled tradesmen are in short supply, which just goes to show how much American businesses have come to rely on undocumented workers.
For her part, Clinton sought to reassure allies that America would continue to honour its defense and trade deals, and painted a more positive picture of the American economy and of its communities. She emphasized institutional bias in the criminal justice system, economic inequality and the importance of creating opportunities for all Americans. But like Trump, she didn’t get into the details of her policies with respect to immigration.
The next debate, a town hall, will take place on October 9th. The third debate, which will have the same format as last night’s, will take place on October 19. I hope to hear more from the candidates on domestic policy and workplace issues, as well as more on their proposed immigration policies, and in the meantime, I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about, worry about and analyze.