One Expensive New Job Forward, Two Existing Jobs Back

As the president was pitching his jobs plan last night, his current policies were hard at work discouraging job creation and incentivizing layoffs. 

One of innumerable such policies concerns the treatment of imported raw materials and other intermediate goods that are subject to antidumping or countervailing duty measures, but needed by U.S. producers to make their final products. It almost defies comprehension that, in a modern, interdependent economy characterized by transnational supply chains and cross-border investment, over 80 percent of all U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty measures are imposed on these ingredients of U.S. production. This policy drives up the cost of production for downstream U.S. industries, making it more difficult for them to compete in the United States and abroad, curtailing profits, investment, and hiring.

However, under the U.S. Foreign Trade Zones program, some of the costs inflicted on downstream, import-consuming firms can be mitigated. (Of course, the program wouldn’t be necessary if U.S. duties were recognized as just another cost of production and set, optimally, at zero.) Among the aims of the FTZ program is to encourage manufacturing activity in the United States (and to discourage manufacturers from shuttering domestic operations and moving offshore as a result of the burden of paying U.S. customs duties).

FTZs are usually manufacturing plants or facilities physically located within the United States, but considered outside U.S. territory for the purpose of customs duty payment. Goods that enter FTZs are not subject to customs duties (including antidumping or countervailing duties) until they leave the zone and are formally entered into the commerce of the United States. If those goods are used as inputs to a further manufacturing process, the rate of duty applicable to the final product is assessed. If the goods are exported from a FTZ, with or without further processing, no duties are imposed because the product never officially “entered” the United States.

With respect to products made from materials and components subject to AD or CVD duties, the standing regulations require FTZ operators to get advance approval from the Foreign Trade Zones Board if the intention is to sell those final products in the United States. That requirement does not apply when the final product is going to be exported from the FTZ, which provides some incentive to downstream U.S. firms to keep production in the United States by operating as a FTZ.

But now the Obama administration—at the behest of the antidumping petitioners’ bar and organized labor, and despite its own exhortations to U.S. companies to double exports, invest in America, and put Americans back to work—is proposing to seal off that channel of sanity and compromise. New regulations would require advance approval even if the final product was going to be exported.

The requirement of advance approval from the FTZ Board, which is administered within the Import Administration—the same agency at the Commerce Department that simultaneously assists protection-seekers in crafting their AD/CVD petitions, while gleefully implementing and administratively adjudicating the antidumping and countervailing duty laws—will tip the balance in favor of outsourcing production for many firms in many industries. Any benefits of continuing to produce in the United States will be diminish next to the rising costs and uncertainty of doing so.

Thus, companies like Dow Corning, which uses silicon metal to produce silicone components for solar panels, will have that much more incentive to shutter operations in Kentucky and set up shop in Canada or elsewhere, where silicon metal is available at lower world market prices, so that it can compete in foreign solar panel markets with Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, and European rivals.

Asking American firms to invest and hire, while simultaneously pushing policies to raise the cost of those activities, reflects either profound cynicism or incompetence.

Rather than charge another several hundred billion dollars to the national credit card in the name of job creation, the president should launch a genuine, expedited assessment of the maze of administrative rules and regulations that raise the cost of doing business in the United States – not just the window-dressing review that has produced trivial changes so far.

That tack may ruffle the feathers of those who profit from the obscured status quo – people like Trumpka, Hoffa, Pelosi, and Reid – but it would be the proper course of action for a president willing to “put country before party,” to borrow a phrase.