Commentary

If We Buy American, No One Else Will

WORLD trade is collapsing. The United States trade deficit dropped sharply in November as imports from the rest of the world plummeted in response to the financial crisis and global recession. United States imports from China, Japan and elsewhere declined at double digit rates. The last thing the world economy needs is for governments to give a further downward shove to trade. Unfortunately, we may be doing just that.

Steel industry lobbyists seem to have persuaded the House to insert a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill it passed last week. This provision requires that preference be given to domestic steel producers in building contracts and other spending. The House bill also requires that the uniforms and other textiles used by the Transportation Security Administration be produced in the United States, and the Senate may broaden such provisions to include many other products.

That might sound reasonable, but history has shown that Buy American provisions can raise the cost and diminish the effect of a spending package. In rebuilding the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the 1990s, the California transit authority complied with state rules mandating the use of domestic steel unless it was at least 25 percent more expensive than imported steel. A domestic bid came in at 23 percent above the foreign bid, and so the more expensive American steel had to be used. Because of the large amount of steel used in the project, California taxpayers had to pay a whopping $400 million more for the bridge. While this is a windfall for a lucky steel company, steel production is capital intensive, and the rule makes less money available for other construction projects that can employ many more workers.

American manufacturers have ample capacity to fill the new orders that will come as a result of the fiscal stimulus. In addition, other countries are watching closely to see if the crisis becomes a general excuse for the United States to block imports and favor domestic firms. General Electric and Caterpillar have opposed the Buy American provision because they fear it will hurt their ability to win contracts abroad.

They’re right to be concerned. Once we get through the current economic mess, China, India and other countries are likely to continue their large investments in building projects. If such countries also adopt our preferences for domestic producers, then America will be at a competitive disadvantage in bidding for those contracts.

Remember the golden rule, or the consequences could be severe. When the United States imposed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930, it helped set off a worldwide movement toward higher tariffs. When everyone tried to restrict imports, the combined effect was a deeper global economic slump. It took decades to undo the accumulated trade restrictions of that period. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Douglas A. Irwin, a professor of economics at Dartmouth and a member of the CTPS Advisory Board, is the author of “Free Trade Under Fire.”