Earlier today, Doug Bandow weighed in with some commentary on the problems that Buy American provisions are creating for both Canadian and American businesses. Let me reinforce his view that such rules are anachronistic and self-defeating with some thoughts from a forthcoming paper of mine about the incongruity between modern commercial reality and trade policies that have failed to keep pace.
Even though President Obama implored, “If you are considering buying a car, I hope it will be an American car,” it is nearly impossible to determine objectively what makes an American car. The auto industry provides a famous example, but is really just one of many that transcends national boundaries and renders obsolete the notion of international competition as a contest between “our” producers and “their” producers. The same holds true for industries throughout the manufacturing sector.
Dell is a well known American brand and Nokia a popular Finnish brand, but neither makes its products in the United States or Finland, respectively. Some components of products bearing the logos of these internationally recognized brands might be produced in the “home country.” But with much greater frequency nowadays, component production and assembly operations are performed in different locations across the global factory floor. As IBM’s chief executive officer put it: “State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice.”
The distinction between what is and what isn’t American or Finnish or Chinese or Indian has been blurred by foreign direct investment, cross-ownership, equity tie-ins, and transnational supply chains. In the United States, foreign and domestic value-added is so entangled in so many different products that even the Buy American provisions in the recently-enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, struggle to define an American product without conceding the inanity of the objective.
The Buy American Act restricts the purchase of supplies that are not domestic end products. For manufactured end products, the Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a domestic end product: (1) The article must be manufactured in the United States; and (2) The cost of domestic components must exceed 50 percent of the cost of all the components. Thus, the operational definition of an American product includes the recognition that “purebred” American products are increasingly rare.
Shake your head and chuckle as you learn that even the “DNA” of the U.S. steel industry, which pushed for adoption of the most restrictive Buy American provisions and which has been the manufacturing sector’s most vocal proponent of trade barriers over the years, is difficult to decipher nowadays. The largest U.S. producer of steel is the majority Indian-owned company Arcelor-Mittal. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is in the process of completing a $3.7 billion green field investment in a carbon and stainless steel production facility in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 permanent jobs. And most of the carbon steel shipped from U.S. rolling mills—as finished hot-rolled or cold-rolled steel, or as pipe and tube—is produced in places like Canada, Brazil and Russia, and as such is disqualified from use in U.S. government procurement projects for failure to meet the statutory definition of American-made steel.
Whereas a generation ago the cost of a product bearing the logo of an American company may have comprised exclusively U.S. labor, materials, and overhead, today that is much less likely to be the case. Today, that product is more likely to reflect foreign value-added, regardless of whether the product was “completed” in the United States or abroad. Accordingly, Buy American rules and trade barriers of any kind (as appealing to politicians as they may be) hurt most American businesses, workers, and consumers.
It’s time to wake up and scrap these stupid rules.