Government is essential for a vibrant, growing economy. It provides and enforces the property rights and rules of the game (e.g., contract enforcement) within which entrepreneurs operate. It is, or should be, the referee of the game rather than a player.
There is often pressure from established firms for government regulations to have a role beyond establishing a transparent and level playing field in order to favor or protect these firms from unwanted (by them) competition. Requiring the U.S. government to buy what it needs from American firms is such an example. If the products and services of American firms were better and cheaper than those of foreign firms, there would be no need for such a law. As it is, it often means that taxpayers must pay more for their government than would be the case if it procured on a purely competitive basis. The extra cost must either divert government spending from other things or divert household incomes via an increase in taxes.
Two examples of such abuse are currently in the news—the Jones Act and the Boeing dispute with Bombardier.
The Jones Act, adopted in 1920, requires that all goods shipped between American ports must “be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans…. A 2012 study from the New York Federal Reserve found that shipping a container from the US East Coast to Puerto Rico cost $3,063. But shipping the same container on a foreign ship to the Dominican Republic nearby cost only $1,504. More broadly, the island loses $537 million per year as a result of the Jones Act.” “Jones-Act-hurts Puerto-Rico”
The Jones Act, formally called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was adopted to protect our merchant marine industry—thousands of sailors, ship builders, and their owners and operators. They were not competitive with foreign shippers without such protection. So Puerto Rico and all of the rest of us buying the goods shipped pay higher prices than necessary. If American cargo ships were forced to compete with foreign operators, then some—but not necessarily all—of them would fail and take jobs producing things that were competitive. Those that survived such competition would be the better for it, as would we. Senator John McCain introduced a bill in 2015 to repeal the Jones Act permanently, which we should all support. Buy American is a loose, loose, requirement. “Buy-American-hire-American”
“Mr. Trump’s big mistake has been his handling of the Jones Act.… First he said he would not suspend it as he did for Texas after Harvey and Florida after Irma. ‘A lot of people that work in the shipping industry . . . don’t want [it] lifted,’ he said. Well, duh. A lot of people don’t like competition. But that’s hardly a good argument for blocking it.
“Under pressure, he finally said he would suspend the Jones Act for Puerto Rico—but only for 10 days, a meaningless gesture.” Mary A. O’Grady FEMA’s-foul-up-in-Puerto-Rico
Boeing’s claim that Bombardier’s C Series CS100 commercial jet, built in Canada and Ireland and being purchased by Delta in the U.S., is competing unfairly because of government subsidies is murkier than the Jones Act case and raises a different issue for the renegotiation of NAFTA, which is now underway. While it is undeniable that Bombardier receives financial assistance from the Canadian government in a variety of ways, so does Boeing (from the U.S. government). Boeing is the single largest beneficiary of the loan subsidies provided by the U.S. Import-Export Bank (nicknamed in Washington the “Bank of Boeing”) to help foreign airlines finance their purchases of Boeing aircraft. “Boeing-took-a-foreign-firm-to-task-over-subsidies-critics-say-boeing-gets-help-too”
In response to Boeing’s complaint, the Commerce Department has announced that it intends to impose a staggering 219% tariff on the Canadian plane. Strangely Boeing did not even compete for Delta’s business and has no aircraft that competes with the Bombardier plane. Sorting out the claims and counter claims will be complicated. Which plane builder has benefited more from their governments’ help? What would constitute a level playing field in the international competition to sell these airplanes?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threatened that “his government might cancel a previous proposal to buy Boeing F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.” In addition, “Bombardier employs about 4,000 people in Belfast, many of whom work on the CS100.” Britain’s, Prime Minister Theresa May “tweeted that it was ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the proposed tariff…. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that he would not cancel an existing deal to buy eight spy planes and 50 Apache helicopters from Boeing but that the slight would hurt Boeing in future competitions.”
These are the sorts of tit for tat trade wars can grow out of, to the detriment of everyone. Like most other trade agreements, the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has established a dispute resolution mechanism to evaluate and settle such disputes. Bombardier-vs-Boeing-skip-to-chapter-19. Such disputes are adjudicated by independent dispute resolution panels. “Chapter 19 [of NAFTA] offers exporters and domestic producers an effective and direct route to make their case and appeal the results of trade-remedy investigations before an independent and objective binational panel. This process is an alternative to judicial review of such decisions before domestic courts.” http://www.naftanow.org/dispute/default_en.asp
The Trump administration is now renegotiating NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. “U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has… suggested having the nation’s own courts hearing the disputes.” Canada-says-hard-no-on-Trump-change-to-nafta-dispute-resolution.
Take a deep breath and step back. We want Canada’s challenge to our proposed 219% tariff on Canadian airplanes adjudicated in our own courts? How can we imagine that this would be acceptable? Would we agree to our challenge to a Mexican tariff on American cars sold in Mexico being settled in a Mexican court? Have we become such big bullies that we can even suggest such an outrageous approach? Trade should be as fair as possible within the terms of any trade agreement and disputes should be resolved as impartially as possible. We and the rest of the world benefit from the increase in trade that results.