Buy American

Buy American is un-American. Much if not most of what we already buy is American, meaning made in America. Though it would be rather challenging to identify products (leaving aside services) that are 100 percent made in American, i.e. that do not have at least some components produced abroad, 85% of U.S. GDP is domestically produced. So why is the slogan “buy American” un-American?

Buy American has several understandings. There are laws, such as the Buy American Act of 1933, that require the U.S. government to give preference to American goods and services over others in its purchases. To the extent such laws have any effect, they require the purchase of goods and services that would not otherwise be chosen–that would not otherwise meet the test of the best value for the taxpayers’ dollars. This law aims to protect American jobs. This, of course, is a misunderstanding of the reality. Buy American, when it changes behavior at all, protects some undeserving jobs at the expense of other jobs that are worth keeping.  It protects jobs producing goods and services that would not otherwise be profitable. In short, it keeps American workers employed in activities that are less productive than would otherwise be the case. In the long run, it does not increase employment but rather reallocates workers to less productive tasks. In short, buy American lowers our standard of living. Thus, we can be thankful that it only requires 51% domestic content to qualify as “American.”

So why does our current government adopt such policies? For the same reason we have slapped a tariff on Canadian steel. It is not to make the American economy more productive or to keep it fully employed (which it already was when President Trump imposed such a tariff for “national security” reasons (I kid you not).  Rather, like other “protectionist” measures, it is to protect the jobs of particular, favored industries or workers, or what you might call political corruption.  Such favored industries are not competitive without such protection or why bother.

Beyond the legal requirement for government to Buy American, the plea to the general public is voluntary.  But why should we purchase products that we otherwise would not have (because they were more expensive or inferior)?  As with government buying American, the effect is to draw workers into activities at which they are less productive than they would have been otherwise. So “Buy American” is un-American because, if taken seriously, it would lower our standard of living and is contrary to the free market and entrepreneurial spirit that has made America the prosperous society that it is.

Buy American, Hire American

President Trump continues to repeat his populist slogan “Buy American, hire American,” reflecting the way he and Steve Bannon appear to understand what is needed to make America Great Again. Thus, with apologies, I endeavor again to explain why this catchphrase is fundamentally wrong and would actually make America weak. “Trade and Globalization” “Save trade”

If buying an American made product or service (100% American, 90%, 51%?) or hiring an American worker is my best option, I would not need to be compelled to do so by the government. If it is not my best option, being compelled to do so forces me to accept an inferior option. It would make me worse off. The Trump family understands this as their hotels import and purchase foreign made products (from China, Philippines and India, to name a few) and Ivanka sells clothing made in China.

It is obvious that being forced to buy and hire American would make many of us worse off (not to mention diminish our freedom of choice), but are there compensating benefits or gains for others in the American economy that would justify making us worse off? “Teeing up Trump tariffs”

Buy American

If I must buy an American made Corvette rather than a German Porsche, does the American economy benefit? To simplify, leave aside the fact that a substantial part of the components making up a Corvette are imported from various countries. The fact that I had to be forced to buy the American car rather than the German one, i.e. that it was an inferior deal, means that the American workers who make it were reallocated from the production of export products at which the United States had a comparative advantage. Trading less as a result of buying American mean allocating American workers to producing things (Corvette) that they are not as productive at making. They would be moved from producing Boeing aircraft to sell to Germany (to pay for our imports of Porsches) to producing Corvettes. So in addition to my being made worse off as a result of having to buy American, the American economy as a whole would be worse off as a result of a less productive work force and thus lower overall income (lower GDP). This is Econ 101.

In addition, as noted by the Financial Times, “Attempts to restrict procurement to domestic companies tend to backfire. They induce retaliation from trading partners, harming US businesses trying to sell abroad. They raise input costs, ensuring less infrastructure is built and fewer construction workers are hired for each dollar of public spending.” “The Pitfalls of having to buy and hire American”

Hire American

The meaning and impact of a requirement to hire Americans is a bit more complex. If the terms to American companies of employing the workers needed, whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or temporary or permanent immigrants from abroad, are not competitive with importing the product or service, American companies will in effect hire foreigners abroad (i.e. they will import the goods and services produced abroad). Thus it is a bit unclear what “hire American” means. “The long, rough ride ahead for ‘Made in America'”

Presumably, “hire American” refers to our immigration policies. Indeed our immigration laws need fixing. This includes providing a solution to the status of the 10 or 11 million people living here illegally, and adjusting immigration quotas to better match the needs of American firms for workers without undercutting the status of existing American workers. “Illegal-aliens”

The decline in American manufacturing jobs is largely the result of automation, not foreign trade. Manufacturing employment has fallen almost everywhere in the world as manufacturing output has increased. Automation enables the work force to produce more and thus enjoy a higher living standard. It need not cause unemployment.

The wonderful film “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of the large number of human “computers” employed by NASA (the National Air and Space Administration) who cranked out the numbers needed to put Americans in space and bring them home again. The stars of the film are three black women whose mathematical skills were indispensible to NASA. At the end of the day and in time for the first American to orbit the earth in 1961, new IBM’s mainframe computers proved essential to crunch the critical data fast enough. Overnight the human computers were no longer needed. But rather than becoming unemployed, most of them retrained to program and run the IBM computers with an unbelievable boost in productivity. While other things also affected NASA’s workload, the employment data are interesting. In 1960 NASA had 13,500 in house employees, which increased to 41,100 by 1965 and gradually drifted down to 18,618 in 2010. The numbers for contract workers on the same dates were 33,200 in 1960, 369,900 in 1965 and zero in 2010.

The President’s appeal to Buy American and Hire American, in addition to restricting our freedom of choice, flies in the face of what made America Great in the first place. As proclaimed by the Financial Times: “The principle should remain to keep the US economy as open as possible to the inflow of good products and good workers from abroad. Slamming down the drawbridge is only likely to impoverish the residents of the citadel.”