This Buy American momentum is bad economics, and by threatening to destabilize trade and capital flows, it risks turning a global recession into a 1930s-style depression. Asked about Buy American on Tuesday, President Barack Obama told Fox News that "we can't send a protectionist message." He said on ABC News that he doesn't want anything in the stimulus bill that is "going to trigger a trade war." He's rightThose comments by Obama are good news, but will he walk the talk? Malkiel continues
Suppose that we did not allow free trade between the 50 American states. Citizens like me in New Jersey would be far worse off if we could not buy pineapples from Hawaii, wine and vegetables from California, wheat from Kansas, and oil from Texas and Louisiana while we sell pharmaceuticals to the rest of the country. The specialization that trade makes possible allows all of us to live better.But not everyone is better-off because of trade and this is where politics comes in.
The situation is the same with respect to world trade. Both we and the Chinese are better off if we can import inexpensive clothing from China and sell them large-scale computers and data storage equipment.
To be sure, such trade does not make everyone better off, and that is why free trade is often a tough sell, especially during times of hardship.Because total benefits exceed the costs you can compensate the losers from trade and still make people better-off. The protectionist approach to these job losses via mechanisms like Buy American
If I am a textile worker whose job is lost because Chinese imports have caused my factory to close, I feel the pain far more acutely than consumers feel the benefits of cheap clothing. The pain tends to be localized while the benefits are spread broadly. No one person's benefit can compare with the loss felt by the textile worker. But the total benefits do exceed the costs. And competitive markets have spurred the innovation revolution that has made the U.S. the economic powerhouse that it is.
The solution for the displaced worker is job retraining and adjustment assistance, and to improve the safety net available to displaced workers during the transition period. We also need to revamp our educational system so that it prepares workers for the jobs that are available today -- and imparts the flexible skills that make our citizens ready for the future jobs that we cannot even imagine.
[...] invite retaliation by other nations, and the spread of "beggar thy neighbor" policies throughout the world.And the upshot of this would be bad for the US, and the rest of the world.
This House provision caused a palpable anxiety during the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, and America's closest allies are furious. "Buy American" would effectively ban Canadian steel products and other raw materials from infrastructure projects receiving stimulus funds. Foreign steel would only be allowed if domestic products were either unavailable or drove up the cost of the project by 25% or more. If the provision is not diluted, Mr. Obama will find a very hostile reception during his first international trip to Canada later this month.
Hostility has been no less evident in Europe and China. The European Union has said that it will not stand by idly if the U.S. violates its trade agreements and its obligations to the World Trade Organization. The risks of retaliation and a trade war are very real.
Since the U.S. is the biggest exporter in the world, retaliation could cost America more jobs than the provision would create. It could also destabilize the global capital flows on which the U.S. depends to fund its deficits. Moreover, the provision could delay some shovel-ready infrastructure projects, since sufficient American-made materials may not be immediately available. The U.S. does not manufacture enough steel to meet domestic demand.Malkiel ends in article by noting
Buy American provisions and other forms of protectionism will destroy jobs, not create them. They are an irresponsible and self-defeating response to a downturn in world economic activity. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies create more beggars and hostile neighbors. Let's hope that President Obama presses his Democratic colleagues in Congress to listen to him, and to British Prime Minister and Labour Party head Gordon Brown. As Mr. Brown put it at Davos, "Protectionism protects nobody, least of all the poor.I find it hard to believe that Obama's economic advisers haven't already pointed all this out to him. So why hasn't he come out and said that the Buy American idea is wrong and protectionism won't help the US economy? The most obvious answer is that he is playing politics, power and votes are more important than the economy, and many people, not just in the US, will suffer if this is true.