There is a good argument to be made for so-called “Buy American” initiatives. Done right—as part of a national industrial policy that embraces smart regional development and fair-trade protections—they can play a real role in creating sustainable, long-term prosperity.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is not doing it right. His combination of crude nationalism and failed conservative economic calculations makes “Buy American” into a bumpersticker slogan on the back of a truck that is hurtling toward the economic low road.
During Tuesday’s swing into the historic Midwestern manufacturing city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Trump restated the promises of his 2016 campaign without really taking action. It was a full-on populist spectacle. The president even brought along White House “strategist” Steve Bannon—the master manipulator of messaging for the Trump campaign who, despite the “palace intrigue” gossip of the moment, remains the populist puppeteer in the Trump White House. The main act was Trump’s signing of a much-heralded “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.
But it was mostly theater. As with Trump’s campaign promises, the executive order is full of loopholes that are designed to protect Wall Street interests and multinational corporations—at the expense of American workers and communities. The biggest of those loopholes involves the fact that dozens of countries currently get waivers that allow them to avoid following “Buy American” policies.
“The administration cannot have a policy of ‘Buy American, Hire American’ and simultaneously authorize American taxpayer funds to be offshored to buy goods made by workers in the 59 countries that currently receive Buy American waivers under our trade agreements,” explains Lori Wallach, the director Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch project. “If President Trump is serious about strengthening ‘Buy American’ and delivering on his pledges to create more American manufacturing jobs, he could immediately withdraw with 60 days written notice from World Trade Organization procurement rules with no penalty and invoke his executive authority to reverse all 59 trade pact Buy American waivers.”
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley have been urging the president to focus on exactly those issues. In a March letter to Trump, which highlighted a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of the WTO’s Agreement on Government Procurement, the Democratic senators wrote: “This report finds that our government allows foreign firms more opportunities to bid on US taxpayer-financed procurement than American firms receive in return from trade partner countries.”