Beggar Thy American

Beggar Thy American

"Buy American." Photo: <a href="">Wedingo (flickr)</a>
"Buy American." Photo: Wedingo (flickr)

The controversial "buy American" provision in the economic stimulus packages has added fuel to the firey protectionism debate and has the power to hurt Americans and the world alike.

The "buy American" provision requires all public works projects funded under the recently passed stimulus to use only American steel, iron, and manufactured goods. The clause also changes how the government awards contracts for these projects. Normally, contracts are given any company that can do the best job for the lowest price. But under the new clause, an American company will be awarded the contract if their bid is less than 25 percent higher than foreign companies.

What does all this mean? It means goods from countries like China, India, and 100 other developing countries cannot be used in infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus. Burton G. Malkiel, a professor of economics at the Princeton University, explains to China View why in the past "buy American" has resulted in a reduction in trade for the U.S. and the rest of the world:

In 1930, just as the world economy was sinking, the U.S. Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which essentially shut off imports into the U.S., he recalled. "Our trading partners retaliated, and world trade plummeted," said Malkiel. "Most economic historians now conclude that the tariff contributed importantly to the severity of the world-wide Great Depression...Later, as one of his last acts, President Herbert Hoover made the situation even worse by signing a 'Buy America Act' requiring all federal government projects to use American materials."

British Prime Minister Gordan Brown joined the chorus, urging against the "buy American," arguing that:

The thing we know about protectionism is in the end it protects nobody, least of all the poor.... It would be short-sighted at this time to renege on promises we've made to the poor.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and numerous heads of state have come out in protest against the clause. Brazil is even planning to challenge the clause at the World Trade Organization.

Protectionism during recessions has been known as "beggar thy neighbor" policy, because in trying to protect ourselves we hurt others. In other words, if one country puts up trade barriers, their policies hurt their neighbors, which can prompt these neighboring countries to adopt the same harmful barriers. We are all a part of the global economic crisis, we can't get out of it alone. The New York Times Op-ed columnist Douglas Irwin explains why "buy American" could harm the U.S. economy in the future:

American manufacturers have ample capacity to fill the new orders that will come as a result of the fiscal stimulus [...other countries are] right to be concerned. Once we get through the current economic mess, China, India and other countries are likely to continue their large investments in building projects. If such countries also adopt our preferences for domestic producers, then America will be at a competitive disadvantage in bidding for those contracts.

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