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Earlier this month, I criticized Joe Biden’s new plan to strengthen U.S. domestic manufacturing with a special eye toward boosting the security of key supply chains for holding out as a model the Pentagon’s work on defense-related manufacturing. Just this week, I found even more evidence to support the view that if the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is really serious about achieving this goal (and given his longstanding record on trade and globalization issues, ample doubt is warranted) he’ll need a dramatically new model.

By the way, these findings show that the Trump administration also remains too far from getting its own supply chain act together.  And the main reason is a dangerous – and wholly unnecessary – lack of supply chain transparency.

The evidence comes from a September, 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (an investigative arm of Congress) that summarizes the views of a panel of specialists convened to discuss foreign threats to the U.S. defense manufacturing base, and presents findings on the subject from various U.S. government agency, private sector, and university studies. The threats include the offshoring of the production of key defense-related goods; takeovers by foreign entities of U.S.-based facilities that supply these products, along with important services, or foreign acquisitions of significant stakes in these facilities; and the loss of U.S. competitiveness in these areas for market- and competition-related reasons and the resulting turns to foreign suppliers.

And crucially, the panelists consulted (listed on p. 40 of the report) include no notable supposed globalization alarmists or China hawks. In fact, one panelist was a senior executive of the U.S.-China Business Council, which has been a major pillar of what I call the nation’s Offshoring Lobby.

The report correctly noted that the use of foreign-origin goods and services can benefit U.S. national security interests. Specifically, it can “lower costs and provide better access to foreign workers and markets [which can help the companies in question gain the benefits of economies of scale by winning more customers].” Moreover, “When companies that offshore contract with DOD [the Departent of Defense], they can pass those benefits along. Foreign investment can help U.S. companies grow.”

So as in all areas of public policy, the key is finding the best balance, and reasonable people can always legitimately disagree on where it’s found. But here’s what’s really alarming about the message sent by the GAO report – and collectively by all the specialists and materials consulted: Neither the Defense Department nor any other branch of the U.S. government has the ability needed to achieve this goal partly because they lack the information needed to identify vulnerabilities, and partly because much helpful information is kept confidential at the request of private industry.

Here are the main relevant observations and conclusions presented in the report making emphatically clear that the nation lacks the supply chain transparency vital to improving supply chain security:

>”[T]he absence of a common definition of offshoring makes it difficult to analyze the extent to which offshoring is occurring in general as well as its effect on the defense supplier base. As such, the extent of offshoring and its effects are largely unknown.”

>”[P]ublicly available data do not provide granularity to analyze foreign direct investments in industry subsectors that comprise the defense supplier base.”

>”Pentagon “industrial policy officials told us that BEA’s [the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis] publicly available data are not complete enough to assess foreign investments in U.S. defense industrial subsectors. We also found that BEA does not disclose certain data for industry subsectors if the data would disclose the identity of individual companies, as these data are considered confidential. For example, BEA data on new foreign direct investment from China in the U.S. industry subsector “electrical equipment, appliances and component manufacturing” are not publicly available for 3 of the 5 years we reviewed.”

>”[A]ccording to BEA, new foreign direct investment data do not capture foreign investment transactions that involve less than 10 percent voting ownership in a U.S. enterprise. This may include data on venture capital investments in U.S. start-ups. According to a report by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) within DOD, there are an increasing number of investments in U.S. venture-backed startups from China-based investors that are not tracked by the U.S. government. This limits full visibility into foreign investors and the technologies they are investing in, as well as any increase or decrease in investment flows.”

>The DIU “echoed concerns about the limitations of U.S. government data and stated that the U.S. government does not comprehensively track all available data on investments, including those from private sources to assemble a complete picture of the level of foreign investment in U.S. companies.”

One big takeaway from the above is that the Defense Department is far from the only culprit here. Much more important, though, nothing could be clearer from this list of information gaps than that the Pentagon that Biden would rely on hasn’t made much of an effort to close them. And although the Trump administration has rhetorically prioritized reshoring manufacturing back to the United States in part for national security-related reasons, and can boast noteworthy progress in changing the U.S. trade policies that have encouraged so much defense-related offshoring, it’s clearly made little progress in making sure that it has the most fundamental information it needs to make sound decisions.

Also critical to recognize: It’s not that this information doesn’t exist. As I’ve previously noted, the companies that produce these goods and provide these services know exactly they, and most of their own contractors and subcontractors, are doing. Fully understanding and optimizing their own operations, after all, is one of the main ways they make money.

And the best way to extract what the government needs is to require legally what I’ve described as “Truth in Globalization” – and require it fast. Otherwise, no matter who wins the Presidency in November, the U.S. government will needlessly keep flying blind on supply chain security.