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I was thrilled to see today’s op-ed piece on U.S. manufacturing in The New York Times, and not just because co-author David Adler is a good friend. I was also thrilled to see it because a careful reading reenforces the essential notion that all the worthy proposals made by policy analysts and politicians lately (including apparent President-elect Joe Biden) on reviving industry will either come to naught or greatly underperform without steep, and indeed Trump-like, tariffs to shut a critical mass of imports out of the economy.

Those domestically-focused manufacturing revival measures have included more federal funding for research and developments, greater federal efforts to help smaller manufacturers in particular learn about and access research breakthroughs in academia and existing government labs, measures to help these smaller industrial firms access capital more easily, tax breaks to foster production and innovation in the United States, and more ambitious and better enforced Buy American requirement for federal purchases of manufactured products. In general, I’m strongly supportive, and have even criticized the Trump administration for giving them short shrift (even on the tax front, where the big 2017 cuts should have come with more investing and hiring strings).

From knowing David, I feel sure that he backs these intiatives, too; indeed, the article concentrates tightly on the Buy American slice of this agenda. And the piece gratifingly (but probably unknowingly) endorses an idea that I’ve made for many years, but that has gotten zero traction: requiring “all manufacturing industries to disclose how much of their sourcing and critical production takes place in the United States.” After all, how can Washington make the right manufacturing policy decisions when it relies so heavily for such crucial information from crumbs self-servingly cherry-picked by offshoring-happy companies themselves?

Yet as also suggested by David and co-author Dan Breznitz – who studies innovation policies at the University of Toronto – except for the Buy American proposals, the standard raft of manufacturing revival plans could work to  stimulate more production and supply, but pays inadequate attention to ensuring that all that supply is actually bought – which would eventually make companies think twice about producing more.

The authors place much stock in government’s ability to soak up this output, and so does Biden – who on top of making sure that more of what government currently purchases is American-made, has pledged to spend “$400 billion in his first term in additional federal purchases of products made by American workers, with transparent, targeted investments that unleash new demand for domestic goods and services and create American jobs.”

The former Vice President correctly contends that these measures will “provide a strong, stable source of demand for products made by American workers and supply chains composed of American small businesses.” The history of U.S. industrial policy also shows that early guaranteed government purchases helped new industries demonstrate the usefulness of innovative products that eventually interested the private sector and produced enormous new markets for their products on top of federal contracts. (Think “computers” and all the hardware and software used pervasively now not only in technology sectors but in virtually the entire economy.)

But U.S.-based manufacturers turned out just over $2.35 trillion worth of goods in 2019 (the last full pre-CCP Virus year). And the manufacturing trade deficit that year was $1.03 trillion. So unless it’s supposed that that 2019 level of domestic manufacturing production is remotely adequate (and clearly, the manufacturing policy reform supporters don’t), or unless they believe that government should buy much more of the output than the $400 billion Biden proposes over not one but four years (to sit in warehouses?), generating more private demand for industry’s output will be essential as well.

As indicated above, David and Dan Breznitz argue that more detailed, accurate labeling will help by enabling more consumers and private businesses to act effectively on their naturally strong preferences for Made in the USA goods – not only out of patriotism, but because of reasonable convictions that their quality and safety are superior. I remain all in favor, but the immense popularity of imports among both classes of customers (made clear by the huge and chronic manufacturing trade deficits) despite numerous news accounts over the years of shoddy, outright dangerous foreign-made products (especially from China), demonstrates that much more will need to be done to spur demand for U.S.-produced manufactures.

RealityChek regulars will not be the slightest bit surprised that I’m ruling out overseas demand as a promising net new source of customers for American domestic manufacturers. Unfortunately, the persistence of the huge manufacturing trade deficits is also evidence that most of America’s international trade partners are far too devoted to the health of their own industrial bases to permit major U.S. inroads. In fact, if anything, they’re likely to step up their own efforts to strengthen their own domestic industries by further curbing U.S. and other foreign competition. And that’s where the tariffs come in.

Not that David and Dan Bernitz, or Biden, overlook the need for U.S. market protection entirely. The former, for example, call for “Stopping predatory pricing by foreign manufacturers” – which entails slapping tariffs on these usually government-subsidized artificially cheap goods. The latter makes similar points, and has also mentioned a carbon tariff on products from countries that base their competitiveness on ignoring “their climate and environmental obligations.” (At the same time, Biden could use a similar levy to punish domestic companies that don’t measure up in his administration’s eyes climate-wise, leaving the net benefit to U.S.-based manufacturing minimal.)

Moreover, to ensure adequate domestic supplies of the healthcare goods needed to fight the next pandemic, simple stockpiling of products by government will be necessary. And since practically everything wears out over time, or becomes outmoded, lots of re-stockpiling will be necessary. Meanwhile, it should go without saying that many of the government purchases of manufactures will be used for critical national purposes – like repairing and building all kinds of traditional and technology infrastructure systems, and producing whatever new military equipment or refurbishing of old equipment the new Congress and the likely new administration wind up supporting.

But these are of course public purposes, and since the United States is still a strongly private sector-driven economy, that’s what’s inevitably going to determine the success of most manufacturing revival efforts. So unless manufacturing revivalists want government to play a veritably dominant role in production and consumption decisions, their strategy will employ tariffs – but not in a targeted, sector-specific, and reactive way, much less as an afterthought to domestic initiatives. Instead, they’ll be proactive, come in a flat-rate form, and stand high enough to encourage plenty of new market entrants that it makes sense to join established enterprises in vigorous, overwhelmingly domestic competition for America’s immense pool of customers.