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There’s no doubt that the next few weeks will see a spate of (low-profile) news articles on how unhappy Canada and Mexico are about proposed new U.S. tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) and how these measures could trigger a major new international trade dispute.

There’s also no doubt that any such disputes could be quickly resolved, and legitimate U.S. interests safeguarded, if only Washington would finally start basing U.S. trade policy on economic fundamentals and facts on the ground rather than on the abstract and downright childishly rigid notions of fairness that excessively influenced the approach taken by Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Canadian and Mexican complaints concern a provision in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill that’s been passed by the House of Representatives but is stuck so far in the Senate. In order to encourage more EV sales, and help speed a transition away from fossil fuel use for climate change reasons, the latest version of BBB would award a refundable tax break of up to $12,500 for most purchases of these vehicles.

The idea is controversial because the administration and other BBB supporters see these rebates as a great opportunity to promote EV production and jobs in the United State by reserving his subsidy for vehicles Made in America. (As you’ll see here, the actual proposed rules get more complicated still – and could change some more.) And according to Canada and Mexico, this arrangement also violates the terms of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA) governing North American trade that replaced the old NAFTA during the Trump years in July, 2020.

Because USMCA largely reflects those prevailing concepts of global economic equity, Canada and Mexico probably have a strong case. But that’s only because this framework continues classifying all countries signing a trade agreement as economic equals. Even worse, there’s no better illustration of this position’s absurdity is the economy of North America.

After all, the United States has always accounted for vast majority of the continent’s total economic output and therefore market for traded goods. According for the latest (2020) World Bank figures, the the United States turned out 87.51 percent of North America’s gross product adjusted for inflation. And when it comes to new car and light truck sales, the U.S. share was 84.24 percent in 2019 (the last full pre-pandemic year, measured by units, and as calculated from here, here, and here).

But in 2019, the United States produced only 68.88 percent of all light vehicles made in North America (also measured by units and calculated from here, here, and here.) Moreover, more than 70 percent of all vehicles manufactured in Mexico were exported to the United States according to the latest U.S. government figures. And for Canada, the most recent data pegs this share at just under 54 percent (based on and calculated from here and here).

What this means is that, without the American market, there probably wouldn’t even be any Canadian and Mexican auto industries at all. They simply wouldn’t have enough customers to reach and maintain the production scale needed to make any economic sense.

So real fairness, stemming from the nature of the North American economy and the North American motor vehicle industry, leads to an obvious solution: Give vehicles from Canada and Mexico shares of the EV tax credits that match their shares of the continent’s light vehicle sales – just under 16 percent.

Therefore, using, say, 2019 as a baseline, from now on, the first just-under-16 percent of their combined light vehicle exports to the United States would be eligible for the credits for each successive year, and the rest would need to be offered at each manufacturer’s full price (a pretty plastic notion in the auto industry, I know, but a decision that would need to be left to whatever the manufacturers choose).

Nothing in this decision would force Canada or Mexico to subject themselves to these requirements; they would remain, as they always have been, completely free to try to sell as many EVs as they could to other markets (including each other’s).

What would change dramatically, though, is a situation that’s needlessly harmed the productive heart of the U.S. economy for far too long, resulting from trade agreements that lock America into an outsized consuming and importing role, but an undersized production and exporting role. In other words, what would change dramatically is a strategy bearing heavy responsibility for addicting the nation to bubble-ized growth. And forgive me for not being impressed by whatever legalistic arguments Mexico, Canada, any other country, or the global economics and trade policy establishments, are sure to raise in objection.

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