For years U.S. lawmakers and special interest groups have promoted policies that drove U.S. manufacturing offshore without people really being aware of it. Higher taxes, workplace regulations, environmental rules with onerous penalties, and other actions by government drove the costs of making things in America up so high it became a matter of corporate survival to take it to other countries.
Good for them, bad for us. China’s middle class has risen at the expense of U.S. workers and their families. Jobs have left places like Michigan and New York and Illinois for places with names most Americans can’t pronounce let alone find on a map.
It was a tragedy for workers and entire communities as the job providers moved away. Middle America understood what was going on, providing Donald Trump with fertile ground for his rhetoric about “bad trade deals” when he ran for president in 2016. For the coastal elites who only looked at the soaring values of their retirement portfolios, it was another story. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic struck that they realized what they had done.
For probably the first time since World War II, the U.S. economy was riddled with shortages. No matter how much money you had to spend, in some places, there wasn’t a roll of toilet tissue or a bottle of hand sanitizer to be found. Unless, in a few cases, you were willing to wait and buy it from China.
Memories may be short, but it wasn’t just these common household items that were in short supply. Items thought necessary for treating coronavirus patients like ventilators and pharmaceuticals as well as the personal protective equipment for hospital workers on the frontlines fighting the pandemic needed to protect themselves were not available in the quantities needed. China, where the outbreak was first detected, was hoarding what they made for their own use.
Recognizing the problem and expanding on what he promised while campaign, Mr. Trump has been looking for opportunities to bring the manufacturing of these products — and the jobs that go with them — home. And, unsurprisingly, he’s been criticized for doing it.
The Trump administration recently signaled its support for the launch of Kodak Pharmaceuticals, which would be a branch of the once-mighty Eastman Kodak company, by providing a $765 million loan to get things going. Kodak has been the anchor of Rochester, New York’s economy but has had difficulty adapting to the digital age.
This deal would not only stabilize a domestic supply chain, but it would reestablish the Rochester economy with a huge boom in the job market. So you would think the establishment of a new corporate entity to manufacture pharmaceutical ingredients in the United States that will help secure America’s drug supply chain and create what the Democrats used to call “good jobs at good wages” would be met with cheers and brass bands. Instead, the company finds itself under examination because the news caused the company’s stock to rise in value, creating the illusion that some company executives benefited financially.
It’s that kind of muddled thinking that drove so many jobs and companies out of the United States in the first place. At a time when initiative at home is desperately needed in the corporate sector, the first ones to step to the front of the line find themselves the victims of bad press and potential investigations. This is not to excuse any bad actions or actors – and if there were any, they would have been uncovered by Kodak’s independent review, but none were.
We should expect that a company’s “good news” should lead to an increase in the price of its stock. That’s good for the shareholders, which should be any company’s principal if not the only concern, as well as the country. The idea that people working for the company might also profit is the hallmark of the suspicious, anti-free market attitudes that infected the media, members of the political class, and consumer watchdogs for decades and which, more than once, nearly destroyed the American economy.
Senior White House trade advisor Peter Navarro recently called COVID-19 a wake-up call for the nation, not just because of the threat it posed to our health or healthcare system but because it left us defenseless in economic and national security terms. “We have already witnessed over 80 countries impose some form of export restrictions on medicines or medical supplies, proving that no matter how strong our friendships or alliances may be, they mean nothing in a pandemic,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Kodak was found innocent of all “charges” after an in-depth internal investigation. Policymakers and watchdogs need to move on and come up with a plan to bring manufacturing and jobs home, by creating incentives to do just that.
There are a lot of tools in the tool kit to make this possible: tax breaks, additional deregulation, export assistance, and opportunity zones are just a few of the things that can be dangled in front of the heads of big companies to lure them to bring their operations home.
America needs a big plan that ties them and other ideas together to bring the manufacture of essential goods like pharmaceuticals and PPE home, before the next global pandemic hits. Breaking our 100% dependence on foreign manufactures located in countries whose interests may diverge from ours at some future and highly inconvenient time must become a national priority now.
Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. He appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.