Business

It might cost more, but sometimes the U.S. needs to make its own stuff

As part of the  scramble to develop the next generation of U.S. rocket technology, SpaceX launched Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car  into space during the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket.
As part of the scramble to develop the next generation of U.S. rocket technology, SpaceX launched Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car into space during the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX

No matter many times they're told how wonderful and beneficial international trade is — and around here they get told that a lot —Americans still harbor some uneasiness and mixed feelings about the subject.

Sure, the lower prices are nice, so long as you’re a consumer, and not a domestic producer trying to compete with those prices.

No question trade generates jobs and revenue, whether you’re a Puget Sound-region aerospace mechanic or an Eastern Washington wheat farmer, not to mention the truck drivers and warehouse workers and everyone else who make the wheels of trade turn.

But trade-generated jobs don’t always pop up in the same places, or for the same people, as those jobs lost to competition in domestic or international markets.

One other factor plays on the sentiments of Americans trying to evaluate the latest round of trade measures, and the retaliatory responses, from the governments of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and China.

It’s a much less tangible factor than job counts or revenue totals, but it’s just as substantial as an influence on the trade-policy debate. It gets to the image Americans have of themselves as skilled, innovative and self-reliant.

Americans — a lot of them, anyway — are still uncomfortable with the notion that it doesn’t matter that we no longer make certain items or are no longer capable of doing certain things.

That’s not jingoism or nationalism or protectionism or isolationism or some other dreaded “ism” talking.

That discomfort is sparked by concerns about national security (a reason cited by the Trump administration for its actions on steel and aluminum) and maintaining a reservoir of knowledge and ability to produce jobs and wealth here today, as well as the technologies and industries that might be counted on to produce jobs and wealth in the decades ahead.

We touched on this issue a few weeks ago when the topic was new container cranes for the Port of Tacoma. Those cranes were sourced from China because the United States., despite having a lot of ports and a big maritime-cargo sector, doesn’t make container cranes, and hasn’t for years.

Up in Anacortes, a shipbuilding company is in hot water over construction of a fishing vessel intended for the cold waters of Alaska. The vessel was found to contain more foreign-fabricated steel than is permitted under the Jones Act for ships operating in U.S. waters.

The company says the process used to shape the steel (done in the Netherlands) isn’t available in the United States, and that the mistake was inadvertent. But without certification that the vessel is Jones Act-compliant, it won’t be allowed to operate in Alaskan waters.

The Jones Act itself has been fuel for arguments for decades, but leaving the debate over regulation aside for a moment, would it not be a good thing for the United States. to have the sort of technology used on that vessel available in this country?

Here’s an example of efforts to reclaim a lost technology.

The United States. long saw itself as the master of space — "If they can put a man on the moon …” was the pinnacle of technology achievement used to assess Americans’ ability to solve problems — but at the moment it doesn’t happen to have a rocket for taking humans to places such as the International Space Station.

For that, the United States must rely on Russia — not exactly who you want to be dependent on for critical technology. Russian rocket engines have also been used to put U.S. satellites into orbit.

That shortfall has created an entrepreneurial scramble between Kent-based Blue Origin, SpaceX (which has a sizable operation in this region) and Boeing to develop the next generation of rocket technology. Success in that endeavor would not just provide some measure of national security; it’s already generating jobs in this country.

Too often the debate over trade is presented as an either/or proposition: Either protect everybody or open it to everyone and may the best (or cheapest) win. That fails to take into account not just differences in production costs but also in economic systems, philosophies and national goals.

If accounting for those differences and if asserting American interests means trade law and policy that is complex, inconsistent, political, piecemeal, uneconomic, uneven and sometimes contradictory, then Americans might be more comfortable with that than an approach that seems too willing to slough off jobs, industries, technologies and regions of the country to someone else’s benefit.

They’ll be especially receptive if it’s their job, industry or region that’s being casually tossed aside.

“I’d rather do it myself” might not be much in the way of theoretical eloquence next to “comparative advantage” and the like. As an operating basis for trade policy, however, it works just fine for many Americans — especially if it means they’re working too.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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