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Podcast: Will Biden Build Back Green, or Import Green?

Rethinking Trade - Season 1, Episode 29

Our tax dollars should support green jobs with fair wages, not a global race to the bottom that exploits workers and poisons the environment. But thanks to corporate-rigged trade policies, “Buy American” government purchasing requirements are waived to include purchases from 60 other countries. This means our tax dollars are exported instead of being recycled at home to develop electric car and domestic solar, wind and other renewable energy manufacturing.

With the COVID-19 relief bill currently being implemented and another major spending bill on the horizon, the president must take a simple but important action to keep trillions in taxpayer dollars circulating in the U.S. economy to build a green future. Thankfully, the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan acknowledges this as a problem for both climate justice and economic justice, but obstacles still remain.

More on this subject is available here.

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan: Welcome back to rethinking trade where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I’m Ryan and I’m joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Today, we’re going to be talking about jobs, the climate and a major part of the Biden administration’s plans for the country. Before we get into that, though, there’s two things that need to be defined for me and for the listeners. The first one is Buy American. The second is industrial policy. Lori, could you give us a quick understanding of what these terms mean, in relation to the content we’re about to discuss.

Lori: So Buy American is literally a statute from the FDR era, that gives preferences to domestic goods when the government spends money. So when the government procures cars or desks or paper or computers or phones, the law requires that the priority be in reinvesting our tax dollars into buying things made here, so that the money goes back into innovation and jobs in the United States. Industrial policy is a broad set of policy approaches that a government uses to incentivize the development of different sectors like manufacturing. Procurement policy, like by American is one tool of industrial policy. But other tools include tax policies. For instance, our current tax system incentivizes the offshoring of investment in jobs, you get a lower tax rate if you produce offshore, that’s a choice. It’s an anti-industrial policy, or sometimes industrial policy involves subsidies. So the government will give you a payment back if you buy an electric car, if you use solar on your roof, for instance, to try and incentivize certain behaviors with respect to renewable energy. And that basket of different tools many countries use and many developed countries like Germany, where its industrial policy for manufacturing, for instance, and involves tax policies involves educational policies to train workers and technical skills involves investments in research and universities involves incentives and subsidies and tax benefits to cluster different companies together so they can become a solid supply chain in a particular area. And all of those tools together are how the countries that currently are leading in different sectors have been able to do so. So the good news is that the Build Back Better plan contemplates renegotiating those parts of the trade agreements that effectively forbid us from using Buy American preferences by it’s going to take a while to do that 60 countries now get that treatment, a lot of different agreements are going to need to get fixed, but a ton of money. And in fact, some of the main policy towards green energy, green auto sector infrastructure is all going to get spent is going to be allocated very quickly. And that is because there will be too big reconciliation bills, the one passed the COVID relief Bill $1.9 trillion. And the next one is going to have a lot of energy, infrastructure, etc, in it. And that is the Recovery Act, the COVID Recovery Act. And those are the two pieces of legislation that can get through the Senate with 50 votes, it’s using a sort of arcane budget rule. But those are the things we know for sure are going to actually be the trains leaving the station versus the Republicans in the Senate can block a lot of other stuff. And so if the president doesn’t use the authority the President has right now to do a special waiver. So that’s that by American exception for all the trade women countries is not it needs to be chucked out just for the COVID spending. We can then go back and renegotiate for the regular spending the trade agreements. But in the short term, if the president doesn’t use this special authority that he has, we’ll end up offshoring those trillions of extra dollars including in the green energy green jobs, electric car sector instead of building instead of investing to build those sectors here. We’ll just end up spending the money to import the goods from someplace else.

Ryan: You kind of hinted at some of this in what you just said. But President Biden’s Build Back Better plan calls for some pretty huge investments in green technology as part of the path forward on both job creation, but also addressing some of the priority changes called for by the climate justice movement. A lot of people have observed that this is one of the closest things we’ve seen in a long time to having a wide-scale national industrial policy, and one that has both national and global implications. I wanted to ask you, Lori, how do Buy American rules play into the Build Back Better vision? And what are some of the critical fixes that need to be made to ensure that these rules can be used to support this initiative?

Lori: Over time, the Buy American policies that were established originally 80 years ago, have been eroded. And they’ve been eroded in two ways. One is that there are very loose rules about what can be considered American, you can have all the parts and components come from someplace else. And as long as it’s assembled here, it qualifies under some circumstances. And so a lot of taxpayer money actually literally is being spent in goods made elsewhere. Another really big exception to the rule is that any country with which the U.S. has a certain kind of trade agreement gets treated all of its goods and services as companies get treated like they’re American. So right now by American means by American plus goods from 60 other countries, it’s all of Europe, it’s Japan, it’s Hong Kong, it’s Mexico, it’s Korea. And for all of those goods, there is basically offshoring of our tax dollars to buy those goods from other countries. And the hitch with the build back better plan is, it both recognizes that this is a problem, and for instance, talks about renegotiating a bunch of those trade agreement rules, which is exactly right. But the hitches a lot of the money is going to be spent through what is called the reconciliation bills, these two bills that only need 50 votes to get through the Senate are some of the only big policy bills that are going to go into place. The first one’s already been passed. It’s the COVID Relief Act $1.9 trillion dollars. And the next one is going to probably be focusing more on infrastructure and renewable energy. And if there’s a big waiver to buy American with the trade agreements for all of that we’re going to see a lot of the potential to harness that taxpayer money into a renewable energy future with good jobs being squandered.

Ryan: You were quoted in the Huffington Post recently, in an article called “How a Trade Dispute Between Two Korean Firms Could Jam Biden’s Electric Car Plans.” The article detailed a rather obscure case moving through the U.S. International Trade Commission’s core system, that could have a big impact on some of Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Maybe you can explain this case and how it shines a light on the necessity to transform our trade policies as we look towards other systemic domestic priorities.

Lori: So, the case in question is a fight between two Korean companies that make electric car batteries. And there is a piece of U.S. trade law that allows a private company to go to court and basically get an injunction a stop operating order against another company if they can argue that that other company is importing goods or is making goods that violate the intellectual property rights of the other company. So the one Korean company is saying that the other Korean company which is trying to open up an electric car battery factory in Georgia, the company number one is claiming company number two that’s opening the new U.S. plant has stolen company number ones electric battery technology, and that it’s violating its patent. And under this U.S. trade law, basically, the patent right of the foreign company trumps the goal of the Biden administration and getting a lot of electric vehicles and that supply chain built in the U.S., because it doesn’t matter if it’s a Korean company, or if it’s a U.S. company, if the production is here, and the jobs are here and the supply chain is here. That helps promote what the bind administration is trying to do as far as the climate and jobs goals. So the there’s been an original ruling by the International Trade Commission that is forbidding the second company to produce its electric car batteries, they can only do it for a certain number of years and then be shut down. And so there’s now an effort by policymakers in Georgia and environmental groups to get the president to use authority to override the shutdown of this electric car battery plant.

Ryan: Last, Lori, for a big question. And that is, do you think the Biden administration will follow through on these promises? Or maybe more importantly, for folks listening to this podcast? What are some of the roadblocks that we need to work to transform to help clear the way?

Lori: My sense is that the administration actually intends to follow through. But it’s not going to be a simple matter, because there are a lot of special interests that have enjoyed the existing system. Which is to say, obviously, the oil and gas companies have had all kinds of incentives and privileges in the tax code with subsidies, those have to be taken away. And then the green energy sector and electric car production need to be incentivized. And that’s going to be a big battle. But something people can do right now is to communicate by email, by calls, if you’re a user of Twitter, by Twitter, the message to your senators and your house members that you need the president to use the President’s existing authority to do an emergency waiver of the trade women exception for Buy American, you don’t want the big COVID relief and recovery bill money to go offshore. And you know, the easy way to say it basically is can you get the president to end the trade agreement exception for Buy American for the COVID money. That’s the cleanest way to say it. So far, 13 senators and a bunch of House members have written to the president asking him to use that authority, it’s very easy to do, the president just has to put a little notice in the Federal Register saying, “Hey, for this COVID money, the by American exception for trade agreements does not apply that money staying home — we’re investing at home.” It’s just a ploy question of getting that to be something the President actually prioritizes doing. Because if we have this unique opportunity with all these large pots of money to try and build the future green infrastructure green energy system, electric car supply chain that we need, both as a matter of having a livable planet and surviving climate catastrophe, but also to create new jobs and transition, have a just transition that takes into account people’s livelihoods, then we need to have that money harness here. We’ve paid it in as taxpayers, we need to transform our economy, our jobs and do our part to protect the climate. And that means we need to make sure it’s not all being offshored. Because, you know, the companies that got their original waiver to Buy American for the trade agreements, they always wanted to be able to get their big fat government contracts and to produce the stuff at slave wages offshore. And as a matter of climate justice and economic justice that has to end you want our tax dollars, then A: it’s going to be green and B: it’s going to be fair wages. So you’re going to be having unions, you’re gonna be making a lot of it at home, you’re not going to be racing to the bottom, and we have control over that. And it’s worth talking to members of Congress about that right now because the money starting to move.

Ryan: Rethinking trade is produced by Public Citizens Global Trade Watch. To learn more, you can visit rethinktrade.org You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening