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The Telling Absence of “Buy American” Mandates

1 April 2021

Summary

In announcing his $2 trillion infrastructure* plan yesterday, President Joe Biden promised that it would feature a hefty dose of Buy American protectionism: Cato scholars have spent decades explaining Buy American restrictions’ many theoretical and practical shortcomings, but perhaps the best Buy American lesson came only a few hours after Biden’s speech, when news broke that millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses had been spoiled at the company’s Baltimore facility. Buried in the New York Times story on the J&J setback was this reassurance (emphasis mine): What a relief! More seriously, the Dutch J&J doses (and the company’s global vaccine operations) again reveal the telling lack of Buy American or other nationalist restrictions on U.S. government purchases of COVID-19 vaccines. As I noted a few weeks ago: Buy American restrictions undoubtedly raise costs and jeopardize federal projects’ timely completion; hence, why they’re (thankfully) absent from the U.S. government’s vaccine contracts. Instead, the United States’ COVID-19 vaccine rollout has leveraged multinational pharmaceutical producers’ global capital, talent and supply chains (including manufacturing facilities here and abroad) — to pretty great effect. If, as the White House keeps telling us, the Biden infrastructure* plan really does target similarly urgent — perhaps even existential — global priorities like climate change and China, one must ask why the president insists on impeding such efforts (and potentially alienating allies) with onerous new Buy American mandates. Or maybe these threats aren’t as urgent or existential as claimed? *Only a fraction of the bill actually targets infrastructure.

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