Barack Obama Calls for “Economic Patriotism”

The president seeks to reduce oil imports and “invest in America, not ship jobs overseas.”

President Barack Obama makes a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 22
President Barack Obama makes a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 22 (Obama for America/Josh Burstein)

President Barack Obama said on Thursday that it was time “for a new economic patriotism” and vowed to reduce oil imports and give tax breaks to companies that “invest in America, not ship jobs overseas.”

Campaigning in the resort city of Virginia Beach, the president, who is facing reelection in November, said that “economic patriotism” should be “rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class.” He claimed that his policies would create a million new jobs in manufacturing over the next four years and help double American exports.

The promises echoed his January State of the Union address in which he complained that “companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas.”

Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world. It makes no sense and everyone knows it. So let’s change it.

Yet the president does not propose corporate tax reduction even if the country’s 35 percent rate is indeed the highest among industrialized nations. Rather, he would raise taxes on businesses that outsource jobs. “That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies,” he said, “that decide to bring jobs home.”

Specifically, he advocated an expansion of government loans for small businesses, additional financing for job retraining programs and trade sanctions “when our competitors don’t play by the rules.”

In Virginia, which is expected to be a critical swing state in November’s election, Obama also listed doubling fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, training 100,000 new teachers and increasing student aid “so more Americans can afford” college tuition.

What the president calls economic patriotism is economic nationalism, characterized primarily by a will to sustain American manufacturing despite competition from cheap labor overseas and grounded in the belief that imports are necessarily detrimental to the United States economy while increasing exports is vital to boosting growth rates.

The president, as well as his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, usually singles out China in his criticisms of countries that do not “play by the rules.” China heavily subsidizes its own industries at the detriment of foreign competitors but it can point to America’s support of ailing banks and automakers in 2008 and 2009 as unfair trade practices — policies that the president regularly touts on the campaign trail. The fact that General Motors is “alive” is mentioned as one of the great successes of his administration by Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

Both China and the United States have policies that advantage their domestic industries at the expense of free and fair competition. China subsidizes its automakers, so does America. China subsidies solar panels producers, so does the Obama Administration.

Contrary to popular belief, American manufacturing is not in decline. Manufacturing as a share of the economy may have decreased by up to a third in the last twenty years and certainly factory jobs have been lost but real manufacturing output has increased by more than 80 percent during the same period. The reason is that factory work in the United States is increasingly mechanized and highly specialized.

As a result of rising labor costs in China and its unfavorable demographics — the country is expected to have more than four million retirees by the middle of this century, more than America’s total projected population by that time — American companies are reluctant to outsource more jobs in the long term. Chinese labor costs remain lower but the high costs of transportation involved will soon probably outweigh the benefit.

Employment for low skilled workers is unlikely to return in factories nevertheless but the industry that promises tremendous job opportunities is one that is besieged by the president’s party as well as his administration’s Environmental Protection Agency — energy.

The president wants to reduce energy imports and create blue-collar jobs but is wary about shale oil and gas, even if fracking is responsible for creating 600,000 jobs since 2008 and North Dakota adds more jobs relative to its population than any other thanks to its booming shale oil industry.

In the northern Appalachian mountain region, which includes industrial states that have seen their steel industries virtually disappear and where the coal workforce has shrunk 90 percent in the last forty years, energy conglomerates are planning billions of dollars worth of investments to revitalize the natural gas sector and construct new chemical plants. If the president reins in his EPA, which is fighting domestic energy production with emission standards that are impossible to reach for many fossil fuel plants and excessive permit requirements, and signals that he is sincere about an “all of the above” strategy for energy by, for instance, approving the extension of the Keystone Pipeline which is to carry crude oil from Canada to Houston, Texas, those investments are likelier to be made.

Instead, what the industry has seen is an administration that shut all deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for months in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, a decision that was struck down in court as “arbitrary and capricious” — yet the ban persists de facto as precious few permits for drilling in the area are issued.

The president’s promise to double fuel efficiency standards — something his administration has, in fact, already prepared — doesn’t suggest that a second term will bring much relief for the energy industry.

Besides increased costs for consumers — the new standards are expected to raise the average price of a car by $1,800 — the fuel requirement effectively replaces the federal ethanol subsidy that was allowed to expire this year. For 2012, thirteen billion barrels of ethanol are required to meet the existing fuel efficiency target. Within ten years, the amount will nearly triple if the new standards are implemented.

For comparison, the United States imported more than four billions barrels of oil last year, some 40 percent of its energy consumption. As recent as 2007, more than 60 percent of American oil was imported.

Increased domestic ethanol production may reduce the need for oil imports but corn imports will have to increase and so will meat prices because corn goes into feeding livestock and Asian demand for meat is rising.

The fallacies of economic nationalism are closely related to the failures of central planning and protectionism and reflected in the uninterrupted decline in American competitiveness during the last four years.

“Economic patriotism” may sound attractive but the practical consequences of such a policy has been disappointing during the last four years and absolutely dismal in countries that have taken it to its logical conclusion — autarky.

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