Column: ‘Buy American’ might sound good, but it’s bipartisan folly

President Joe Biden gestures while speaking during a State of the Union address.
President Biden gestures while speaking during his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol.
(Jacquelyn Martin / AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

You hear it all the time, including from me: Our politics are too partisan, too polarized, too divided. Why can’t both parties work together for the common good? But it’s worth pointing out that sometimes bipartisan consensus is awful.

The worst form of elite agreement is usually the product of politicians pandering to populist sentiment. When both parties serve as vessels for popular passions, they ignore experts and the lessons of history and suspend their own critical faculties.

This assertion bothers a lot of populists because they confuse populism with democracy. But the two things are in fact very different. Democracy is about disagreement and debate, about making public arguments about unpopular truths. Populism is inherently anti-intellectual, elevating emotions and gut feelings, denying the existence of inconvenient facts. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” the great American populist William Jennings Bryan declared. “I will look up the arguments later.”


For the last week, Washington’s chattering class has been obsessed with Joe Biden’s politically successful exchange with Republicans over Social Security and Medicare. During the State of the Union he maneuvered the GOP into a standing ovation to “protect” these entitlement programs. But while his admirers cheer and his detractors grumble about Biden’s framing of the politics — the GOP never signed on to Sen. Rick Scott’s proposal to “sunset” entitlement programs every five years and did not threaten to hold the debt ceiling debate “hostage” to cuts — there’s been precious little attention paid to the lies about the policy underneath the political spin.

Biden suggested that he could pay for sweeping infrastructure programs and keep entitlements solvent simply by finally making the wealthiest and biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share. He alluded to workers having paid into Social Security and Medicare from their “very first paycheck.”

It was nonsense — popular nonsense. Sure, workers have paid into these programs all their lives, but they get more out of them than they pay in, which is why Biden’s own Social Security trustees predict insolvency in the next decade. And suggesting that raising taxes on the rich and biggest corporations will save these programs from insolvency is demagoguery, popular demagoguery.

Or consider Biden’s vow to force all infrastructure projects to be “made in America” with American ingredients. “I mean it. Lumber, glass, drywall, fiber-optic cable. And on my watch, American roads, bridges, and American highways are going to be made with American products as well.”

Every time you hear “buy American” you should immediately translate that into “we’re going to pay extra” or “we’re going to buy subpar products.” This is not a particularly controversial statement — among the ranks of the economically literate. As Peter Coy of the New York Times puts it, “If the American-made products were cheaper, better or both, there would be no need to force agencies to buy them.”

The economic nationalism — or protectionism and industrial policy — embraced by both Biden and Donald Trump is a conspiracy against consumers and taxpayers. Remember the baby formula crisis? That was driven in part by economic nationalism. America’s tariffs keep perfectly good European and Canadian baby formula off American shelves. Remember the runaway inflation in new housing costs? That was driven in part because we make Canadian lumber more expensive.


Now, there are some good national security arguments for protecting certain high-tech industries, or at least moving parts of the supply chain out of China and closer to home. But those are national security arguments, not economic ones.

One problem with such arguments is they invite non-vital industries to pretend they are vital to national security in order to get special treatment. Drawing distinctions between necessary and unnecessary is a good democratic debate, but ill-suited for a climate of populist pandering.

When Trump pushed his economic nationalism and more tariffs, many formerly free-trade Republicans jumped on board while many Democrats, who once demanded industrial policy and were suspicious of free trade, attacked Trump. As one pollster put it, “If Donald Trump is for it and you’re a Democrat, you move in a very different direction.”

This time around, Republicans are convinced they can become a “working-class party.” And the Democrats are reclaiming that phony idea. Give credit where it’s due. Trump and Biden together have managed to cement in this bipartisan folly.