Tax Day and Buy American Conveniently Coincide to Highlight Executive Overreach

This year’s Tax Day was marked by a wave of populist furor directed against President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Meanwhile, retailers celebrate the anticipation of tax returns with a barrage of sales, marked to coincide with the anticipated cash with which consumers will be flushed.

The disparity in these reactions is truly heinous. The former is protesting a political choice, perhaps a poor one from a messaging and transparency standpoint, to buck a relatively recent and completely voluntary precedent established by Richard Nixon to wash off the stain of suspicion from an ongoing IRS investigation. The latter is not only capitalizing on but perpetuating and normalizing a culture of abuse wherein taxpayers are not only supposed to accept but celebrate an explicit acknowledgment that the government forcibly took more property from private citizens than it had a claim to.

American businesses, which suffer from a ridiculously onerous corporate tax burden that makes the byzantine income tax code look tame in comparison, ought to instead be showing consumers the goods they could more easily afford to buy if government didn’t arbitrarily take a cut of their paycheck.

It’s appropriate this annual reminder of federal overreach coincided with President Trump’s signing of the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, another example of the kind of free-wheeling by-fiat style of leadership which has become the new normal for the federal government, despite the fact it is not only highly questionable from a Constitutional standpoint but from a feasibility standpoint.

The president touted his decision to expand the Buy American Act of 1933, which mandates the federal government purchase U.S.-made products when possible in a vein of economic nativism common to the Progressive Era but which is quickly becoming resurgent, bragging:

“This historic action declares that the policy of our government is to aggressively promote and use American-made goods and to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job.  It’s America first, you better believe it.”

But is it? As with all things Washington touches, this is not a simple matter of action and response; there’s a whole mess of bureaucratic managerialism involved, as the relevant portion of the executive order details:

Sec. 3.  Immediate Enforcement and Assessment of Domestic Preferences According to Buy American Laws.  (a)  Every agency shall scrupulously monitor, enforce, and comply with Buy American Laws, to the extent they apply, and minimize the use of waivers, consistent with applicable law.
 
(b)  Within 150 days of the date of this order, the heads of all agencies shall:

(i)    assess the monitoring of, enforcement of, implementation of, and compliance with Buy American Laws within their agencies;
 
(ii)   assess the use of waivers within their agencies by type and impact on domestic jobs and manufacturing; and
 
(iii)  develop and propose policies for their agencies to ensure that, to the extent permitted by law, Federal financial assistance awards and Federal procurements maximize the use of materials produced in the United States, including manufactured products; components of manufactured products; and materials such as steel, iron, aluminum, and cement.

(c)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Commerce and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Labor, the United States Trade Representative, and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council, shall issue guidance to agencies about how to make the assessments and to develop the policies required by subsection (b) of this section.
 
(d)  Within 150 days of the date of this order, the heads of all agencies shall submit findings made pursuant to the assessments required by subsection (b) of this section to the Secretary of Commerce and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
 
(e)  Within 150 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Commerce and the United States Trade Representative shall assess the impacts of all United States free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization Agreement on Government Procurement on the operation of Buy American Laws, including their impacts on the implementation of domestic procurement preferences.
 
(f)  The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the United States Trade Representative, shall submit to the President a report on Buy American that includes findings from subsections (b), (d), and (e) of this section.  This report shall be submitted within 220 days of the date of this order and shall include specific recommendations to strengthen implementation of Buy American Laws, including domestic procurement preference policies and programs.  Subsequent reports on implementation of Buy American Laws shall be submitted by each agency head annually to the Secretary of Commerce and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, on November 15, 2018, 2019, and 2020, and in subsequent years as directed by the Secretary of Commerce and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  The Secretary of Commerce shall submit to the President an annual report based on these submissions beginning January 15, 2019.

That’s a lot of time and resources to spend on a thirty-second applause line which might garner a couple of points of approval if played ad nauseam in today’s soundbite political culture. The actual cost of compliance, and presumably the benefits to the beleaguered businessmen who will be bolstered by this policy, doesn’t even become a tangible economic point until January 2019.

In the meantime, one is left to wonder: exactly how much does implementing and complying with this policy cost taxpayers? If better quality goods are available from outside America, doesn’t this benefit Americans more in the long-run by reducing infrastructure costs which are passed to citizens in the form of taxes?

As with the imaging of a tax return, this is linguistic chicanery, a form of rhetorical sophistry which makes the chains of economic bondage seem more comfortable.

Besides, the president’s language of “America first” is telling. That is not the same thing as putting Americans firsts. Putting Americans first would mean dropping the beneficent pretense that this kind of protectionism is a long-term boon for the strength of the nation’s economy. It’s the same kind of shell game the Treasury Department is playing; by hyping tax returns they distract from what is implied by the plain English meaning of the term. It’s not only insulting to citizens, but a soft form of despotism as well.


Also published on Medium.

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