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Doing Less with More
President Joe Biden has a brilliant plan for government spending: doing less with more.
As anybody who has lived through the newspaper bloodbaths of the past few decades can tell you, the usual advice from the corporate consultantweasels is that we do more with less. But the Biden administration intends to set that maxim on its head, building directly upon some of the worst economic thinking of the previous administration.
The Biden administration is going to be a lot more like the Trump administration than you may have been expecting, especially when it comes to “America First” business policies, which are corporate welfare in patriotic drag. To wit: Biden’s executive order expanding on the Trump administration’s buy-American procurement rules.
The rules developed under the Trump administration have not exactly been sitting there for years, growing outdated — the rules were finalized on the day before Donald Trump left office. The new rules developed under the Trump administration raised the “domestic content” requirement for most products from 50 percent to 55 percent — and raised them to 95 percent for goods made mainly of steel or iron; ended an exception for commercially available off-the-shelf iron or steel products while continuing an exception for fasteners such as nails and screws; and, most significant, they jacked up the “price preferences” for domestic goods.
The last of these, the “price preferences,” are what really matter most. Washington doesn’t just order federal agencies to source products from U.S.-based providers — instead, there is a complex system of procurement rules that favor domestic producers unless the imports are a great deal less expensive. Price preferences specify how much more government will pay for the same goods provided by a U.S.-based company when they could be had at a lower price from a non-U.S. firm. Under the Trump-era rules, which are now the Biden rules, the U.S. government will pay as much as 20 percent more for goods procured from large firms and as much as 30 percent more for goods procured from small businesses.
That’s how you jack up procurement expenses in one easy step. You don’t just go local — you pay more. Sometimes, you pay a lot more.
Biden is, to no great surprise, receiving some encouragement in this from members of Congress whose districts are home to firms that would benefit from being able to charge higher prices. For example, Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Procter & Gamble) and Representative Kathy Manning (D., Honeywell) are pushing the Biden administration to ramp up personal protective equipment (PPE) purchases, contracting for big purchases directly from favored domestic manufacturers. This is the denouement of one of the year’s most predictable business stories: When the coronavirus emergency first hit, the economy was shut down and PPE purchases skyrocketed — you couldn’t get your hands on an N95 facemask there for a while. And, so, everybody and his uncle got into the PPE business, and, now that the panic-buying has subsided, there is a glut in the market. “Regrettably, we have too many manufacturers in our states and across the nation that have capacity but no orders,” the Democrats said in a letter to Biden.
If only there were some ingenious mechanism by which supply and demand could be coordinated in a decentralized and non-politicized fashion!
Biden will now make the Trump arrangement a little bit worse by making the rules murkier and the bureaucracy more complex. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Biden’s executive order “directs an increase in both the threshold for local contents and the price preferences for domestic goods . . . but doesn’t state specific levels.” It creates a new High Grand Mufti of Corporate Welfare, who shall rejoice in the title of “Director of Made-in-America at the Office of Management and Budget.” There will be reviews! And evaluations! And a new website!
There are appropriate times for domestic preferences — you probably don’t want the Chicomms building your nuclear-missile-guidance systems. The interaction of security with procurement is one of the reasons why multinational free-trade agreements are often so long — exceptions have to be carefully specified. But that kind of thinking gets distorted very easily, especially if there’s a little bit of money floating around: Witness Senator Marco Rubio (R., Florida Crystals) and his silly insistence that subsidies for gazillionaire sugar barons are an urgent matter of national security.
How, exactly, is this in the national interest?
It is in the interest of those politically connected firms that make more money thanks to protectionist procurement rules, but that is offset by the fact that everybody else has to pay more — and the people who are doing the paying are Americans, too. And if we are paying more for nuts and bolts, that means less money left over for other spending — and other investments. And why bother trying to make your factory more efficient when you have a federally guaranteed price cushion not enjoyed by your competition?
You don’t actually make the country as a whole better off by overcharging Peter to overpay Paul. What you do is make everybody worse off by inhibiting the normal functioning of markets, in which the division of labor and comparative advantage work together to make the world more prosperous by making the most of the necessarily limited resources we have.
This isn’t a program to reinforce the interests of American businesses and workers. It is a program to reinforce the interests of American politicians, Biden first.
In Other News . . .
The New York Times has dismissed a contractor after online complaints about some mildly pro-Biden tweets. The Times insists that she was not fired over the tweets. I tend to believe the Times here: If the New York Times were worried about being perceived as a newspaper that generally favors Democrats, then it would fire Dean Baquet and A. G. Sulzberger, not some nobody editor you’ve never heard of.
Words about Words
The word pundit, which I increasingly hear mispronounced “pundint,” is a direct borrowing from Sanskrit, a word meaning teacher or learned man. The modern Hindustani word is usually transliterated pandit. Its application to the uniquely modern profession in which (supposedly) wise or at least experienced men give their opinions on the events of the day dates from the early 19th century; before that, pundit in English was used to refer only to Hindu scholars and teachers.
Pundit is used as an honorific in India, for instance in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was called Pandit Nehru. The famous musician Ravi Shankar was styled Pandit Ravi Shankar, often abbreviated Pt. Ravi Shankar.
If you’ll forgive my documenting a meandering train of thought, this weekend I was listening to the recently released That Which Colors the Mind, a terrific recording of the famed sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, part of “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” a series of extraordinary concert tapes made by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s sound man. Yehudi Menuhin once described Ali Akbar Khan as “perhaps the greatest musician in the world,” and the recording makes a good case for his being so.
But my interest here is language. Ali Akbar Khan brought to mind the sitarist Vilayat Khan, almost always styled Ustad Vilayat Khan, ustad being an honorific similar to pandit, something like the English (by way of Italian) maestro. I believe the first time I ever saw the word ustad was in reference to Vilayat Khan, and I assumed at the time that the word ustad probably was related to the Spanish usted, given that they function in similar ways (as sir, roughly) and given the connections between the languages of the Muslim world and Spanish, but I somehow managed to go 30 years without actually checking that out.
I am far from the first person to wonder about that connection, and, as it turns out, there isn’t one. The independent evolution of both words is reasonably well-documented, with the Spanish usted coming from the earlier vusted, an abbreviation for Vuestra Merced, meaning Your Mercy, a version of the form of address Your Grace. Ustad is originally a Persian word that spread throughout the Muslim world into such languages as Bengali and Urdu, and Arabic as well. There are many Arabic words that made their way into Spanish (barrio, algodón, and something amounting to maybe 8 percent of the Spanish lexicon), but ustad is not one of them. Arabic gets around, providing English with algebra, lemon, magazine, and much more.
But who gets to be an ustad? In some places, the title is given to a musician or a composer. In others, it is reserved exclusively to Islamic scholars. And, according to Wikipedia, in the Maldives it is reserved to locally licensed lawyers.
So that’s ustad. But there’s still no license for punditry.
Q: What do you think of using “disrespect” as a verb?
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Home and Away
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Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, is resigning. Like “Cyclone Hits Bangladesh” or “Bus Plunges into Ravine in Himalayas,” that is one of those heads that you can just keep on deck — it’s coming, because it’s always coming. Seventeen of Italy’s prime ministers have served less than a year. Tommaso Tittoni served only 16 days.
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