Air Force Certifies the Weakness of Domestic Manufacturing

by: Michael Mandel

I was just revising a portion of my textbook, Economics:The Basics, and I happened to come across this March 21, 2011 entry in the Federal Register, where the Air Force is granting a waiver from the "Buy American" requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This is what the waiver said:

The domestic nonavailability determination for these products is based on extensive market research and thorough investigation of the domestic manufacturing landscape. This research identified that these products are manufactured almost exclusively in China.

Which products are they talking about?

… [T]he following construction items to be incorporated into the project FTQW094001 for the construction and replacement of military family housing units at Eielson AFB, Alaska under task order FA8903-06-D-8505-0019. The items are 1″ Collated Screws, Shank #10; 1-1/2″ (Taco) Air Scoops for Hydronic Heating Systems; 1-5/8″ Ceramic Coated Bugle Head Course Thread Screws; 2″ (Taco) Air Scoops for Hydronic Heating Systems; 2-1/2″ (Taco) Air Scoops for Hydronic Heating Systems; 2-1/2″ Collated Screws; 3″ Ceramic Coated Bugle Head Course Thread Screws; 3″ Spool Insulators;3/4″ Collated Screws, Shank #10; 3″;Bolt Guy Clamp; Ceiling Fan; Ceiling Fan w/Light Kit; Door Hinge Pin Stops; Exterior Wall Mount Two Head Flood Light w/270 Degree Motion Sensor & Brushed Nickel Finish; Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) Receptacles; Handrail Brackets; Maclean Power Systems Guy Attachment; Residential Style Satin Chrome Handrail Bracket; Satin Nickel Outdoor Sconce Light Fixture; Tamper-Resistant Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) Receptacles; Weather-Resistant Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) Receptacles; Pendant Bar Light Fixture; 24″ Bath Vanity Light Fixture; Pendant Chandelier Light Fixture; Linear Fluorescent Ceiling Lighting Fixture (48″ Lensed Fluorescent w/Dimming Ballast & Satin Aluminum Finish); 48″ Bath Vanity Light Fixture; 20″ Utility Shelf Bracket; Chrome Finish Residential Dishwasher Air Gap Cap Fitting; Satin Chrome Finish Convex Wall Mount Door Stops; Residential Microwave w/Range Hood; Residential Style Polished Chrome Towel Ring; Residential Style Polished Chrome Toilet Paper Holder; Residential Style Polished Chrome Double Robe Hook; Residential Style Bright Stainless Steel 60″ Curved Shower Rod & Flanges; Residential Style Polished Chrome 24″ Towel Bar; Residential Style Polished Chrome 30″ Towel Bar; Satin Nickel Finish Wall Mounted Spring Door Stop.

Hmm … it’s pretty amazing, don’t you think, that the Air Force is certifying that none of these items are available from American manufacturers? It’s even more extraordinary given that the BEA reports that the U.S. fabricated metal and electrical equipment industries were producing at very high levels as recently as 2007. Similarly, the BLS is reporting record levels of output in the "turned product, screw, nut and bolt" industry as of 2007.

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I see four possibilities ...

  1. The Air Force could be lazy. The parts are really available, but they can’t find them.
  2. U.S. manufacturers only make sophisticated parts, not towel bars and door stops.
  3. These industries were doing great through 2007, and have only gone offshore since the recession.
  4. The official data didn’t pick up the offshoring in the 2000s.

Take your pick.