The COVID-19 pandemic has damaged lives and livelihoods throughout the world. The United States has been hit hard, but true to our nature we are learning from and adapting to these new challenges.
A critical lesson has been the economic and security risks that the virus has exposed. Key among these risks: the hidden cost of our country’s high dependence on the global supply chain.
Our economy was too fragile and dependent on supplies outside our control when the coronavirus surged around the world. Critical supplies we needed were cut off.
Despite America’s global economic strength, we were alarmingly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions because the U.S. manufactures a fraction of what it needs here at home.
We still remember the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) that put health care workers, first responders and those they needed to treat in danger. That’s because much of the global PPE supply chain was sourced from factories in China and the massive increase in global demand created shortages that we could not control.
The pandemic exposed our “Achilles’ Heel” when we were confronted by disruptions to overseas manufacturing and shipping of high-demand goods. This is similar to when OPEC’s 1973 embargo showed how vulnerable we were to an oil shock. In the intervening years the U.S. has reclaimed its role as a world leader in energy and we can apply that same resiliency to rebuilding the rest of American manufacturing. But we need to act now.
America’s decline as a manufacturing leader is especially acute in the global production of steel. Today, three-quarters of the world’s steel is produced outside of the U.S. and most of that is controlled by foreign governments.
While America was once the world powerhouse steel producer, China has assumed that title — and not by a little.
With extensive state guidance and support, China has been the global leader in steel production for the past quarter-century (since 1996). During the pandemic, China raised its share of world steel production to 62 percent, up from 54 percent last year. We can only hope that this is not a deliberate attempt to capture even more of the market during these challenging conditions.
This year, with 1.2 billion tons per year of capacity, China is expected to produce one billion tons of steel. That’s roughly 50 times more than all of U.S. Steel. It should be a small wonder why we are concerned about America’s growing dependence on others for the steel that is so essential to our national economy and security.
Steel is the backbone of infrastructure modernization and manufacturing across a wide array of sectors — from bridges and buildings to autos and shipbuilding, which is key to the national defense. America’s dependency on foreign-controlled supply chains means our production lines are at the mercy of those who may not have our best interests in mind.
When the U.S. lacks the ability to control its access to needed materials — what it needs, when and where it needs them, and at what cost — bad things can happen.
We don’t have to use our imagination here – we have just seen this play out and the economy struggle as a result of it.
Jobs are an obvious and early casualty when supply chains are disrupted. However, if we revitalize our domestic supply chain now with strong domestic industries such as steel, we will be ready to swiftly rebuild when the effects of COVID-19 have abated. The challenges and sacrifices we are enduring now will allow us to emerge stronger.
We need to make investments in infrastructure and other strategic sectors with a “Buy America” focus. Doing so will help revitalize our domestic supply chain into a reliable, resilient network of American businesses producing American made products.
This multiplies the jobs and economic benefit far beyond the ultimate infrastructure projects and production of goods such as vehicles and ships.
A domestic supply chain consisting of American made equipment, with maximum domestic content, gives America more control and certainty. When the unthinkable happens, production lines in vital industries will remain open and our nation’s economic engine will continue to fire on all cylinders.
Unless there is strong and swift action to ensure the supplies we need are sufficiently available to the economy, our most fundamental interests — security and prosperity — will be at risk.
If our elected leaders work together now to establish the right policies and incentives, we can regenerate our nation’s manufacturing muscle, restore our global economic leadership, and power America’s future economic growth.
David B. Burritt is President and CEO of United States Steel Corporation.