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Should We Have An Industrial Policy?

Congressman David Cicilline, in a letter to President Obama ahead of his highly anticipated jobs speech next week, calls for an investment in manufacturing:

Nationally, the manufacturing sector has been a bright spot even during these trying economic times. If this vital economic engine is to be sustained, we must continue our investments in programs that help manufacturers compete in a global economy, retool to be more efficient and effective businesses, and retrain the workforce so that skill sets utilized in declining sectors can be transferred to those that are expanding.

This, of course, fits with the Congressman's larger push to revive Rhode Island's manufacturing sector - and demonstrate his focus on the biggest concern for Rhode Island voters: jobs.

But should the United States be engaged with the sort of "industrial policy" we associate with an earlier time or, at present, managed economies in China and elsewhere? Last week, a well-worth-the-read New York Times magazine article, focused on the Obama Administration's investment in battery technology in Michigan, wrestled with the question:

If nothing else, the Obama administration’s efforts in Michigan reawaken the conversation about industrial policy. To a large extent, this is an old war among Washington politicians. In the 1970s, it was fought over the federal bailouts of Lockheed and Chrysler — and a few years later during debates over whether the country needed to assist domestic companies in their efforts to gain ground on the Japanese in the semiconductor industry. By the time George H. W. Bush ascended to the presidency, the move away from industrial policy was clear.

“All you had to do in the 1980s was say, ‘That’s industrial policy,’ and it killed anything it was hurled at,” says Senator Levin, who along with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio is now among the most vocal advocates of such a policy. “It was the kiss of death. And it set us back 10 to 20 years in terms of manufacturing in America.” What is different now, Levin argues, is that “our companies are not competing with those companies in Korea and Japan. They’re competing with those governments that are supporting them. It’s naïve to believe that we just have to let the markets work and we’ll have a strong manufacturing base in America.” In his view, the lithium-ion investments are tantamount to repairing a kind of market failure.

The battery executives I spoke to viewed the stimulus money as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. None seemed to think a federal windfall would come their way again. None saw their business endeavors as inherently political or ideological. And none seemed to believe they could survive if they didn’t drive battery costs down and demonstrate that they could compete with the best lithium-ion factories abroad. “My own feeling is this will happen just as the government incentives wear off,” Patil told me. “By then it has to become a self-sustaining business, and we actually see a line of sight to get there.”

If the battery stimulus ultimately succeeds, does it demonstrate that expanding the United States’ economy only through knowledge and services is no longer a viable strategy? “All of the great new American companies of the past few decades,” says Suzanne Berger, a chairwoman of M.I.T.’s panel on the future of American manufacturing, “have focused on research and development and product definition — Apple, Qualcomm, Cisco.” These were technology companies that could take full advantage of what she calls the “modularity” of the global economy. Their genius resided in the design of their gadgets and information systems; offshoring the industrial work did not leave them at a disadvantage. It did the opposite, greatly reducing costs and raising profits. “Now I think we’re at a really different moment,” Berger says. “We’re seeing a wave of new technologies, in energy, biotechnology, batteries, where there has to be a closer integration between research, development, design, product definition and production.”

One challenge to moving in this direction may be that our banks, hedge funds and venture capitalists are geared toward investing in financial instruments and software companies. In such endeavors, even modest investments can yield extraordinarily quick and large returns. Financing brick-and-mortar factories, by contrast, is expensive and painstaking and offers far less potential for speedy returns. Berger maintains that for the economy to get “full value” from our laboratories’ ideas in energy or biotech — not just new company headquarters but industrial jobs too — we must aspire to a different business model than the one we have come to admire.

 

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