Scoring 50 years of US industrial policy, 1970–2020

Industrial Policy is making a comeback big time.

Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Euijin Jung in this PIIE report evaluate US ind policy over last 50 years:

Industrial policy is making a comeback in the United States. It is more urgent than ever to understand how and whether industrial policy has worked to strengthen the US economy. This study analyzes and scores 18 US industrial policy episodes implemented between 1970 and 2020, in an effort to assess what went right and what went wrong—and how the current initiatives might fare. These case studies can guide policymakers as they embark on what appears to be a major initiative in US government involvement in the economy today. The authors divide the 18 case studies into three broad categories: cases where trade measures blocked the US market or opened foreign markets, cases where federal or state subsidies were targeted to specific firms, and cases where public and private R&D was funded to advance technology.

The outcome of each episode is scored by grading three criteria: (1) the effect on US competitiveness in global markets (or in some cases the national market), (2) whether the annual cost per job saved or created in the sector was reasonable (i.e., no more than the prevailing average wage), and (3) whether support advanced the technological frontier. Some of the episodes are partly or entirely successful while others are complete failures. Industrial policy can save or create jobs, but often at high cost.

A major political selling point for industrial policy is to save or create jobs in a specific industry or location. In most cases, import protection does not create a competitive US industry, and it imposes extreme costs on household and business users per job-year saved. Trade policy concentrated on opening markets abroad is a better bet.

Designating a single firm to advance technology yields inconsistent results. The highly successful model of Operation Warp Speed vividly demonstrates that competition is an American strength. R&D industrial policy has the best track record by far. Among the 18 cases, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has the outstanding record.  

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