What kind of industrial policy does America need?

That idea is making a big comeback, but let’s make sure we understand the status quo first.  So runs my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Perhaps most important, it should be recognized that the U.S. already has an industrial policy — and has for some time. It is a collection of programs and policies at the federal and state level, many of which are highly imperfect, and so the focus should be on fixing what is already in place.

The first and perhaps most significant component of U.S. industrial policy is a high level of defense spending, much higher than that of any other country. The spinoffs of this spending famously include the internet of course, but also early advances in computers and some later advances in aviation. Today’s orbiting network of satellites is in part a spinoff from the space program, which was partially motivated by military concerns.

It’s not yet clear whether current defense spinoffs will prove as innovative and as potent as those  of the past, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Procurement cycles for weapons can stretch to a dozen years or more, yet technologies are changing far more quickly.

So if I were designing an “industrial policy” for America, my first priority would be to improve and “unstick” its procurement cycles. There may well be bureaucratic reasons that this is difficult to do. But if it can’t be done, then perhaps the U.S. shouldn’t be setting its sights on a more ambitious industrial policy.

I also consider the NIH and the biomedical establishment, and America’s extensive system of state colleges and universities, as part of what is already a quite ambitious “industrial policy,” even if we don’t always call it that.


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