Dani Rodrik of Harvard recently wrote a beautifully enlightening short article on it.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promotes it as a vehicle for creating high-skill jobs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy talks about using it to keep industrial jobs in France. The World Bank’s chief economist, Justin Lin, openly supports it to speed up structural change in developing nations. McKinsey is advising governments on how to do it right.
Industrial policy is back.
In fact, industrial policy never went out of fashion. Economists enamored of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus may have written it off, but successful economies have always relied on government policies that promote growth by accelerating structural transformation.
China is a case in point. Its phenomenal manufacturing prowess rests in large part on public assistance to new industries. State-owned enterprises have acted as incubators for technical skills and managerial talent. Local-content requirements have spawned productive supplier industries in automotive and electronics products. Generous export incentives have helped firms break into competitive global markets.
Chile, which is often portrayed as a free-market paradise, is another example. The government has played a crucial role in developing every significant new export that the country produces. Chilean grapes broke into world markets thanks to publicly financed R&D. Forest products were heavily subsidized by none other than General Augusto Pinochet. And the highly successful salmon industry is the creation of Fundación Chile, a quasi-public venture fund.
But when it comes to industrial policy, it is the United States that takes the cake. This is ironic, because the term “industrial policy” is anathema in American political discourse. It is used almost exclusively to browbeat political opponents with accusations of Stalinist economic designs.
Yet the US owes much of its innovative prowess to government support. As Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner explains in his book Boulevard of Broken Dreams, US Department of Defense contracts played a crucial role in accelerating the early growth of Silicon Valley. The Internet, possibly the most significant innovation of our time, grew out of a Defense Department project initiated in 1969.
Nor is America’s embrace of industrial policy a matter of historical interest only. Today the US federal government is the world’s biggest venture capitalist by far. According to The Wall Street Journal, the US Department of Energy (DOE) alone is planning to spend more than $40 billion in loans and grants to encourage private firms to develop green technologies, such as electric cars, new batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. During the first three quarters on 2009, private venture capital firms invested less than $3 billion combined in this sector. The DOE invested $13 billion.
The shift toward embracing industrial policy is therefore a welcome acknowledgement of what sensible analysts of economic growth have always known: developing new industries often requires a nudge from government. The nudge can take the form of subsidies, loans, infrastructure, and other kinds of support. But scratch the surface of any new successful industry anywhere, and more likely than not you will find government assistance lurking beneath.
Read the rest here.
PS: required reading (and, note taking -for examples- for my own little dorks)