“To armchair economists, industrial policy seems like a solution for the country’s economic woes: “Infuse money into Industry A, add trade protections for Industry B, protect workers in Industry C from automation, and the economy will soar! New technology will arrive sooner, domestic firms will outcompete foreigners, and steady employment will ensure a chicken in every pot.” That indeed was the thinking behind Depression-era policies which extended that crisis by seven years.
Economies are not deterministic like physics or chemistry. You can’t pull a lever to achieve a particular effect. A better analog is biological or ecological systems, where there are second- and third-order effects to any given stimulus.
Think about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park: Increased predatory pressure keeps elk herds on the move, leaving more young willow trees for beavers. Growing beaver populations dam more waterways, altering the habitat and spurring additional difficult-to-predict effects. That’s economic policy: You must plan for unexpected downstream effects (pun intended).
That thinking has been missing in Congress this past month. I don’t know what microchip subsidies or a mistitled inflation-fighting bill will ultimately do, but neither do our elected officials.
Compounding the problem is that people, not some agnostic supercomputer, determine which industries and companies are considered worthy of a boost. Humans are subject to influence and pressure, turning industrial policy into a contest of who can secure the most government favoritism—a political game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Policies protecting companies from competitive pressure, like subsidies or tariffs, allow them to take their eye off the ball. This “X-inefficiency” means they’re less efficient and pay less attention to customers’ desires.”