Industrial Policy Is a Bad Bet



We can see evidence of the market distortions that government subsidies cause in the market capitalization of electric-car maker Tesla—currently about $650 billion, or more than five times that of General Electric. Tesla benefits from many subsidies already, and the Biden infrastructure plan aims to divert even more to the electric-car industry. And by increasing the corporate tax rate to pay for part of these subsidies, the Biden plan will further distort the market by making the unsubsidized private sector even less attractive to investors.

The pandemic forced many businesses to adopt new technologies that could boost productivity for decades. Productivity gains don’t always come so fast. It took more than 100 years for the steam engine, a transformative technology, to show up in productivity estimates, for example. The pandemic’s acceleration of this process of technological adoption means that we could be poised for a big burst of follow-on growth and innovation. But government interventions on the scale of the Covid stimulus and infrastructure bill threaten to divert these energies into less productive investments.

True, the added government spending will provide short-term benefits to workers in the form of new jobs building roads, bridges, and airports or retrofitting buildings with green technology. But using industrial policy to create jobs can also generate long-term risks for those workers, by steering them away from gaining the skills and experience the market may need in the future. Research has shown that workers for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration were less likely to take higher-paying private-sector jobs when they became available because they preferred the security of a government guarantee. In the long term, that can lead to wage stagnation and a population less competitive in the global market.

Author(s): Allison Schrager

Publication Date: 19 April 2021

Publication Site: City Journal