The case for industrial policy (a paper and a rant)

A new paper, where some very good economists look at data from Chinese medium and large firms:

…sectoral policy aimed at targeting production activities to one particular sector, can enhance growth and efficiency if it made competition-friendly.

…if subsidies are allocated to competitive sectors… and allocated in such a way as to preserve or increase competition, then the net impacts of subsidies, tax holidays, and tariffs on total factor productivity levels or growth become positive and significant.

“You can’t pick winners” is the knee-jerk retort to the mention of anything that even rhymes with industrial policy. I would call it the triumph of ideology over evidence, except that even “ideology” feels like a generous term. Lazy thinking might be a more accurate description. Some have given the question a great deal of thought, but most have not.

I’m not suggesting that the paper above has the right answer (odds are, like most papers, it does not). I’m also not suggesting that governments can pick winners (probably they can’t). Nor am I forgetting that industrial policy is easily politicized and distorted (as surely it is). So what am I talking about?

I’ll make two claims. The first: industrialization is the most important and essential process of development. Everything from lower poverty, reduced inequality, and tax bases to support education and health and welfare systems will (and must) spring from high value-added production. Anything policymakers can do to hasten the process will have unparalleled benefits. The problem? We have little to no idea how to do that. And many of the tools in the current policy tool box are deeply flawed.

Some take this as evidence economists and researchers should focus on other things. This brings us to the second part of my argument, where I make the opposite claim: there is no more important or promising frontier of knowledge. The fact that we know so little, and the tools are so poor, suggests (to me) that the marginal gains from more research are huge. there is no more important place for scholars to spend their time.

As for the worry that industrial policy is too easily politicized or captured, I say: what policy is not? Again, this is simply a yet more promising opportunity for experimentation and learning.

When my students run rushing in the direction of micro-poverty programs, or randomized trials, I steer them away. Yesterday’s research and policy frontier is tomorrow’s old news. What is the next frontier? I would put money on industrial development and, with it, a new breed of industrial policy.

Some of the most interesting development research is coming from people swimming ahead of this wave: Eric Verhoogen, Nick Bloom, David Atkin, David McKenzie, Dani Rodrik, Ricardo Hausman, the authors of this post’s paper, and a slew of others. I haven’t seen the same swell in political science, but surely it will come.