Chalk one up for continental Europe’s economic architects. For the past several decades, the Anglo-Saxon consensus was that state interference in the private-sector economy was a mistake. Government bureaucrats were in no position to pick economic winners and losers – and if standing aside meant letting the forces of creative destruction sweep away entire industries, so be it.
The continental Europeans, most successfully the Germans, demurred. They were unconvinced that the shift from manufacturing to services was either good or inevitable, and they used the full might of the state to try to hang on to their industrial base. The financial crisis may have briefly felt like a vindication of this model – but the near collapse and continued frailty of the euro brought a quick end to that moment of schadenfreude.
When it comes to manufacturing, though, the European approach is being embraced in the White House. In a speech this week, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy, laid out the economic rationale for the U.S. shift. When I spoke to him afterward, Sperling was careful to point out that the new approach did not amount to industrial policy, or an attempt by the government to pick winners and losers.
But the White House has come to believe, Sperling said, that manufacturers more broadly should be first among equals. Giving manufacturers slightly lower taxes and more support for their research and development is a good idea, Sperling argues, for two reasons. First, because manufacturing has a particularly powerful spillover effect on the rest of the economy.
The benign effect of manufacturing Sperling is most enthusiastic about is the connection with innovation. That link, he argues, has been drawn out in research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Production in the Innovation Economy” initiative. Its premise, which Sperling embraces, is that in most new technologies, innovation happens most quickly and effectively when the inventors work close to the builders.