Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


The Mercatus Center has just released a new special study that I co-authored with Connor Haaland entitled, “Does the United States Need a More Targeted Industrial Policy for High Tech?” With industrial policy reemerging as a major issue — and with Congress still debating a $250 billion, 2,400-page industrial policy bill — our report does a deep dive into the history various industrial policy efforts both here and abroad over the past half century. Our 64-page survey of the historical record leads us to conclude that, “targeted industrial policy programs cannot magically bring about innovation or economic growth, and government efforts to plan economies from the top down have never had an encouraging track record.”

We zero in on the distinction between general versus targeted economic development efforts and argue that:

whether we are referring to federal, state, or local planning efforts—the more highly tar­geted development efforts typically involve many tradeoffs that are often not taken into consider­ation by industrial policy advocates. Downsides include government steering of public resources into unproductive endeavors, as well as more serious problems, such as cronyism and even corruption.

We also stress the need to more tightly define the term “industrial policy” to ensure rational evaluation is even possible. We argue that, “industrial policy has intentionality and directionality, which distinguishes it from science policy, innovation policy, and economic policy more generally.” We like the focus definition used by economist Nathaniel Lane, who defines industrial policy as “intentional political action meant to shift the industrial structure of an economy.”

Our report examines the so-called “Japan model” of industrial policy that was all the rage in intellectual circles a generation ago and then compares it to the Chinese and European industrial policy efforts of today, which many pundits claim that the US needs to mimic. Continue reading →

Discourse magazine recently published my essay on what “Industrial Policy Advocates Should Learn from Don Lavoie.” With industrial policy enjoying a major revival in the the U.S. — with several major federal proposals are pending or already set to go into effect — I argue that Lavoie’s work is worth revisiting, especially as this weekend was the 20th anniversary of his untimely passing. Jump over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

But one thing I wanted to just briefly highlight here is the useful tool Lavoie created that helped us think about the “planning spectrum,” or the range of different industrial policy planning motivations and proposals. On one axis, he plotted “futurist” versus “preservationist” advocates and proposals, with the futurists wanting to invest in new skills and technologies, while the preservationists seek to prop up existing sectors. On the other axis, he contrasted “left-wing or pro-labor” and “right-wing or pro-business” advocates and proposals.

Lavoie used this tool to help highlight the remarkable intellectual schizophrenia among industrial policy planners, who all claimed to have the One Big Plan to save the economy. The problem was, Lavoie noted, all their plans differed greatly. For example, he did a deep dive into the work of Robert Reich and Felix Rohatyn, who were both outspoken industrial policy advocates during the 80s. Reich as affiliated with the Harvard School of Government at that time, and Rohatyn was a well-known Wall Street financier. The industrial policy proposals set forth by Reich and Rohatyn received enormous media and academic attention at the time, yet no one except Lavoie seriously explored the many ways in which their proposals differed so fundamentally. Rohatyn was slotted on the lower right quadrant because of his desire to prop up old sectors and ensure the health of various private businesses. Reich fell into the upper quadrant of being more of futurist in his desire to have the government promote newer skills, sectors, and technologies. Continue reading →

A short presentation I do for Mercatus Center graduate students every couple of years offering advice to aspiring policy scholars looking to develop their personal brand & be more effective public policy analysts.

What explains the rebirth of analog era media? Many people (including me!) predicted that vinyl records, turntables, broadcast TV antennas and even printed books seemed destined for the dustbin of technological history. We were so wrong, as I note in this new oped that has gone out through the Tribune Wire Service.

“Many of us threw away our record collections and antennas and began migrating from physical books to digital ones,” I note. “Now, these older technologies are enjoying a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what’s the lesson?”

I offer some data about the rebirth of analog era media as well as some possible explanations for their resurgence. “With vinyl records and printed books, people enjoy making a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it off to their friends. Digital music or books don’t satisfy that desire, no matter how much more convenient and affordable they might be. The mediums still matter.”

Read more here. Meanwhile, my own personal vinyl collection continues to grow without constraint! …

Wishful thinking is a dangerous drug. Some pundits and policymakers believe that, if your intentions are pure and you have the “right” people in power, all government needs to do is sprinkle a little pixie dust (in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars) and magical things will happen.

Of course, reality has a funny way of throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans. Which brings me to the question I raise in a new 2-part series for Discourse magazine: Can governments replicate Silicon Valley everywhere?

In the first installment, I explore the track record of federal and state attempts to build tech clusters, science parks & “regional innovation hubs” using state subsidies and industrial policy. This is highly relevant today because of the huge new industrial policy push at the federal level is building on top of growing state and local efforts to create tech hubs, science parks, or various other types of industrial “clusters.

At the federal level, this summer, the Senate passed a 2,300-page industrial policy bill, the “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021,” that included almost $10 billion over four years for a Department of Commerce-led effort to fund 20 new regional technology hubs, “in a manner that ensures geographic diversity and representation from communities of differing populations.” A similar proposal that is moving in the House, the “Regional Innovation Act of 2021,” proposes almost $7 billion over five years for 10 regional tech hubs. Meanwhile, the Biden administration also is pitching ideas for new high-tech hubs. In late July, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration announced plans to allocate $1 billion in pandemic recovery funds to create or expand “regional industry clusters” as part of the administration’s new Build Back Better Regional Challenge. Among the possible ideas the agency said might win funding are an “artificial intelligence corridor,” an “agriculture-technology cluster” in rural coal counties, a “blue economy cluster” in coastal regions, and a “climate-friendly electric vehicle cluster.”

In my essay, I note that the economic literature on these efforts has been fairly negative, to put it mildly. Continue reading →

Financial Help for Gamblers: How to Get Find ReliefIn my latest column for The Hill, I consider that dangers of government gambling our tax dollars on risky industrial policy programs. I begin by noting:

Roll the dice at a casino enough times, and you are bound to win a few games. But knowing the odds are not in your favor, how much are you willing to risk losing by continuing to gamble?

This is the same issue governments confront when they gamble taxpayer dollars on industrial policy efforts, which can best be described as targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes. Throwing enough money at risky ventures might net a few wins, but at what cost? Could those resources have been better spent? And do bureaucrats really make better bets than private investors?

I continue on to note that, while the US is embarking on a major new industrial policy push, history does not provide us with a lot of hope regarding Uncle Sam’s betting record when he starts rolling those industrial policy dice. “How much tolerance should the public have for government industrial policy gambling?” I ask. I continue on:

Generally speaking, “basic” support (broad-based funding for universities and research labs) is wiser than “applied” (targeted subsidies for specific firms or sectors). With basic R&D funding, the chances of wasting resources on risky investments can be contained, at least as compared to highly targeted investments in unproven technologies and firms.

I also argue that “The riskiest bets on new technologies and sectors are better left to private investors,” and note how, “America’s venture capital industry remains the envy of the world because it continues to power world-beating advanced technology.” Accordingly, I conclude: Continue reading →

Discourse magazine has just published my latest essay, “‘Japan Inc.’ and Other Tales of Industrial Policy Apocalypse.” It is a short history of the hysteria surrounding the growth of Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s and its various industrial policy efforts. I begin by noting that, “American pundits and policymakers are today raising a litany of complaints about Chinese industrial policies, trade practices, industrial espionage and military expansion. Some of these concerns have merit. In each case, however, it is easy to find identical fears that were raised about Japan a generation ago.” I then walk through many of the leading books, opeds, movies, and other things from that past era to show how that was the case.

“Hysteria” is not too strong a word to use in this case. Many pundits and politicians were panicking about the rise of Japan economically and more specifically about the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was formulating industrial policy schemes for industrial sectors in which they hoped to make advances. This resulted in veritable “MITI mania” here in America. “U.S. officials and market analysts came to view MITI with a combination of reverence and revulsion, believing that it had concocted an industrial policy cocktail that was fueling Japan’s success at the expense of American companies and interests,” I note. Countless books and essays were being published with breathless titles and predictions. I go through dozens of them in my essay. Meanwhile, the debate in policy circles and Capitol Hill even took on an ugly racial tinge, with some lawmakers calling the the Japanese “leeches.” and suggesting the U.S. should have dropped more atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. At one point, several members of Congress gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1987 to smash Japanese electronics with sledgehammers. Continue reading →

I was my pleasure to appear on the latest episode of the Dissed podcast to discuss economic liberty and the right to earn a living. The show was hosted by Anastasia Boden and Elizabeth Slattery of the Pacific Legal Foundation and it included legal scholars Hadley Arkes, Timothy Sandefur, and Clark Neily. I appear in the second half of the program.

I’ve spent many years writing about the relationship between innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic liberty, and the right to earn a living. My latest book (Evasive Entrepreneurs) and previous one (Permissionless Innovation) devoted considerable attention to this. But I tried to bring it all down to just a few hundred words in my 2018 essay, “The Right to Pursue Happiness, Earn a Living, and Innovate.”

I’ve reprinted that down below, but please make sure to click over to the Dissed page and listen to that excellent podcast.

Continue reading →

Over at Discourse magazine I’ve posted my latest essay on how conservatives are increasingly flirting with the idea of greatly expanding regulatory control of private speech platforms via some sort of common carriage regulation or new Fairness Doctrine for the internet. It begins:

Conservatives have traditionally viewed the administrative state with suspicion and worried about their values and policy prescriptions getting a fair shake within regulatory bureaucracies. This makes their newfound embrace of common carriage regulation and media access theory (i.e., the notion that government should act to force access to private media platforms because they provide an essential public service) somewhat confusing. Recent opinions from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as various comments and proposals of Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Trump signal a remarkable openness to greater administrative control of private speech platforms.

Given the takedown actions some large tech companies have employed recently against some conservative leaders and viewpoints, the frustration of many on the right is understandable. But why would conservatives think they are going to get a better shake from state-regulated monopolists than they would from today’s constellation of players or, more importantly, from a future market with other players and platforms?

I continue on to explain why conservatives should be skeptical of the administrative state being their friend when it comes to the control of free speech. I end by reminding conservatives what President Ronald Reagan said in his 1987 veto of legislation to reestablish the Fairness Doctrine: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”

Read more at Discourse, and down below you will find several other recent essays I’ve written on the topic.

Over at Discourse magazine, my Mercatus Center colleague Matt Mitchell and I have a new essay on, “Industrial Policy is a Very Old, New Idea.” We argue that, despite having a long history of disappointments and failures, that isn’t stopping many policymakers from proposing it industrial policies again. We compare national industrial policy efforts alongside state-based economic development policies, noting their many similarities. In both cases, the crucial issue comes down to targeting versus generality in terms of how policymakers go about encouraging innovation and economic growth. We note how:

The building blocks of the general approach—a mix of broadly applicable tax, spending, regulatory and legal rules—are often rejected because they seem less exciting than targeting specific companies or industries for help. Pundits and policymakers are fond of using machine-like metaphors to suggest they can “fine-tune” innovation or “dial-in” economic development according to a precise formula they believe they have concocted. They also savor the attention that goes along with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the big headlines often generated by political targeting efforts.

We discuss the spectrum of economic development options (depicted in chart below) in more detail and explain the many pitfalls associated with some of the most highly targeted efforts. “The predicament for policymakers is that, while it is wiser to focus on the generalized approaches, the temptation will remain strong to jump to targeted gambles that may grab headlines but are far more risky and costly,” we argue. Head over to Discourse to read the entire thing.