THE BLOG
01/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will Barack Obama Commit Industrial Policy?

Barack Obama may soon find that he is committing a big sin against one of the major premises of the reigning ideology. As part of his plan to restructure the auto industry, rebuild infrastructure, and create new green industries and jobs, he will be committing industrial policy. And this will create a head-on collision with one of the cherished dogmas of market fundamentalism -- "free trade."

This clash is long overdue. For several decades, American elites of both parties have been preaching the same gospel of free trade. Supposedly, if we just leave markets alone, different countries will produce and export what they naturally do best, and import products at which their partners excel. In the tidy and oversimplified textbook world, there is no room for questions about pollution, labor standards, product safety, financial engineering, or industrial policy.

But the real world doesn't work like the Econ. 101 fable. In much of the rest of the world, governments help their industries develop.

However, in the hierarchy of America's diplomatic priorities, countries like China that subsidize industries (and violate human rights) get a free pass. Other nations like Japan, that basically closed their borders to most imports for several decades while they became industrial powerhouses, got a seal of approval, too. Supposedly, what we lose in jobs and industries, we make up in cheap imports.

While other nations care about what they produce, the United States disdains having industrial policies, in order to set a good example. Indeed, we have been the principal architect of the World Trade Organization, which discourages government involvement in economic development as an illicit thumb on the free-trade scale.

Now, with the crash of 2008, it is clear that the US economy was built on a financial mirage. Our reliance on asset bubbles - inflated stock and real estate prices - disguised the fact that we were not paying our way. Much of our prosperity was simply borrowed.

Having let so many industries and jobs just go offshore, we don't make enough to pay for our imports. Instead, we have been relying on loans from foreign central banks to finance our trade imbalance.

Looking at this economic calamity, President-elect Obama has proposed several sensible policies. He wants the U.S. auto industry to reinvent itself, with government aid and government standards. He wants to incubate other domestic industries around the goal of clean energy. And he wants to spend serious money on all of this, to help avoid a depression. The only historical counterpart is the vast industrial mobilization of World War II, which finally cured the Great Depression.

But these ideas about government involvement in the economy violate the sacred dogma of free trade. If the Obama administration is serious about reviving American manufacturing industry, it is only a matter of time before a foreign government hauls the U.S. before the World Trade Organization and charges us with the crime of industrial policy.

To quote our beloved leader George W. Bush in a different context, bring it on. The current version of the W.T.O., designed by and for US multinational corporations to make it easier to outsource jobs and production, has not served the national interest. It is indeed time to use industrial policy to rebuild long neglected domestic industries; and if something has to give, let it be the W.T.O.

As a mark of the total intellectual muddle in how policymakers have thought about these issues, the fact is that we have several implicit industrial policies. For instance, American commercial leadership in aerospace is no naturally occurring phenomenon. It reflects trillions of dollars of subsidy from the Pentagon and from NASA. Likewise, U.S. dominance in pharmaceuticals is the result of government subsidy of basic research, favorable patent treatment, and the fact that the American consumer of prescription drugs is made to overpay, giving the industry exorbitant profits to plow back into research. Throwing $700 billion at America's wounded banks is also an industrial policy

So if we can have implicit industrial policies for these industries, why not explicit policies to rebuild our auto industry, our steel industry, our machine tool industry, and the industries of the next century such as green energy and high-speed rail? And why not devise some clear standards for which industries deserve help, and why, and what they owe America in return?

The new administration is already a bit schizophrenic on the subject. On the one hand, President-elect Obama has been saying bold things about building the industries of the future. On the other hand, he just appointed as America's top trade official Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a man with no serious diplomatic experience and one whose main claim to fame on the trade issue is that he has been a big booster of NAFTA, a badly flawed deal that Obama has pledged to reopen.

Kirk's appointment was meant to signal that Obama will not challenge the current orthodoxy on trade policy. It was cheered by the U.S. business establishment. What is truly bizarre is that Obama's reported first choice for the job was California Congressman Xavier Becerra, a critic of NAFTA and other recent trade deals. Kirk will also vehemently disagree on trade and industry with Obama's new labor secretary-designate, Rep. Hilda Solis, another NAFTA critic.

Maybe, like Lincoln, Obama has the genius to fuse this "team of rivals" into an effective administration; perhaps he will listen to the divergent advice and forge the best course. When the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin coined that phrase to describe Lincoln's manner of governing, she was referring to the fact that Lincoln literally brought into his cabinet men who had been Lincoln's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. These were people of real stature and of fierce differences, representing a party that was badly fractured on the key issues of how to save the union and whether to free the slaves.

Obama has prided himself building bridges and transcending ideology. We are now beginning to see what that means in practice--a cabinet that represents people of thoroughly contradictory views, with some members who are public figures of real consequence and others who are surprisingly weak. This pattern puts all the more pressure on Obama himself to create coherence out of the stew.

Despite these gestures of broad inclusion, there is no escaping the fact that Obama must quickly make some difficult decisions about which path to follow. And one path precludes another. He can't have both his industrial policies and his free trade.

Robert Kuttner's new bestselling book is "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Policy and the Power of a Transformative Presidency."