Here is President Obama speaking in Ohio Thursday:

We also need to keep investing in clean energy like wind power and solar power.

…  And as long as I’m President, we are going to keep on making those investments.  I am not going to cede the wind and solar and advanced battery industries to countries like China and Germany that are making those investments.  I want those technologies developed and manufactured here in Ohio, here in the Midwest, here in America.  (Applause.)  By American workers.  That’s the future we want.

The President has picked three industries and is arguing for an industrial policy to subsidize them in part because other countries are subsidizing them.

Let’s extend this logic.  Suppose China or Germany starts subsidizing the biotech industry.  Should the U.S. government subsidize American biotech firms so that “those technologies [are] developed and manufactured … here in America, by American workers?”

What if China subsidizes web development firms, Germany subsidizes auto manufacturers, France subsidizes biotech firms, Japan subsidizes advanced battery firms, Brazil subsidizes ethanol firms, and South Korea subsidizes chip manufacturers?  Should the U.S. subsidize all of those domestic industries so that we don’t cede any of them?

What if the Canadian or Mexican government were to subsidize high-tech oil production firms, or Brazil to subsidize advanced tobacco production?  Is the President’s policy to keep here in American through subsidies all industries that other governments are subsidizing, or only the “good” industries that he thinks should be kept in America?

More generally, should the U.S. government (a) subsidize particular industries and if so (b) determine those subsidies based on what other countries are doing?

If we are to subsidize particular industries over others, how do we square that with the argument, made by the President and others, that we need to remove such subsidies from the tax code?

If the rule for structuring subsidies is to make sure we don’t cede certain industries to other countries, how is that different from giving the governments of those countries control over the shape and structure of the U.S. economy?

If the President wants to subsidize wind and solar power because he wants to accelerate the development of carbon-free alternatives to coal and natural gas, he should make that argument.  If President Obama is instead going to subsidize industries either because he likes them or because other Nations’ governments are subsidizing them, then we must acknowledge that he is engaged in industrial policy, aka state-managed capitalism, with an open question about whether the managing state is based in DC, Berlin, or Beijing.

(photo credit: Maryellen McFadden)