WASHINGTON — President Biden’s plan to plow billions of dollars into semiconductor manufacturing represents a sharp turn in American economic policy, one aimed at countering China by building up a single, critical industry. But Mr. Biden is going even further. He is using the money to change how corporations behave.
If semiconductor manufacturers want a piece of the nearly $40 billion in aid that Mr. Biden’s administration began the process of handing out on Tuesday, they will need to provide child care for employees, run their plants on low-emission sources of energy, pay union wages for construction workers, shun stock buybacks and potentially share certain profits with the government.
That decision is a bet on the power of the federal government to transform private industry. But it is also a distinct break from how the United States has traditionally engaged with corporate America. The president is essentially incorporating disparate policy objectives into a big spending bill that was sold as an effort to shore up a supply of semiconductors critical for the economy and national security.
The approach could amplify the effects of the CHIPS Act and other economic bills Mr. Biden has signed into law over the past two years, by accomplishing multiple goals at the same time. Administration officials say the money and the guidelines will drive American industry toward Mr. Biden’s vision of an economy with more U.S. production, better conditions for workers and fewer of the fossil fuel emissions driving climate change.
But in testing the limits of a new industrial policy, the strategy may also carry significant risks. Some economists, even some who favor robust federal spending to bolster strategic industries, say Mr. Biden is in danger of drowning his core economic goals.
“Everyone acknowledges what we are trying to do here, in trying to make a larger, more globally competitive U.S. semiconductor industry, is a difficult challenge,” said Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. “We’re making that challenge much harder by trying to accomplish another dozen unrelated things at once.
“Advocates of industrial policy should worry that not only is this going to fail, but it’s going to discredit industrial policy for a generation,” Mr. Ozimek said.
The Global Race for Computer Chips
Biden officials say they are not asking companies to do anything outside of their own commercial interests and that the steps they are taking are not meant to be punitive. They are emboldened by the amount of money they have to hand out and confident that companies will accept it with the conditions they have attached. If anything, those officials essentially say, they are not unduly burdening businesses; they are helping them do what is necessary to attract workers and avoid wasting federal dollars.
In an interview, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo repeatedly cast the lack of access to child care as an economic issue and a key contributor to the labor shortages that American manufacturers frequently complain they are experiencing. Entrenched bias against working women has prevented corporations and the government from addressing that issue, she said, in ways that have hurt companies.
“I am kind of requiring them to pay attention to this because I know this is what they need to be successful,” Ms. Raimondo said.
Ms. Raimondo has described the financial rules for companies that take federal funds as a way to ensure taxpayer dollars are not wasted. Requiring companies to share some unexpected upside profits with the government will encourage companies to be accurate and honest with their financial projections, so the department can send dollars where they are needed most. The limitations on stock buybacks will prevent taxpayer dollars from going to enrich company shareholders and chief executives, administration officials say.
But after reviewing the rules, industry lobbyists and some economists said they worried companies would be forced to siphon money away from the new law’s central objectives. Several complained that administration officials had not coupled the CHIPS funding announcements with efforts to shrink, not expand, environmental regulations and other government rules covering construction projects.
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“We should be focused on removing regulatory barriers — particularly in the permitting space — and we have to be careful about adding ancillary new requirements that only increase cost and delay bringing production online,” said Neil Bradley, an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a heavyweight business organization in Washington.
And some congressional Republicans accused the administration of undermining the intent of the law by trying to force liberal priorities on companies competing for subsidies.
Representative Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, said the administration had been “adamant” that the United States needed to incentivize chip production, or else companies would choose to build in other countries that offered more attractive policies. “That’s why it’s troubling that now that the administration has the $52 billion in funds they requested, they’re focusing less on the urgent need for chip production and more on attempting to impose their labor agenda on this critical industry.”
For some foreign chip makers, investing in the United States is already provoking concerns about high costs and managerial challenges. And other countries have also continued to subsidize their own chip facilities aggressively, providing a potentially attractive alternative to investing in the United States.
Economists largely agree that both the scale and implementation of Mr. Biden’s industrial policy are signs of how dramatically the thinking about the government’s role in the economy has changed in Washington.
A core reason for that shift is what has happened in East Asia, particularly China, where governments have made frequent use of state subsidies to shore up industries and capture global market share. Since American researchers invented the integrated circuit in the 1950s, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Israel and other countries have invested heavily in chips, helping to push production out of the United States.
The U.S. share of global chips manufacturing has now dwindled to just 12 percent. American companies still design many of the world’s most cutting-edge chips; they just manufacture them offshore.
Shortages of chips and other critical products in the pandemic helped underscore how reliant the country is on foreign factories. More broadly, U.S. dependence on China for key products like electric vehicles, solar panels, steel and rare earth metals has helped to turn the tide in Washington toward a more interventionist economic policy and dampened concerns about government interference in markets.
Both political parties are now broadly aligned behind the use of industrial policy to counter China’s economic dominance. Members of the Trump and Biden administrations, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, helped create the CHIPS and Science Act, which passed Congress last summer by significant margins.
The text of the bill included several strict provisions for companies that receive subsidies, including a ban on using government funding for stock buybacks and dividends and a 10-year restriction on making investments in cutting-edge chip facilities in China. The bill also encouraged companies to offer work force training initiatives and partner with unions and educational institutions.
The Biden administration appears confident that the $52 billion carrot it is offering to chip makers, suppliers and research facilities is a big enough incentive for companies to overpower any corporate complaints about the administration’s efforts to influence their behavior. Officials note that some chip makers already comply with some of the requirements in other countries: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is building a new facility in Arizona, provides child care at several of its plants in Taiwan. Chip makers operating in other countries, China for example, may have to go to great lengths to support government initiatives or national security objectives.
Chief executives have privately grumbled about the restrictions, but most continue to publicly praise the program. Most major semiconductor makers have already broken ground on expensive new U.S. facilities. Since early 2020, companies have pledged nearly $200 billion for U.S. chip manufacturing projects, many in anticipation of the funding.
One of those companies, Intel, said in a release on Tuesday that the CHIPS guidelines released by the Commerce Department were “an important step for American semiconductor companies to be globally competitive and will help to restore balance in the global chip making industry.” The Semiconductor Industry Association said it was “carefully reviewing” the rules but said it welcomed the Commerce Department’s steps to set the program in motion.
Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., a former trade official and labor economist who has advocated industrial policy, said he was sympathetic to the Biden administration’s goals of maximizing the program’s benefit to the public, rather than company shareholders.
“The policy is aimed at ensuring the security and increasing the well-being of all Americans,” he said. “It is not meant to be a special gift to the semiconductor companies.”