Rhetorically, President Obama is a champion of industry—as long as it’s green. To put our money where his mouth is, the president has already devoted over $100 billion in direct subsidies and tax credits to promote investment in solar panel, wind harnessing, lithium ion battery and other industries he deems crucial to "winning the future." (See Economic Report of the President, 2011, P. 129, Box 6-2 "Clean Energy Investments in the Recovery Act" for a list of some of those subsidies.) Concerning those industries, Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union address:
“"Countries like China are moving even faster... I'm not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine of the future."
To be sure, I am opposed to industrial policy, which presumes that one person or a cabal of self-anointed soothsayers knows how the future will unfold. But the story I am about to share is, I think, instructive in describing endemic policy dissonance within this administration and speaks to what even the president’s staunchest supporters describe as half-heartedness and an incapacity or unwillingness to follow through. Some chalk it up to indifference, but it’s really an aversion to making choices that could offend potential supporters.
While the president talks up the solar panel industry and commits our resources to its development, other policies of his administration undermine its success and encourage offshoring of production and the jobs that go with it. Dow Corning is one of the world’s largest producers of silicones, which are the most crucial components of solar panel production. The foremost ingredient in these silicones is silicon metal, which costs nearly twice the world market price in the United States because of antidumping restrictions on imports of the raw material from China and Russia (two of the world’s largest suppliers). Under U.S. antidumping law, Dow Corning and all other consumers of silicon metal were forbidden from participating formally in the proceedings that lead to the imposition of the duties.
As I described in a recent Cato policy paper, this is more than just tough luck for a few companies. This is economic self-flagellation on a grand scale. The antidumping statute prohibits consideration of the impact of prospective duties on downstream industries or on the economy as a whole, yet policymakers—having been steamrolled by the pro-antidumping lobby—have given scant consideration to the idea that this is plainly stupid policy, particularly in a globally integrated economy characterized by transnational supply chains and cross-border investment. In such an environment, if one hopes the best for the country’s value-added industries, there should be no restrictions on raw material inputs ever (a policy being embraced by other governments around the world).
Alas, the silicon metal restrictions constitute a big problem for Dow Corning and other industrial consumers of silicon metal, but a bigger problem for the economy. To compete with producers of silicones – the solar panel industries – in Europe, Japan, Canada, and China – Dow Corning is forced to consider moving production abroad so that it is not at such a large cost disadvantage from the outset. As Dow Corning officials put it in a very informative letter: