The Mild Complacency of Whenever
America needs to show more urgency regarding its pressing policy problems – and business as usual won’t cut it
The global microchip crunch shows no signs of easing any time soon. A number of chipmakers report that shortages will persist until at least 2023 or 2024, if not longer. Demand for machinery that manufactures new chips has soared, with wait-times for new equipment going from a few months at the start of the pandemic to two or three years today. What’s more, demand for electronics remains as voracious as ever, meaning increased costs and continued stress on already-strained supply chains.
That’s not good news for America’s planned transition to electric vehicles. Existing auto manufacturing has already slowed down due to worldwide semiconductor shortages, though some automakers have coped betterwith these shortfalls than others. Making matters even more complicated, raw minerals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel needed to manufacture electric vehicle batteries may soon face similar bottlenecks created by too little supply amidst rapidly increasing demand.
On top of these challenges, the charging infrastructure needed to make this electric vehicle transition work simply doesn’t exist. Right now, it’s hard to imagine traveling cross-country in an electric vehicle given the rudimentary charging infrastructure currently in place – especially outside major metropolitan areas. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden last year dedicated some $7.5 billion to help states build out their electric vehicle infrastructure over the next five years, and while this funding will certainly help remedy the problem it’s hard to say it will solve it. Indeed, the administration itself characterizes this block of funding as a “down payment” on future electric vehicle infrastructure investments.
Taken together, these three issues – not enough microchips, insufficient material for batteries, and the lack of an infrastructure – pose a formidable obstacle to the Biden administration’s plan to ensure half of the cars and trucks made in America by 2030 are electric vehicles. But so far there appears to be little if any sense of urgency in resolving any one of these problems, much less all of them together. It’s as if the Biden administration has adopted a business-as-usual attitude toward some of the most difficult substantive hurdles the country faces as it claws its way out of a global pandemic, pieces broken supply chains back together, and wrestles with the scourge of inflation.
Here, it's important to acknowledge the steps the Biden team has taken on this front already. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, for instance, established a Joint Office of Energy and Transportation to lend “support and expertise to a multitude of programs” involved in building out the nation’s electric vehicle infrastructure. Likewise, the White House published a report detailing the actions the administration has taken or plans to take in order to fortify America’s supply chains across the board – including nearly $7 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to “strengthen the U.S. battery supply chain.” President Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to “secure a reliable and sustainable supply” of materials and minerals needed to make batteries.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to say these programs add up to more than the sum of their parts or that they’ll prove adequate to the rather large tasks at hand. The wholesale transition to electric vehicles represents one of the most important and complex policy initiatives the United States has embarked upon so far this century, one that will touch the everyday lives of virtually all Americans and calls for close cooperation between the government and private industry. There’s every reason to give this issue the sort of attention it deserves, not leave it to languish in the federal government’s technocratic backwaters. Yet that’s precisely what the Biden administration seems to have done.
This business-as-usual attitude can be seen elsewhere in the Biden administration’s approach to other policy priorities – including the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the problem is that many of the problems America now confronts don’t quite fit the molds of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program, the two most successful crash programs that immediately come to many of our minds. Nor do they really track to wartime efforts like the various production and economic management tools employed during World War II, limited in time as they were to the duration of a global conflict. As large as many of our current problems are, moreover, they do not require the singular focus or monumental industrial mobilization needed to temporarily transform the United States into the arsenal of democracy.
In short, we’ll need new ways of thinking about problems like semiconductor shortages and the transition to electric vehicles – ones that simultaneously learn from past experiences but are not imprisoned by them. If today’s issues don’t demand the sort of full-scale societal mobilization that marked the world wars or represent the sort of extraordinary engineering challenge of landing a man on the Moon, they probably require greater attention and focus than they receive from the unintentionally complacent, business-as-usual attitude that we see from political leaders today – or the meaningless “whole of government” jargon that pervades our contemporary policy debates.
What might a policy approach that accurately reflects the urgency of today’s problems look like?
Let’s start with the multifaceted challenge of the transition to electric vehicles over the next decade. It’s clearly an ambitious goal, but one that’s got quite a few hurdles – and large ones at that – to overcome if it’s to be successfully achieved. While it won’t demand industrial-scale mobilization, this transition will require significant resources and touch the lives of ordinary Americans in real ways that our political and policy discussions have yet to take into proper account. This transition will also need better cooperation between private industry and the public sector, the sort of collaboration that goes beyond the elixir of tax credits, regulation, and contracts that constitutes American industrial policy today. What’s more, it involves other areas like domestic investment in science and technology, supply chain security, and, perhaps most important to a majority of Americans in the short run, inflation and sky-high energy prices.
All of that militates for some sort of temporary, high-level office to ensure this transition remains on track and reflects its status as a high national priority. This Office of Electric Vehicle Transition (the precise name isn’t important) would help shepherd the nation through this transition as easily as possible and marshal the necessary resources across the federal government to do so as quickly as possible. Above all, it would help chart a path from where the United States stands today to where we need to be at the end of this transition a decade from now. Congress would need to establish this office through legislation and should include a self-destruct mechanism that would require the office to close up shop once its primary goals are complete.
This model probably wouldn’t work for other problems, however – at least not for those at somewhat smaller scales. Indeed, some like the ongoing semiconductor chip shortage and critical mineral supply chain issues would likely fall under this office’s temporary mandate. But the underlying idea would remain the same: create provisional entities outside the regular federal bureaucracy to tackle urgent national priorities over the medium term, ones that reflect the importance of the issues at stake and the need to act accordingly.
In that respect, at least, this approach echoes the improvisational and impermanent nature of the original New Deal of the 1930s – not the fantasy New Deal imagined by many on the progressive left today. Agencies like the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps left their lasting legacy in the bridges, parks, and libraries they built, not the permanent bureaucracies they established. The problems these agencies were created to solve and conditions they were meant to ameliorate went away with the advent of full employment and the mass mobilization for World War II, and so did they.
That’s the spirit we need to address the challenges we face today.