Boosting chip production is “an investment in America’s national security,” Commerce secretary says
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In August last year, President Joe Biden signed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act into law. Now, the Commerce Department, led by Secretary Gina Raimondo, is responsible for distributing billions in federal funds with the goal of making the U.S. a global leader in semiconductor production.
Earlier this year, the department released rules for chipmakers to access the funding. Guardrails include requiring companies seeking $150 million or more to ensure affordable child care for workers; a preference for companies that will refrain from stock buybacks; and barring companies receiving funding from making new high-tech investments in China.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Raimondo at the Commerce building in Washington, D.C. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: You are arguably, I suppose, the point person on the Biden administration changing how government interacts with this economy. You have said that the CHIPS act and all that the Biden administration are trying to do is the biggest industrial policy change in this economy in 70 years. What happens if you don’t get it right?
Gina Raimondo: We’re going to get it right. I can’t, I can’t even think about that. Look, the stakes are so high. I was this morning with President Yoon of Korea and a group of American and Korean business leaders, and we were just talking about how important it is for us to get this right. To have a secure supply chain, resilient supply chain, on all of these critical technologies among us and our allies around the world.
Ryssdal: How are you going to know? Because this isn’t going to come to fruition for decades, if you’re lucky.
Raimondo: Yeah, such a good point. So, I think we will know that this short-term markers of success, and then, as you say, ultimately long term, but you know, a year from now, we will have stood up our semiconductor technology center. It should be a little beehive of activity with entrepreneurs and academics and businesses working together. We will have broken ground on some new semiconductor facilities. We will have launched new training programs with colleges, universities, high schools, community colleges, thousands of people will be working building these new facilities. But at the end of the day, it’s like 10 years from now, is it half as expensive as it is today to commercialize a new chip, you know? Do we have twice or three times as many chemical engineers, electrical engineers, semiconductor technicians? That’s when we’ll really know.
Ryssdal: All right, this is a little sideways. Roll with me here. I was doing a talk to the economics club at my daughter’s high school the other day, OK. And this kid asked me, not a kid, he’s an 18-year-old boy, a man, he’s going to college next year. And he said, “Super into what you’re trying to do here.” And he said, “Look, I understand what the secretary’s trying to do. But help me understand why the government has to spend $50 or $80 or $100 billion to help these giant for-profit, making-gazillions-of-dollars companies get started here.”
Raimondo: What a smart kid, young man. That is quite impressive. Because it’s very expensive to build these facilities in America, and left to their own devices, these companies would do what they’ve been doing for decades and build them in Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc., where it’s 30% to 35% less expensive. So the way I think about it is, you wouldn’t do this unless it was a real national security priority. So I consider this to be an investment in America’s national security.
Ryssdal: I’ll get to the national security in a minute. Can the United States government get out of its own way to make this happen?
Raimondo: Yes, we already are, you know. We are recruiting a top-notch, A-plus team of people from industry and finance executives to do a great job investing the money. We’re working with companies. Look, we welcomed statements of interest from companies. And within weeks, we have more than 200 statements of interest from companies from all over the world. So yes, we’re going make it happen.
Ryssdal: There is a little bit of, and I don’t want to lose sight of national security because that’s important, there is a little bit of social policy in here, right? And specifically, it’s making sure workers are taken care of, making sure that the female labor force can participate. How concerned are you about opposition to getting that part of the deal done?
Raimondo: So first of all, I think that’s all economic policy, not social policy. I was in a meeting this morning [with] big real estate developers. They are so worried that they won’t be able to find enough workers to build these facilities. They said right now in America, there’s a half a million open, available, unfilled construction jobs. And that’s before we start to put any of this money to work. So we need women in order to hit the mission here. Interestingly, I find this fascinating, I have taken some criticism from politicians and some academic economists who have criticized this as quote- unquote social policy. I have heard no complaints from anyone in industry. It’s really interesting. I’ve talked to all the companies in the chips ecosystem and the supply chain. They say, yeah, makes perfect sense.
Ryssdal: I will put that on my list of questions to ask companies because it’s a really good point. Here comes the softest of softball questions ever. You ready? China: Discuss.
Raimondo: Oh. China: Discuss. Oh my, in two seconds or less.
Ryssdal: You got all the time in the world.
Raimondo: You’re kind. China’s our biggest strategic competitor, you know. Huge country, huge economy, and we are in a pretty fierce competition with them. So how do we do that? We invest in America. First and foremost, by far the most important thing we can do is invest in our people, our technology, our innovation, our infrastructure, everything President Biden is doing. And then, you know, we have to protect ourselves, right? We would be foolish to let China have access to our most sophisticated artificial intelligence chips, which they don’t have, they can’t make and they want to put in their military equipment. So it’s competition. Like any intense competition, you have to cooperate where it’s in your interest, you have to engage pretty continuously. Lack of communication can only lead to conflict. But mostly, like, let’s be the great America that we are.
Ryssdal: Secretary Yellen said in a speech the other day, in fact, she said on this program a month or two ago, we have to put a floor under our relationship with China, right? We don’t want to decouple, we have to be engaged. That said, if you get a call from your counterpart in Beijing, would you go?
Raimondo: I would certainly think about going, yeah. I would go, I would go because look, here’s why. We need to get back into, like, what I would call regular order. You know, no one went to China during COVID for a very long time. I talked to chief executives who’ve been doing business in China for 30 years, they haven’t been in three years. So we have to get back to regular communication. Yes, I look forward to that. I look forward to hosting my counterpart here. And then, you know, we’ve got to get to the business of doing that.
Ryssdal: Do you ever look back on your years in venture capital, as you disperse money, you know, much, much larger amounts of money, but you’re like: I’ve done this before, I know how to do this.
Raimondo: Yes, yes. Listen, I am approaching this work with humility and caution and a sense of the weight of the responsibility. Your first question, what happens if you fail? That’s, immediately I break out in sweats and hives, can’t fail. But yes, I am comfortable with this. I’m comfortable with the financial aspect of this. I’m comfortable negotiating on behalf of, you know, America and our taxpayer dollars. I’m comfortable pushing companies and making this fair, but not, it’s not a blank check. I’ve had an ability to recruit an unbelievable top tier team. So yes.
Ryssdal: Is it, is it fair to say that you’re trying to not reimagine, but reinvigorate what this department does? You are, I mean, look, you’re getting a lot of press, you’re getting a lot of attention, this department’s getting a lot of attention, partly because of the CHIPS act, partly because of China. And I wonder what your take is on how you’re being perceived.
Raimondo: Um, I never think about how I’m being perceived.
Ryssdal: Oh, come on!
Raimondo: I really don’t. Anyone who knows me when I was in elected office, I did, it was obvious I wasn’t motivated by getting reelected because I always took on the biggest fight if I thought that was necessary.
Ryssdal: There’s the politician in you speaking out, I mean, come on —
Raimondo: It’s a fact. Look what I did, truck tolls, pension reforms, school reform, the whole thing. But anyway, this is a great place to be right now. The Commerce Department is in the bullseye of what matters: technology, China, industrial strategy, supply chains. It is the place to be, and I’m just trying to do the best I can to lead it.
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