Column | Tomorrow

The U.S., Owning a Powerhouse Microchip-making Industry? Fat Chance, Taiwan's Tech King Told Pelosi.

"Fifty billion dollars – well, that’s a good start," quipped the 91-year-old Morris Chang, warning that Washington’s new bipartisan industrial policy may not add up.

Nancy Pelosi, center, is pictured arriving at the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's house of parliament.

Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan like a juggernaut. She defied threats from the Chinese regime in order to visit the island and ignored American generals who saw the trip as a reckless provocation. Ecstatic crowds greeted her at the airport and her hotel. Nothing, it seemed, could slow her down.

And then she met Morris Chang.

Chang, the 91-year-old founder of the chipmaking goliath TSMC, used a luncheon at Taiwan’s presidential palace to deliver a biting soliloquy to Pelosi and other visiting American lawmakers about the new industrial policy emerging in the United States. In comments that have not previously been reported in detail, Chang took aim at the CHIPS and Science Act and its $52 billion package of subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing.

Pelosi told me in a recent interview that Chang, an engineer trained at MIT and Stanford, began with a light remark.

“Fifty billion dollars – well, that’s a good start,” Chang said, according to her recollection.

Four people present for the meeting, including Pelosi, said it quickly became evident that Chang was not in a kidding mood.

With Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, looking on, the billionaire entrepreneur pressed Pelosi with sobering questions about the CHIPS law — and whether the policy represented a genuine commitment to supporting advanced industry or an impulsive attempt by the United States to seize a piece of a lucrative global market.

Chang said he was pleased that his company could benefit from the subsidies; TSMC already had a major development project underway in Arizona. But did the United States really think it could buy itself a powerhouse chipmaking industry, just like that?

That very question now hangs over the Biden administration as it prepares to implement the semiconductor spending in the CHIPS and Science Act. The next phase is due to begin this month with the unveiling by the Commerce Department of a detailed process for awarding subsidies. The law already looks like a useful political trophy for Biden, claiming a prominent spot in his State of the Union Address.

The law is an emblem, in Biden’s telling, of his commitment to creating the jobs of the future and armoring America’s economy against the disruptions that an increasingly militant China could inflict, potentially by attacking Taiwan. Pouring subsidies into chip fabrication would “make sure the supply chain for America begins in America,” Biden said told Congress.

That is far from a sure bet. As Chang told Pelosi, there is a long distance between the cutting of government checks and the creation of a self-sustaining chips industry in the United States.

His candid concerns represent a rough guide to the challenges Biden’s semiconductor policy will have to address if it is to succeed, long after the immediate political fanfare has abated — and well past the point that its generous subsidies for big business have run out.

Over lunch, Chang warned that it was terribly naïve of the United States to think that it could rapidly spend its way into one of the most complex electronics-manufacturing markets in the world. The task of making semiconductor chips was almost impossibly complicated, he said, demanding Herculean labors merely to obtain the raw materials involved and requiring microscopic precision in the construction of fabrication plants and then in the assembly of the chips themselves.

Was the United States really up to that job?

The industry evolves at incredible speed, Chang continued. Even if the United States managed to build some high-quality factories with the spending Pelosi championed, it would have to keep investing more and more to keep those facilities up to date. Otherwise, he said, Americans would in short order find themselves with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of outdated hardware. A once-in-a-generation infusion of cash would not be enough.

Was America really prepared to keep up?

If the United States wanted a semiconductor industry it could rely on, Chang said, then it should keep investing in the security of Taiwan. After all, his company had long ago perfected what Americans were now trying to devise on their own.

As course upon course of small plates came and went, Chang’s discourse ran on so long that his wife, Sophie, cut in at one point with a terse interjection; Chang told the group she thought he was talking too much. Tsai, observing the whole exchange, noted to Pelosi and the other Americans that Chang had a reputation for always speaking his mind.

Several people described Chang’s remarks on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive private meeting. Indeed, the only person who agreed to speak with me about it on the record was Pelosi. She was also the only one who sounded untroubled by Chang’s skepticism about the United States as a home for the semiconductor trade.

“He knows America quite well,” she said, “and the questions he asked I saw almost as an opportunity to respond, even if some of it was challenging.”

Unlike other people I spoke to, Pelosi said she was not put off by the severity of Chang’s language. Lauding Chang as an “iconic figure,” she told me several times: “I was in such awe of him.”

But Pelosi said she had also delivered a firm message of her own: “That we knew what we were doing, that we were determined to succeed with it – that it was a good start.”

Other Taiwanese executives present voiced hesitation, Pelosi acknowledged, with some questioning whether American environmental and labor laws were consistent with the goal of nurturing a sophisticated industry. In our conversation, she rejected the idea that there might be tensions between her political party’s grand economic and social aspirations, and the narrower aims of the CHIPS law.

Chang, naturally, is not a disinterested observer of the American semiconductor effort. His company is a singular global power; its overwhelming importance in the high-tech supply chain has become a vital strategic asset for Taiwan as it gathers allies in an age of deepening conflict with the Chinese Communist Party. If China blockaded or invaded the island, the impact on TSMC’s operations alone would convulse the international economy. That is a strong incentive for wealthy democracies to defend Taiwan with more than blandishments about self-determination.

Chang has questioned in other settings whether the United States is a suitable environment for semiconductor manufacturing, pointing to gaps in the workforce and defects in the business culture. On a podcast hosted by the Brookings Institution last year, Chang lamented what he called a lack of “manufacturing talents” in the United States, owing to generations of ambitious Americans flocking to finance and internet companies instead. (“I don’t really think it’s a bad thing for the United States, actually,” he said, “but it’s a bad thing for trying to do semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S.”)

He repeated a version of that critique over lunch in August, prompting one member of Pelosi’s delegation, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, to speak up and urge Chang to visit Krishnamoorthi’s home state of Illinois to get a better sense of the American workforce. Chang did not indicate he was tempted by the invitation.

When I asked several Biden administration officials about Chang’s criticism, the message I got back was a confident-sounding “stay tuned.” The next stage of CHIPS implementation, they said, would reveal in more detail how the law would be used to unlock a torrent of private-sector investment and make American semiconductor fabrication a sturdy, long-range enterprise. They did not reject Chang’s concerns about the current U.S. workforce, but pointed to American tech hubs like Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle as evidence that we do know how to build dynamic, fully staffed tech hubs in this country. Now, they said, we need to build more of them.

Not long after his luncheon with Pelosi, Chang visited an area that figures to become one of those hubs. In Arizona, he joined Biden at a vast construction site in north Phoenix where TSMC is building a gargantuan complex that may stand as something of a counterpoint to Chang’s overarching skepticism about the law. His company mapped out plans for an Arizona project before Biden became president, but after the passage of the CHIPS law TSMC announced it would massively increase its investment in the state — from $12 billion to $40 billion — and build a second facility there, too.

The final result would be a fabrication center that is expected to supply Apple and other American tech companies, employing thousands in a state that also happens to be a major electoral battleground. Not incidentally, it would likely be eligible for U.S. subsidies.

That, Biden said in December, was more than just a good start. He declared in Phoenix that the United States was “better positioned than any other nation to lead the world economy in the years ahead — if we keep our focus.”

Morris Chang could have told Biden that was a big “if.”