That company

a short segment of chapter one: Good idea, Bad Plan

Flashing lights and sirens fill Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Six police motorcycles, eight black cars, an ambulance and a bus carrying armed officers head toward the Capitol.

It is just before half past nine on 7 February 2023. The high-security convoy is escorting Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States, to the Capitol for the State of the Union, his annual address to Congress.

Early in his address, Biden refers to the chip shortage that had affected the American economy during the pandemic. “Car prices went up. So did everything from fridges to cellphones,” Biden says, tapping his fingers rhythmically on the piece of paper in front of him. He means: don’t touch American cars and fridges. And definitely don’t touch our iPhones.

“We can never let this happen again. These chips were invented in America. But in the last several decades, we lost our edge. We’re down to only producing 10 percent. We’re going to make sure the supply chain for America begins in America. He repeats: “The supply chain begins in America.”

At the Dutch embassy in Washington, D.C., analysts follow every word of the State of the Union. In their briefing to The Hague, which will be sent that same night, they note: after only 10 minutes and 15 seconds, Biden started talking about chips – a top priority. The standing ovation which followed, from both Republican and Democratic politicians, lasted exactly 13.5 seconds.

Biden knows the history. America was the birthplace of the chip: in 1947, Bell Labs invented the transistor; in the late 1950s, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce soldered together their first, groundbreaking integrated circuits. At one time, American companies produced all the complex machines required to make these chips. But they had lost their technological edge. Asian competitors overtook Silicon Valley, with the help of the Dutch company that now dominated the market for vital chip machines: ASML, in Veldhoven.

Or, as they call it in the corridors of Capitol Hill, “That company.”

Forty years ago, that company didn’t even exist. There was only a good idea with bad prospects.