To Spur Technology Innovation, Stop Pulling on the Rope

I spent the morning at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum. Before the big names were to do their spiels during the afternoon today and tomorrow morning, there were a series of breakout sessions, among which was one on “Technology Innovation.”

Our suggested “points to ponder” were:

  1. Can our nation regain our competitive edge through innovation?
  2. Will our knowledge and information-based workforce continue to offer cutting-edge technologies to improve the way we live and work?
  3. What measures can we implement to foster creativity and encourage companies to grow intelligently? and
  4. Will the paradigm of how people work, think and communicate be meaningfully transformed as a result of technology? Or is this another short-term trend, with no long term changes?

At least one of the other participants thought the summary of the discussion I gave in the latter half was pretty good, so I’ll share my takeaway here roughly as I did there—maybe sounding just a little more “Cato-y” here.

First, note the conspicuous use of collective pronouns in the first three discussion points. They obscure the goals and actors quite nicely, summarizing to: There is an undefined group out there that we want to have do an undefined set of things amounting to innovation.

I was reminded of the metaphor for spurring economic progress (if I recall, and I don’t recall where I first heard it): Spurring economic progress is like pushing a rope. You really can’t do it. Someone has to pull it, and the job of policymakers is simply to not pull on the wrong end.

In our brainstormy session, the ideas generally focused on pushing our end of the rope. “We” need more basic research and R&D. “We” need more and better education in science and technology. “We” need more inspired leadership, the spur of a new Sputnik.

These things are all probably inputs to innovation in some sense. None of them, I don’t think, will produce innovation as a matter of course. And nobody knows where to direct these efforts so that they do produce innovation.

A few other ideas emerged, ways that public policy can stop pulling on the rope. One was letting immigrants stay in this country—particularly the ones who have just earned advanced degrees—and welcoming them to stay. Another one was reducing the role of patent strategy in tech-business decision-making. Patents seem no longer to be primarily a spur to innovation, but a strategic arsenal used offensively or defensively by tech giants. A third idea that nearly surfaced was tax cuts, but its author in the conversation pivoted from what other countries are doing with tax policy to “national competitiveness,” never actually saying that U.S. tax cuts would spur business activity and innovation.

Arriving back at the office, I chanced to come across some thinking that would have contributed mightily to the discussion: NYU professor of economics Bill Easterly talking about the relationship of individual rights to economic growth, development, and innovation:

[I]ndividual rights is also a way to mobilize all the knowledge in society that we need to make the economy work. It’s the individual that has the particular knowledge so that they know how to run their factory, to employ people, to be a worker themselves, to start new businesses.

We’ll talk later about examples—like the guy in Rwanda, who stumbled upon a very unexpected success. He figured out—this is not something anybody would have predicted—that Rwanda could prosper by exporting gourmet coffee, which you can find in New York’s best coffee shops.

One reason that worked so well for Rwanda, is they have a tremendous infrastructure problem. It’s very hard to get heavy stuff shipped abroad because they are landlocked, they’re surrounded by countries with lousy roads, lousy ports. But gourmet coffee is something that you can create with lots of labor, which Rwanda does have a lot of, and it has very high value-to-weight ratio. So you just put it on the airplane, and ship it to New York.

So, there was no expert economist that flew in and told Paul Kagame, the autocrat of Rwanda, “Here’s the plan: Identify gourmet coffee as the growth industry worldwide. That’s the recipe.” None of that happened.

These successes are always a surprise. That’s why the expert top-down plan doesn’t work. You need the entrepreneur, you need the consumer, you need the market feedback, you need the democratic feedback, and all of this is built on this large edifice at the bottom of individual rights.

Defend people’s rights to own and use their property, however they might imagine to do that, then watch them deliver their surprises. That’s innovation policy. Stop pulling on the rope.