Tag: innovation

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.

Americans Are Not Convinced of Top Down Economics

Several recent polls have shown Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical of Washington’s economic planning capabilities. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Americans doubt Washington’s ability to solve economic problems. In fact, these numbers have leapt from 52 percent last year and from 41 percent in 2002. It appears that the more the government has tried to fix the U.S. economy, the less confident Americans are that the government is capable of doing such things.

When the government in Washington decides to solve economic problems, how much confidence do you have that the problem actually will be solved: A lot, some, just a little, or none at all?


 Source: Washington Post Poll

Another example of this skepticism toward government economic planning comes from a recent Rasmussen poll finding that 71 percent of Americans believe the private sector is better than the government at determining technological potential.

Who is better at determining the long-term benefits and potential of new technologies, private sector companies and investors or government officials?

 71 percent: Private sector companies and investors

11 percent: Government officials

17 percent: Not sure

This suggests the public is not convinced that President Obama’s “investment” spending will necessarily be properly directed to its most useful ends. For example, in the president’s 2011 State of the Union address, he marshals the word “invest” or “investment” 13 times, with 8 specifically referencing government investment. It is important to remember that when government “invests” in the economy, it requires officials to make decisions about who gets funding. This presupposes that the government has the knowledge to know which technologies have the greatest potential and thus are worthy of investment. Instead of letting billions of individuals work through a marketplace to best allocate resources to the technologies with the greatest potential, this would instead rely on a small, centralized group of intellectuals deciding who gets what.

Also, according to this Rasmussen poll the public is not convinced that when the government does “pick winners” to receive government funding, that the money will not be wasted. 64 percent believe it is likely that if a private company, which cannot find investors, gets funding from the government that the money will be wasted.

Sometimes a company cannot find investors for a new technology and they seek research funding from government. Suppose a private company cannot find investors but gets funding from the government. How likely is it that government funding will be wasted?

30 percent: Very likely

34 percent: Somewhat likely

21 percent: Not very likely

4 percent: Not at all likely

11 percent: Not sure

It might be time to rethink the alluring sound of government “investment” and reevaluate the merits that government has the knowledge necessary to make these sorts of economic decisions.

Cross-posted from Reason.com 

Wednesday Links

HHS Wildly Overstates the Problem of Pre-Existing Conditions — and Ignores Its Cause

On the eve of a House vote to repeal ObamaCare, the Department of Health and Human Services has released a report claiming that if repeal succeeds, “1 in 2 non-elderly Americans could be denied coverage or charged more due to a pre-existing condition.”  A few problems with that claim:

  • An HHS survey found that in 2001, only 1 percent of Americans had ever been denied health insurance.
  • Economists Mark Pauly and Len Nichols write, “the fraction of nonelderly uninsured persons…who would be rated as actuarially uninsurable is generally estimated to be very small, less than 1 percent of the population.”
  • RAND health economist Susan Marquis and her colleagues find that in markets that do not impose ObamaCare-style government price controls on health insurance, such as California’s individual market, ‘‘a large number of people with health problems do obtain coverage…Our analysis confirms earlier studies’ findings that there is considerable risk pooling in the individual market and that high risks are not charged premiums that fully reflect their higher risk.’’
  • It is true that insurers charge higher premiums to many people with pre-existing conditions – and it is crucial that they have the freedom to do so.  Risk-based premiums create virtuous incentives for people to buy insurance while they are healthy and to be cost-conscious consumers.  They also encourage insurers to develop innovative products that protect against the risk of higher premiums.  The real problem here is that the government has created an employment-based health insurance system that denies consumers the protections that unregulated markets already provide, as well as additional protections that insurers would develop absent this government intervention.
  • ObamaCare’s health-insurance price controls will encourage insurers to deny care to the very sick people those price controls are intended to help.
  • The Obama administration projected that 375,000 people would sign up for ObamaCare’s “Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans” by the end of last year. But only 8,000 people enrolled in such plans by December 2010, suggesting the demand isn’t nearly as great as the administration claimed.

Is ObamaCare Pushing Rope?

Regarding ObamaCare’s first adverse-selection death spiral, Julie Rovner posts this over at Shots, the NPR health blog:

The advocacy group Health Care for America Now was the first to bring the action to widespread attention. “Even for the insurance industry this behavior is surprisingly brazen,” HCAN Executive Director Ethan Rome wrote in a blog entry for the Huffington Post. “They don’t like the rules, so they’re going to take their ball and go home.”

But the insurance industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans rejected HCAN’s contention that the companies’ refusal to sell to all comers is somehow a violation of a promise made earlier this year by AHIP CEO Karen Ignagni that insurance companies would comply with regulations regarding children and pre-existing conditions.

In an interview, AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said Ignagni was responding only to promises that children wouldn’t be excluded from their parents’ plans and that if the kids are covered, the policies would include treatment of their pre-existing condition.

What emerged in the regulations, however, Zirkelbach said, was, in effect, a  requirement that insurance companies accept children even if they are already sick. That, he said, would be tantamount to exactly what companies want to avoid with the adult population — letting people wait until they are sick to sign up for insurance. Which is exactly why the insurance industry is so insistent on a coverage mandate: It needs premiums of healthy people to help cover the costs of those who are not.

In effect, ObamaCare supporters said to the public, “Give the government more power over insurance companies and the government will make health insurance more accessible and secure.”  These few paragraphs capture how that strategy has turned into a cat-and-mouse game with insurers, and is turning ObamaCare’s most attractive selling point – guaranteed coverage for kids with pre-existing conditions – into an empty promise.

In stark contrast stands the individual insurance market.  Yes, insurers there generally (but not always) charge premiums that correspond to risk, and sometimes turn people down – but that market has also been remarkably innovative when it comes to protecting sick people from higher premiums.  RAND Health economist Susan Marquis and her colleagues write, “a large number of people with health problems do obtain coverage” in the individual market: “Our analysis confirms earlier studies’ findings that there is considerable risk pooling in the individual market and that high risks are not charged premiums that fully reflect their higher risk.”  Even as Congress debated ObamaCare, UnitedHealthcare introduced an innovative new product that protects people with employer-sponsored coverage from facing sky-high premiums when they leave their company plan.  Economist John Cochrane predicts that further innovations can make health insurance more secure and improve the quality of medical care.

Which process seems more likely to improve quality and reduce costs?  The political process, where politicians and regulators try to force insurance companies to act against their financial self-interest?  Or the market process, where self-interest forces insurers to find innovative ways to give consumers more of what they want?

One From Silicon Valley: Leave Us Alone

A passionate plea from Michael Arrington TechCrunch, the number three tech blog in the country and the number four blog overall, according to Technorati’s current rankings:

Silicon Valley has fueled much of the growth in our economy over the last few decades and has created amazing (and highly profitable) companies that are making the world a much better and more interesting place to live. All that happened while the government ignored us.

We don’t want handouts. We don’t want “public-private partnerships,” and we sure as hell don’t want legislation. Just let us do our thing and maybe say thanks to those companies that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands and send in those humongous corporate tax payments on profits. Because all you can do is screw up something beautiful. Really.

While maintaining his hugely popular site, Arrington has made himself something of a controversialist. His policy preferences aren’t strictly libertarian, but his instincts are that freedom produces innovation much better than any alternative public policies.

Political Economy in Three Panels

Indeed, every improved product or service may make us no longer value products and services we previously used. That’s what Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” A longer version of the same phenomenon was on the front page of Monday’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about how Wal-Mart’s rivals secretly fund “grassroots local campaigns” against Wal-Mart, organized by political consulting firms, to protect the existing firms’ positions. Every innovator puts somebody out of business, as Agnes’s friend recognizes.