Tag: innovation

John Paul Stevens, Defender of High-Tech Freedom

I’m saddened to hear of the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Whatever you might say about his jurisprudence in other areas, one place where Justice Stevens really shined was in his defense of high-tech freedom.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in some of the most important high-tech cases of the last four decades. In other cases, he wrote important (and in some cases prescient) dissents. Through it all, he was a consistent voice for freedom of expression and the freedom to innovate. His accomplishments include:

  • Free speech: Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision in ACLU v. Reno, the decision that struck down the infamous Communications Decency Act and clearly established that the First Amendment applies to the Internet. In the 13 years since then, the courts have repeatedly beat back attacks on free speech online. For example, Justice Stevens was in the majority in ACLU v. Ashcroft, the 2004 decision that struck down another attempt to censor the Internet in the name of protecting children.
  • Copyright: Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1984 case of Sony v. Universal, the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the VCR by a 5-4 vote. The decision, which today is known as the “Betamax decision” after the Sony VCR brand, made possible the explosion of digital media innovation that followed. When the recording industry tried to stop the introduction of the MP3 player in 1997, the Ninth Circuit cited the Betamax precedent in holding that “space shifting” with your MP3 player is permitted under copyright’s fair use doctrine. The iPod as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist if Sony had lost the Betamax case. Justice Stevens also wrote an important dissent in the 2003 decision of Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he (like the Cato Institute) argued that the Constitution’s “limited times” provision precluded Congress from retroactively extending copyright terms.
  • Patents: The explosion of software patents is one of the biggest threats to innovation in the software industry, and Justice Stevens saw this threat coming almost three decades ago. Stevens wrote the majority decision in the 1978 case of Parker v. Flook, which clearly disallowed patents in the software industry. Three years later, Stevens dissented in the 1981 case of Diamond v. Diehr, which allowed a patent on a software-controlled rubber-curing machine. Although the majority decision didn’t explicitly permit patents on software, Stevens warned that the majority’s muddled decision would effectively open the door to software patents. And he has been proven right. In the three decades that followed, the patent-friendly U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has effectively dismantled limits on software patents. And the result has been a disaster, with high-tech firms being forced to spend large sums on litigation rather than innovation.

So if you enjoy your iPod and your uncensored Internet access, you have Justice Stevens to thank. Best wishes for a long, comfortable, and well-deserved retirement.

The Standards Themselves Are, Frankly, Irrelevant

Three days ago I reported that draft, grade-by-grade, national curricular standards would soon be released by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Yesterday, they were. (If you want to get a sense for what the proposed standards are follow the link to them. Don’t bother with the appendices, though, unless you really want to get into the weeds.)

Naturally, in the coming days lots of people will be offering heaps of commentary about what the standards do or do not contain. That’s not my main concern (though reading through the English standards I am dubious that mastery of them could be easily or consistently assessed). You see, the content of the standards is largely irrelevant because the main problem isn’t what the standards are, but standardization itself.

As I’ve blathered about on numerous occasions, it makes little sense to expect all kids to master all the same things at the same rates. All kids are different – they have different talents, desires, and abilities – and to impose one, “best” progression on them is simply illogical.

Another problem with imposing a single standard nationwide – and yes, this will be imposed, unless states suddenly decide they don’t like getting their citizen’s tax dollars back from Uncle Sam – is that it prevents competition between curricula. And that, in turn, kills innovation, the lifeblood of progress. So unless these standards have achieved perfection – and I’m pretty sure they haven’t – it’s a very dangerous thing to make them the end-all and be-all.

Finally, no matter how brilliant the draft standards, there is no reason to believe that they will drive meaningful educational improvement. Government schools will still be government schools, and the people employed by them will still have very little incentive to push kids to excellence, and every incentive to game the system to make the standards toothless. And no one yet has offered a decent proposal, other than school-choice supporters, for getting around that very inconvenient, public-schooling truth.

All of these problems help to explain why there is no convincing empirical evidence that national standards drive superior educational outcomes. Unfortunately, most national-standards advocates will talk themselves blue in the face about what’s in the standards, but avoid at all costs the question of whether standardization makes sense in the first place.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Thursday Links

  • How Obama’s plan for health care will affect medical innovation in America: “Imposing price controls on drugs and treatments–or indirectly forcing their prices down by means of a ‘public option’ or expanded public insurance programs–would reduce the incentive for innovators to develop new treatments.”
  • Register now for the upcoming Cato forum featuring author Tim Carney and his new book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses. Buy the book, here.

ObamaCare Threatens Innovation

That’s the conclusion of economist Glen Whitman and physician Raymond Raad, who write in Forbes:

Unfortunately, the health care bills moving through Congress could curtail medical innovation. Imposing price controls on drugs and treatments–or indirectly forcing their prices down by means of a “public option” or expanded public insurance programs–would reduce the incentive for innovators to develop new treatments.

Proposed reforms could also retard business model innovation–an area where innovation is weak. Congress has already used its control of Medicare to limit the growth of specialty hospitals. A nationally mandated insurance package would severely curtail innovation in payment methods and insurance products, which have the potential to improve the coordination and delivery of health care services.

The health care debate should address more than just covering the uninsured and controlling costs. When the U.S. generates medical innovations, the whole world benefits. That is a virtue of the American system that is not reflected in comparative life expectancy and mortality statistics.

The op-ed is based on the authors’ Cato Institute policy analysis, “Bending the Productivity Curve: Why America Leads the World in Medical Innovation.”

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.

Will America Keep “Bending the Productivity Curve”?

Most international comparisons conclude that America’s health care sector under-performs those of other advanced nations.  Aside from other serious flaws, those studies typically ignore each nation’s contribution to medical innovation – the discovery of new knowledge and practices that improve health in all nations. Today, the Cato Institute releases a new study – the most comprehensive study of its kind – that helps fill that void.

In “Bending the Productivity Curve: Why America Leads the World in Medical Innovation,” economist Glen Whitman and physician Raymond Raad conclude that the United States far and away outperforms other nations on medical innovation, but that the legislation moving through Congress threatens America’s ability to innovate.  From the executive summary:

To date…none of the most influential international comparisons have examined the contributions of various countries to the many advances that have improved the productivity of medicine over time…

In three of the four general categories of innovation examined in this paper — basic science, diagnostics, and therapeutics — the United States has contributed more than any other country…In the last category, business models, we lack the data to say whether the United States has been more or less innovative than other nations; innovation in this area appears weak across nations.

In general, Americans tend to receive more new treatments and pay more for them — a fact that is usually regarded as a fault of the American system. That interpretation, if not entirely wrong, is at least incomplete. Rapid adoption and extensive use of new treatments and technologies create an incentive to develop those techniques in the first place. When the United States subsidizes medical innovation, the whole world benefits. That is a virtue of the American system that is not reflected in comparative life expectancy and mortality statistics.

Policymakers should consider the impact of reform proposals on innovation. For example, proposals that increase spending on diagnostics and therapeutics could encourage such innovation. Expanding price controls, government health care programs, and health insurance regulation, on the other hand, could hinder America’s ability to innovate.

Raad will discuss the study this Friday at noon at a policy forum at the Cato Institute.