Discourse magazine has just published my review of Where Is My Flying Car?, by J. Storrs Hall, which I argue is the most important book on technology policy written in the past quarter century. Hall perfectly defines what is at stake if we fail to embrace a pro-progress policy vision going forward. Hall documents how a “Jetsons” future was within our grasp, but it was stolen away from us. What held back progress in key sectors like transportation, nanotech & energy was anti-technological thinking and the overregulation that accompanies it. “[T]he Great Stagnation was really the Great Strangulation,” he argues. The culprits: negative cultural attitudes toward innovation, incumbent companies or academics looking to protect their turf, litigation-happy trial lawyers, and a raft of risk-averse laws and regulations.

Hall coins the term “the Machiavelli Effect” to identify why many people simultaneously fear the new and different, and they also want to protect whatever status quo they benefit from (or at least feel comfortable with). He builds on this passage from Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic 1532 study of political power, “The Prince”: Continue reading →

On December 13th, I will be participating in an Atlas Network panel on, “Big Tech, Free Speech, and Censorship: The Classical Liberal Approach.” In anticipation of that event, I have also just published a new op-ed for The Hill entitled, “Left and right take aim at Big Tech — and the First Amendment.” In this essay, I expand upon that op-ed and discuss the growing calls from both the Left and the Right for a variety of new content regulations. I then outline the classical liberal approach to concerns about free speech platforms more generally, which ultimately comes down to the proposition that innovation and competition are always superior to government regulation when it comes to content policy.

In the current debates, I am particularly concerned with calls by many conservatives for more comprehensive governmental controls on speech policies enforced by various private platforms, so I will zero in on those efforts in this essay. First, here’s what both the Left and the Right share in common in these debates: Many on both sides of the aisle desire more government control over the editorial decisions made by private platforms. They both advocate more political meddling with the way private firms make decisions about what types of content and communications are allowed on their platforms. In today’s hyper-partisan world,” I argue in my Hill column, “tech platforms have become just another plaything to be dominated by politics and regulation. When the ends justify the means, principles that transcend the battles of the day — like property rights, free speech and editorial independence — become disposable. These are things we take for granted until they’ve been chipped away at and lost.”

Despite a shared objective for greater politicization of media markets, the Left and the Right part ways quickly when it comes to the underlying objectives of expanded government control. As I noted in my Hill op-ed:

there is considerable confusion in the complaints both parties make about “Big Tech.” Democrats want tech companies doing more to limit content they claim is hate speech, misinformation, or that incites violence. Republicans want online operators to do less, because many conservatives believe tech platforms already take down too much of their content.

This makes life very lonely for free speech defenders and classical liberals. Usually in the past, we could count on the Left to be with us in some free speech battles (such as putting an end to “indecency” regulations for broadcast radio and television), while the Right would be with us on others (such as opposition to the “Fairness Doctrine,” or similar mandates). Today, however, it is more common for classical liberals to be fighting with both sides about free speech issues.

My focus is primarily on the Right because, with the rise of Donald Trump and “national conservatism,” there seems to be a lot of soul-searching going on among conservatives about their stance toward private media platforms, and the editorial rights of digital platforms in particular. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center has just released a new special study that I co-authored with Connor Haaland entitled, “Does the United States Need a More Targeted Industrial Policy for High Tech?” With industrial policy reemerging as a major issue — and with Congress still debating a $250 billion, 2,400-page industrial policy bill — our report does a deep dive into the history various industrial policy efforts both here and abroad over the past half century. Our 64-page survey of the historical record leads us to conclude that, “targeted industrial policy programs cannot magically bring about innovation or economic growth, and government efforts to plan economies from the top down have never had an encouraging track record.”

We zero in on the distinction between general versus targeted economic development efforts and argue that:

whether we are referring to federal, state, or local planning efforts—the more highly tar­geted development efforts typically involve many tradeoffs that are often not taken into consider­ation by industrial policy advocates. Downsides include government steering of public resources into unproductive endeavors, as well as more serious problems, such as cronyism and even corruption.

We also stress the need to more tightly define the term “industrial policy” to ensure rational evaluation is even possible. We argue that, “industrial policy has intentionality and directionality, which distinguishes it from science policy, innovation policy, and economic policy more generally.” We like the focus definition used by economist Nathaniel Lane, who defines industrial policy as “intentional political action meant to shift the industrial structure of an economy.”

Our report examines the so-called “Japan model” of industrial policy that was all the rage in intellectual circles a generation ago and then compares it to the Chinese and European industrial policy efforts of today, which many pundits claim that the US needs to mimic. Continue reading →

Discourse magazine recently published my essay on what “Industrial Policy Advocates Should Learn from Don Lavoie.” With industrial policy enjoying a major revival in the the U.S. — with several major federal proposals are pending or already set to go into effect — I argue that Lavoie’s work is worth revisiting, especially as this weekend was the 20th anniversary of his untimely passing. Jump over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

But one thing I wanted to just briefly highlight here is the useful tool Lavoie created that helped us think about the “planning spectrum,” or the range of different industrial policy planning motivations and proposals. On one axis, he plotted “futurist” versus “preservationist” advocates and proposals, with the futurists wanting to invest in new skills and technologies, while the preservationists seek to prop up existing sectors. On the other axis, he contrasted “left-wing or pro-labor” and “right-wing or pro-business” advocates and proposals.

Lavoie used this tool to help highlight the remarkable intellectual schizophrenia among industrial policy planners, who all claimed to have the One Big Plan to save the economy. The problem was, Lavoie noted, all their plans differed greatly. For example, he did a deep dive into the work of Robert Reich and Felix Rohatyn, who were both outspoken industrial policy advocates during the 80s. Reich as affiliated with the Harvard School of Government at that time, and Rohatyn was a well-known Wall Street financier. The industrial policy proposals set forth by Reich and Rohatyn received enormous media and academic attention at the time, yet no one except Lavoie seriously explored the many ways in which their proposals differed so fundamentally. Rohatyn was slotted on the lower right quadrant because of his desire to prop up old sectors and ensure the health of various private businesses. Reich fell into the upper quadrant of being more of futurist in his desire to have the government promote newer skills, sectors, and technologies. Continue reading →

A short presentation I do for Mercatus Center graduate students every couple of years offering advice to aspiring policy scholars looking to develop their personal brand & be more effective public policy analysts.

What explains the rebirth of analog era media? Many people (including me!) predicted that vinyl records, turntables, broadcast TV antennas and even printed books seemed destined for the dustbin of technological history. We were so wrong, as I note in this new oped that has gone out through the Tribune Wire Service.

“Many of us threw away our record collections and antennas and began migrating from physical books to digital ones,” I note. “Now, these older technologies are enjoying a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what’s the lesson?”

I offer some data about the rebirth of analog era media as well as some possible explanations for their resurgence. “With vinyl records and printed books, people enjoy making a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it off to their friends. Digital music or books don’t satisfy that desire, no matter how much more convenient and affordable they might be. The mediums still matter.”

Read more here. Meanwhile, my own personal vinyl collection continues to grow without constraint! …

Wishful thinking is a dangerous drug. Some pundits and policymakers believe that, if your intentions are pure and you have the “right” people in power, all government needs to do is sprinkle a little pixie dust (in the form of billions of taxpayer dollars) and magical things will happen.

Of course, reality has a funny way of throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans. Which brings me to the question I raise in a new 2-part series for Discourse magazine: Can governments replicate Silicon Valley everywhere?

In the first installment, I explore the track record of federal and state attempts to build tech clusters, science parks & “regional innovation hubs” using state subsidies and industrial policy. This is highly relevant today because of the huge new industrial policy push at the federal level is building on top of growing state and local efforts to create tech hubs, science parks, or various other types of industrial “clusters.

At the federal level, this summer, the Senate passed a 2,300-page industrial policy bill, the “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021,” that included almost $10 billion over four years for a Department of Commerce-led effort to fund 20 new regional technology hubs, “in a manner that ensures geographic diversity and representation from communities of differing populations.” A similar proposal that is moving in the House, the “Regional Innovation Act of 2021,” proposes almost $7 billion over five years for 10 regional tech hubs. Meanwhile, the Biden administration also is pitching ideas for new high-tech hubs. In late July, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration announced plans to allocate $1 billion in pandemic recovery funds to create or expand “regional industry clusters” as part of the administration’s new Build Back Better Regional Challenge. Among the possible ideas the agency said might win funding are an “artificial intelligence corridor,” an “agriculture-technology cluster” in rural coal counties, a “blue economy cluster” in coastal regions, and a “climate-friendly electric vehicle cluster.”

In my essay, I note that the economic literature on these efforts has been fairly negative, to put it mildly. Continue reading →

Financial Help for Gamblers: How to Get Find ReliefIn my latest column for The Hill, I consider that dangers of government gambling our tax dollars on risky industrial policy programs. I begin by noting:

Roll the dice at a casino enough times, and you are bound to win a few games. But knowing the odds are not in your favor, how much are you willing to risk losing by continuing to gamble?

This is the same issue governments confront when they gamble taxpayer dollars on industrial policy efforts, which can best be described as targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes. Throwing enough money at risky ventures might net a few wins, but at what cost? Could those resources have been better spent? And do bureaucrats really make better bets than private investors?

I continue on to note that, while the US is embarking on a major new industrial policy push, history does not provide us with a lot of hope regarding Uncle Sam’s betting record when he starts rolling those industrial policy dice. “How much tolerance should the public have for government industrial policy gambling?” I ask. I continue on:

Generally speaking, “basic” support (broad-based funding for universities and research labs) is wiser than “applied” (targeted subsidies for specific firms or sectors). With basic R&D funding, the chances of wasting resources on risky investments can be contained, at least as compared to highly targeted investments in unproven technologies and firms.

I also argue that “The riskiest bets on new technologies and sectors are better left to private investors,” and note how, “America’s venture capital industry remains the envy of the world because it continues to power world-beating advanced technology.” Accordingly, I conclude: Continue reading →

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted on July 1 to withdraw its pubic affirmation of consumer welfare as the guiding principle for antitrust enforcement. While this change is symbolic at this point, it weakens the agency’s public commitment to an objective consumer-based approach to antitrust. The result opens the door to politicized and unprincipled antitrust enforcement that will ultimately hurt rather than benefit consumers.

The FTC is the nation’s primary consumer protection agency, focused on ensuring a healthy market that avoids the dangers of monopolistic practices. The statement on the agency’s antitrust enforcement had been uncontroversial up to this point. A bipartisan group of commissioners passed the statement in 2015—during the Obama Administration—and the statement primarily clarified that the FTC’s antitrust enforcement under Section 5 of the FTC Act concerning the agency’s authority over unfair and deceptive trade practices was guided by consumer welfare. In other words, the FTC would focus on those acts that cause or are likely to cause harm to consumers, based on objective economic analysis rather than the effects of business moves on competition itself or other policy standards. The statement sought to provide clarity to consumers and businesses, and in fact, the sole vote against it was on the basis that the statement was too abbreviated to provide meaningful guidance.

Despite these uncontroversial origins, on Thursday at a hastily announced open meeting, the current FTC voted 3-2 to withdraw this statement. The withdrawal of the FTC’s statement is the latest signal that antitrust policy, particularly at the FTC, is shifting away from focusing on consumers and using the consumer welfare standard.  Instead, there are now real concerns the FTC will enforce antitrust policy in a way that promotes competitors or ideology at consumers’ expense.

Most specifically, rejecting the consumer welfare standard signals the FTC may apply its enforcement power in more subjective ways based in changing political motives and policy preference, as was seen in earlier eras of antitrust enforcement. For example, if not focused on the consumer welfare standard, the FTC could act against some of the largest tech companies to break them up or prevent mergers even though consumers were not harmed—or were even helped—by these changes in the market. This shift would have three specific, if related, implications.

First, it would undermine confidence among consumers in the FTC’s actions. It is far less clear now by what standards antitrust enforcement will be guided and if they are truly objective. As a result, it is unclear what the purpose behind enforcement is.

Second, such expansive enforcement could diminish the options available to consumers. Without the consumer welfare standard, aggressive antitrust enforcement could lead to regulatory interventions in competitive and dynamic markets apart from a data-based and consumer-focused analysis. The result of such unnecessary enforcement could be to raise costs or eliminate products, preventing consumers from having access to products they enjoy or face higher prices, not because of unfair or anti-competitive behavior but because of political animus against a particular industry.

Finally, this shift away from the consumer welfare standard is likely to result in inefficient markets. Unprincipled or politically motivated enforcement could result in some products and services never making it to consumers. In other cases, markets may find certain “competitors” kept alive past their value, or other markets could remain with few choices because companies fear that entrance would be considered anticompetitive. Without the consumer welfare standard, misguided notions of concentration or “bigness” could result in a less beneficial market and instead benefit competitors with inferior products that would not have otherwise survived—all to the detriment of consumers.

When regulators move away from an objective, consumer-focused approach to antitrust, it is ultimately the consumers who are harmed in the form of higher prices, inferior products, and less innovation. As Commissioner Christine Wilson stated prior to the vote, “If the Commission is no longer focused on consumer welfare then consumers will be harmed.”

Discourse magazine has just published my latest essay, “‘Japan Inc.’ and Other Tales of Industrial Policy Apocalypse.” It is a short history of the hysteria surrounding the growth of Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s and its various industrial policy efforts. I begin by noting that, “American pundits and policymakers are today raising a litany of complaints about Chinese industrial policies, trade practices, industrial espionage and military expansion. Some of these concerns have merit. In each case, however, it is easy to find identical fears that were raised about Japan a generation ago.” I then walk through many of the leading books, opeds, movies, and other things from that past era to show how that was the case.

“Hysteria” is not too strong a word to use in this case. Many pundits and politicians were panicking about the rise of Japan economically and more specifically about the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was formulating industrial policy schemes for industrial sectors in which they hoped to make advances. This resulted in veritable “MITI mania” here in America. “U.S. officials and market analysts came to view MITI with a combination of reverence and revulsion, believing that it had concocted an industrial policy cocktail that was fueling Japan’s success at the expense of American companies and interests,” I note. Countless books and essays were being published with breathless titles and predictions. I go through dozens of them in my essay. Meanwhile, the debate in policy circles and Capitol Hill even took on an ugly racial tinge, with some lawmakers calling the the Japanese “leeches.” and suggesting the U.S. should have dropped more atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. At one point, several members of Congress gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1987 to smash Japanese electronics with sledgehammers. Continue reading →