Obama’s Inaugural Address & Technology Policy

by on January 20, 2009 · 13 comments

Three passages from Obama’s inaugural address stand out as important for the mix of technology policy issues covered here at the TLF.  On technology policy (a non-trivial 5.4% of the address by word count):

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories…. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

On how to determine whether government intervention is warranted:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. 

On regulatory policy:

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control….

So what does all this mean for tech policy?

Clearly, Obama considers subsidies for broadband deployment to be a rhetorical winner.  But in an era of painfully tight budget constraints, the stimulus package unveiled last week includes “only” “$6 billion to promote deployment of high-speed Internet access in unserved and underserved areas… considerably less than the $44 billion requested by Internet advocates”—per the WSJ, which also notes that this corporate welfare would be tied to “open access” (a/k/a “net neutrality”) mandates.  Obama’s even more serious about spending “stimulus” money on health IT.  The stimulus plan includes $20 billion in e-health spending (again, per the WSJ).  I’ll bet that both programs will be dwarfed in size by Obama’s subsidies for “green” energy sources.

Obama’s emphasis on “what works” will no doubt be greeted by many as a welcome return to “reality-based” policy-making.  But even if one attempted to implement this approach free of any “ideological pre-dispositions,” how would one actually evaluate the efficacy of any proposed government intervention?  How often will there be anything remotely resembling a controlled experiment to inform policy-making?  As difficult as it is to predict the unintended consequences of intervention, it’s even more difficult to do so in high-tech sectors of the economy, where the rate of change is particularly rapid.

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