Can Government Reproduce Silicon Valley Everywhere?

by on September 12, 2021 · 0 comments

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. There is no precise recipe for growing tech clusters, as most economists and business analysts note.

“Despite several attempts, Silicon Valley has not been successfully copied elsewhere,” notes Mark Zachary Taylor, author of “The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries Are Better Than Others at Science and Technology.” Judge Glock, a senior policy adviser with the Cicero Institute, offers a more blistering assessment of such efforts: “Almost every American state has tried to fund the creation of biotech clusters, projects that almost inevitably end with weeds growing through the parking-lot pavement and a trail of corrupt bargains.”

I then highlight the key findings from several major studies of these efforts, all of which make it clear that, as cluster scholars by Aaron Chatterji, Edward Glaeser and William Kerr noted in 2014 after gathering all the research conducted on the topic: existing evidence “suggests that the regional foundation for growth-enabling innovation is complex and that we should be cautious of single policy solutions that claim to fit all needs.” Furthermore, “even if clusters of entrepreneurship are good for local growth, it is less clear that cities or states have the ability to generate those clusters.”

I also highlight research from my Mercatus Center colleagues on “The Economics of a Targeted Economic Development Subsidy” documenting costs of state-level planning & case study of Foxconn fiasco. They summarize the fairly miserable track record of state and local mini-industrial policy efforts. As they note, the extensive economic literature on this matter finds that “the net effect of targeted economic development subsidies is likely to be negative” because “the taxes funding the subsidies will discourage more economic activity than will be encouraged by the subsidies themselves.” Similarly, Harvard Business School economist Josh Lerner evaluated dozens of similar targeted development efforts from around the globe in his 2009 book Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed—and What to Do About It. He concluded that “for each effective government intervention, there have been dozens, even hundreds, of failures, where substantial public expenditures bore no fruit.”

In my essay, I also discuss the astonishing array of federal efforts to promote the geographic spread of high-tech sectors and jobs since 2000. Throughout Bush, Obama, Trump & Biden admins, there’s been a lot of spending, but not a lot of success. Just lots of new laws and bureaucracies:

In 2012, the Obama administration launched the multiagency Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge and Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge. This occurred at roughly the same time President Obama was launching his Startup America initiative. He also signed the JOBS Act (Jump-start Our Business Startups) in 2012. All these efforts included various measures to support the spread of advanced manufacturing and high-tech startups across the U.S. But none of these efforts have borne much fruit so far.

In the second installment of this series, I explore better ways to encourage regional tech innovation and economic development without doubling down on failed programs of the past. Specifically, I explain why, when it comes to economic development efforts, policymakers would be wise to avoid the costly, ineffective “fun stuff” and refocus on time-tested “boring” strategies:

The boring approach to economic development seeks to promote an open innovation culture that is conducive to risk-taking, investment and growth without the need to extend targeted privileges to particular firms or industries. Such a culture comes down to a classic mix of simplified and equally applied taxes, streamlined permitting processes and sensible regulations, limits on frivolous lawsuits, and clear protection of contracts and property rights.

As Matt Mitchell and I argued previously, policymakers need to resist the urge to go for broke with splashy policies and programs. They need to appreciate the benefits of generalized economic development policy (a.k.a. the boring approach) as opposed to far riskier targeted development efforts.

I also highlight recent research explaining how perhaps the simplest way to strengthen existing clusters, or give rise to new ones, is to make sure America’s immigration policies are hospitable to the best and brightest minds from across the globe.

And I note how, due to the problems associated with many other forms of government-sponsored R&D assistance, many scholars and policymakers are increasingly turning to the idea of government-sponsored competitions and prizes as a superior way to distribute R&D assistance.

With competitions, governments can set broad goals to help facilitate the search for important societal needs. The prizes then create a powerful incentive for innovators to pursue those goals, not only to win money, but also to gain recognition from peers and the public. Another alternative is just using lotteries to distribute R&D money instead of having agencies target grants. That at least avoids political shenanigans and paperwork delays, although it may not be a particularly effective approach.

There is also some good news is overlooked in today’s rush to make big industrial policy gambles: Venture capitalists and new startups are already spreading out naturally.

A 2021 study on “The State of the Startup Ecosystem” by Engine, a research and advocacy organization supporting startups, revealed that “as Series A funding grew over the last fifteen years, more of that growth has started to shift to areas located outside of the largest ecosystems.” Series A funding refers to the initial round of outside venture capitalist investment in startups. The report looked at Series A deals from 2003 to 2018 and found that “Series A rounds outside of the top five ecosystems grew nearly 900 percent, while the number of rounds outside of the top nine grew nearly tenfold.” Whereas Series A fundings outside of the top five ecosystems stood at 38% in 2003, they had jumped up to 43% in 2018. “The increase in deal location diversity over this period reflects an increasing spread in venture capital investment across the country and less centralization of investment in areas like Silicon Valley,” the report concluded.

Meanwhile, tech innovators and investors are increasingly engaging in innovation arbitrage as they move to cities and states across the nation that are more hospitable to entrepreneurial activities. Firms and investors are voting with their feet (and dollars) by flocking to areas where tech clusters can more naturally sprout because the general policy environment is sound.

But government efforts to artificially try to create regional innovation hubs in a top-down, technocratic fashion will almost certainly persist. As they do, some will argue that this time will be different! Perhaps, but it is more likely that the past is prologue; these new hubs will likely cause federal politicians to jockey for position to have their regions named one of the winners and get a big cut of all the new high-tech pork being served up by Washington. We can do better.

Jump over to Discourse to read both installments here and here.

Also, down below I list several other things I have written recently on industrial policy efforts more generally.

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