Economics

It was my pleasure this week to participate in a panel discussion about the future of innovation policy at the James Madison Institute’s 2022 Tech and Innovation Summit in Coral Gables, FL. Our conversation focused on the future of Progress Studies, which is one of my favorite topics. We were asked to discuss five major questions and below I have summarized some of my answers to them, plus some other thoughts I had about what I heard at the conference from others.

  1. What is progress studies and why is it so needed today?

In a sense, Progress Studies is nothing new. Progress studies goes back at least to the days of Adam Smith and plenty of important scholars have been thinking about it ever since. Those scholars and policy advocates have long been engaged in trying to figure out what’s the secret sauce that powers economic growth and human prosperity. It’s just that we didn’t call that Progress Studies in the old days.

The reason Progress Studies is important is because technological innovation has been shown to be the fundamental driver in improvements in human well-being over time.  When we can move the needle on progress, it helps individuals extend and improve their lives, incomes, and happiness. By extension, progress helps us live lives of our choosing. As Hans Rosling brilliantly argued, the goal of expanding innovation opportunities and raising incomes “is not just bigger piles of money” or more leisure time. “The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want.” Continue reading →

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

As I note in my latest regular column for The Hill, it seems like everyone these days is talking about the importance of America “building again.” For example, take a look at this compendium of essays I put together where scholars and pundits have been making the case for “building again” in various ways and contexts. It would seem that the phrase is on everyone’s lips. “These calls include many priorities,” I note, “but what unifies them is the belief that the nation needs to develop new innovations and industries to improve worker opportunities, economic growth and U.S. global competitive standing.”

What I fear, however, is that “building again” has become more of a convenient catch line than anything else. It seems like few people are willing to spell out exactly what it will take to get that started. My new column suggests that the most important place to start is “to cut back the thicket of red tape and stifling bureaucratic procedures that limit the productiveness of the American workforce.” I cite recent reports and data documenting the enormous burden that regulatory accumulation imposes on American innovators and workers. I then discuss how to get reforms started at all levels of government to get the problem under control and help us start building again in earnest. Jump over to The Hill to read the entire essay.

Here’s a slide presentation on “The Future of Innovation Policy” that I presented to some student groups recently. It builds on themes discussed in my recent books, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, and Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance: How Innovation Improves Economies and GovernmentsI specifically discuss the tension between permissionless innovation and the precautionary principle as competing policy defaults.

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Are you a student or young scholar looking for opportunities to advance your studies and future career opportunities? The Mercatus Center at George Mason University can help. I’ve been with Mercatus for 12 years now and the most rewarding part of my job has always been the chance to interact with students and up-and-coming scholars who are hungry to learn more and make their mark on the world. Of course, learning and researching takes time and money. Mercatus works with students and scholars in many different fields to help them advance their careers by offering them some financial assistance to make their dreams easier to achieve. 

The Mercatus Center’s Academic & Student Programs team (ASP) are the ones that make all this happen. ASP is currently accepting applications for various fellowships running through the 2022-2023 academic year (for students) and 2023 calendar year (for our early-career scholars).  ASP recruits, trains, and supports graduate students who have gone on to pursue careers in academia, government, and public policy. Additionally, ASP supports scholars pursuing research on the cutting edge of academia. Mercatus fellows have an opportunity to learn from and interact with an impressive collection of Mercatus faculty, affiliated scholars, and visitors.

ASP offers several different fellowship programs to suit every need. Our fellows explore and discuss the foundations of political economy and public policy and pursue research on pressing issues. For graduate students who follow this blog and are generally interested in the big questions surrounding innovation, we especially encourage you to consider the Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship which will be premiering its innovation study track for the 2022-2023 academic year. I usually am an instructor at the session on tech and innovation policy. 

Here are more details on all the academic fellowships that Mercatus currently offers. Please pass along this information to any students or early-career scholars who might be interested.

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On Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, posted the text of the “America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength Act of 2022,” or “The America COMPETES Act.” As far as industrial policy measures go, the COMPETES Act is one of the most ambitious and expensive central planning efforts in American history. It represents the triumph of top-down, corporatist, techno-mercantilist thinking over a more sensible innovation policy rooted in bottom-up competition, entrepreneurialism, private investment, and free trade.

Unprecedented Planning & Spending

First, the ugly facts: The full text of the COMPETES Act weighs in at a staggering 2,912 pages. A section-by-section “summary” of the measure takes up 109 pages alone. Even the shorter “fact sheet” for the bill is 20 pages long. It is impossible to believe that anyone in Congress has read every provision of this bill. It will be another case of having “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it,” as Speaker Pelosi once famously said about another mega-measure.

Of course, a mega bill presents major opportunities for lawmakers to sneak in endless gobs of pork and unrelated policy measures they can’t find any other way to get through Congress. The Senate already passed a similar 2,600-page companion measure last summer, “The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.” Lawmakers loaded up that measure with so much pork and favors for special interests that Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-La.) labelled the effort an “orgy of spending porn.” Like that effort, the new COMPETES Act includes $52 billion to boost domestic semiconductor production as well as $45 billion in grants and loans to address supply chain issues.

But there are billions allocated for other initiatives, as well as countless provisions addressing other technologies and sectors. The list is seemingly endless and includes: Continue reading →

This is a compendium of readings on “progress studies,” or essays and books which generally make the case for technological innovation, dynamism, economic growth, and abundance. I will update this list as additional material of relevance is brought to my attention.   

[Last update: 10/11/22]

Recent Essays

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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 →

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 →