Economics

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 →

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 →

I was my pleasure to appear on the latest episode of the Dissed podcast to discuss economic liberty and the right to earn a living. The show was hosted by Anastasia Boden and Elizabeth Slattery of the Pacific Legal Foundation and it included legal scholars Hadley Arkes, Timothy Sandefur, and Clark Neily. I appear in the second half of the program.

I’ve spent many years writing about the relationship between innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic liberty, and the right to earn a living. My latest book (Evasive Entrepreneurs) and previous one (Permissionless Innovation) devoted considerable attention to this. But I tried to bring it all down to just a few hundred words in my 2018 essay, “The Right to Pursue Happiness, Earn a Living, and Innovate.”

I’ve reprinted that down below, but please make sure to click over to the Dissed page and listen to that excellent podcast.

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Over at Discourse magazine, my Mercatus Center colleague Matt Mitchell and I have a new essay on, “Industrial Policy is a Very Old, New Idea.” We argue that, despite having a long history of disappointments and failures, that isn’t stopping many policymakers from proposing it industrial policies again. We compare national industrial policy efforts alongside state-based economic development policies, noting their many similarities. In both cases, the crucial issue comes down to targeting versus generality in terms of how policymakers go about encouraging innovation and economic growth. We note how:

The building blocks of the general approach—a mix of broadly applicable tax, spending, regulatory and legal rules—are often rejected because they seem less exciting than targeting specific companies or industries for help. Pundits and policymakers are fond of using machine-like metaphors to suggest they can “fine-tune” innovation or “dial-in” economic development according to a precise formula they believe they have concocted. They also savor the attention that goes along with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the big headlines often generated by political targeting efforts.

We discuss the spectrum of economic development options (depicted in chart below) in more detail and explain the many pitfalls associated with some of the most highly targeted efforts. “The predicament for policymakers is that, while it is wiser to focus on the generalized approaches, the temptation will remain strong to jump to targeted gambles that may grab headlines but are far more risky and costly,” we argue. Head over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

Here’s a new animated explainer video that I narrated for the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. The 3-minute video discusses how earlier “tech giants” rose and fell as technological innovation and new competition sent them off to what the New York Times once appropriately called “The Hall of Fallen Giants.” It’s a continuing testament to the power of “creative destruction” to upend and reorder markets, even as many pundits insist that there’s no possibility change can happen.

This is an important lesson for us to remember today, as I noted in the recent editorial for The Hill about why, “Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer“: Continue reading →

[Last updated 9/4/21]

Industrial Policy is a red-hot topic once again with many policymakers and pundits of different ideological leanings lining up to support ambitious new state planning for various sectors — especially 5G, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. A remarkably bipartisan array of people and organizations are advocating for government to flex its muscle and begin directing more spending and decision-making in various technological areas. They all suggest some sort of big plan is needed, and it is not uncommon for these industrial policy advocates to suggest that hundreds of billions will need to be spent in pursuit of those plans.

Others disagree, however, and I’ll be using this post to catalog some of their concerns on an ongoing basis. Some of the criticisms listed here are portions of longer essays, many of which highlight other types of steps that governments can take to spur innovative activities. Industrial policy is an amorphous term with many definitions of a broad spectrum of possible proposals. Almost everyone believes in some form of industrial policy if you define the term broadly enough. But, as I argued in a September 2020 essay “On Defining ‘Industrial Policy,” I believe it is important to narrow the focus of the term such that we can continue to use the term in a rational way. Toward that end, I believe a proper understanding of industrial policy refers to targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes.

The collection of essays below is merely an attempt to highlight some of the general concerns about the most ambitious calls for expansive industrial policy, many of which harken back to debates I was covering in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I first started a career in policy analysis. During that time, Japan and South Korea were the primary countries of concern cited by industrial policy advocates. Today, it is China’s growing economic standing that is fueling calls for ambitious state-led targeted investments in “strategic” sectors and technologies. To a lesser extent, grandiose European industrial policy proposals are also prompting new US counter-proposals.

All this activity is what has given rise to many of the critiques listed below. If you have suggestions for other essays I might add to this list, please feel free to pass them along. FYI: There’s no particular order here.

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In our latest feature for Discourse magazine, Connor Haaland and I explore the question, “Should the U.S. Copy China’s Industrial Policy?” We begin by noting that:

Calls for revitalizing American industrial policy have multiplied in recent years, with many pundits and policymakers suggesting that the U.S. should consider taking on Europe and China by emulating their approaches to technological development. The goal would be to have Washington formulate a set of strategic innovation goals and mobilize government planning and spending around them.

We continue on to argue that what most of these advocates miss is that:

China’s targeting efforts are often antithetical to both innovation and liberty, and involve plenty of red tape and bureaucracy. China has become a remarkably innovative country for many reasons, including its greater tolerance for risk-taking, even as the Chinese Communist Party continues to pump resources into strategic sectors. But most Chinese innovation is permissible only insomuch as it furthers the party’s objectives, a strategy the U.S. obviously wouldn’t want to copy.

We discuss the problems associated with some of those Chinese efforts as well as proposed US responses, like the recently released 756 page report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. The report takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to state direction for new AI-related efforts and spending. While that report says the government now must “drive change through top-down leadership” in order to “win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China,” we argue that there could be some serious pitfalls with top-down, high price tag approaches.

Jump over to the Discourse site to read the full essay, as well as our previous essay, which asked, “Can European-Style Industrial Policies Create Tech Supremacy?” These two essay build on the research Connor and I have been doing on global artificial intelligence policies in the US, China, and the EU. In a much longer forthcoming white paper, we explore both the regulatory and industrial policy approaches for AI being adopted in the US, China, and the EU. Stay tuned for more.

In his debut essay for the new Agglomerations blog, my former colleague Caleb Watney, now Director of Innovation Policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, seeks to better define a few important terms, including: technology policy, innovation policy, and industrial policy. In the end, however, he decides to basically dispense with the term “industry policy” because, when it comes to defining these terms, “it is useful to have a limiting principle and it’s unclear what the limiting principle is for industrial policy.”

I sympathize. Debates about industrial policy are frustrating and unproductive when people cannot even agree to the parameters of sensible discussion. But I don’t think we need to dispense with the term altogether. We just need to define it somewhat more narrowly to make sure it remains useful.

First, let’s consider how this exact same issue played out three decades ago. In the 1980s, many articles and books featured raging debates about the proper scope of industrial policy. I spent my early years as a policy analyst devouring all these books and essays because I originally wanted to be a trade policy analyst. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you could not be a trade policy analyst without confronting industrial policy arguments.

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Interoperability is a topic that has long been of interest to me. How networks, platforms, and devices work with each other–or sometimes fail to–is an important engineering, business, and policy issue. Back in 2012, I spilled out over 5,000 words on the topic when reviewing John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s excellent book, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems.

I’ve always struggled with the interoperability issues, however, and often avoided them became of the sheer complexity of it all. Some interesting recent essays by sci-fi author and digital activist Cory Doctorow remind me that I need to get back on top of the issue. His latest essay is a call-to-arms in favor of what he calls “adversarial interoperability.” “[T]hat’s when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them,” he says. “Think of third-party printer ink, alternative app stores, or independent repair shops that use compatible parts from rival manufacturers to fix your car or your phone or your tractor.”

Doctorow is a vociferous defender of expanded digital access rights of many flavors and his latest essays on interoperability expand upon his previous advocacy for open access and a general freedom to tinker. He does much of this work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which shares his commitment to expanded digital access and interoperability rights in various contexts.

I’m in league with Doctorow and EFF on some of these things, but also find myself thinking they go much too far in other ways. At root, their work and advocacy raise a profound question: should there be any general right to exclude on digital platforms? Although he doesn’t always come right out and say it, Doctorow’s work often seems like an outright rejection of any sort of property rights in networks or platforms. Generally speaking, he does not want the law to recognize any right for tech platforms to exclude using digital fences of any sort. Continue reading →