Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Corbin Barthold invited me on Tech Freedom’s “Tech Policy Podcast” to discuss the history of antitrust and competition policy over the past half century. We covered a huge range of cases and controversies, including: the DOJ’s mega cases against IBM & AT&T, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video’s derailed merger, the Sirius-XM deal, the hysteria over the AOL-Time Warner merger, the evolution of competition in mobile markets, and how we finally ended that dreaded old MySpace monopoly!

What does the future hold for Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix? Do antitrust regulators at the DOJ or FTC have enough to mount a case against these firms? Which case is most likely to have legs?

Corbin and I also talked about the of progress more generally and the troubling rise of more and more Luddite thinking on both the left and right. I encourage you to give it a listen:

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has kicked off a new project called “Digital Platforms and American Life,” which will bring together a variety of scholars to answer the question: How should policymakers think about the digital platforms that have become embedded in our social and civic life? The series, which is being edited by AEI Senior Fellow Adam J. White, highlights how the democratization of knowledge and influence in the Internet age comes with incredible opportunities but also immense challenges. The contributors to this series will approach these issues from various perspectives and also address different aspects of policy as it pertains to the future of technological governance.

It is my honor to have the lead paper in this new series. My 19-page essay is entitled, Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium, and it represents my effort to concisely tie together all my writing over the past 30 years on governance trends for the Internet and related technologies. The key takeaways from my essay are:

  • Traditional governance mechanisms are being strained by modern technological and political realities. Newer technologies, especially digital ones, are developing at an ever-faster rate and building on top of each other, blurring lines between sectors.
  • Congress has failed to keep up with the quickening pace of technological change. It also continues to delegate most of its constitutional authority to agencies to deal with most policy concerns. But agencies are overwhelmed too. This situation is unlikely to change, creating a governance gap.
  • Decentralized governance techniques are filling the gap. Soft law—informal, iterative, experimental, and collaborative solutions—represents the new normal for technological governance. This is particularly true for information sectors, including social media platforms, for which the First Amendment acts as a major constraint on formal regulation anyway.
  • No one-size-fits-all tool can address the many governance issues related to fast-paced science and technology developments; therefore, decentralized governance mechanisms may be better suited to address newer policy concerns.

My arguments will frustrate many people of varying political dispositions because I adopt a highly pragmatic approach to technological governance. Continue reading →

If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out the new Progress Forum, I encourage you to do so. It’s a discussion group for progress studies and all things related to it. The Forum is sponsored by The Roots of Progress. Even though the Forum is still in pre-launch phase, there are already many interesting threads worth checking out. I was my honor to contribute one of the first on the topic, “Where is ‘Progress Studies’ Going?” It’s an effort to sort through some of the questions and challenges facing the Progress Studies movement in terms of focus and philosophical grounding. I thought I would just reproduce the essay here, but I encourage you to jump over to the Progress Forum to engage in discussion about it, or the many other excellent discussions happening there on other issues.

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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.

An important new book launched this week in Europe on issues related to innovation policy and industrial policy. “Questioning the Entrepreneurial State: Status-quo, Pitfalls, and the Need for Credible Innovation Policy” (Springer, 2022) brings together more than 30 scholars who contribute unique chapters to this impressive volume. It was edited by Karl Wennberg of the Stockholm School of Economics and Christian Sandström of the Jönköping (Sweden) International Business School.

As the title of this book suggests, the authors are generally pushing back against the thesis found in Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State (2011). That book, like many other books and essays written recently, lays out a romantic view of industrial policy that sees government as the prime mover of markets and innovation. Mazzucato calls for “a bolder vision for the State’s dynamic role in fostering economic growth” and innovation. She wants the state fully entrenched in technological investments and decision-making throughout the economy because she believes that is the best way to expand the innovative potential of a nation.

The essays in Questioning the Entrepreneurial State offer a different perspective, rooted in the realities on the ground in Europe today. Taken together, the chapters tell a fairly consistent story: Despite the existence of many different industrial policy schemes at the continental and country level, Europe isn’t in very good shape on the tech and innovation front. The heavy-handed policies and volumes of regulations imposed by the European Union and its member states have played a role in that outcome. But these governments have simultaneously been pushing to promote innovation using a variety of technocratic policy levers and industrial policy schemes. Despite all those well-intentioned efforts, the EU has struggled to keep up with the US and China in most important modern tech sectors. Continue reading →

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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Gabrielle Bauer, a Toronto-based medical writer, has just published one of the most concise explanations of what’s wrong with the precautionary principle that I have ever read. The precautionary principle, you will recall, generally refers to public policies that limit or even prohibit trial-and-error experimentation and risk-taking. Innovations are restricted until their creators can prove that they will not cause any harms or disruptions. In an essay for The New Atlantis entitled, “Danger: Caution Ahead,” Bauer uses the world’s recent experiences with COVID lockdowns as the backdrop for how society can sometimes take extreme caution too far, and create more serious dangers in the process. “The phrase ‘abundance of caution’ captures the precautionary principle in a more literary way,” Bauer notes. Indeed, another way to look at it is through the prism of the old saying, “better to be safe than sorry.” The problem, she correctly observes, is that, “extreme caution comes at a cost.” This is exactly right and it points to the profound trade-offs associated with precautionary principle thinking in practice.

In my own writing about the problems associated with the precautionary principle (see list of essays at bottom), I often like to paraphrase an ancient nugget of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, who once noted in his Summa Theologica that, if the highest aim of a captain were merely to preserve their ship, then they would simply keep it in port forever. Of course, that is not the only goal of a captain has. The safety of the vessel and the crew is essential, of course, but captains brave the high seas because there are good reasons to take such risks. Most obviously, it might be how they make their living. But historically, captains have also taken to the seas as pioneering explorers, researchers, or even just thrill-seekers.

This was equally true when humans first decided to take to the air in balloons, blimps, airplanes, and rockets. A strict application of the precautionary principle would have instead told us we should keep our feet on the ground. Better to be safe than sorry! Thankfully, many brave souls ignored that advice and took the heavens in the spirit of exploration and adventure. As Wilbur Wright once famously said, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you would do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.” Needless to say, humans would have never mastered the skies if the Wright brothers (and many others) had not gotten off the fence and taken the risks they did. Continue reading →

This week, I hosted another installment of the “Tech Roundup,” for the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project. This latest 30-minute episode was on, “Autonomous Vehicles: Where Are We Now?” I was joined by Marc Scribner, a transportation policy expert with the Reason Foundation.  We provided an quick update of where federal and state policy for AVs stands as of early 2022 and offered some thoughts about what might happen next in the Biden Administration Department of Transportation (DOT). Some experts believe that the DOT could be ready to start aggressively regulating driverless car tech or AV companies, especially Elon Musk’s Tesla. Tune in to hear what Marc and I have to say about all that and more.

Related 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.   

Recent Essays

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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 →