Technology, Business & Cool Toys

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 →

What explains the rebirth of analog era media? Many people (including me!) predicted that vinyl records, turntables, broadcast TV antennas and even printed books seemed destined for the dustbin of technological history. We were so wrong, as I note in this new oped that has gone out through the Tribune Wire Service.

“Many of us threw away our record collections and antennas and began migrating from physical books to digital ones,” I note. “Now, these older technologies are enjoying a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what’s the lesson?”

I offer some data about the rebirth of analog era media as well as some possible explanations for their resurgence. “With vinyl records and printed books, people enjoy making a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it off to their friends. Digital music or books don’t satisfy that desire, no matter how much more convenient and affordable they might be. The mediums still matter.”

Read more here. Meanwhile, my own personal vinyl collection continues to grow without constraint! …

“The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks.” So says a new feature essay in The Economist. Indeed it should, and that includes existential risks associated with emerging technologies.

The primary focus of my research these days revolves around broad-based governance trends for emerging technologies. In particular, I have spent the last few years attempting to better understand how and why “soft law” techniques have been tapped to fill governance gaps. As I noted in this recent post compiling my recent writing on the topic;

soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. Soft law builds upon and operates in the shadow of hard law. But soft law lacks the same degree of formality that hard law possess. Despite many shortcomings and criticisms, compared with hard law, soft law can be more rapidly and flexibly adapted to suit new circumstances and address complex technological governance challenges. This is why many regulatory agencies are tapping soft law methods to address shortcomings in the traditional hard law governance systems.

I argued in recent law review articles as well as my latest book, despite its imperfections, I believe that soft law has an important role to play in filling governance gaps that hard law struggles to address. But there are some instances where soft law simply will not cut it. Continue reading →

Does anyone remember Blockbuster and Hollywood Video? I assume most of you do, but wow, doesn’t it seem like forever ago when we actually had to drive to stores to get movies to watch at home? What a drag that was!

Yet, just 15 years ago, that was the norm and those two firms were the titans of video distribution, so much so that federal regulators at the Federal Trade Commission looked to stop their hegemony through antitrust intervention. But then those firms and whatever “market power” they possessed quickly evaporated as a wave of Schumpeterian creative destruction swept through video distribution markets. Both those firms and antitrust regulators had completely failed to anticipate the tsunami of technological and marketplace changes about to hit in the form of alternative online video distribution platforms as well as the rise of smartphones and robust nationwide mobile networks.

Today, this serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when regulatory hubris triumphs over policy humility, as Trace Mitchell and I explain in this new essay for National Review Online entitled, “The Crystal Ball of Antitrust Regulators Is Cracked.” As we note:

There is no discernable end point to the process of entrepreneurial-driven change. In fact, it seems to be proliferating rapidly. To survive, even the most successful companies must be willing to quickly dispense with yesterday’s successful business plans, lest they be steamrolled by the relentless pace of technological change and ever-shifting consumer demands. It is easy to understand why some people find it hard to imagine a time when Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google won’t be quite as dominant as they are today. But it was equally challenging 20 years ago to imagine that those same companies could disrupt the giants of that era.

Hopefully today’s policymakers will have a little more patience and trust competition and continued technological innovation to bring us still more wonderful video choices.

[OC] Blockbuster Video US store locations between 1986 and 2019 from r/dataisbeautiful

DIY medicineMargaret Talbot has written an excellent New Yorker essay entitled, “The Rogue Experimenters,” which documents the growth of the D.I.Y.-bio movement. This refers to the organic, bottom-up, citizen science movement, or “leaderless do-ocracy” of tinkerers, as she notes. I highly recommend you check it out.

As I noted in my new book on Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, “DIY health services and medical devices are on the rise thanks to the combined power of open-source software, 3D printers, cloud computing, and digital platforms that allow information sharing between individuals with specific health needs. Average citizens are using these new technologies to modify their bodies and abilities, often beyond the confines of the law.”

Talbot discusses many of the same examples I discuss in my book, including:

  • the Four Thieves Vinegar collective, which devised instructions for building its own version of the EpiPen;
  • e-nable, an international collective of thirty thousand volunteers, designs and 3-D-prints prosthetic hands and arms (and which has, more recently, distributed more than fifty thousand face shields in more than twenty-five countries.);
  • GenSpace and other community biohacking labs; and
  • Open Insulin and Open Artificial Pancreas System.

I like the way Talbot compares these movements to the hacker and start-up culture of the Digital Revolution: Continue reading →

I (Eye), Robot?

by on May 8, 2019 · 0 comments

[Originally published on the Mercatus Bridge blog on May 7, 2019.]

I became a little bit more of a cyborg this month with the addition of two new eyes—eye lenses, actually. Before I had even turned 50, the old lenses that Mother Nature gave me were already failing due to cataracts. But after having two operations this past month and getting artificial lenses installed, I am seeing clearly again thanks to the continuing miracles of modern medical technology.

Cataracts can be extraordinarily debilitating. One day you can see the world clearly, the next you wake up struggling to see through a cloudy ocular soup. It is like looking through a piece of cellophane wrap or a continuously unfocused camera.

If you depend on your eyes to make a living as most of us do, then cataracts make it a daily struggle to get even basic things done. I spend most of my time reading and writing each workday. Once the cataracts hit, I had to purchase a half-dozen pair of strong reading glasses and spread them out all over the place: in my office, house, car, gym bag, and so on. Without them, I was helpless.

Reading is especially difficult in dimly lit environments, and even with strong glasses you can forget about reading the fine print on anything. Every pillbox becomes a frightening adventure. I invested in a powerful magnifying glass to make sure I didn’t end up ingesting the wrong things.

For those afflicted with particularly bad cataracts, it becomes extraordinarily risky to drive or operate machinery. More mundane things—watching TV, tossing a ball with your kid, reading a menu at many restaurants, looking at art in a gallery—also become frustrating. Continue reading →

Why should we really care about technological innovation? My Mercatus Center colleague James Broughel and I have just published a paper answering that question. In “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth: A Brief Report on the Evidence,” we summarize the extensive body of evidence that discusses the relationship between innovation, growth, and human prosperity. We note that while economists, political scientists, and historians don’t agree on much, there exists widespread consensus among them that there is a symbiotic relationship between the pace of innovation and the progress of civilization. Our 27-page paper documenting the academic evidence on this issue can be downloaded on SSRN or from the Mercatus website. Here’s the abstract:

Technological innovation is a fundamental driver of economic growth and human progress. Yet some critics want to deny the vast benefits that innovation has bestowed and continues to bestow on mankind. To inform policy discussions and address the technology critics’ concerns, this paper summarizes relevant literature documenting the impact of technological innovation on economic growth and, more broadly, on living standards and human well-being. The historical record is unambiguous regarding how ongoing innovation has improved the way we live; however, the short-term disruptive aspects of technological change are real and deserve attention as well. The paper concludes with an extended discussion about the relevance of these findings for shaping cultural attitudes toward technology and the role that public policy can play in fostering innovation, growth, and ongoing improvements in the quality of life of citizens.

This week I will be traveling to Montreal to participate in the 2018 G7 Multistakeholder Conference on Artificial Intelligence. This conference follows the G7’s recent Ministerial Meeting on “Preparing for the Jobs of the Future” and will also build upon the G7 Innovation Ministers’ Statement on Artificial Intelligence. The goal of Thursday’s conference is to, “focus on how to enable environments that foster societal trust and the responsible adoption of AI, and build upon a common vision of human-centric AI.” About 150 participants selected by G7 partners are expected to participate, and I was invited to attend as a U.S. expert, which is a great honor. 

I look forward to hearing and learning from other experts and policymakers who are attending this week’s conference. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the future of AI policy in recent books, working papers, essays, and debates. My most recent essay concerning a vision for the future of AI policy was co-authored with Andrea O’Sullivan and it appeared as part of a point/counterpoint debate in the latest edition of the Communications of the ACM. The ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computing society, which “brings together computing educators, researchers, and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources, and address the field’s challenges.” The latest edition of the magazine features about a dozen different essays on “Designing Emotionally Sentient Agents” and the future of AI and machine-learning more generally.

In our portion of the debate in the new issue, Andrea and I argue that “Regulators Should Allow the Greatest Space for AI Innovation.” “While AI-enabled technologies can pose some risks that should be taken seriously,” we note, “it is important that public policy not freeze the development of life-enriching innovations in this space based on speculative fears of an uncertain future.” We contrast two different policy worldviews — the precautionary principle versus permissionless innovation — and argue that:

artificial intelligence technologies should largely be governed by a policy regime of permissionless innovation so that humanity can best extract all of the opportunities and benefits they promise. A precautionary approach could, alternatively, rob us of these life-saving benefits and leave us all much worse off.

That’s not to say that AI won’t pose some serious policy challenges for us going forward that deserve serious attention. Rather, we are warning against the dangers of allowing worst-case thinking to be the default position in these discussions. Continue reading →

The ongoing ride-sharing wars in New York City are interesting to watch because they signal the potential move by state and local officials to use infrastructure management as an indirect form of innovation control or competition suppression. It is getting harder for state and local officials to defend barriers to entry and innovation using traditional regulatory rationales and methods, which are usually little more than a front for cronyist protectionism schemes. Now that the public has increasingly enjoyed new choices and better services in this and other fields thanks to technological innovation, it is very hard to convince citizens they would be better off without more of the same.

If, however, policymakers claim that they are limiting entry or innovation based on concerns about how disruptive actors supposedly negatively affect local infrastructure (in the form of traffic or sidewalk congestion, aesthetic nuisance, deteriorating infrastructure, etc.), that narrative can perhaps make it easier to sell the resulting regulations to the public or, more importantly, the courts. Going forward, I suspect that this will become a commonly-used playbook for many state and local officials looking to limit the reach of new technologies, including ride-sharing companies, electric scooters, driverless cars, drones, and many others.

To be clear, infrastructure control is both (a) a legitimate state and local prerogative; and (b) something that has been used in the past to control innovation and entry in other sectors. But I suspect that this approach is about to become far more prevalent because a full-frontal defense of barriers to innovation is far more likely to face serious public and legal challenges. Continue reading →