There’s been some talk about innovations recently. “Innovation” is defined as “The act of introducing something new” by the The American Heritage Dictionary. Not only are innovations new things, but they are also useful things. Innovation is one of the greatest sources of wealth creation and increased productivity. Thus, the importance of innovation is critical to the study of economics. In fact, there is an entire doctrine of economics, called innovation economics, that explores the relationship between innovation and economic growth. The pioneer of this doctrine was Joseph Schumpeter, author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. According to innovative economics, the primary source of growth is not the accumulation of capital, but rather innovation, particularly innovation that increases productive efficiency. Thus, the incentivizing of innovation is what’s critical for an economy. In this sense, Schumpeter thought capitalism was the best mode of production because it incentivized innovation the most. Today, several prominent economists have used the theories of innovation economics to explain the growth of economies.

What is absolutely clear is that innovations are beneficial. How beneficial they are compared to other sources of growth could be debated, but it’s generally widely agreed upon that innovations provide a benefit to society. For example, King Banaian, the chairman and a professor of the economics department at SCSU, says entrepreneurship, which is a major source of innovation, is a positive externality and “may do more to relieve poverty than social organizations.” It’s a positive externality because “the value of this is not captured as much by entrepreneurs themselves as by society at large.” For example, with the invention of Windows, society was benefited far more than Bill Gates was benefited. (In other words, the price one pays for innovations does not reflect the true benefit it brings.) Basically everyone agrees innovation is great for society.

However, there are also problems with the current system of innovation, or the environment in which innovation occurs. One issue that I’ve highlighted on this blog before is that of copyrights and patents. Patents and copyrights are tools used to incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship. However, as I mention in the post, patents and copyrights create what are basically government-granted monopolies. As very elementary principles of microeconomics show, monopolies are economically inefficient. This can have significant impacts in the real world. For example, “economic inefficiency” might be translated into “hundreds of thousands of Africans dieing.” That’s precisely the consequence of patents in the medical industry, which keep prices high and poor people out of the market for life-saving drugs. Thus, I think it’s important to keep in mind the real world implications when we use technical and theoretical jargon like “market inefficiency”; it has real effects.

Essentially, the argument I made in that previous post is that government interference in the market creates an inefficiency (one that has dire effects) and that government-granted monopolies are not the solution for incentivizing innovation, particularly in the medical industry. I raised this point in Dr. Banaian’s post, and I got derided for it. I was told I was “only looking at one side of the issue.” After all, there’s a benefit that patents and copyrights bring, in that they do incentivize innovation, which we’ve all agreed is a positive thing. I’ve acknowledge that. If patents and such do lead to the creation of innovation and entrepreneurship, then that is a positive thing. We might even agree that the positives of this “intellectual property” outweigh the negatives of them. But that still doesn’t mean that patents and copyrights are the best option to choose. That’s an important point to keep in mind.

What I believe is “only looking at one side of the issue” is ignoring the more harmful consequences of this type of government interference. If some of the consequences of patents truly are harmful, even if there is a net benefit, we should ask ourselves if there is a way to mitigate the harmful aspects of our incentives for innovations without mitigating the positive aspects of our incentives. If there is, then we ought to choose that option.

Even though I do believe government-granted monopolies (i.e. the result of patents and copyrights) are quite harmful, that doesn’t mean government should necessarily get out of the way. I still agree innovation and entrepreneurship should be incentivized and rewarded. After all, if we accept the arguments coming from innovation economics, innovation is the key to economic growth. So how do we incentivize innovation without the harmful effects of patents and copyrights? There are different ways, but one idea that is proposed by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate at Columbia University, is what he calls “prizes, not patents.” One of the problems with the current system (what I call the “profit motive“) is that it does not incentivize the allocation of scarce resources into areas that are not profitable for private, profit-maximizing firms—even when there’s a tremendous social benefit in doing so. (In other words, public goods are underproduced in free markets.) One example is in the production of life-saving drugs for illnesses and diseases that afflict much of the Third World. A majority of the populations that are afflicted by these life-threatening conditions are poor, so there’s not a lot of profit to be found in selling them drugs. A prize system, which is discussed in more detail in Stiglitz’s book Making Globalization Work, would help mitigate this problem by offering a reward or financial incentive to those who produce important innovations, like life-saving drugs. Not only would it incentivize innovation, it would direct resources into areas that would otherwise would not be profitable but are still a great benefit to society. Explains Stiglitz, “Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.”

There are other ways governments can be (and, in fact, are) critical in the introduction of innovation, which is through development that comes straight out of the state sector. CNN has an interesting article about the three most important “innovations that changed America.” The reader is asked to pick the most important of three, which are “1. The building of the interstate highway system, 2. The blanketing of the United States with coast-to-coast television, 3. The introduction and spread of the Internet.” Voting is now over, but 58% of readers chose the Internet, 29% picked television, and 14% picked the interstate system (numbers were rounded). I would agree, the introduction and spread of the Internet was the most important innovation that changed not only America but also the world. But where did the Internet come from? It came out of the state sector. The Internet was developed by the public, and it was later transferred to the private sector so that private firms could make a profit off it (that’s why we pay for Internet today). What about the interstate system, which is “often said to be the biggest public works project in the history of the world,” according the CNN article? It’s basically the same thing. This great innovation in logistics was created by the state, as I was quick to point out in a previous post on transportation subsidies. In television, it may be less clear, but the government still played an important role, particularly in broadcast television and the introduction of communication satellites. What this suggests is that, while (private) entrepreneurship is an important source of innovation, so too is the public sector.

In fact, a great deal innovation comes from the state sector. The Internet and the interstate system are two very important examples, but there are many others. In particular, high technology either comes from or is critically supported by the state sector. Science and innovation are symbiotic, and a lot of science is funded by the public. MIT, for example, is a source of great innovation; while a private university, MIT receives are great deal public subsidies, particularly through grants under the guise of military contracts. Public universities are also responsible for a great deal of innovation in both technology and ideas. This is what we should expect. If entrepreneurship and innovation is a positive externality, as Dr. Banaian contends it is, then we should expect that it would be underproduced in a free market. This image from Wikipedia shows this concept graphically. If private markets underproduce important innovations, then it suggests the state could play (as it currently does) an important role in either producing or incentivizing these innovations, e.g. through Pigouvian subsidies.