Innovations Tuesday, Mar 16 2010 

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.

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Are most economists against government intervention? Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Do most economists think government being involved in markets is a bad thing? The answer to that probably depends on the market. If markets are efficient, there’s probably no need for government to get involved. If markets are inefficient, there’s probably a good reason for government to interfere to attempt to increase efficiency and so there could be an economic argument in favor of government intervention. So the question now is whether markets are efficient or not.

The reason I bring up the topic is because of something professor Komai of the economics department brought up in my managerial economics class today. (Dr. Komai is definitely one of the best professors I have had at this university.) She said only a small amount of economists are totally against government intervention, but they seem like a majority (because they make a lot of noise). The reason, she says, is that most economists do agree that government probably should not be involved in perfectly competitive markets, because perfectly competitive markets are efficient. At the same time, however, perfectly competitive markets exist virtually nowhere. Thus, when markets are not perfectly competitive, there is market inefficiency and perhaps a good reason for government to get involved to try to increase the efficiency of the market.

Most markets are oligopolies and a small amount are monopolies (which are even more inefficient). Therefore, there are compelling economic reasons for government to get involved to try to increase competition or otherwise reduce inefficient behavior. This is one argument in favor of government involvement in markets—there are others as well—but this one is particularly convincing.

One example, which was brought up in class, is the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. It is one of the many antitrust laws passed throughout American history and is specifically aimed at preventing the rise of corporate power. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were interesting times. This was the time of when the Republican Party was still a fairly young party (it was formed in the middle of the nineteenth century). At some level, Republicans of this era represented the true ideals of Republicanism. William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, were completely against big corporations. The history of these presidents, particularly their domestic economic policy, is quite fascinating, and there is great literature and documentaries on this topic. These early Republicans are what were called “trust busters.” They saw government power as one counterweight to corporate power, which they found subversive. So they busted trusts, so to speak, and they increased regulations. Roosevelt’s Square Deal endorsed these principles and was totally supportive of progressivism. Those were the ideals of early Republicanism. And I believe many of these ideals have been lost in today’s Republican Party.

Update (3/31/2010): I just want to clarify that I do not mean to misconstrue the position of Dr. Komai. She has made it clear to me in class that she prefers to stay in the center or the middle of issues. It’s not my intention to brandish her as a leftist of some sort who is automatically in favor of government intervention in markets. That’s not my position either.

The point that I think ought to be taken here is that market fundamentalism is misguided. We often here that governments are inefficient and that we should “just let the markets work.” It might certainly be true that governments are inefficient, but less heard is the fact that markets can also be inefficient. I personally do not think this message is conveyed a lot—certainly not as much as the message of government inefficiency is. So my point isn’t to say governments are great, that we should have intervention everywhere, and so on and so forth; instead, I am pointing out that markets are not as great as they are lauded by some on the right, particularly market fundamentalists and Austrian economists. It’s simply my feeling that when people are taught about markets, especially in courses that introduce the principles of economics, they usually are not hearing the complete side of both stories. What’s being projected, I think, is skewed a bit. That’s the part I take issue with. We can, of course, always quibble about the right balance of things—but that’s not quite my objective here.

Is the government inefficient? Sunday, Jan 3 2010 

I found this passage somewhere on the Internet, unknown author:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the U.S. Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built and maintained by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve System. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the U.S. Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house that has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuable thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the Internet, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because government can’t do anything right.

What this passage is getting at is the myriad functions that government serves— sometimes unbeknown to the general public—and it only begins to scratch the surface. It would, I think, be pretty safe to say government is responsible for or at least crucially linked to the development of modern society, not free markets. That’s just a descriptive statement, and I believe the main point of the quoted passage. There are some, like those “on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums,” who bemoan government and its supposed inefficiency, yet take for granted all the things it provides them (like roads and police protection).

The question, really, is an economic one. One issue that arises concerns what are called public goods. In technical terms, a public good is any “good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.” All non-rivalrous means is that when one person uses that good another person is not restricted from also using that good (e.g., when I log on to the Internet, this does not preclude you from doing the same). All non-excludable means is that no one wanting access to the good can be reasonably denied access to that good. A decent example might lighthouse beams that provide light to ships, regardless of which ship it might be (that is, it’s difficult to exclude other people from seeing this light). As the Wikipedia article points out, “there may be no such thing as an absolutely non-rivaled and non-excludable good; but economists think that some goods approximate the concept closely enough for the analysis to be economically useful.” (The economic idea of public goods, by the way, was developed by Paul Samuelson, the pioneering Nobel laureate who died just three weeks ago.)

The problem that arises is that public goods are not produced efficiently in “free markets.” They’re under-produced. This causes what is called market failure; the market does not operate efficiently. The reason for this is because you can’t make a profit off of it, or not very much the closer the good approaches the concept of a public good. If a good produces a benefit to society that the creator of the good cannot profit from, there’s little economic incentive to produce such a good. That’s standard neoclassical economic theory, anyway. The idea is tied to what are called externalities. A positive externality is something people benefit from, e.g. clean air, but those who benefit from it don’t necessarily have to pay for it. An example I get from Milton Friedman, the great free-market thinker, is that when I plant a pretty garden in my front yard, other people get to experience the benefit of it without having to pay or do any work for it. Again, these are under-produced in free markets, according to standard theory, because there is not enough economic incentive to produce these things.

Well, one solution has been to have the government produce goods for public use, which is where the entire passage quoted above comes from. The result is that we all get to benefit from government involvement in the market place. I get the ability to tell the precise time because the government has taken the initiative to keep accurate account of time—something theory tells us profit-maximizing corporations would be unwilling to do.

At the same time, however, as the story above illustrated, people still bemoan government and its attempts to provide for the public good. The market is great, it will provide us all the things we need, and it will do so efficiently, they might say. The socialist might respond by pointing out that this is not necessarily true, and point to things like externalities and asymmetric information, which exist nearly everywhere, and conclude the market rarely works efficiently. For this reason, we need the government to provide for the public good, particularly when the unfettered market cannot. The right-winger (if they’re not Austrian) might concede that things like externalities and asymmetric information exist but posit that the government still ought not get involved because that would constitute an abridgment of our freedom, is coercive, evil, etc. The question becomes harder. Indeed, for many the question is not only economic but also ethical. At this point, I think most people begin to ask what the right balance is between market forces and government involvement. The question is left unanswered and, in mind, the answer remains to be seen.