Who owns the spirit of innovation?

I am not a doctrinaire libertarian.  Non-doctrinaire enough, for instance, to think that the funding in the Obama stimulus package for expanding broadband Internet coverage to rural areas may be a good idea.  So far, providing reasonably priced high-speed Internet to rural areas is not profitable enough to be feasible for markets, and lack of broadband Internet access is increasingly a major handicap (even in access to job opportunities, education, and consumer goods — particularly for people in isolated areas).

At the same time, this kind of statement from Barack Obama at the signing of the stimulus bill brings out the libertarian in me:

“Just as President Kennedy sparked an explosion of innovation when he set America’s sights on the Moon, I hope this investment will ignite our imagination once more, spurring new discoveries and breakthroughs in science, in medicine, in energy, to make our economy stronger and our nation more secure, and our planet safer for our children,” Mr. Obama said on Tuesday.

The space program was a great achievement (though see some libertarian critiques).  Still, the real impetus for innovation and new discoveries — in which the U.S. still leads the world — has always come from private industry.  And that’s something one hopes the leader of the Free World would understand.

3 Comments

Filed under Barack Obama, economy

3 responses to “Who owns the spirit of innovation?

  1. jerry

    A long time ago, in chemistry, I learned of the concept of activation energy, the energy barrier required for a chemical reaction to occur, even for reactions that gave off energy. And I learned of the roles of enzymes in being able to reduce that activation energy and so accelerate the rates of reaction.

    I think that the government can play that role, whether via government R&D, government funded civilian R&D, tax credits and subsidies, or even just jawboning. And yes, sometimes that distorts markets, but it can also be used to get from Market A to a Market F that everyone agrees would be more desirable.

    I am disappointed with Obama regarding the stimulus package because he did not come out ahead of time with some big JFK-like goals either for the package itself or for the US in general that I think would have made the stimulus package even more beneficial, not just through make work projects, but by setting some goals.

    I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving these goal, before this decade is out, of creating a national green energy grid, of replacing foreign oil with green technologies (sustainable or efficient), of repairing every bridge that is broken, of restoring our international fisheries with our global friends.

    To that end, I would like to see a stimulus package that is weighted towards these projects, and a stimulus package that delivers its jobs within 18 months.

    We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. With our coming global superdepression, we must ask not what we can do for our country, ask what our country can do for you.

    Or something like that. That’s the gist, and I’d ask Aaron Sorkin to clean it up a bit.

    I think that would have made for a better stimulus package and it would have allowed the President to avoid traps from both parties by giving him a filter to weed out crap from the package.

  2. Revenant

    There are two ways the government can affect scientific research.

    The first is by encouraging people to become scientists, through scholarships and the like. So far as scientific knowledge is concerned there is no downside to this; it increases the pool of people available to do research.

    The second is by using laws and spending to direct how the pool of scientific labor is applied, whether by forbidding certain lines of research or by singling out some for additional funding. This is NOT necessarily a good thing at all. It can quite easily be harmful, because it encourages scientists to spend their time working on things the government finds important instead of on things which are likely to yield results.

    Of course, it is possible that “what the government wants” and “what is likely to yield results” are the same thing. But it isn’t very likely, because the expansion of scientific knowledge isn’t actually the top priority of the government officials who control the funding. Keeping their jobs is.

  3. “Still, the real impetus for innovation and new discoveries — in which the U.S. still leads the world — has always come from private industry. ”

    But… but that’s simply not true! Private industry has been very good at *distributing* new discoveries, but the actual discovery usually comes from government work. The internet, the fax machine, the microwave, almost every drug developed in the last forty years—in just about every case, the discovery happened in government research labs, and the device then became widely available when the patent moved to private industry. It’s a two-step process—government does the research, private industry does the development, and they add up to R&D.

    Certainly there have been purely private enterprise technological discoveries, but they tend to be refinements of existing technology, like the personal computer; it’s a wonderful thing, but it’s essentially just a (tremendous) streamlining of computer technology the government developed.

    This is not to denigrate the role of private enterprise in technological development—I’m very glad we have Macs instead of ENIAC. But Obama is absolutely correct that promoting government research has historically been the best way to jump-start the discovery of new technologies which are later distributed by the market, just as he’s right that the space program developed many of the technologies that make our lives today possible.

    Even Hayek believed in markets as the most efficient means to *distribute* goods, not to create them!

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