Innovation

President Obama received a lot of outraged criticism from the right during the 2012 campaign for his remark, “You didn’t build that.” What he meant, though he uncharacteristically said it in a fairly clumsy way, was that for every proudly self-made entrepreneur there is a huge web of supporting institutions and infrastructure built by the government. These essential supports include the obvious – the courts, the Interstate highway system, police and fire departments, etc. – but also a tremendous array of investments undertaken by national governments, many of which have provided a platform on which entrepreneurs can build. A recent article in The Economist, reviewing a new book entitled “The Entrepreneurial State,” by Mariana Mazzucato of Sussex University in England, makes this explicit. And nowhere is this investment activity more influential than the United States, supposedly the cradle of unbridled individual enterprise.

Beneficiaries of these investments include Apple: “The armed forces pioneered the Internet, GPS positioning and voice-activated ‘virtual assistants.’ They also provided much of the early funding for Silicon Valley. Academic scientists in publicly funded universities and labs developed the touchscreen and the HTML language. An obscure government body even lent Apple $500,000 before it went public.” They also include Google, which received early funding from the National Science Foundation. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies benefit from the $30 billion in annual funding for biomedical research from the National Institutes of Health.

As Ms. Mazzucato argues, “The entrepreneurial state does far more than just make up for the private sector’s shortcomings: through the big bets it makes on new technologies, such as aircraft or the internet, it creates and shapes the markets of the future. At its best the state is nothing less than the ultimate Schumpeterian innovator—generating the gales of creative destruction that provide strong tailwinds for private firms like Apple.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of some government investments. The Solyndra debacle, in which the Federal government provided $500 million in loan guarantees to a California manufacturer of solar panels, which promptly went bust in the face of low-cost competition from China, is a cautionary example of the dangers of bureaucrats playing at being venture capitalists. But the rallying cry of the Tea Party – the Randian (Ayn and Paul) notion that the state is essentially a parasite feeding on the efforts of bold and visionary individual entrepreneurs – is a pure fairy tale.

The Economist article asks “why are some states successful entrepreneurs while others are failures?” and it provides an answer:  “Successful states are obsessed by competition; they make scientists compete for research grants, and businesses compete for start-up funds—and leave the decisions to experts, rather than politicians or bureaucrats. They also foster networks of innovation that stretch from universities to profit-maximizing companies, keeping their own role to a minimum.” This sounds much like the blueprint for Silicon Valley, or any other successful technology-based industrial cluster.

In our current budget-cutting environment, these essential investments are under threat. According to a recent article in The Huffington Post, sequestration will cost the NIH 5% of its budget, or $1.7 billion, forcing the cancellation of 700 competitive research grants in the current Federal budget year. Similarly, the National Science Foundation is expected to issue 1,000 fewer research grants this year as a result of sequestration.

According to a statement by the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes on gasoline and diesel and which provides a substantial portion of the money states use to maintain state and national roads, is essentially insolvent and will run out of money completely by 2015. The only way to avoid this would be to cut transportation funding by 92% or raise the Federal gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon, and it’s hard to imagine the Republican-controlled House of Representatives going along with the latter.

In the current political environment, much of the public investment that enables American businesses to innovate and prosper is under threat, mainly from ideologues who refuse to recognize the essential role that government initiative and funds have played since the founding of the Republic, from the Erie Canal to the interstate highway system, to nanotechnology research.

It is worth considering these facts in the context of the current legal battle between Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission. Verizon is challenging a net-neutrality order adopted by the FCC in 2010, which states that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot block lawful content and mobile broadband providers cannot block lawful websites. Verizon contends that the order violates its First Amendment rights. More to the point, Verizon and its competitors, including Comcast and AT&T, maintain that they spent billions of dollars to build their networks and should be able to grant or deny access as they please, or charge different customers different rates for transmitting on their networks. This is a spurious argument. The broadband companies are “common carriers,” a term that applies not only to telecoms companies but also to airlines, railroads, and trucking companies: they offer their services to the general public under a license or authority granted by a public regulatory body. Common carriers are subject to licensing requirements because they are using a public resource: radio spectrum, rights of way, public roads, or air traffic control systems, without which they would be unable to operate. In the case of the telecoms company, they are also using a resource – the Internet – that was developed by DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Internet and the public airwaves are not the property of those companies to use as they please, free from any oversight or interference. It is time to tell them, “No, you didn’t build that.”

 

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AskyI recently joined a new frequent flyer program, which is not something I expected to do. I am already a member of several, covering each of the three major airline alliances, and I thought I was pretty well set. But as I sat in the departure lounge in Lomé, the capital of the West African nation of Togo, waiting to board a flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a pretty young lady in company livery invited me to join the ASky Club. ASky is a new, mostly private, airline that serves a substantial West and Central African route network, operating Boeing 737 and Bombardier Dash-8 aircraft. It is affiliated with Ethiopian Airlines, which offers connections to North and South America, Europe, and Asia.  [click to continue…]

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I have just seen a graph prepared by technology consultant Chetan Sharma of Issaquah, Washington, which purports to show that a greater number of Earth’s inhabitants – six billion, if the data are correct – have mobile phone subscriptions than have electricity or safe drinking water. The data aren’t correct. For one thing, these six billion people, according to Mr. Sharma’s chart, constitute 80 percent of the world’s population, which would put world population at 7.5 billion, when the World Bank tells us it is only 6.84 billion. Also, in most of the world outside Europe, Japan, and North America, the overwhelming majority of mobile phone usage is via prepaid cards rather than contract subscriptions. And to add to that, if a substantial number of people have cell phones but not electricity, how do they recharge their phones? Still, the basic message conveyed by this chart – that mobile phone penetration is becoming nearly universal among people at all income levels – stands. [click to continue…]

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After a dismal record of awarding the Nobel Prize to the undeserving and worse, the Norwegian Nobel Committee this year has finally gotten it right, selecting the richly deserving Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo. But instead of allowing the trend next year to revert to the depressing mean, why not select the giant retailer Wal-Mart? It would be a refreshing change from previous years when the likes of Kofi Annan, Mohammed El-Baradei, and Barack Obama were tapped for the honor. [click to continue…]

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One could argue that true genius in business is more about giving consumers things they don’t even know they want than about giving them what they want or say they want. I remember the first time I saw the Apple iPod. I went online immediately and ordered one, even though in those dark ages I had to purchase third-party software to make it run with my PC. I also remember when the Sony Walkman and the CD player and disk were both introduced, and although I was slower to get those, I marveled at the genius of the people who gave us such elegant solutions to problems most of us were only dimly aware we had. [click to continue…]

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