Obama

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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Jagdish Bhagwati, a Professor at Columbia University and a leading development economist,  wrote the following letter in yesterday’s Financial Times about President Obama’s designation of Jim Yong Kim to succeed Robert Zoellick as President of the World Bank. He is absolutely right. Dr. Kim is not the right person to lead the Bank, especially in a time of global economic transition, and especially when such an eminently qualified candidate as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, currently Nigeria’s Finance Minister and a former World Bank Managing Director, is available. Professor Bhagwati writes:

“Sir, In your editorial “The right leader for the World Bank” (March 28) you say that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a hugely preferable candidate to succeed Robert Zoellick, but you nonetheless surrender to Barack Obama’s faux pas in choosing Jim Yong Kim, a healthcare expert, as “inevitable”. Whatever happened to the notion that this time around, we would opt for the “best” candidate? But more can be said.

“First, Dr Kim is no more an American than many of us: he was born abroad and is reported to have come here at the age of five. Besides, Americans do not entertain discrimination against foreign-born “intellectual guestworkers”. Dr Okonjo-Iweala has studied with great distinction at Harvard and MIT in economics, has lived in the US for many years, and (I speak from personal experience) she can outwit and outsmart almost any policy economist I know.

“Second, how can President Obama bypass an independent-minded African in favour of yet another agreeable Korean – Ban Ki-moon is another one – and keep a straight face?

“Third, an administration that prides itself on promoting women is sidelining the most gifted woman candidate for this important job. It makes a mockery of the claims that Mr Obama cares for women whereas Mitt Romney will not.

“Finally, and most important of all, the Obama administration mistakenly believes that “development” consists of healthcare, microfinance and other such projects, and not the big high-pay-off “macro-level” policies such as trade. The insidious notion that the former constitutes “development economics” and the latter does not is both wrong and glorifies the less important at the expense of the more important.

“The US government has already put an administrator with a background in health in charge of the United States Agency for International Development: Rajiv Shah. At the same time, it has destroyed Doha and encouraged the manufactures fetish and protectionism, which will cost developing countries far more than USAID’s micro projects will benefit them. Dr Okonjo-Iweala will do both “macro” and “micro” projects. But Dr Kim’s healthcare expertise comes with an uncritical embrace of the charges against “neoliberalism”, betraying susceptibility to the anti-reform, anti-growth rhetoric of the 1990s. Caveat emptor.”

No further comment needed.

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If existing parallels between the U.S. experience in Indochina and our current entanglement in Afghanistan weren’t already enough, the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) now has its own version of the My Lai massacre. The only surprise is that nothing like the Sunday murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant had previously occurred in 10 years of fighting.

For all his campaign promises to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and end our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama has pursued a course almost indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. But of late, he has started to sound more like Richard Nixon. In a speech he gave yesterday in the Rose Garden, the President said, “So make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war.  We’re steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead, and that’s going to allow us to bring our troops home…And meanwhile, we will continue the work of devastating Al Qaeda’s leadership and denying them a safe haven…I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.” This sounds eerily like Nixon’s “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization of the war.”

It can’t be long before we are treated to images of American diplomats being helicoptered out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban move into the city. In 1972 we brought our troops home from Vietnam, under the pretext that the Vietnamese – and the Cambodians as well – could now shoulder the responsibility for their own defense. It took another three years before the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army seized Phnom Penh and Saigon, respectively during which corrupt governments in both countries, rather than trying to defend their people, engaged in an unseemly scramble to amass as much loot as they could before the party ended.

The Karzai government is easily the equal of Lon Nol’s Cambodian regime when it comes to incompetence and corruption, while the Afghan Army is, if anything, less capable than its historic Southeast Asian counterparts, and also infested with Taliban sympathizers. Once NATO forces withdraw, I suspect it will take far less than three years for the Taliban to take over. Tragically, that might be the best possible outcome, the worst being a return to all-out civil war between north and south.

It is time for us to leave. Now.

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In spite of our recent and ongoing misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States seems to be stumbling towards war with Iran. President Obama has stated that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and that he is prepared to use force to prevent it. In part to prevent Israel from launching an immediate attack on Iran, he has offered assurances that we will act, if necessary, once all other options are exhausted. It would be hard for the President to back down from such pronouncements once it becomes clear that Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program, since it would reveal his strong language as so much empty bluster. [click to continue…]

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Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-leaning freshman Senator from Florida, recently said something remarkably intelligent, if self-evident, which appears to elude most Washington policy makers. “We don’t need more taxes,” he said, “We need more taxpayers.”

This is axiomatic for anyone trying to reform tax systems and increase government revenue, which I have done in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. In most of these countries, as well as in places like Greece and Italy, most people (and companies) do not pay taxes, at least not officially. Tax administrations are both inefficient and corrupt; if you’re lucky you will never attract the attention of the taxman, and if you’re not, a bribe – possibly significant, but almost certainly less than your true tax liability – will do the trick. And when garbage piles up in the streets and public money vanishes into the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, it is natural for citizens to decide government is not worth whatever taxes they are supposed to pay.  In most of these countries, it is foreign individuals and corporations, who lack the proper connections, who are not steeped in the arcane rules of the game, and who try to obey the law, who shoulder much of the tax burden. The cell phone company, the brewery, and the oil and mining companies – and their foreign employees – are easy and highly visible targets, and governments never tire of trying to change the rules, imposing new taxes or demanding a share of the company.

The United States, of course, is not Nigeria or Greece. As hard as it may be to follow the letter of the law when the tax code runs to 10,000 pages, most people and companies try their best, exploiting whatever advantages they and their accountants can find, but rarely committing any deliberate infractions, cash payments to the guys who help carry your furniture up to the second floor apartment notwithstanding. The IRS is too effective, and the penalties too great, for most of us to chance it. And, at least until now, most Americans have thought that paying taxes is one’s duty as a citizen. [click to continue…]

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