Tag Archives: Innovation

Regulatory Complexity Gone Wild

The complexities of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) are multiple, metastasizing, and increasingly well-known. Less known is an additional layer of health care regulation slated for implementation next year: the system by which doctors and hospitals code for conditions, injuries, and treatments. By way of illustration, in the old system, a broken arm might get the code 156; pneumonia might be 397. The new system is much more advanced. As Ben Domenech notes:

In all, the new system, known as ICD-10, will boast 140,000 codes, a near-eight-fold rise over the mere 18,000 codes in ICD-9. It is a good example of the way bureaucracies grow in size and complexity in an attempt to match the complexity of society and the economy. This temptation, however, is usually perverse.

Complexity in the economy means new technologies, more specialized goods and services, and more consumer and vocational choice. Economic complexity, however, is built upon a foundation of simplicity – clear, basic rules and institutions. Simple rules encourage experimentation, promote long-term investments and entrepreneurial ventures, and allow the flexibility to drive and accommodate diversity.

Complex rules, on the other hand, often lead to just the opposite: less experimentation, investment, entrepreneurship, diversity, and choice.

It is difficult to quantify the effects of the metastasizing Administrative State. It is impossible to calculate, say, the cost of regulations that prohibit, discourage, or delay innovation. Likewise, what is the cost of the regulations that, arguably, helped cause the Financial Panic of 2008 and its policy fallout? No one can say with precision. For twenty years, though, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has catalogued regulatory complexity as well as anyone, and its latest report is astonishing.

Federal regulation, CEI’s latest “10,000 Commandments” survey finds, costs the U.S. economy some $1.8 trillion annually. That’s more than 10% of GDP, or nearly $15,000 per citizen. These estimates largely predate the implementation of the ACA, Dodd-Frank, and new rounds of EPA intervention. In other words, it’s only getting worse.

The legal scholar Richard Epstein argues that

The dismal performance of the IRS is but a symptom of a much larger disease which has taken root in the charters of many of the major administrative agencies in the United States today: the permit power. Private individuals are not allowed to engage in certain activities or to claim certain benefits without the approval of some major government agency. The standards for approval are nebulous at best, which makes it hard for any outside reviewer to overturn the agency’s decision on a particular application.

That power also gives the agency discretion to drag out its review, since few individuals or groups are foolhardy enough to jump the gun and set up shop without obtaining the necessary approvals first. It takes literally a few minutes for a skilled government administrator to demand information that costs millions of dollars to collect and that can tie up a project for years. That delay becomes even longer for projects that need approval from multiple agencies at the federal or state level, or both.

The beauty of all of this (for the government) is that there is no effective legal remedy. Any lawsuit that protests the improper government delay only delays the matter more. Worse still, it also invites that agency (and other agencies with which it has good relations) to slow down the clock on any other applications that the same party brings to the table. Faced with this unappetizing scenario, most sophisticated applicants prefer quiet diplomacy to frontal assault, especially if their solid connections or campaign contributions might expedite the application process. Every eager applicant may also be stymied by astute competitors intent on slowing the approval process down, in order to protect their own financial profits. So more quiet diplomacy leads to further social waste.

Epstein argues the FDA, EPA, FCC, and other agencies all use this permit power to control firms, industries, and people beyond any reasonable belief they are providing a net benefit to society.

The agencies are guilty of overreach and promoting their own metastasis. Yet without Congress and the President, they would have little or no power. Congresses and Presidents increasingly pass thousand-page laws that ask agencies to produce tens of thousands of pages of attendant rules and regulations. Complexity grows. Accountability is lost. The economy suffers. And the corrective paths, which fix mistakes and promote renewal in the rest of the economy and society, are blocked. We then pile on tomorrow’s complexity to “fix” the flaws created by yesterday’s complexity.

The hyper-regulation of the economy is not merely an annoyance, not merely about inefficient paperwork. It is damaging our innovative and productive capacity — and thus employment, the budget, and our standard of living.

The McKinsey Global Institute helps us understand why this matters from a macro perspective. McKinsey chose a dozen existing and emerging technologies and estimated their potential economic impact in the year 2025. It found industries like the mobile Internet, cloud computing, self-driving cars, and genomics could produce economic benefits of up to $33 trillion worldwide. The operative word, however, is “might.” Innovation is all about what’s new. And regulation is often about disallowing or discouraging what’s new. The growing complexity of the regulatory state, therefore, can only block some number of these innovations and is thus likely to leave us with a simpler, and thus poorer, world.

— Bret Swanson

Washington liabilities vs. innovative assets

Our new article at RealClearMarkets:

As Washington and the states pile up mountainous liabilities — $3 trillion for unfunded state pensions, $10 trillion in new federal deficits through 2019, and $38 trillion (or is it $50 trillion?) in unfunded Medicare promises — the U.S. needs once again to call on its chief strategic asset: radical innovation.

One laboratory of growth will continue to be the Internet. The U.S. began the 2000’s with fewer than five million residential broadband lines and zero mobile broadband. We begin the new decade with 71 million residential lines and 300 million portable and mobile broadband devices. In all, consumer bandwidth grew almost 15,000%.

Even a thriving Internet, however, cannot escape Washington’s eager eye. As the Federal Communications Commission contemplates new “network neutrality” regulation and even a return to “Title II” telephone regulation, we have to wonder where growth will come from in the 2010’s . . . .

Collective vs. Creative: The Yin and Yang of Innovation

Later this week the FCC will accept the first round of comments in its “Open Internet” rule making, commonly known as Net Neutrality. Never mind that the Internet is already open and it was never strictly neutral. Openness and neutrality are two appealing buzzwords that serve as the basis for potentially far reaching new regulation of our most dynamic economic and cultural sector — the Internet.

I’ll comment on Net Neutrality from several angles over the coming days. But a terrific essay by Berkeley’s Jaron Lanier impelled me to begin by summarizing some of the big meta-arguments that have been swirling the last few years and which now broadly define the opposing sides in the Net Neutrality debate. After surveying these broad categories, I’ll get into the weeds on technology, business, and policy.

The thrust behind Net Neutrality is a view that the Internet should conform to a narrow set of technology and business “ideals” — “open,” “neutral,” “non-discriminatory.” Wonderful words. Often virtuous. But these aren’t the only traits important to economic and cultural systems. In fact, Net Neutrality sets up a false dichotomy — a manufactured war — between open and closed, collaborative versus commercial, free versus paid, content versus conduit. I’ve made a long list of the supposed opposing forces. Net Neutrality favors only one side of the table below. It seeks to cement in place one model of business and technology. It is intensely focused on the left-hand column and is either oblivious or hostile to the right-hand column. It thinks the right-hand items are either bad (prices) or assumes they appear magically (bandwidth).

We skeptics of Net Neutrality, on the other hand, do not favor one side or the other. We understand that there are virtues all around. Here’s how I put it on my blog last autumn:

Suggesting we can enjoy Google’s software innovations without the network innovations of AT&T, Verizon, and hundreds of service providers and technology suppliers is like saying that once Microsoft came along we no longer needed Intel.

No, Microsoft and Intel built upon each other in a virtuous interplay. Intel’s microprocessor and memory inventions set the stage for software innovation. Bill Gates exploited Intel’s newly abundant transistors by creating radically new software that empowered average businesspeople and consumers to engage with computers. The vast new PC market, in turn, dramatically expanded Intel’s markets and volumes and thus allowed it to invest in new designs and multi-billion dollar chip factories across the globe, driving Moore’s law and with it the digital revolution in all its manifestations.

Software and hardware. Bits and bandwidth. Content and conduit. These things are complementary. And yes, like yin and yang, often in tension and flux, but ultimately interdependent.

Likewise, we need the ability to charge for products and set prices so that capital can be rationally allocated and the hundreds of billions of dollars in network investment can occur. It is thus these hard prices that yield so many of the “free” consumer surplus advantages we all enjoy on the Web. No company or industry can capture all the value of the Web. Most of it comes to us as consumers. But companies and content creators need at least the ability to pursue business models that capture some portion of this value so they can not only survive but continually reinvest in the future. With a market moving so fast, with so many network and content models so uncertain during this epochal shift in media and communications, these content and conduit companies must be allowed to define their own products and set their own prices. We need to know what works, and what doesn’t.

When the “network layers” regulatory model, as it was then known, was first proposed back in 2003-04, my colleague George Gilder and I prepared testimony for the U.S. Senate. Although the layers model was little more than an academic notion, we thought then this would become the next big battle in Internet policy. We were right. Even though the “layers” proposal was (and is!) an ill-defined concept, the model we used to analyze what Net Neutrality would mean for networks and Web business models still applies. As we wrote in April of 2004:

Layering proponents . . . make a fundamental error. They ignore ever changing trade-offs between integration and modularization that are among the most profound and strategic decisions any company in any industry makes. They disavow Harvard Business professor Clayton Christensen’s theorems that dictate when modularization, or “layering,” is advisable, and when integration is far more likely to yield success. For example, the separation of content and conduit—the notion that bandwidth providers should focus on delivering robust, high-speed connections while allowing hundreds of millions of professionals and amateurs to supply the content—is often a sound strategy. We have supported it from the beginning. But leading edge undershoot products (ones that are not yet good enough for the demands of the marketplace) like video-conferencing often require integration.

Over time, the digital and photonic technologies at the heart of the Internet lead to massive integration — of transistors, features, applications, even wavelengths of light onto fiber optic strands. This integration of computing and communications power flings creative power to the edges of the network. It shifts bottlenecks. Crystalline silicon and flawless fiber form the low-entropy substrate that carry the world’s high-entropy messages — news, opinions, new products, new services. But these feats are not automatic. They cannot be legislated or mandated. And just as innovation in the core of the network unleashes innovation at the edges, so too more content and creativity at the edge create the need for ever more capacity and capability in the core. The bottlenecks shift again. More data centers, better optical transmission and switching, new content delivery optimization, the move from cell towers to femtocell wireless architectures. There is no final state of equilibrium where one side can assume that the other is a stagnant utility, at least not in the foreseeable future.

I’ll be back with more analysis of the Net Neutrality debate, but for now I’ll let Jaron Lanier (whose book You Are Not a Gadget was published today) sum up the argument:

Here’s one problem with digital collectivism: We shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation.

If you want to foster creativity and excellence, you have to introduce some boundaries. Teams need some privacy from one another to develop unique approaches to any kind of competition. Scientists need some time in private before publication to get their results in order. Making everything open all the time creates what I call a global mush.

There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash—always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth.

Actually, Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. If you suggested that, say, Google, Apple and Microsoft should be merged so that all their engineers would be aggregated into a giant wiki-like project—well you’d be laughed out of Silicon Valley so fast you wouldn’t have time to tweet about it. Same would happen if you suggested to one of the big venture-capital firms that all the start-ups they are funding should be merged into a single collective operation.

But this is exactly the kind of mistake that’s happening with some of the most influential projects in our culture, and ultimately in our economy.

New York and Net Neutrality

This morning, the Technology Committee of the New York City Council convened a large hearing on a resolution urging Congress to pass a robust Net Neutrality law. I was supposed to testify, but our narrowband transportation system prevented me from getting to New York. Here, however, is the testimony I prepared. It focuses on investment, innovation, and the impact Net Neutrality would have on both.

“Net Neutrality’s Impact on Internet Innovation” – by Bret Swanson – 11.20.09

Technology: 2008 vs. 1992

See my comparison of the state of technology in 2008 versus 1992, when the last Democratic presidential transition took place. 

Today, an average consumer can buy a terabyte hard drive (1 million megabytes), on which she might store her family photos, videos and other digital documents for as little as $109.99. In 1992, a terabyte drive, if such a thing had existed, would have cost $5 million.

Go to Forbes.com for the full article: “How Techno-creativity Will Save Us.”

“Techno-Nationalism”: Debating the “where” of innovation

About 10 days ago I gave a presentation to a D.C. business group on “Innovation: The End? Or a New Beginning?” We got into a discussion of high-end immigration and were in general agreement that we should grant easy green cards to all STEM PhDs educated in the U.S., among other enticements to smart immigrants. One commenter then suggested this was a kind of a zero-sum race between the U.S., China, and India for the world’s human capital.

I replied, however, that the technological, economic, and political advance of China and India is a good thing. Innovation anywhere in the world benefits us, too, if we are open to the global economy. For hundreds of years, North America attracted much or most of the world’s financial and human capital because (1) though imperfect, we were an attractive realm of freedom and (2) much of the rest of the world was so inhospitable to innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and was generally politically intolerant. This massive tilt in our direction is now over. Other parts of the world present more opportunities for entrepreneurship and education, and we’re not going to get all the smart people, no matter how open our immigration laws. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get the smartest people. Just that there’s going to be lots of innovation and new enterprise in new non-U.S. places, and that overall that’s a good thing.

So I was intrigued when an Economist article on this very topic hit my radar yesterday. Turns out Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School has written a whole book on the subject: The Venturesome Economy.

So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity? Nonsense, insists Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School. In “The Venturesome Economy”, a provocative new book, he explains why he thinks this gloomy thesis misunderstands innovation in several fundamental ways.

First, he argues that the obsession with the number of doctorates and technical graduates is misplaced because the “high-level” inventions and ideas such boffins come up with travel easily across national borders. Even if China spends a fortune to train more scientists, it cannot prevent America from capitalising on their inventions with better business models.

That points to his next insight, that the commercialisation, diffusion and use of inventions is of more value to companies and societies than the initial bright spark. America’s sophisticated marketing, distribution, sales and customer-service systems have long given it a decisive advantage over rivals, such as Japan in the 1980s, that began to catch up with its technological prowess. For America to retain this sort of edge, then, what the country needs is better MBAs, not more PhDs.

A lot to agree with. The addition of China and India to the world economy, with new minds and new centers of research and innovation, make it more likely that new general purpose technologies like the integrated circuit or laser will be invented — maybe the next one will be in the field of biotech or energy, who knows. It will be good for humanity, at least for those open to these inventions and, yes, the commercializers. But how does clustering — like Silicon Valley, where a whole ecosystem of talent, firms, and infrastructure spiral virtuously upward — come into play? Does clustering mean as much as it used to in the age of instant global broadband communication? If technology and the corresponding innovations rapidly diffuse everywhere — and they do — it’s largely a matter of who earns the profits. Who sets the standards. And which governmental jurisdictions get to tax the innovations and entrepreneurs. In nationalist terms, where military and political power derive from economic power, it is largely a competition for tax revenues.

But I think Bhidé, at least in this article (I’ve yet to read the book), still underplays the importance of PhDs or their equivalents who not only make the once-in-a-generation breakthroughs but also do help manufacture and commercialize these inventions. And Bhidé probably overplays the the importance of MBAs, who he says are key to our “consumer” culture. Consumers don’t drive the economy. Entrepreneurs do. Yes, MBAs are good at cleaving consumers from their wallets. But consumption is a function of growth and growth expectations, which depend on entrepreneurial confidence. Supply creates its own demand.

If we had a perfectly globalized, flat, frictionless world — a world of “maximum entropy” — it’s true, the “where” of innovation wouldn’t matter much. And we should basically be shooting for that type of world. After all, I named my blog after it. But until we get there, the “where” of innovation probably matters more than Bhidé would like.

In this game, it’s the farsighted innovators and consumers, who want free trade and tax competition, against the all-too-often shortsighted politicians, who seek the short-term advantage of protectionism, tax gouges (which can only be achieved through tax harmonization cartels), and “energy independence” campaigns. It takes real wisdom to understand that China’s or India’s gain is also our own.