Tag Archives: innovation

Embrace Change

Kaiserin_Maria_Theresia_(HRR)Whenever someone suggested a new innovation or an improvement, Empress Maria Theresa had a favorite response: “Leave everything as it is.” As the sovereign of most of central Europe during the 18th Century, the Habsburg Empress epitomized absolutist rule, claiming that her powers had no limit.

But as her statement demonstrates, she clearly understood that her powers were limited by new and disruptive innovations. Her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I understood this as well. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson relate that when an English philanthropist suggested some social reforms for the benefit of Austria’s poorest, one of Francis’s assistants replied: “We do not desire at all that the great masses shall become well off and independent….How could we otherwise rule over them?” (A&R, 224).

This is why these Habsburg rulers did everything they could to stand athwart innovation. As Acemoglu and Robinson put it:

In addition to serfdom, which completely blocked the emergence of a labor market and removed the economic incentives or initiative from the mass of the rural population, Habsburg absolutism thrived on monopolies and other restrictions on trade. The urban economy was dominated by guilds, which restricted entry into professions. (A&R, 224).

Francis went so far as to block new technologies. For instance, he banned the adoption of new industrial machinery until 1811. He also refused to permit the building of steam railroads. Acemoglu and Robinson inform us that:

[T]he first railway built in the empire had to use horse-drawn carriages. The line…was built with gradients and corners, which meant that it was impossible subsequently to convert it to steam engines. So it continued with horse power until the 1860s. (A&R, 226).

Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of despots who stood in the way of innovation. In Russia, Nicholas I enacted laws restricting the number of factories and “forbade the opening of any new cotton or woolen spinning mills and iron foundries.” (A&R, 229). And in the Ottoman Empire, sultans banned the use of printing. So stultifying was the effect that “well into the second half of the nineteenth century, book production in the Ottoman Empire was still primarily undertaken by scribes hand-copying existing books.” (A&R, 214).

The centuries and the miles that separate us from these episodes give us some objectivity and allow us to see them for what they are: the naked exercise of government force to obstruct innovation for the benefit of a few entrenched interests. But how different are these episodes, really, from the stories we read in today’s newspapers? Are they all that different from New Jersey’s refusal to allow car companies to sell directly to consumers? Are they any less silly than the anti-Uber laws cooked up by a dozen U.S. cities? We like to think that our own political process is more enlightened but right now, federal, state and city policy makers are working to block the development of promising innovations such as wearable technologies, 3D printing, smart cars, and autonomous vehicles.

book-cover-smallFor a thoughtful and forceful discussion of what might be called the anti-Maria Theresa view, everyone should read Permissionless Innovation by my colleague Adam Thierer. It is a well-researched and well-argued defense of the proposition that our default policy should be “innovation allowed.” You can find Kindle and paperback versions on Amazon. Or you can check out the free PDF version at the Mercatus Center. For a nice overview of his book, see Adam’s post (and video) here. Please read it and send (free) copies to any modern-day Maria Theresas you may know.

Healthcare: Searching for Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs transformed technology, bringing affordable smart phones and personal computers to households across income levels and around the world. In a 15-minute podcast Dr. Robert Graboyes asks why health care hasn’t seen this kind of innovation and explores the potential for health care under free markets. Click here to listen or subscribe.


Why Mandating Higher Quality is Regressive

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the fact that millions of Americans are seeing their health insurance plans cancelled as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Some pundits have gone so far as to argue this is a good thing. The cancelled plans, the logic goes, were lower in quality than the plans being offered in the new government health insurance exchanges. Many people will end up paying more for the replacement plans, but since the new plans cover a wider variety of health services, they are better off, right?

Actually, no. Imagine if the same logic were applied to automobiles. I drive a 2003 Toyota Matrix. Would I be better off if my current model was banned and I was forced to buy a brand new Ferrari instead? The President made a similar comparison in a recent press conference when he said:

We made a decision as a society that every car has to have a seat belt or air bags. And so you pass a regulation. And there’s some additional cost, particularly at the start, of increasing the safety and protections, but we make a decision as a society that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of all the lives that are saved. So what we’re saying now is if you’re buying a new car, you got to have a seat belt.

If the President’s comparison were appropriate, people would be able to keep their current plans, and might only have to add a new feature or two when they buy a new plan. Instead, people are being dumped from their current coverage and forced into the government run exchanges where they are being forced to buy all kinds of options they don’t want or need. Some might get a subsidy to help with the purchase, but this is still like forcing everyone to buy a Ferrari when all they really want is their trusty old Honda Accord.

Sure, if I had to buy a new Ferrari, it might have all kinds of amazing features that my current car lacks. But I would also have a lot less money to spend on other things that I value a lot more, like my monthly gym membership, or taking my girlfriend out to a nice restaurant on occasion. If banning low quality goods and services is so good for consumers, why not extend this logic even further? Why not ban row boats and force people to buy yachts instead? Imagine how much better dressed Americans would be if we banned all of the clothes sold at Target and Walmart and only allowed people to purchase Christian Dior or Armani!

The problem with this logic is that quality is what economists call a “normal” good. A normal good is something people demand more of when their income rises. By contrast, an “inferior” good is something we demand more of when our income falls. Think macaroni and cheese dinners or sneakers from Payless, for example.

There’s nothing inherently “inferior” about an inferior good. Rather, people with lower incomes often prefer to trade off quality in exchange for a lower price. This is a perfectly rational decision. Since people demand more quality as income rises, banning lower quality products, like catastrophic only health insurance coverage, is actually banning the products that lower income people prefer. And it’s not just the poor who make tradeoffs between price and quality. (For example, I know for a fact that one of my more senior colleagues at the Mercatus Center buys most of his clothes at Walmart!). When prices rise in response to the mandated improvement in quality, the preferences of the poor are ignored and their options limited. As such, each individual must decide for him or herself what the right balance is between quality and price.

Once this becomes clear, one has to wonder who a lot of regulations are really designed to serve. For example, the FDA recently announced it will be setting standards for the production of pet food. Are regulations like this designed to cater to the preferences of the poor, who probably opt for the 79 cent can of cat food? Or are they more in line with the preferences of people who already buy organic food for their cats, people who might not mind paying a little extra to ensure that their pet food has met the new standards set by the FDA?

Mandating rearview cameras in automobiles is regressive for the same reason. This item was originally found mostly in luxury cars, but, thanks to market innovation, these cameras are rapidly becoming commonplace features in cars, all without government regulation.

One of the benefits of the market system is that when a new product is first introduced, the wealthy often pay a lot for it. Over time, the kinks in the product are worked out, and prices fall as the new technology becomes more affordable. Eventually, low income people can afford the product as well, but each consumer must decide for herself when the price has fallen sufficiently to make the purchase worthwhile.

Banning low quality items may seem like a noble way to protect consumers, but not when that removes lower-priced options for those consumers who have the fewest resources to spare. Rather than forcing consumers to buy luxury items, regulatory agencies should respect consumer preferences, especially the preferences of the poor.

It’s Time to Change the Incentives of Regulators

One of the primary reasons that regulation slows down economic growth is that regulation inhibits innovation.  Another example of that is playing out in real-time.  Julian Hattem at The Hill recently blogged about online educators trying to stop the US Department of Education from preventing the expansion of educational opportunities with regulations.  From Hattem’s post:

Funders and educators trying to spur innovations in online education are complaining that federal regulators are making their jobs more difficult.

John Ebersole, president of the online Excelsior College, said on Monday that Congress and President Obama both were making a point of exploring how the Internet can expand educational opportunities, but that regulators at the Department of Education were making it harder.

“I’m afraid that those folks over at the Departnent of Education see their role as being that of police officers,” he said. “They’re all about creating more and more regulations. No matter how few institutions are involved in particular inappropriate behavior, and there have been some, the solution is to impose regulations on everybody.”

Ebersole has it right – the incentive for people at the Department of Education, and at regulatory agencies in general, is to create more regulations.  Economists sometimes model the government as if it were a machine that benevolently chooses to intervene in markets only when it makes sense. But those models ignore that there are real people inside the machine of government, and people respond to incentives.  Regulations are the product that regulatory agencies create, and employees of those agencies are rewarded with things like plaques (I’ve got three sitting on a shelf in my office, from my days as a regulatory economist at the Department of Transportation), bonuses, and promotions for being on teams that successfully create more regulations.  This is unfortunate, because it inevitably creates pressure to regulate regardless of consequences on things like innovation and economic growth.

A system that rewards people for producing large quantities of some product, regardless of that product’s real value or potential long-term consequences, is a recipe for disaster.  In fact, it sounds reminiscent of the situation of home loan originators in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008.  Mortgage origination is the act of making a loan to someone for the purposes of buying a home.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as large commercial and investment banks, would buy mortgages (and the interest that they promised) from home loan originators, the most notorious of which was probably Countrywide Financial (now part of Bank of America).  The originators knew they had a ready buyer for mortgages, including subprime mortgages – that is, mortgages that were relatively riskier and potentially worthless if interest rates rose.  The knowledge that they could quickly turn a profit by originating more loans and selling them to Fannie, Freddie, and some Wall Street firms led many mortgage originators to turn a blind eye to the possibility that many of the loans they made would not be paid back.  That is, the incentives of individuals working in mortgage origination companies led them to produce large quantities of their product, regardless of the product’s real value or potential long-term consequences.  Sound familiar?

The Precautionary Principle vs. Glow in the Dark Plants


In “The Croods,” a box office hit cartoon showing a family of cavemen, the father issues daily warnings to his family that everything new is bad. He explains to his inquisitive daughter that they have survived for so long in their dangerous world by doing exactly the same thing every day and eschewing innovation. In our times, we would call his approach “the precautionary principle.”

The precautionary principle was on display when environmental activists petitioned a startup fundraiser Kickstarter to shut down the Glowing Plant Project, calling it “a new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley.”  As its name suggests, the project aims to create plants that will glow in the dark using synthetic biology. And while the idea may sound like a fad, it may have practical applications, e.g. living streetlights that would use their own energy to illuminate our cities.

Under pressure, Kickstarter amended its rules to ban startups from rewarding their donors with genetically modified products. The environmental activists further called on the regulators to subject similar projects to independent risk assessments. So far various agencies claimed that the issue is outside their jurisdiction.

The idea of making organisms glow is not new. A few years ago, FDA certified that there was no evidence that the Glofish, produced using similar technology, “pose any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts.” But this will hardly satisfy the environmental groups who believe synthetic biology poses a major threat to conservation and sustainability of biological diversity.

There is logic to the precautionary principle. Innovation can and often does bring new risks. There were no driving related fatalities before the invention of cars and certainly fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And it would take a lightening strike to get a fatal electric shock before the invention of powerful electricity generators. Cars, electricity, vaccines and many other innovations came with substantial risks. But just imagine how riskier and poorer the world would be if we had used a precautionary principle to stifle innovation in those technologies.

My colleague Adam Thierer writes in his recent law review article:

New technologies help society address problems that are associated with older technologies and practices, but also carry risks of their own. A new drug, for example, might cure an old malady while also having side effects. We accept such risks because they typically pale in comparison with the diseases new medicines help to cure. While every technology, new or old, has some risks associated with it, new technologies almost always make us safer, healthier, and smarter, because through constant experimentation we discover better ways of doing things.

He further notes:

The precautionary principle destroys social and economic dynamism. It stifles experimentation and the resulting opportunities for learning and innovation. While some steps to anticipate or to control unforeseen circumstances and “to plan for the worse” are sensible, going overboard with precaution forecloses opportunities and experiences that offer valuable lessons for individuals and society.

So take it from the Croods – if we didn’t take risks and innovate, we’d still be living in caves.