How austerity may reduce innovation

An interesting post from Simon Wren-Lewis on how sustained austerity can lower innovation and productivity growth. With the latter growing painfully slowly in the UK and other rich countries for a number of years, this is potentially important. As he notes, it may only explain part of the productivity slowdown, but it still highlights one of the negative impacts of austerity.

Put briefly, austerity weakens aggregate demand when it cannot be offset by monetary policy (as has been the case since the recession). This may create an ‘innovations gap’. Firms facing reduced demand for their products will slow down the rate at which they create or utilize new products, processes and technology via new investment, leading to weaker growth in productivity. This sort of investment would have ’embodied’ the new technology, but in its absence, the improvements will not take place.

Falling cost of renewables will challenge Trump’s plan for coal jobs

This short interview from the Real News Network illustrates the progress of clean energy generation in the US, compared with dirtier sources. The argument is that the cost of renewables is falling fast, such that they are becoming cheaper than coal-fired generation, which Mr Trump has promised to support. Cleaner sources also have positive spillover effects on health, known in economics as a positive externality.

The logic of market forces has probably been helped along by industrial policies, from Obama’s Clean Power Plan to the Chinese government, which has promoted the development of its solar panel industry. But if clean energy becomes cheaper than dirty energy, surely a Republican president looking for a good deal can’t argue with that.

America’s lead on innovation and the role of the public sector

A nice post here by British economist Paul Ormerod which describes how the US is leading the world in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the last paragraph, he discusses how the development of key technologies that are perceived to be in the national interest there are initially funded and developed by the public sector, with an eye to their subsequent practical application by the private sector.

The idea that the world’s most powerful nation and largest economy owes many of its strengths to public sector-led innovation is an important one. In her eye-opening book, The Entrepreneurial State, Professor Mariana Mazzucato shows as a key example how many of the technologies that make up the smart phone were initially developed by the US government, and only later combined into desirable consumer products by private companies such as Apple and Samsung. From the internet and GPS, to the touchscreen and voice activation, government institutions led the way, mostly to try to maintain the country’s military superiority.

Mazzucato argues that we should acknowledge the key role of the public sector in taking on certain financial risks which the private sector will not bear, and support these kinds of innovation policies. Of course, there will be failures as well as successes, but this should not be a reason for abandoning state intervention. The private sector can fail as much as the public, sometimes on an enormous scale, ‘wasting’ resources in the process. As long as an experimental approach and a willingness to learn are adopted, there is the potential for a greatly positive public-private co-evolution which can help to drive economic progress.

The public-private divide under capitalism should be seen as something of a myth: the two are symbiotic and support each other in successful economies more extensively than is often believed. It is misleading and potentially damaging to call public provision or even public-private partnerships ‘socialist’. The truth is that the development of capitalism from its inception to today’s increasingly complex economy remains dependent on the state as much as the private sector.

Governments can pick winners (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 12)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismThis post continues an occasional series based on chapters in Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Chapter 12 aims to counter the idea among free market economists that the government should not be in the business of supporting particular firms or sectors, and should leave things, as far as possible, to the market. In other words, if industrial policy is at least partly about ‘picking winners’, then ministers and bureaucrats should stay out of the way, as those in business will inevitably know more about how to achieve economic success.

Chang notes that there are plenty of examples from across the world in the history of capitalism of the successful picking of winners by the state, from South Korea to the US. In another part of the book, he points out that what is good for one particular firm may not be good for the economy as a whole. After all, economic growth and development under capitalism involves a process of creative destruction and structural change, as some firms succeed and others fail, expanding and creating new jobs in some cases, and stagnating or shrinking in others, going bankrupt or being taken over and restructured, with jobs being lost. There is constant change in a successful economy, and this is essential to rising productivity and overall living standards. If the state can play a role in facilitating this process, then this may involve intervention and not simply deregulation and leaving it all to the market. Continue reading

Government as entrepreneur

A short video talk from TED by Professor Mariana Mazzucato of Sussex University on the state’s vital role in promoting innovation in a capitalist economy. Her book The Entrepreneurial State makes a fascinating read.

I wrote my MSc dissertation, way back when, on Industrial Policy in Malaysia, which admittedly had mixed results. Since then I have always been interested in how state intervention can promote growth and development, both in rich and developing nations.

Mazzucato describes how all the key technologies which make up the smart phone were funded by the US government, which definitely goes against much propaganda and conventional wisdom.

National development goals and evolving institutions and policy

As economies grow and inevitably evolve over time, they require different sets of government policies and institutions to maintain prosperity. In his 2007 book ‘The European Economy since 1945’, Barry Eichengreen argues that Western European economies, devastated to various degrees by World War II, managed to grow fairly rapidly during what became known as the ‘Golden Age‘, broadly the 1950s and 1960s. Continue reading