State of the Union’s challenge: How to make tech innovation work for us?

Tuesday night, President Obama presented four critical questions about the future of America and I should like to comment on the first two:

  1. How to produce equal opportunity, emphasizing economic security for all.
  2. In his words, “how do we make technology work for us, and not against us,” particularly to meet the “urgent challenges” of our days.

The challenges the president wishes to meet by means of technological development are climate change and cancer. Let’s consider cancer first. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical: this is not the first presidential war against cancer, President Nixon tried that once and, alas cancer still has the upper hand. It is ironic that Mr. Obama chose this particular ”moonshot”, because not only are the technical aspects of cancer more uncertain than those of space travel, political support for the project is vastly different and we cannot be sure that even another Democrat in the White House would see this project to fruition. In effect, neither Mr. Obama nor his appointed “mission control”, Vice President Biden, have time in office to see fruits from their efforts on this front.

The second challenge the president wishes to address with technology is problematic beyond technical and economic feasibility (producing renewable energy at competitive prices); curbing carbon emissions has become politically intractable. The president correctly suggested that being leaders in the renewable energy markets of the future makes perfect business sense, even for global warming skeptics. Nevertheless, markets have a political economy, and current energy giants have a material interest in not allowing any changes to the rules that so favor them (including significant federal subsidies). Only when the costs of exploration, extraction, and distribution of fossil fuels rise above those of renewable sources, we can expect policy changes enabling an energy transition to become feasible. When renewables are competitive on a large scale, it is not very likely that their production will be controlled by new industrial players. Such is the political economy of free markets. What’s more, progressives should be wary of standard solutions that would raise the cost of energy (such as a tax on carbon emissions), because low income families are quite sensitive to energy prices; the cost of electricity, gas, and transportation is a far larger proportion of their income than that of their wealthier neighbors.

It’s odd that the president proposes technological solutions to challenges that call for a political solution. Again, in saying this, I’m allowing for the assumption that the technical side is manageable, which is not necessarily a sound assumption to make. The technical and economic complexity of these problems should only compound political hurdles. If I’m skeptical that technological fixes would curb carbon emissions or cure cancer, I am simply vexed by the president’s answer to the question on economic opportunity and security: expand the safety net. It is not that it wouldn’t work; it worked wonders creating prosperity and enlarging the middle-class in the post-World War II period. The problem is that enacting welfare state policies promises to be a hard political battle that, even if won, could result in pyrrhic victories. The greatest achievement of Mr. Obama expanding the safety net was, of course, the Affordable Care Act. But his policy success came at a very high cost: a majority of the voters have questions about the legitimacy of that policy. Even its eponymous name, Obamacare, was coined as a term of derision. It is bizarre that opposition to this reform is often found amidst people who benefit from it. We can blame the systematic campaign against it in every electoral contest, the legal subterfuges brought up to dismantle it (that ACA survived severely bruised), and the AM radio vitriol, but even controlling for the dirty war on healthcare reform, passing such as monumental legislation strictly across party lines has made it the lighting rod of distrust in government.

Progressives are free to try to increase economic opportunity following the welfare state textbook. They will meet the same opposition that Mr. Obama encountered. However, where progressives and conservatives could agree is about increasing opportunities for entrepreneurs, and nothing gives an edge to free enterprise more than innovation. Market competition is the selection mechanism by which an elite of enterprises rises from a legion created any given year; this elite, equipped with a new productive platform, can arm-wrestle markets from the old guard of incumbents. This is not the only way innovation takes place: monopolies and cartels can produce innovation, but with different outcomes. In competitive markets, innovation is the instrument of product differentiation; therefore, it improves quality and cuts consumer prices. In monopolistic markets, innovation also takes place, but generally as a monopolist’s effort to raise barriers to entry and secure high profits. Innovation can take place preserving social protections to the employees of the new industries, or it can undermine job security of its labor force (a concern with the sharing economy). These different modes of innovation are a function of the institutions that govern innovation, including industrial organization, labor and consumer protections.

What the President did not mention is that question two can answer question one: technological development can improve economic opportunity and security, and that is likely to be more politically feasible than addressing the challenges of climate change and cancer. Shaping the institutions that govern innovative activity to favor modes of innovation that benefit a broad base of society is an achievable goal, and could indeed be a standard by which his and future administrations are measured. This is so because these are not the province of the welfare state. They are policy domains that have historically enjoyed bipartisan consensus (such as federal R&D funding, private R&D tax credits) or low contestation (support for small business, tech transfer, loan guarantees).

As Mr. Obama himself suggested, technology can be indeed be made to work for us, all of us.