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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Innovation, Scaling, and the Industrial Commons

Rajiv Sethi:

Innovation, Scaling, and the Industrial Commons, by Rajiv Sethi: ..Yves Smith ... directed her readers to an article by Andy Grove calling for drastic changes in American policy towards innovation, scaling, and job creation in manufacturing. The piece is long, detailed and worth reading in full, but the central point is this: an economy that innovates prolifically but consistently exports its jobs to lower cost overseas locations will eventually lose not only its capacity for mass production, but eventually also its capacity for innovation:

Bay Area unemployment is even higher than the... national average. Clearly, the great Silicon Valley innovation machine hasn’t been creating many jobs of late -- unless you are counting Asia, where American technology companies have been adding jobs like mad for years.

The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs... Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.

The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs...

How could the U.S. have forgotten [that scaling was crucial to its economic future]? I believe the answer has to do with a general undervaluing of manufacturing -- the idea that as long as “knowledge work” stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs... I disagree. Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution... our pursuit of our individual businesses, which often involves transferring manufacturing and a great deal of engineering out of the country, has hindered our ability to bring innovations to scale at home. Without scaling, we don’t just lose jobs -- we lose our hold on new technologies. Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.

Grove recognizes, of course, that companies will not unilaterally change course unless they face a different set of incentives, and that this will require a vigorous industrial policy:

The first task is to rebuild our industrial commons. We should develop a system of financial incentives: Levy an extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars -- fight to win.) Keep that money separate. Deposit it in the coffers of what we might call the Scaling Bank of the U.S. and make these sums available to companies that will scale their American operations. Such a system would be a daily reminder that while pursuing our company goals, all of us in business have a responsibility to maintain the industrial base on which we depend and the society whose adaptability -- and stability -- we may have taken for granted... Unemployment is corrosive. If what I’m suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it... If we want to remain a leading economy, we change on our own, or change will continue to be forced upon us.

Neither Grove's diagnosis nor his proposed solutions will persuade those who are convinced that protectionism of any kind is folly. I am not entirely convinced myself, and suspect that he may be underestimating the likelihood (and consequences) of cascading retaliatory actions and a collapse in international trade. But the argument must be taken seriously, and anyone opposed to his proposals really ought to come up with some alternatives of their own.

Update (7/4). In an email (posted with permission) Yves adds:

On the one hand, you are right, any move towards protectionism (or even permitted-within-WTO pushback against mercantilist trade partners) could very quickly get ugly. But the flip side is I wonder if we have a level of global integration that is inherently unstable (both for Rodrik trilemma reasons, international economic integration with insufficient government oversight creates political problems, plus the Reinhart/Rogoff finding that high levels of international capital flows are associated with financial crises). If so, we may have a short run (messiness of reconfiguration) v. long term (costs of really big financial crises) tradeoff.

This is a good point. The purpose of my post was to highlight Grove's analysis of the symbiotic relationship between innovation and scaling (which I think is both interesting and valid), and to challenge those who are opposed to his reform proposals to explain how they would deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. Passive tolerance of mass unemployment, widening income inequality, and withering innovative capacity is not an option.


Update (7/4). Tyler Cowen is predictably dismissive of Grove's article, but (less predictably) seems not to have read it very closely. What Grove means by scaling is the process by means of which "technology goes from prototype to mass production" as companies "work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands." This is not about increasing returns to scale as economists normally use the term (declining average costs as a function of output). So Tyler's claim that "at best, given the logic of [Grove's] argument, this would imply a tax only on the increasing returns industries" is not correct. And I cannot imagine what he means when he says that the "big exporting success these days is Germany, which has less "scale" than does the United States." Less scale in what sense? Population or per-capita income differences between the two countries are entirely irrelevant here. Is he trying to say that Germany engages in less scaling (and hence more offshoring) than does the United States? This would be relevant, but is empirically dubious.

Like Tyler, I am not convinced that Grove's policy proposals are wise. But his analysis of the relationship between innovation and scaling and the need for a policy response really does deserve to be read with more care.

I am not convinced either, but the problem of where good jobs will come from in the future is an important concern. If the new jobs that are created are not as good, on average, as the jobs being lost, anything could happen.

    Posted by on Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 12:33 AM in Economics, International Trade, Technology, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (100)


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