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September 16, 2008

Invent, Baby, Invent

Tom Friedman says we ought to be chanting "Invent, Baby, Invent" rather than "Drill, Baby, Drill". Forget that this is a false dichotomy (or read this post), invention IS a good idea. I've spent most of my career inventing both technology and business models - successfully and unsuccessfully, have a handful of patents, better stuff I was too dumb to patent, and an interesting career and comfortable life to show for it so am all in favor of innovation. Unfortunately neither cheerleading nor government subsidies are very effective in stimulating invention.

Inventor invent because they can't help it – just like writers write even when no publishers'll publish. What matters to society is how many good inventions actually can be deployed. The deployment rate of invention has a lot to do with capital (and a lot to do with marketing – I've been lucky to have Mary to promote my inventions). Government capital, however, is usually harmful to the innovation process (some exceptions below). Let's take a look at energy which is what Tom Friedman is talking about.

Corny ethanol is the greatest achievement of the latest round of government-stoked energy innovation; it's a bipartisan boondoggle made inevitable by the position of Iowa in the primary calendar. It has succeeded in adding a great deal of ethanol to our fuel mix. It's dubious whether it's led to a significant reduction in either oil imports or CO2 emissions since so much energy is required to grow, transport, and process the corn and much of that energy comes from oil. It certainly has added to commodity inflation (I have no idea how much). The subsidies paid to ethanol producers tilt the scales AGAINST other less-favored forms of energy innovation. Private capital likes to bid with and not against government capital so bad choices made by government are followed and then encouraged by private capitalists who benefit from them. VCs who bet on corny ethanol and were rewarded with subsidies like to picture themselves as green – it's only become recently clear that this particular shade of green is the color of money.

The next round of private investment in solar and wind generating capacity is waiting breathlessly to see when and whether Congress gets around to passing some subsides and what those subsidies are for. If there weren't a prospect of subsidies, more of that private investment would have already been deployed. Moreover, without subsidies the capital gets deployed better because the return is determined by base economics and good execution, not whose lobbyists do the best job writing the rules for subsidy. Let's do a thought experiment: do you think Congress is hesitating on the next round of alternative energy subsidies because our representatives are diligently trying to understand the science and economics involved?  I didn't think so.

BTW, it's not that private investors are prescient or infallible. Most private investment in innovation is in dead ends. But, when the government isn't tipping the scales, private investment fans out across the landscape and the good stuff inevitably gets funded along with a lot of what turns out to be junk. Government as an investor concentrates on what'll pay the highest political dividend and, even worse, drags the private investment in the same direction and discourages diversity of investment.

Let's talk about cars. Both major Presidential candidates are in favor of $25 billion of subsidized loans to American car manufacturers; have you noticed that Michigan is a critical swing state? Is innovation, especially radical innovation likely to come from the major manufacturers? Of course not. Are innovators who aren't major manufacturers going to be able to raise the capital they need to bring their innovations to market; very difficult seeing that their competitors are getting these big gobs of taxpayer subsidy. The result of these loan guarantees will be to decrease the likelihood that America will turn the energy "crisis" to the energy "opportunity".

There is a role for government capital in enabling infrastructure – the power grid which creates a way for even yet-uninvented energy sources to distribute is, perhaps a good example. Keeping taxes low doesn't make inventers invent – they'll do that anyway – but it does help convince the investors the inventers need to invest. Taxing capital out of the private market and having government "invest" it is pretty much the worst way to encourage innovation.

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