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Saturday, July 28, 2007

New Growth Theory: should we pay handsomely to make ideas free?

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister, his slogan was "education, education, education". We thought he was merely reflecting our discontent with schools, but now I'm not so sure.

In 1994, Gordon Brown was quoting a new economic theory by - google him up - PAUL ROMER. Here is a 2001 interview in Reason Online with Romer. It turns out this may be to New Labour what Sir Keith Joseph’s espousal of monetarism was to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. “New growth theory” is by Paul Romer, and bears on:
  • education (a key slogan in Tony Blair's election campaign)
  • skills training for workforces (a UK government initiative currently advertised on TV)
  • intellectual property rights (relevant to design and patent theft by foreign manufacturers)
  • free trade/globalisation
It has some intriguing aspects, but could also be a gift to the anti-big-business Left.

A core debate in this theory is the ownership of knowledge. Romer says that price is both an incentive to the producer, and a means of deciding who gets the product (or what product they choose). An example he gives in his interview is the life-saving treatment for children with diarrhea in poor countries:

...the efficient thing for society is to offer really big rewards for some scientist who discovers an oral rehydration therapy. But then as soon as we discover it, we give the idea away for free to everybody throughout the world and explain "Just use this little mixture of basically sugar and salt, put it in water, and feed that to a kid who's got diarrhea because if you give them pure water you'll kill them."

So with ideas, you have this tension: You want high prices to motivate discovery, but you want low prices to achieve efficient widespread use. You can't with a single price achieve both, so if you push things into the market, you try to compromise between those two, and it's often an unhappy compromise.

Ideas can be duplicated easily and cheaply, but they often cost a lot of money to come up with. For example, pharmaceutical firms do hugely expensive R&D - could they recoup the cost of successful solutions, and all the unsuccessful ones, via a prize competition? What happens if they go bust a yard before the finishing line?

What about areas where the humanitarian argument may be weaker? What if some Far Eastern car factory comes up with a tweak on, say, the Wankel engine design and goes into very successful (and low-labour-cost) production, paying nothing to the people who came up with 99% of the ideas? Sir Tim Berners-Lee (may we never forget his name) gave away the Internet, but should all hard-won knowledge be free?

And what exactly are the implications of a "knowledge economy"? Does State-organised education, with its top-down management, encourage the development of the creativity we need? Do we need 50% of our young people to go to college? Should they choose their subjects, or be told what to learn? Should they be given incentives to study in areas that are thought to be important? How far should we be prepared to fund research that has no immediately foreseeable practical application?

Romer is certainly right in saying that a smart workforce is an asset (and a smart management - we could do with some de-Dilbertising), and that there's lots of potential in continuous, incremental improvement. "Lean thinking" may buy us time in the destabilizing conditions of a globalized market - if we use our brains to improve what's in front of us at work every day, we may not go bust quite as fast as the doomsters fear.

But as the economist himself admits, it's a can of worms.

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