Archive for July, 2012

Black and White Plant Cells Under Microscope

Carbon Fiber a Government Clean Tech Innovation Success Story

A microscopic look at the surface geometry of developmental carbon fiber. Photo credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ford and Dow Automotive Systems – a division of the Dow Chemical Company – recently announced that their respective engineers and researchers would collaborate to develop and produce products using low-cost carbon fiber, a polymer with a very high strength-to-weight ratio. While much of the interest in new automobile technology is directed at more efficient batteries for electric vehicles, low-cost carbon fiber has major implications for developing a low-carbon transportation sector as well. Using the material could cut the weight of future Ford cars and trucks by as much as 750 pounds while possibly increasing crash protection, making it “the holy grail of weight reduction,” as Autoblog put it. This could prove essential to not only making new gasoline-powered vehicles more fuel efficient, but also for increasing the performance of electric vehicles and other clean technologies. And although Ford and Dow’s agreement might seem like another run-of-the-mill corporate partnership, it is in fact the latest product of many years of strong public investment and vital public-private partnerships.

Carbon fiber composites have … Read the rest

US New Asia Investment GMO Plants

Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated

This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been “genetically modified (GM)” should come with a special GM label.  Proponents of proposition 37, or the “Right to Know” initiative, argue that “in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,” i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?

First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to “nudge” consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to “nudge” people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory … Read the rest

TSA Officers

Road Congestion, TSA Congestion. What’s the Difference?

am flying to SFO this morning really early out of Dulles and as usual even at 6:00 AM there are long lines at the TSA checkpoint. Dulles has at least 15 security lanes but I have never seen them all open. When I asked a TSA staffer why, he said they didn’t have the budget to staff them all. And its likely to get worse as the TSA budget is cut this fiscal year.

The problem is so similar to our roads. We have massive traffic congestion because congress won’t raise the gas tax to build more roads-lanes. And it doesn’t seem that congress will increase highway funding or TSA funding anytime soon. So the answer should be clear; let users who want faster service pay more. On a lot of trips, I’d be happy to pay a small fee when I buy my plane ticket if that could allow me to wait in a shorter line. Others might not want to pay a toll but for the times they are late, they might be happy to pay a few bucks at check-in so they make their flight on time. Similarly, I’d be happy to pay a toll to drive on roads without congestion on the days I am running late. Some will say the new TSA-pre program will help but it will not be enough. It doesn’t add screeners, it only speeds things up a little bit for some people. The TSA toll program may not work at airports like Reagan National where all the screening gates are almost always manned. But at airports like Dulles and others, it will enable the TSA to fully utilize all screening gates and better provide their services. … Read the rest

Lie Detector

Broadband Cherry-Picking

According to Akamai’s State of the Internet reports, America’s average Internet connection speed ranking improved from 22nd place in 2009 to 13th place at the end of 2011, and other sources show that a majority of the world’s LTE users reside in the United States. These trends reflect positively on U. S. Internet policy, but our friends at New America Foundation are not impressed.

Since 2008, the NAF’s Open Technology Institute has published papers arguing that American broadband service is inferior to services in the rest of the world and getting worse. They blame this (counter-factual) state of affairs on our reliance on facilities-based competition (cable vs. DSL and FTTH vs. wireless) instead of mandated wholesale access to our various networks at prices set by regulatory fiat. They also want more facilities-based competition as long as it’s from government-owned or funded networks, using TV White Spaces, FTTH, and various other technologies.

Their position stems in part from a particularly quirky reading of a provision of the 1996 Telecom Act that was meant to create a market for competitive telephone services over the lines owned by the phone companies that … Read the rest

Collage of Biomedical Images

Big Benefits from Big Pharma: Longevity and Real Welfare Growth

The pharmaceutical industry certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of detractors. Many claim that “Big-Pharma” is simply in it for the money, and that they’ll push new drugs simply to boost profits, even if the drugs aren’t appropriate for the consumer.  Others argue that we should eliminate intellectual property protections to get lower price drugs, since there isn’t really that much innovation that has a real impact happening anyway.

However, before throwing the pharmaceutical industry under the bus, it is critical to understand the relationship between pharmaceutical R&D, new drugs and human health impacts.  And in fact, a recent study finds that the related drugs brought to market are having a bigger positive effect than you might think. Frank Lichtentberg, a professor at Columbia University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research,  finds that an increase in drug proliferation year-over-year (drug vintage) leads to increased life expectancy.  From 2000 to 2009, the study finds that life expectancy increased by 1.74 years on average, and 73% of that increase was due to new drugs brought to market after 1990. In other words, pharmaceutical innovation added 1.23 Read the rest

Xin Yu City Center

LDK Solar Debt Repayment a Troubling Escalation of Green Mercantilism

This week, it was reported that struggling Chinese company LDK Solar will have at least part of its debts paid by the city – Xinyu in eastern Jiangxi province – in which it is based. The company is the world’s second largest maker of solar wafers, but has been hit hard by an ongoing solar technology supply glut that is ironically being exacerbated by China. As a result, LDK owed $79.4 million in loan debt to Huarong International Trust Co. at the end of 2011. Yet while Xinyu’s decision to help repay LDK’s loans may be good news for the company, it is very troubling news for opponents of China’s mercantilist policies.

ITIF has taken a close look at China’s mercantilist policies in general and its green mercantilism in particular. The country already “employs nearly all types of mercantilist policies to artificially drive down the price of clean energy technologies,” a previous blog post notes: … Read the rest

Middle Aged Americans Playing Golf

Sun City or Sun Power: Early Retirement is Hurting America

I was struck by an article in yesterday’s New York Times on a plan by General Motors to offer a choice to its retirees of a lump sum payment of monthly payments. Not by the fact that GM is doing this – although I guess I was struck by the fact they still have money to pay retirees. It was by the fact that every single GM retiree the article profiled was age 65 or younger. One person retired in 2009 at the age of 55 (younger unfortunately than I am) and bizarrely is a member of GM’s Retiree Advisory Committee. Another person retired at age 59 now receives GM pension, Social Security, and his 401K payments. Still another person retired at age 60 for the good life in Atlanta. Can anyone say “welcome to Greece.”

In fact, the share of people aged 55 to 59 employed is the same in Greece as it is in the United States (around 2/3). Perhaps this is why one-third of AARP’s members (the group whose sole mission is to transfer societal output to people who don’t work) are under the age 60.

Well … Read the rest

U.S. House Committee in Session

Innovation Needs to Be Part of Carbon Tax Debate

Last week, representatives of an array of think tanks and advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum gathered at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to discuss the feasibility of enacting a national carbon tax. It was the fifth such closed door-meeting. It might surprise people to learn that there is common ground between some conservatives and liberals on the idea of a carbon tax. However, even if a narrow patch of common ground yields a solid policy consensus, innovation must be part of the carbon tax debate.

To be sure, some activists on the Right have been highly critical of the group’s efforts, the participation of free market-oriented groups like AEI and the R Street Institute notwithstanding. In a post to a conservative listserv – in which he also leaks a copy of the meeting agenda – the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell declares, “We must kill this incredibly harmful idea as quickly as possible.”  “A carbon tax is not a conservative, free-market policy,” Nicolas Loris writes at the Heritage Foundation’s blog. And yet a carbon tax has a surprising number of conservative supporters and could boost national energy … Read the rest

Thin film Solar Panel

GE Decision a Telling Indication of the Importance of Innovation

General Electric Company (GE) has announced that it is halting construction of its Aurora, Colorado thin-film solar manufacturing plant for at least 18 months. The $300 million facility was planned to be the country’s largest solar factory. The decision is bad news for the construction workers attached to the project, but it is not necessarily bad news for GE. On the contrary, GE made the right call in signaling that it doesn’t want to jump the gun on an uncompetitive technology and instead wants to go back to invest in more innovation. The company deserves credit for having the foresight to make that hard but prudent decision.

GE’s need for more innovation comes down to two simpler needs: the company’s solar panels need better performance and lower costs. Thin-film solar panels – a promising technology made possible by years of federal government investment and development – are flexible and can thus be applied to a variety of surfaces. By using a cadmium-telluride compound in lieu of traditional silicon, thin-film panels are also cheaper to make than conventional panels. But while cheap panel for panel, thin-film also have lower solar conversion … Read the rest

Advanced Manufacturing Convention in Massachusetts

Voters are Ahead of Washington on Manufacturing

A new poll suggests there might be hope for American manufacturing – if democracy actually works. The poll said 89 percent of Americans think we need a national manufacturing strategy – 89 percent! Two-thirds of respondents said China’s trade policies hurt U.S. employment and 62 two percent said Washington needs to do something about it. Those were some of the results of a bipartisan survey released this week by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. ITIF has championed the need for a national manufacturing strategy for quite a while and spearheaded an effort to bring labor, business and economic thinkers together to adopt a Charter for Revitalizing American Manufacturing. But sometimes it seems hardly anyone in Washington is listening.

Pundits and policymakers across the political spectrum keep arguing that we’re still a manufacturing powerhouse and that we’ve simply become more productive and shifted to higher-end products. Factories are roaring back from the recession. Besides, who cares?  Manufacturing was yesterday’s economy and the services sector is where the action is now, they argue. No need for special treatment for manufacturing. Fortunately, it appears voters are ahead of the elites on this … Read the rest