Policy by “Sunday Drivers”

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I understand that experts are not the only ones who have the right to comment on complex policy issues. And that experts are sometimes wrong and often ideological in their views. But at least with experts, they have spent time studying the evidence before offering their advice to policymakers. Alas, the same cannot be said of some Sunday newspaper columnists. Case in point, pieces by op-ed writers in the Post and the Times.

The first comes from Tom Friedman who makes the claim in “No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy” that “Nothing would do more to clean our air, drive clean-tech innovation, weaken petro-dictators and reduce the deficit than a carbon tax.” Really? As ITIF has shown, many European nations have a defacto carbon tax in excess of $400 a ton (ala their massive gas taxes) – a carbon tax 20 times higher than anything that is remotely politically possible in the United States and they have even fewer electric cars than we do. Carbon taxes don’t drive the kind of breakthrough zero carbon innovations the world so desperately needs; they lead businesses to tweak existing technologies (in Europe cars are smaller and more are diesel powered). Tweaking won’t save the climate. Friedman makes another mistake. He claims that because the natural gas revolution lowered prices so much that this squashed the R&D into true clean technologies. First, as ITIF has shown in its energy innovation tracker, the federal government plays a critical role in supporting clean energy R&D (just as they played the key role in enabling the technology behind the current natural gas revolution). Support for that R&D has nothing to do with the price of oil or gas. Second, if Friedman wants to argue that fracking and cheap natural gas makes a R&D clean energy strategy harder, he should acknowledge that it makes a pricing strategy even harder. The effectiveness of a carbon price (limited at best) is even less when fossil fuel prices are low. I know that columnists are under enormous pressure to crank out the weekly op-ed, but more time to review relevant scholarly research would be a useful thing.

The second “Sunday driver” piece is from the Post’s Ezra Klein. In a piece called “Derek Khanna wants you to be able to unlock your cellphone,” Klein tells a story about how Khanna, a young staffer for the Republican Study Committee (until he was fired recently), posted a memo that represented a dramatic departure from copyright policy of the RSC. But from Ezra’s conspiratorial telling, a 25-year-old staffer was able to affect a complete sea change in Republican policy with one insightful and persuasive memo (the tech equivalent of Kennan’s long memo??). But heavy pressure from the content industry forced the RSC to relent. A much more likely story than this tale is that an enthusiastic Khanna got ahead of himself and once it was out elder and wiser voices realized that this in fact did not represent Republican policy, they took it down.

But leaving the intrigue aside, Klein does what Friedman does – advocates for a serious policy change without having appearing to have review the evidence or scholarly studies. To be sure, copyright policy is complicated and there are scholars on both sides of the issue (strong vs. weak copyright), but for Klein to categorically say, “Excessively tough copyright law is good for big businesses with large legal departments but bad for new businesses that can’t afford a lawyer” has no real analytic basis.

What about all the start-up companies relying on copyright protection for their innovations? Are they hurt by strong copyright? What about me? My new book Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage is under copyright. If it wasn’t, no one would buy it since they could get it for free online. Not that it’s a top seller on Amazon to be sure, but people do buy copies.

At minimum, if Klein is going to use his pulpit to influence public policy, he should at least acknowledge that the current copyright system has some benefits for average Americans, particularly by incenting the creation of great content and providing exports to the rest of the world. As my Columbia colleague Eli Noam once explained about why French movies are mostly just filming people talking (as opposed to U.S. movies which have Tom Cruise hanging off of the tallest building in the world), the French movie market is so small that they can’t afford to make really great special effects movies that cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. Weak copyright would transform the U.S. movie industry into one looking more like the French – no more global location sets; no more world-class, cutting edge movie innovations (like we see in movies like Avatar); no more cool action sequences. Just movies of actors talking. But at least we’d all get to watch movies without paying.

So I know it’s too much to ask that bloggers, journalists and other Sunday driver pundits spend more time doing research before calling on policymakers to make major decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But at least they could put a disclaimer on their work saying that it’s just their opinion.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • Marko

    Robert,

    Sorry, but you’re as much a Sunday driver with this post as Tom and Ezra might be.

    Let me quote:

    “many European nations have a defacto carbon tax in excess of $400 a ton
    (ala their massive gas taxes) – a carbon tax 20 times higher than
    anything that is remotely politically possible in the United States and
    they have even fewer electric cars than we do”

    Excuse me? Since when is the number of electric cars an indication of success for carbon taxes? You should rather look at average car emissions in Europe, due to (a) smaller cars, (b) better fuel efficiency, (c) less miles driven. And this has been impacted by policies over decades, not by one single policy.

    “But at least they could put a disclaimer on their work saying that it’s just their opinion.”

    Since when are Tom’s and Ezra’s (on Wonkblog) not their personal opinions? The first is written as an OP-ED and the second as a blog post.

    M.