September 12, 2018

The Economist on Innovation Arbitrage

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow

In recent essays and papers, I have discussed the growth of “innovation arbitrage,” which I defined as, “The movement of ideas, innovations, or operations to those jurisdictions that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” A new Economist article about “Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley,” discusses innovation arbitrage without calling it such. The article notes that, for a variety of reasons, Valley innovators and investors are looking elsewhere to set up shop or put money into new ventures. The article continues:

"Other cities are rising in relative importance as a result. The Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit group that tracks entrepreneurship, now ranks the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area first for startup activity in America, based on the density of startups and new entrepreneurs. Mr Thiel is moving to Los Angeles, which has a vibrant tech scene. Phoenix and Pittsburgh have become hubs for autonomous vehicles; New York for media startups; London for fintech; Shenzhen for hardware. None of these places can match the Valley on its own; between them, they point to a world in which innovation is more distributed.

"If great ideas can bubble up in more places, that has to be welcome. There are some reasons to think the playing-field for innovation is indeed being levelled up. Capital is becoming more widely available to bright sparks everywhere: tech investors increasingly trawl the world, not just California, for hot ideas. There is less reason than ever for a single region to be the epicentre of technology. Thanks to the tools that the Valley’s own firms have produced, from smartphones to video calls to messaging apps, teams can work effectively from different offices and places."

That’s the power of innovation arbitrage at work. Alas, the Economist article ends on a sour note, arguing that “innovation everywhere is becoming harder” because tech firms are becoming too big and anti-immigrant policies (especially in the US) are turning away some of the best and brightest minds. The latter is a real problem and one that is of the Trump Administration’s own making. By turning away the next generation of exciting innovators and limiting exciting start-up opportunities, America is shooting itself in the foot by undermining competitiveness and our competitive advantage among nations more generally. Which speaks to the first point made in the Economist article: If we want more competition to the big dogs, we need a lot more puppies. We’re not going to get them with backwards immigration policies. But nor will we get them by hobbling the biggest tech innovators. We shouldn’t be punishing success; we should be praising it.

We should recall Joseph Schumpeter’s essential insights in this regard. First, never underestimate how, in his words, “an untried technological possibility” can usher in one wave of “creative destruction” after another. Many critics talk about today’s “tech titans” (like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) as if they have always stalked the land. In reality, if you jump back in time just 15 years, it was Microsoft, MySpace, AOL Time Warner, Blackberry, and Motorola which allegedly possessed unassailable market power. And then creative destruction rolled into town. It happened before and it can happen again.

"Schumpeter’s second insight was even more crucial and closely linked to his first. As I described it in a previous essay:[Schumpeter] explained that uneven entrepreneurial gains — even supranormal short-term profits — must be tolerated if innovation is to occur. Innovators will only take risks if they can expect the potential for big gains from it. Attempts to curtail those potential benefits through hasty regulatory interventions or antitrust threats will sap the entrepreneurial spirit from the marketplace, limit technological innovation, and diminish the possibility of greater market dynamism and consumer choice over the long-haul.

'“In this respect,” Schumpeter concluded, “perfect competition is not only impossible but inferior,” precisely because it would sabotage “the most powerful engine of that progress … those entrepreneurial profits which are the prizes offered by capitalist society to the successful innovator.”'

Thus, if you want still more disruptive innovation and creative destruction, you absolutely cannot sabotage entrepreneurs by eliminating the quest for the prize of profitability. Innovators need to know that when they take big risks, big rewards are possible. If they see innovative acts punished, they will look elsewhere. Indeed, that’s one reason that innovation arbitrage happens with increasing regularity today.

That doesn’t mean we throw out antitrust law entirely. There can still be circumstances where market power is abused and needs to be addressed, but simply making big profits does not automatically qualify as an abuse of consumer welfare.