Washington — or Its Accountants — Finally Accept the Idea-Based Economy

Washington — or Its Accountants — Finally Accept the Idea-Based Economy

July 31, 2013

Today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) will put in place a set of critical changes in how it measures America’s gross domestic product (GDP). The most important change reclassifies what businesses spend on research and development, which now will be counted as an economic investment rather than an ordinary business expense. By so doing, the country’s official national accounts finally recognize that ideas play the same role in prosperity and income growth as new factories and equipment. More important, the change signals that Washington — or at least its accountants — accept that the country has an idea-based economy.

I was present at the creation of these changes. In the late 1990s, while overseeing the BEA as Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs, I helped them set up the first tests of how to approach R&D as an investment. Then as now, this shift was a no-brainer. Those of us who study what makes economies grow learned as students that innovations drive growth even more than new capital investments. Based on the strict patent protections which the United States has embraced since the time of the Constitution, Americans always have known this intuitively. So for more than 200 years, the world’s most market-based economy has granted temporary monopoly rights to anyone who comes up with a new invention.

Investors clearly believe in the value of patents and the inventions they animate. A new study covering more than eight decades of patents (1926-2010) has found that when a company receives a new patent, its stock market value increases on average by $19.2 million (in 2013 dollars). Even setting aside such blockbuster patents as the core inventions from Apple or Google, the researchers found that the median bump in a firm’s stock market valuation after receiving a patent was $5.9 million.

In fact, intellectual property and, more broadly, intangible assets now virtually dominate American business. Since the mid-1990s, American firms have invested more in new, intangible assets — databases, brands, worker training and competencies, as well as R&D and patents — than they have in new physical assets. That tells us that businesses now expect to earn more from ideas in their various forms than from their plant and equipment.

Here, too, investors agree. In 1984, the “book value” of the 150 largest U.S. corporations — what their physical assets would bring on the open market — was equal to about three-quarters of their stock market value. So, nearly 30 years ago, large American businesses were worth about one-quarter more than the plant, equipment and real estate that generated their profits. By 2005, the book value of America’s 150 largest companies equaled just 35 percent of their stock market value. By that time, about two-thirds of their value came from their intangible assets, because those assets had become the main source of the value and profits which large companies generate.

This shift to intangible assets is not confined to popularly-recognized “idea-based” industries such as information technologies and biotechnology. A 2011 analysis by Kevin Hassett and myself found that by 2009, intellectual property, strictly defined, accounted for at least half of the market value of not only the software, telecom and pharmaceutical sectors, but also such disparate industries as food, beverages and tobacco, media, healthcare, professional services, household and personal products, consumer services, and autos. And when we expand the category to all intangible assets, broadly defined, those idea-based assets accounted for at least 80 percent of the market value of all of the industries just mentioned, plus capital goods, materials, transportation, and consumer durables and apparel. That covers every major industry except retail, real estate, banking, energy, and utilities.

Now that the official accounts for the American economy finally treat the R&D that leads to most patents and innovations as economic investments, we can also better track and compare their value. For instance, we now know that U.S. businesses have spent less on R&D in recent years than they did in the 1990s — and that nevertheless, the United States spends more on R&D than all of Asia and Europe combined.

U.S. companies and individuals hold about 25 percent of the world’s patents, a share close to America’s 22 percent share of worldwide GDP. America’s real advantage in this area, however, probably lies in its outsized willingness to fund the young enterprises that often develop new, patented advances. So, while the United States claims 25 percent of all patents, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that we also account for roughly half of all worldwide venture capital investment.

America’s shift to an idea-based economy inevitably will shape much of our economic future. The information and Internet technologies so integral to creating and managing ideas have spread across every economic sector. Within each industry, those firms most adept at applying those technologies to their operations will, on balance, be the ones most likely to succeed. That has already become gauge for investors to use and watch. More important, a widening gap has opened between the incomes of most Americans and the incomes of the top 20 percent of workers who are already adept at creating and managing ideas or at least operating in workplaces dense with information and Internet technologies. Finding new ways to enable most Americans to prosper in an idea-based economy is now the most pressing economic challenge facing Washington policymakers.

Why Job Gains Are Still So Modest — and It Could Get Much Worse

July 17, 2013

The economic recovery is now four years old — the anniversary comes this month — yet job growth remains a big problem. Since the recession technically ended in June 2009, American businesses have expanded their workforces at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent, creating some 6.1 million new jobs. The good news is that we’re creating new jobs at twice the rate seen in the first four years of the last expansion. Nevertheless, the job gains are much smaller than those seen in the early years of the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s. So, is this ongoing problem simply a feature of the slower economic growth of this cycle, or have American businesses lost some of their storied capacity for generating new jobs? The answer is, some of both — and over the next decade, new technologies could further aggravate the problem.

To get at why this is happening, you have to first take account of the character and basic features of these economic cycles. For example, job creation bounces back more sharply after a deep recession than following a milder downturn. So, we start by comparing the job gains seen over the last four years, following the Great Recession of 2007–2009, with those following the deep downturn of 1981–1982. The gap is very large: The 1.4 percent annual growth in private employment over the last four years is 61 percent less than the 3.6 percent annual job gains seen during the first four years of the 1982–1989 expansion. We see a similar disparity between job creation in the first four of the two most recent expansions that followed more moderate recessions. The 0.7 percent annual rate of job growth over the first four years of the 2002–2007 expansion was 68 percent less than the 2.2 percent annual job gains seen in the first four years of the 1991–2000 expansion. Something has changed.

The most obvious change is that every successive expansion since the 1980s has seen progressively lower rates of economic growth, especially in the early years. U.S. GDP grew by an average of 5 percent per-year in the first four years of the 1980s expansion, followed by 3.4 percent annual gains in the first four years of the 1990s expansion, 3.0 percent growth per-year in the early years of the 2002–2007 expansion, and just 2.3 percent average annual growth over the last four years. As Keynesians have insisted, the slower economy should explain much of the recent slowdown in job gains — although not all of it.

We can calculate roughly how much of the slowdown in job gains can be traced to the slower economy by adjusting the rates of job creation for the rates of overall growth. Those calculations suggest that if the economy had grown as fast over the last four years as it did in the first four years of the 1980s expansion, we could have seen 3.0 percent annual job gains instead of just 1.4 percent average job growth. Since jobs actually grew in the early 1980s by an average of 3.6 percent per-year, as much as 80 percent of the current slowdown in job creation may simply reflect slower economic growth. So, while recent austerity measures — the sequester, increases in payroll and income tax rates, and so on — do not explain all of the slowdown in growth, their apparent impact on jobs is powerful testimony to how misguided those measures have been.

Thinking through job creation in this way, then, tells us that some 20 percent of our current employment problem, and perhaps more, is “structural.”  Put another way, U.S. businesses now respond to economic growth by creating fewer jobs than they used to.

Technological advances, of course, are one of the driving forces at play here. The countless applications of information technologies (IT) across every industry and economic activity have created considerable wealth, but they also displace more jobs than they create. Consider our manufacturing workforce, which contracted nearly 28 percent over the last two decades, falling from 16,480,000 positions in 1992 to 11,951,000 in 2012. All of these job losses can be accounted for by workers with high school diplomas or less, whose number in manufacturing declined by more than 40 percent. The picture is different for workers with the skills to operate in an IT-dense workplace:  Over the same 20 years, manufacturing jobs held by college graduates increased by 2.4 percent and the number with graduate degrees jumped 44 percent.

The latest threat to jobs, according to many technologists, is coming from robotics, the application of information technologies to new forms of kinetic hardware. Today, businesses worldwide employ some 1.4 million industrial robots, mainly in automobile and electronics assembly. Those numbers appear to be rising quickly. For example, FOXCONN, the Taiwan-based giant that assembles 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics — and employs 1.2 million workers around the world — has announced plans to purchase 1 million new robots over the next three years.

A new report from the Atlantic Council  catalogues the growing number of large-scale, public-private R&D programs underway. The U.S. effort is led by DARPA, NASA and firms such as Raytheon and iRobot, with grants from the NSF National Robotics Initiative playing a venture capital role. In Japan, the FANUC Corporation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have taken the lead. In Korea, the Ministry of the Knowledge Economy is working with LG and Samsung. And in Europe, the European Network of Robotic Research is collaborating with companies such as Philips and the ABB Group.

No one can predict the direction or dimensions of robotics a decade from now. Nevertheless, the next generation of the technology will be able to draw on important recent developments, such as the first, open source Robot Operating System as well as advances that allow robots to retrieve and manipulate objects outside the structured environment of an assembly line. In the last year, for example, Willow Garage released a new personal robot that can fold laundry and pour beer, the French firm Robotsoft showcased robots that monitor elderly patients, Italian and Swedish firms offered robotic landscapers, a Japanese company unveiled its new robot teachers, and South Koreans developed robots to assist firefighters and provide basic child care. The first large-scale application of the technology may well involve transportation. Drone technology could force early retirement on thousands of pilots, and future variations of Google’s driverless car could displace tens of thousands of teamsters, cabbies and bus drivers. In any case, our structural problems with job growth are likely to worsen.

The Politics and Economics of Obama’s New Climate Program

July 1, 2013

The Supreme Court’s blockbuster decisions on voting rights and same-sex marriage attracted most of the attention, but President Obama also moved decisively last week, on climate change. The facts that drove the President are scientifically undisputed. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the earth’s atmosphere continue to raise global temperatures; and without serious action, the long-term effects on sea levels and climate could be catastrophic. Yet, climate-change deniers on the far right have a tight hold on a majority of congressional Republicans, who now won’t even acknowledge the threat. With no hope of reaching a reasonable accommodation, the President put forward new regulations that don’t need their approval — and ultimately will be less effective and more costly for average Americans than the alternatives which Congress won’t consider.

For a while now, most climate experts and economists have broadly agreed that the most efficient and effective way to reduce these carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the direct approach: Raise the price of fuels based on the GHG emissions they produce, and so raise the price of all goods and services based on the emissions created to produce them. In principle, this approach could attract bipartisan support. It rests on one of the bedrock tenets of conservatism, the power of prices in free markets, as well as the liberal disposition to create national programs to improve the general welfare. Yes, the most straightforward way to achieve such climate-friendly fuel prices is apply a dreaded tax to all forms of energy based on their carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG emissions. But even that, in more placid political times, could be a basis for attracting broad support, since the revenues from a climate tax could be dedicated to cutting payroll, corporate and other, more economically-distorting taxes.

The truth is that every other serious approach to climate — from a cap-and-trade system to the President’s new regulations — also would raise prices: Directly or indirectly, they make it more expensive to use fuels that emit more than their share of greenhouse gases, relative to other fuels that damage the climate less. Over time, those price differences should gradually move millions of businesses and tens of millions of households to favor the cheaper, more climate-friendly fuels and technologies, and the goods and services produced using them.p-ajd

The sobering news is, we don’t have much time. Scientists warn that however broadly we might adopt the current generation of cleaner fuels and technologies, the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other GHG will soon reach levels that will produce serious climate changes. However, the economics of setting a clear and hefty price on carbon and other GHG would also create new incentives that could extend the frontiers of climate technology. If energy companies, scientists and entrepreneurs can be certain about the price of carbon and other greenhouse gases, looking forward — if they know how much more it will cost people to use climate-damaging fuels, compared to climate-friendly ones — that would create strong incentives to develop and adopt the next generation of climate-friendly fuels and technologies.

The question is, how efficient and effective are each of these approaches, and which is most likely to spur new advances? The question highlights the costs of the extreme right’s current hold on congressional Republicans, which drives the political stalemate on climate policy and has left President Obama with few options apart from executive regulation. His new regulatory agenda has three parts. It includes, first, higher energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, aimed at reducing energy use whether clean or otherwise. There also are new loan guarantees for projects to reduce or isolate the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels, and additional grants to develop more efficient biofuels. These guarantees and grants are designed to promote greater use of more climate-friendly technologies and fuels by reducing the cost of capital to develop them. While these measures provide a sense of the administration moving on many fronts, their combined impact on the climate crisis will be modest.

There is one measure that could matter a great deal more: The President has directed the EPA to develop new CO2 and other GHG emission standards for existing power plants. This follows EPA regulations proposed last year that set similar standards for new power plants. The logic is straight-forward: Set standards that will force utilities to rapidly shift from coal to natural gas and renewable fuels. This makes sense, since the use of cheap coal to generate electricity accounts for about half of worldwide carbon and other GHG. Shifting to natural gas worldwide would cut life-cycle GHG emissions by 20 percent, and shifting to renewable fuels would reduce those emissions by as much as 40 percent.

There is no doubt that sufficient regulation could move the United States to a path under which our GHG emissions would decline in a sustained way. But using regulation in this way will cost Americans a great deal more than a carbon tax with the same result.

Under the new regulation, existing power plants will have to develop and adopt new investments that meet a new, uniform standard by reducing their emissions from fossil fuels or converting their plants to use cleaner fuels. To begin, monitoring and enforcing such regulation will cost a lot more than collecting a tax. More important, the program suffers from the inefficiencies of most regulation, because some utilities will be able to meet the regulation much more cheaply than others, based on the state of their current plants. For example, plant A could reduce its emissions by a required unit by investing $1,000,000, while plant B could reduce its emissions by the same unit for $250,000, and by two units for $500,000. So, reducing emissions by two units under the regulation will cost $1,250,000, while plant B could achieve the same result for the climate under a tax or a cap-and-trade system for $500,000. Under all of these alternatives, most of the costs are passed along to the ratepayers and consumers. But a tax with offsetting tax reductions could return much of those costs to everyone. Based on a simulation from several years ago, those costs could average some $1,500 per-household, year after year.

Finally, while the new regulations should spur technological innovations to enable utilities to meet the standard more efficiently, the incentive to innovate will dissipate once the standard is met. By contrast, the economic incentives to develop and adopt cleaner fuels and technologies never go away under an emissions tax, since every incremental advance would reduce the tax and, with it, the price of energy.

This past weekend, President Obama also devoted his weekly address to his new climate program. He deserves credit for refusing to be cowed by his opponents’ intransigence. He could truly elevate his presidency, however, by taking the case for a carbon/GHG tax with offsetting tax cuts to the country, and beating his opponents on one of the most fateful challenges we face today.