Why Is It So Hard to Distinguish Technology Policy from Technology?

October 11, 2017

Eduardo Porter had an interesting column on how smaller cities are less resilient to economic shocks than larger ones. As a result, they have been losing jobs and people, while larger cities have been gaining them. While the piece makes many interesting points it is misleading in describing this pattern as a natural outcome from technology:

“As technology continues to make inroads into the economy — transforming industries from energy and retail to health care and transportation — it bodes ill for the future of such areas.”

The distribution of the benefits from technology is determined to a very large extent by policies on patent, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property. Bill Gates, the richest person in the world, would probably still be working for a living if not for the copyright and patent monopolies he holds on Windows, Word, and other types of software.

While these monopolies serve a purpose — they provide an incentive to innovate and produce creative work — they are policies, not facts of nature. It is wrong to treat them as being simply given and unchangeable. We have made these forms of protection longer and stronger over the last four decades, which redistributes more money from the bulk of the population to the people in a position to benefit from these forms of protectionism.

We could decide going forward that the benefits from strengthening these protections, insofar as they exist, do not outweigh the costs in terms of greater inequality. We could also look to more modern and efficient mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work. 

In any case, it is simply wrong to imply that it is technology that has benefited large cities at the expense of the rest of the country. It was conscious policy. This basic fact needs to be acknowledged in any serious discussion of the topic.


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