How do we best induce technological innovation? We’ve already run that experiment

Improvement in new and existing technologies’ performance and costs is a function of responses to a mix of market and regulatory signals. Finding empirical measures of differing innovation influences is difficult due to confounding influences. Yet we may be able to look at broader economic trends to discern the relative merit of different approaches.

The most salient example could be the assessment of comparative performances after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Allies conducted a 45-year experiment in which Germany was first split after World War II with largely equivalent cultures and per capita endowments, but one used a largely market-based economy and the other relied on central economic planning. When the two nations reunited in 1990, the eastern centrally-planned portion was significantly behind in both overall well-being and in technological innovations and adoption. West Germany had doubled the economic output of centrally-planned East Germany.

More importantly, West Germany had become one of the most technologically-advanced and environmentally-benign economies while East Germany was still reliant on dirty, obsolete technologies. For example, a coal-to-oil refinery in the former East Germany was still using World War II-era technology. West Germany’s better environmental situation probably arose from the fact that firms and the government were in an adversarial setting in which the firms focused on the most efficient use of resources and were insulated from political interest group pressures. On the other hand, resource allocation decisions in East Germany had to also consider interest group pressures that tended to protect old technologies and industries because these were state-owned enterprises.

The transformation of the West German economy, both technologically and institutionally, was akin to what we will need to meet current GHG reduction goals and beyond. This more clearly than any other example demonstrates how reliance on central planning, as attractive as it appears to achieving specific goals, can be overwhelmed by the complexity of our societies and economies. Despite explicit policies to pursue technological innovations, a market-based system progressed much more rapidly and further.

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2 thoughts on “How do we best induce technological innovation? We’ve already run that experiment

  1. Pingback: Why increasing wealth concentration is bad for the U.S. economy | Economics Outside the Cube

  2. Pingback: Will “optimal location” become the next “least-cost best-fit”? | Economics Outside the Cube

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