Tag Archives: innovation

CEI Podcast for March 22, 2012: Human Achievement Hour


Have a listen here.

From 8:30 to 9:30 pm on Saturday, March 31, buildings in major cities around the world will go dark in observance of Earth Hour. The point is to show that modernity and the environment are incompatible. At the same time as Earth Hour, millions of people will leave their lights on to celebrate Human Achievement Hour. Michelle Minton, CEI’s Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies and also the founder of Human Achievement Hour, explains.

Siri and Modernity’s Iron Laws

I’m fond of saying that the two iron laws of modernity are 1) things are getting better, and 2) people think they’re getting worse.

One more piece of evidence that these laws hold: this article complaining about Siri. Siri is a voice-activated program that comes with new iPhones. Users can ask their phone where, say, the nearest Thai restaurant is. Just say it out loud. No typing. In seconds, Siri gives out a dozen options, with maps, directions, and even menus.

It’s an amazing piece of technology, and it will only improve in the coming years. And this guy grouses that Siri “won’t tell me how much battery life is left, or turn my Wi-Fi antenna on or off.” What an astonishing mindset. It is disheartening that when faced with such cool innovations, people invariably find ways to complain about them.

On the other hand, if consumers weren’t such harsh sovereigns, many of today’s innovations might never happen in the first place. Modernity’s second iron law — people think things are getting worse — is a double-edged sword.

Bourgeois Dignity

Deirdre McCloskey thinks that a shift in rhetoric and public opinion is what made possible what she calls the Great Fact – the tenfold rise in global per-capita GDP from $3 per day in 1800 to around $30 today, and growing. The average person in rich countries make over $100 per day, more than a 30-fold increase. Remember, even the mighty U.S. was once a $3 a day nation. We had to start somewhere.

Sometime around the Enlightenment, public opinion shifted from hostility to entrepreneurship and innovation to at least a grudging acceptance. We liberals need to take great care to keep public opinion tolerant, or else the Great Fact could become a relic of history. Traders can only trade, and inventors can only invent, when people let them. Unfortunately,  the clerisy (McCloskey’s word for the intellectual class that drives long-run public opinion) is strongly anti-commerce, as she points out:

Such antibourgeois people (many of them my good friends) do not believe the bourgeois axiom that a deal between two adults has a strong presumption in its favor, practically and ethically and aesthetically. They deny hotly that allowing such deals and honoring their makers has resulted in the modern enrichment of the poor. They think instead quite against the historical evidence, that governments or trade unions did it.

Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, p. 397-98.

The liberal’s job, then, is to legitimize the entrepreneur and the innovator, morally, ethically, and aesthetically, as well as economically. That wonderful project we call modernity hinges on it.

CEI Podcast for March 28, 2011: Human Achievement Hour

Have a listen here.

Human Achievement Hour founder Michelle Minton talks about the annual celebration of human creativity and innovation that happens at the same time every year as Earth Hour. Ecology and economy are quite compatible. One definition of progress, after all, is doing more with less. When people are left free to achieve and innovate, that is exactly what happens, to the environment’s benefit — and mankind’s.

Making Broadband Accessible: Innovation, Not Intervention

FCC regulators want to provide wider and cheaper broadband access by subsidizing it, raising taxes, and forcing network owners to share their network infrastructure with competitors.

A few things the FCC should consider:

-Subsidies don’t make broadband access any less expensive. They just change who pays for it. In this case, that would be anybody with a phone. Which probably includes you. The great economist Ludwig von Mises observed that “A government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen’s eggs.”*

-The tax would make owning a phone more expensive. And when something becomes more expensive, people consume less of it. With tax-exempt technologies like Skype and Google Voice now available, people can switch away from a taxed phone to something cheaper more easily than ever. The more people who do that, the less revenue the phone tax would generate, defeating its very purpose.

-If a company has to share its network infrastructure with its competitors, it loses the incentive to maintain and improve that network. Why invest millions of dollars if it will help your competition just as much as yourself? Quality suffers. So does innovation. In the long run, it is innovation, not FCC intervention, that will make broadband affordable and accessible for everyone. The long-run view is just as important as the short-run view here.

-Land-based networks are expensive to build in rural areas. The cost per customer is huge compared to denser urban areas. Fortunately, that isn’t as much of a problem for wireless technologies. The FCC seems hellbent on the land-based networks since wireless networks aren’t yet advanced enough for mass-market broadband service. But they will be soon enough. And every dollar spent on old-fashioned wired networks is a dollar unavailable for improving wireless service. An unintended consequence of FCC intervention would be slower innovation.

*Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, 4th ed., (Irvington-on-Hudson New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996 [1949], p. 397.