In his State of the Union address in January, the president proposed that the government should create 15 new “innovation institutes,” modeled on a public-private partnership that he helped start in Youngstown, Ohio, that is devoted to developing 3-D printers. There was more in this vein in his administration’s 2014 budget, offered in April. And in a speech on July 30 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Obama suggested extending the number of innovation institutes to 45, or almost one for every state. The institutes, he said, would be “getting businesses, universities, communities all to work together to develop centers of high-tech industries all throughout the United States.”
Will such measures work? Should the government really be trying to start a 3-D printer center? And why in Youngstown? It is easy to be skeptical of such a plan, especially when it was started in a swing state just before the presidential election. Web sites of the two senators and two representatives introducing bills this month supporting the president’s latest proposals are suggesting, in not-too-subtle terms, that the legislation would bring jobs to their own states.
Successful companies aren’t usually started this way. Professor Phelps, citing a McKinsey study, suggests that in free-market capitalism, “from 10,000 business ideas, 1,000 firms are founded, 100 receive venture capital, 20 go on to raise capital in an initial public offering, and two become market leaders.” It is easy to doubt, as Professor Phelps does, that the odds are favorable for a Youngstown 3-D printer center.
How you view the innovation institutes, and the topic of capitalism and culture, may depend on your own experience. Many people have never seen the hatching of a successful business idea. That makes it hard to judge the subtle changes that may be occurring in the nation’s culture and in its potential for innovation.
Is this going to be like picking winners in advance? Is it free competition?