Growth on the cutting edge is all about the creation of new ideas. So, we want institutions that incentivize such creation. How do we do this? The answer is

Growth on the cutting edge is all about the creation of new ideas.

So, we want institutions that incentivize such creation. How do we do this? The answer is somewhat tricky.

The first goal for good ideas is for them to spread as freely as possible. The further the reach, the greater the gains. The problem is, if just anyone can use ideas, then why would we ever pay for them? And without the right incentives, why would innovators create new ideas at all?

Imagine yourself as the creator of a new drug. Typically, it costs about a billion dollars to do this, not counting the time and effort needed, to get the drug FDA-approved.

Now, if there were no protections in place, then theoretically, once the formula’s known, everyone could just copy the make-up of your new drug. See, the thing about pharmaceuticals is, once the formula’s known, production is relatively cheap. Given that, let’s assume imitations start flooding the market.

Predictably, the price of your new drug will plummet.

Once prices hit rock-bottom, you’ll have no way to recoup the $1 billion you spent on R&D.

Given that kind of result, we reckon you probably won’t want to develop more good ideas.

The US founding fathers anticipated this problem. Knowing that innovators needed incentives to have good ideas, the founders wrote a protection mechanism into the Constitution.

They gave Congress the ability to grant exclusive rights to inventors—rights to use and sell their inventions, for a limited period of time. This exclusive right, is what we call a patent. Patents grant inventors a temporary monopoly over the use and sale of their intellectual property.

Now, as nice as this is, patents are a thorny subject.

For one, how long should patents last? Also, how much innovation is considered enough to merit a patent grant? Not to mention, are patents the only way to reward good ideas?

The answer is no.

There are two more incentive options here: prizes, and subsidies.

Let’s start with subsidies. University and research subsidies are particularly effective in the basic sciences. Since innovations in this space are rather abstract, subsidies incentivize research without requiring the applications of the research to be explicitly named. The problem is, when we’re incentivizing just research, then researchers might pick directions that are interesting, but not particularly useful.

This is why the third incentive option—prizes—exists.

Prizes reward the output of solving a certain problem. Another plus, is that prizes leave solutions unspecified. They provide a problem to work on, but give quite a lot of leeway as to how the problem is solved.

Now, knowing the complexity inherent in patents, you might think that prizes and subsidies are good enough alternatives. But none of these incentives for ideas, are inherently better than any of the others. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all involve their own tradeoffs and questions.

For example, who decides what gets subsidized? Who decides which goals merit a prize?

It’s hard to determine what mix of institutions, will best incentivize the production of good ideas. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all navigate these conflicting goals, in their own way.

And yes, all this talk of incentives and conflicting goals and tradeoffs might be like walking a tightrope. But, it’s a tightrope we can’t opt out of. Certainly not if we want the economy to keep growing.

In our next release, you’ll watch a TED talk from a certain economist that elaborates further on ideas. And then, we’ll wrap up this course segment with the Idea Equation. Stay tuned!

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