Unintended consequences of knowledge management regimes

There are several consequences of the differences between the US (and the west) and China (and other autocracies). First, with one of the major assumptions of neoclassical economics out the window, it calls into question basing economic policy on neoclassical economics. Second, with a monopoly structure for intellectual property several different economic incentives have been created. Finally, the differences in IP management between the countries creates tensions at several different levels. I’ll discuss each of these points in more detail.

First, if one of the major assumptions for economic policy includes non-rival, non-exclusive knowledge, it’s difficult to understand why there isn’t more competition in many markets. However, as we know it’s not really possible for any firm to pick up any sort of technology and start to produce a given product. Because of this difficulty regions and areas tend to become experts at specific types of technologies. However, even in the case of China the freedom of access to IP makes it easier for firms to produce specific products. The problem still lies in the fact that you still need tacit knowledge to actually make the product. A patent is supposed to give you the information you need to produce the technology. However, the actual patents are difficult to read and not likely to be possible

Second, with a monopoly structure in place for intellectual property it gives very different incentives for owners of intellectual property. First, for people who actually produce a product, attacking products that are similar for infringement can be a very lucrative proposition. It prevents other companies from becoming competition. Apple is currently using this tactic to go after Android through Samsung and HTC. With a full monopoly technological progress can actually come to a standstill. An example of this is with Xerox copiers. With the monopoly in place Xerox did not innovate and kept prices extremely high. As soon as their patent ran out the competition came in and almost took all of the market share from Xerox. They introduced lower priced products and a wider more personal product range. Without the monopoly in place other companies could try to move into the market space earlier and drive innovation from the beginning of the market.  Finally, with reduced ownership of IP there will be less patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures.

Third, the IP management is causing issues between firms and the Chinese government. The firms do not want to give up their IP because it’s how they are able to make their money. Some of these technologies are so easy to copy it’s impossible to make a profit without protection. In theory pharmaceuticals should be perfectly copyable based on the chemical properties of the drug. If the pharmaceutical companies didn’t have a chance to recoup the investment on a drug (500 million – 1 billion per drug) there would be no innovation. The differences present problems for trade and agreements between countries. The US and China have had serious disagreements over how IP should be managed.

Basically, the differences in how IP is understood impacts a countries policies economically and in trade. It is important to understand exactly what’s going on with these issues. Our governments are pushing for different levels of control over IP both in patents and other forms of copyright. As some one interested in policy, it’s important to understand what types of policies we should be pushing for. I don’t think there’s any true right answer for the IP problem. In different situations policies should be adjusted. We cannot have a stagnant IP regime when technologies are evolving as fast as they are.

Are democracies or autocracies better with technology Management?

According to neoclassical economics knowledge is a non-rival (I can use it without preventing you from using it) and non-exclusive (available to everyone) resource. This has two impacts on their economic theory. First, the actual impact of research and development is excluded from economic growth and is ignored. Second, that any company should be able to pick up and produce any technology. Both of these points are relatively ridiculous. For two reasons. First, we know that research leads to the formation of new companies. Second we know that most companies cannot produce any product and many companies that produce products outside their expertise fail at it.

From a neoclassical perspective democracies are terrible at sharing knowledge and technologies. Democracies have a slew of laws that regulate access to technology form monopolies for specific technologies if they have something called a patent. Additionally, there are other contracts that can get in the way of sharing of knowledge in a way that is neoclassical. Non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses. If you aren’t allowed to discuss a specific technology with other people, it prevents knowledge from spreading and being shared to other companies. If you aren’t allowed to compete within the same industry after you leave a company, it prevents you from using that knowledge in a positive way at another firm.

These laws have been put into place in our democracies to ensure proper protection of technologies for firms. It’s designed to prevent the spreading of tacit knowledge from company A to company B. As a company this is incredibly desirable. Without these protections some research would be worthless to conduct. Knowledge spill-overs would cause prices to fall to cost or lower as firms compete for market share. It’s great for consumers, but bad for firms.

So what happens in China? Well according to Make it in America, China requires many firms to hand over their Intellectual Property to the Chinese state. What ends up happening after this is that the Chinese government sells the information or gives the information to one or more Chinese company. These companies tend to be made up of former employees at the company that made the product before. This allows tacit knowledge transfer to the firm and a fast ramp to compete directly with the inventor of the technology. The knowledge is freer in China than it is in the US because of this. This increases competition and may be impacting the cost of goods like solar panels.

In a way this type of behavior forces companies to compete based on the actual costs of the technology. This is what is expected in the neoclassical theory. All prices will eventually drop to the marginal cost of a product with near zero profits for the producing company. In a perverse way, this is a “freer” market than ours because it comes closer to the non-rival non-exclusive knowledge base.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss this topic more.

China, Technology and creativity

Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been hanging out with my Awesome wife! She gave a talk in Ireland, which I went to for most of a week. It was a good time. She then came here to Eindhoven for a week and had an interview. So that’s why I haven’t been updating. Sorry faithful readers.

At a party on Saturday, I got into a fairly active discussion with 4 PhDs and myself. They are all engineering PhDs, so they understand research and how technology works rather well. We got into a discussion on if China was going to actually really over take the US in scientific research. I said I think it’s likely, but there were many arguments against that likelihood. I didn’t really get to finish my argument on why it’s possible. So, I’m going to do that now.

Basically, some of the core arguments against China being able to overtake is us lack of creativity. China is a country of followers, not a country of creative leaders. Another argument was the lack of high quality education and research centers in China. I’ll address the second argument first and then discuss the first argument.

Americans know that we educated a lot of foreigners at our universities, 2008 was an all time high for the number of international students. In fact my roommate at one point explained to me that one of the groups at the University of Texas was comprised entirely of Chinese students. They conduct their meetings and research all in Chinese and, in fact, leave the US speaking worse English than when they arrived. But why are they leaving? The link above notes that there simply aren’t enough H1B Visas or green cards for them all to stay. Effectively we’re throwing out the people we educate. Over time enough good scientists and engineers will be sent back and will start teaching in China. China has big ambitions and has been creating universities as fast as it can. Using an evolutionary perspective, we can see that it’s likely they will continue to create variation and students will be selecting the best universities. One of them is likely to start producing more science and better science than another. This will lead to the best students and best researchers going to that school. One or two could become the Chinese version of MIT, Berkeley or Harvard. I think it’s clear that education won’t hold them back. Eventually, they will have several universities in the top 200 list according to the Times Higher Education ranking.

The second argument is a little tricker to argue against. The Chinese aren’t creative enough to create radical innovations. First, I’m sure that the Chinese I know would object to this blanket statement. However, let’s assume for the moment that’s it’s some what correct. There’s a culture that doesn’t reward creativity and rewards conformity. I can think of two countries that have similar types of culture that have been creative and are excellent centers of research and innovation, Japan and South Korea. Now are they as good as the US at innovation or research, No. However, they have had some great innovations and do great research.

When it comes to patent research there’s something called a Triadic patent. It’s a patent that is filed in the US, Europe and Japan. Europe and Japan have higher standards for patents than the US and are more difficult to acquire. Why does this matter? Well effectively Japan is the only country in Asia that would fit better with the European countries in terms of GDP per capita, protection of IP and research.

Both South Korea and Japan have a few companies that are on the leading edge of their respective fields. Samsung is in a huge number of different areas and is the world leader in many of them. Japan has Nikon, Sony, Toyota and a few other big companies that are on the cutting edge in research, design and innovation. So, I don’t accept the argument that the Chinese couldn’t be creative.

Another point I was trying to make, is that over time as a country becomes the center of manufacturing and incremental innovation on a product, it’s likely that they are going to be able to create the next radical innovation in that field. There are two things that support this. First, in a book by Andrew Liveris, the British CEO of Dow Chemical, there is anecdotal evidence to support bringing manufacturing back to the US along with the R&D that goes with it. The other argument is based on the research of Cesar Hidalgo of MIT that shows through network theory, that to become a leader in technology you have to build your way through a series of other technologies. It helps explain why it’s so hard for countries to pick up creating semiconductors. However, as a country develops the technological capability to work within a type of technology they are likely to create innovation and changes in that technology.

China has effectively been given the ability to manufacture just about everything through outsourcing. They have the technological capabilities to build and design new technologies. China also has the resources devoted to it. They created a five year plan where they are going to invest $1.5 trillion in 7 science sectors. Because of these factors I believe that China is a real threat to US and European leadership in research and technology. For any one to dismiss China because of cultural reasons or technological capabilities is making a mistake and is likely to be surprised in 20 -30 years when China becomes a leader in at least one field, likely more than one.