Dorgan on the Smart Economy

Former IDA chief executive Seán Dorgan has an interesting article on the Smart Economy in today’s Irish Times, partly rebutting some of the points made in Declan Jordan’s recent piece.  One of the arguments made by Dorgan that I found interesting was the following:

The Technology Foresight reviews were undertaken a decade ago with the realisation that a production model based on low costs and labour surpluses had run its course.

Instead, Ireland had to move to higher value activities and create a new dynamic for growth. The competitive power of knowledge and innovation was identified, for indigenous development and winning international investments.

One of the points I made when last discussing this issue was that the Smart Economy strategy seemed more appropriate for the later days of the Celtic Tiger, when the economy was at full employment after years of attracting FDI.  Dorgan’s article further enforces that impression: With unemployment already at almost 12% and going higher, should we really be talking about moving beyond industrial policy strategies based on the availability of labour surpluses?

Some More Contributions to Innovation Debate

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been surprised at how little real debate there has been about the government’s Smart Economy strategy.  Monday’s Irish Times Innovation supplement had a useful article discussing the economist-free Innovation Task Force that I mentioned last week.

As one might expect, the article contains some enthusiastic comments from some members of the Task Force—industrial policy experts will recognise the idea of the strategy succeeding by “picking winners.” In addition, however, the article also quotes some less enthusiastic economists—me and UCC’s Declan Jordan.  The Times also carried another article from Declan, which together with his earlier article from April, represent important contributions to the debate on these crucial issues.

Innovation Taskforce Appointed

The Irish Times reports that

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has announced the appointment of an innovation taskforce to advise the Government on its strategy for positioning Ireland as an international innovation hub and to assist in making the “smart economy” a reality.

The taskforce to assist in making the Smart Economy a reality doesn’t contain an economist of any sort, smart or otherwise.  This seems to me to be a pity.  Economists tend to think about the effect of policies on the economy in a somewhat different ways to scientists, civil servants and CEOs and could have had a useful influence on such a taskforce.  (Hey, if we’re not for ourselves, who else is going to be?)

In particular, economists tend to think about government interventions in a more systematic way (What’s the market failure that these policies are addressing? Externalities? Natural monopoly?) and to better see the linkages between new initiatives and past industrial policies.  Since there won’t be any economists advising the government on this taskforce, I would encourage participants in this blog to come forward a bit more to discuss these issues here.

One aspect of the current Smart Economy strategy for which, in my opinion, the likely economic impact is being exaggerated is the link from university innovation to start-up firms and jobs.  Policies to encourage university R&D and its commercialisation may change the type of jobs in Ireland but they are unlikely to have much effect on the number of jobs.  Similarly, the statistics on start-ups show that failure rates are very high, so as much it’s nice to talk about starting up a Nokia here in Ireland, the truth is that this process is highly random.

More generally, given the heavy emphasis in recent policy statements on university innovation and spinoffs, it is important be realistic about the role of such activity in other advanced economies.   Engineer Richard K. Lester from MIT is an international expert in the interactions between science and the economy.  Here is an interesting presentation titled “A Framework for Understanding How Higher Education Affects Regional Growth” in which he discusses some common “myths” with regard to university innovation.

Finally, here’s a link to an edition of the journal Capitalism and Society, which has a paper on the Oxford model of commercialisation as well as interesting comments from Lester. 

The papers are behind a pay firewall which many of you won’t have access to, so here’s a brief excerpt from Lester’s comments:

The knowledge economy

The news today that the proportion of Leaving Cert students taking honours maths and physics has declined confirms what third level teachers already know: mathematical literacy is poor in Ireland. There are obvious implications for the credibility of the government’s knowledge economy ‘strategy’, but since the government has little credibility anyway that is not of any great importance. The problem of low mathematical standards is, however, an important one for the economy. It is a problem for which there are no quick fixes, but which could be solved given time, willingness to change, and attention to detail. Which makes it a nice metaphor for the Irish economy more generally.

“High fliers”

No doubt we all noticed this article in today’s Irish Independent. Aside from the issue of whether great universities require great academics or great beurocrats (and the intriguing question of how come, in this trawl for world class talent, the people chosen are so often Irish), one needs to ask what price Irish universities need to pay to get great academics, assuming that they want them.

Presumably that price is falling rapidly, for several reasons. First, a little bit of googling suffices to make it clear that the academic job market is collapsing in the United States. The contributors to this blog will all be familiar with this AEA site listing cancelled or suspended job searches, and there are many more indicators available out there. Second, the high Irish property prices which were used as an excuse for high salaries are also collapsing.

And then there is the bigger picture. The state just can’t afford to pay enormous salaries any more. Moreover, there are obvious political considerations that can’t be ignored. Given that people at the bottom are going to see their net income fall, the case for a cap on all wages paid for in whole or in part by the taxpayer is becoming increasingly compelling. Many posts ago, I suggested a cap of 200K, but that now seems much too generous. 150K should be enough for anyone, and if people want to chance their luck on the national or international market places, good luck to them.