Companies do compete with one another over particular implementations of technologies. But if a Japanese company sells an American an awesome photocopier, both are better off. The Gathering Storm report claims “even weeks can matter in the race to be first; hence the job-creating value of research is highly perishable.” This is hokum. Tons of things matter when it comes to who sells more photocopiers, or cameras, or assembly-line robots, or music players. In the next sentence, the report gives the example of the iPod—a phenomenally successful consumer product, which came to market years after the first MP3 players, undermining the very point the authors were trying to make. The competition between Apple and other manufacturers of MP3 players has nothing to do with which country’s researchers find the basic principles behind digitally encoding music.
Even military technologies that governments strive to keep secret spread quickly. Russia got the atomic bomb within a few years of the United States, as did Britain, France, and China. The Russians made a copy (the Tu-4) within years of the American B-29’s debut. When an American drone crashed in Iran recently, there was much handwringing about the Iranians using the fallen model to create similar technology. But it would be more remarkable if Iran never got its hands on a drone. Whenever a technology becomes useful, whether to the military or to a teenager, it becomes more widely used. When it becomes widely used, a copy is likely to fall into the hands of an adversary, thus spreading the technology.
This isn’t to say that the plans for the newest stealth drone system need to be made open source. It’s reasonable for a country to try and keep some secrets, just as companies try to keep proprietary information under wraps. But we shouldn’t be shocked when these attempts fail—it was in their nature to fail.
Attempts to limit the spread of technology, like ITAR—the U.S. framework for controlling the export of militarily sensitive technology—never work very well. Being overzealous in their enforcement on the basis of a supposed technological competition just creates a bureaucratic quagmire, without actually securing any military advantage to speak of. If we find ourselves at war with China, we can worry about the question of tactical advantage. (The efforts to counter roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan are a good example of actual technological competition in the narrow sense in which it does take place: not between Iraq and the U.S. as countries, but between the insurgent who wants to explode a roadside bomb and the soldier who wants to prevent it from going off.)
Regulations based in the wrongheaded belief in technological competition, like ITAR, hurt American businesses that are trying to export technologies that fall under ITAR’s umbrella (at one point, the export of computers with Pentium chips were banned). But other businesses stand to get boondoggle tax breaks and subsidies in the name of competition. A June Commerce Department report calls for tax breaks to help America compete, arguing that it will spur innovation. (The report called for a five-year vacation from capital gains tax for small business and three years of zero corporate income tax.) If you are ranking countries based on who gives start-ups the most freebies, more tax breaks will always improve your ranking. But will they actually help spur economic growth or innovation?
New ideas are a good thing, but trying to come up with more of them than someone else by throwing money at the problem won’t work. As a 1998 paper by Austan Goolsbee noted, sudden increases in R&D spending tend to just raise salaries for researchers, rather than lead to more research. The same can be said of broad-based tax breaks; investors will make more money, but they won’t necessarily be any more innovative.
Competition rhetoric can be used to incite hysteria—“We are falling behind!”—and to inspire pride—“We’re number one!” Weirdly, the competitiveness crowd often argues both of these at the same time: We are the greatest country on earth even as our schools are failing.
This contradiction can only be resolved by realizing that these rankings were meaningless to begin with. We don’t need to run twice as fast, or rise above any storms, or worry if people in Germany or Japan or China live better than they used to. We shouldn’t worry about American technology spreading to our rivals. Television spread quickly throughout the world; so did the computer, the railway, antibiotics, the car, the automatic washing machine, and any other useful technology you care to name. If this diffusion takes place faster today than it used to (witness the rapid adoption of mobile phones around the world), this is a good thing. It doesn’t hurt America’s ability to “compete” because, as an empirical fact, the economic importance of cooperation trumps that of competition on a national scale. This is bad news for jingoistic politicians and business leaders, but good news for everyone else.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.