There is a popular myth that great ideas are a dime a dozen (see here, here, and here). I don’t know what a great idea is. Is a Dick Tracey watch or a nuclear powered rocket a great idea? No, not if you don’t know how to implement them, then it is just a fantasy and unless you have plot with it, it is not even a good fantasy story. However, I do know what a great invention is and they are not a billion dollars a dozen. A great invention takes incalculable intellectual skill, years of training, years of hard work, and significant resources.
Pendulum of Justice, the first Hank Rangar Thriller, discusses this exact point.
“Hey Mike—we’ve heard your ‘good ideas are a dime a dozen’ speech before. The electric light bulb, the cotton gin, the polio vaccine, the microcontroller, hell, the CAT scan, were all a dime a dozen”
It is my opinion that this sort of nonsense is usually spread by people in finance, who are looking to improve their negotiation position or are just too intellectually challenged to really know when an invention is great. It also inflates their self-importance.
The reality is that most people do not create much more than they consume in their lifetimes and this includes many people in finance, even if they personally get rich. It is only by raising our level of technology that we increase our per capita wealth and only inventors increase our level of technology. Great inventors create incalculable wealth and even if they become wealthy, what they receive in payment is a pittance to what they provided.
I think this nonsense of “great ideas are a dime a dozen” is a spin out from the Austrian Economist Joseph Schumpeter who made a nonsensical distinction between innovation and invention, while denigrating inventions and inventors.
According to Wikipedia:
Following Schumpeter (1934), contributors to the scholarly literature on innovation typically distinguish between invention, an idea made manifest, and innovation, ideas applied successfully in practice
There is nothing inherently wrong with the distinction above, but the way it is applied blurs together a number of different skills. Blurring skills together shows a misunderstanding of the process of innovating. Broadly speaking, innovation can be broken into two distinct sets of skills: creation and dissemination. By creation I mean creating something new, not production – creating something old.
A subset of creation is invention. An invention is a creation with an objective repeatable result. A creation that is not an invention has a subjective result, such as the effect of a painting on a viewer, or the effect of a book on a reader. Many activities combine both a subjective creation and an invention, such as architecture. However, we can separate out the invention from the other creative elements and this helps our understanding of the process.
Dissemination may include a number of processes, such as education (marketing, sales), manufacturing, finance, and management. This is not to say that marketing cannot be creative, it clearly often is very creative. However, the creative part of marketing can be separated out from the dissemination or execution part of marketing. The same is true of manufacturing, which can definitely include inventing. But an invention related to manufacturing is part of the creation step not part of the dissemination step.
Finance can also have inventions. For instance, the invention of a fractional reserve bank is clearly an invention. It has the objective result of securitizing assets and turning them into loans and currency. A fractional reserve bank will securitize land and turn it into a loan and currency. Despite this, it is important to understand that the first person to develop the fractional reserve bank is inventing and the person operating the fractional reserve bank is disseminating.
All real per capita economic progress is the result of inventing. This is not to say that it is unnecessary to disseminate inventions, but if there were no new inventions there would not be any economic progress. We would be stuck in static world once all the inventions had been completely disseminated. Of course, if we stop all dissemination activities we will quickly starve to death.
It is my opinion that business and economic professors have focused on “innovation” instead of “invention” because they have no idea how to invent or how the process of inventing works. They concentrate on what they know, i.e. business and economic practices. As a result, the focus is on dissemination, under-appreciating the importance of inventing. In addition, it results in misleading business theories, such as:
– Management teams are more important than the quality of the invention.
– Execution is everything; patents and other IP do not matter.
– Get Big Fast.
The truth-test of these theories is directly related to the strength of the patent laws at the time the company is created. When patent laws are weak, these theories are more true and when patent laws are strong, these theories are less true. Unfortunately, when patent laws are weak these theories do not overcome the disincentive to invest in risky new technologies. Management teams do not build revolutionary or disruptive technologies, they just disseminate these technologies. These sorts of teams are like large companies and generally can produce a return with less risk by NOT developing high-risk technologies. They tend to focus on incremental technologies or on stealing someone else’s technology. While this may be good business advice in a period of weak patents, it is bad for our country’s competitiveness and our standard of living.
Technological progress (i.e., inventing), in the long run, is the only competitive business advantage. The best management team in the world selling buggy whips at the turn of the century could not overcome the technological advance of the automobile and stay a buggy whip company. The best management team in the world selling vacuum tubes in the 1940s, could not overcome the advance of transistors and semiconductors and stay a vacuum tube company. This country is littered with companies that had great management teams that were overwhelmed by changes in technology. For instance, Digital Computers had a great management team, but they could not overcome the advance of the personal computer. Digital Computers, Inc. failed to invent fast enough to overcome the onslaught of small inexpensive computers. US steel was not able to overcome the onslaught of mini-mills, aluminum, and plastics. This was not because they did not have a good management team, it was because the management team under- prioritized invention and over-prioritized execution or dissemination skills. Ford & GM have not become walking zombies because they did not have strong management teams, but because they have not invented. As a result, they have antiquated production systems and weak technology in their products. 86% of the companies in the Fortune 500 in 1959 are no longer there. Some of these companies disappeared because of bad management, but most companies disappeared because they did not keep up with changing technology. In other words, they did not invent.
Inventions(i.e., advances in technology) are the ONLY WAY to increase real per capita incomes and the only long term business advantage.
Schumpeter – another Austrian School of Economics Failure.
According to this article Menger in “Carl Menger’s Lectures to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (trans. Monika Streissler and David F. Good; Aldershot, 1994)” argues for:
(1) public works constructed by the state such as roads, railways and canals.
(2) government established agricultural and vocational training institutions (Menger 1994: 123).
(3) government subsidies to certain sectors
(4) state intervention to stop clearing of forests on private property in the mountains of Austria when this clearing had serious and bad effects on agriculture
(5) government intervention to stop child labour (Menger 1994: 129).
Carl Menger is often touted as the savior of Austrian Economics, but assuming all the above is true he is hardly a principled capitalist. In fact he sounds like a standard conservative who is against government intrusion in the economy until he is for it.
How Strong Patents Make Wealthy Nations is an excellent paper that provides overwhelming evidence that patents create economic wealth. The paper has two excellent charts. The first chart shows the strength of a number of countries patent systems versus their wealth.
The second chart compares the per capita GDP of the U.S., Great Britain, and Brazil from 1700 until 1913. The U.S. and UK had patent systems, while Brazil did not and Brazil and the U.S. became independent about the same time. The result is that Brazil’s per capita GDP hardly changes while the U.S. and UK experience an over five-fold increase in per capita incomes from 1800 to 1913.
This paper has important implications on economists Paul Romer’s work. Paul Romer is one of the leading new growth economists and is often mentioned as likely future recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. Romer and Robert Solow have shown that increasing levels of technology are the only way we increase real per capita wealth. Romer contends that property rights for inventions (mainly patents) are always a bad trade-off. He argues that strong patent systems encourage the creation of new technologies, but they inhibit the dissemination of new technologies. His reason for this position is based in his belief in the theory of “pure and perfect competition.” Alternatively, weak or non-existent patent systems result in good distribution of new technologies but they are poor at creating new technologies. It is clear that this paper provides significant empirical evidence that Romer’s idea that property rights are always a bad trade is incorrect.
I have one minor criticism with this paper. The authors argue that the patent system in the U.S. helped manufacturing. Manufacturing is not what causes increases in our per capita income and inventions sometimes hurt manufacturing. For instance, digital printing and the Internet have completely destroyed the manufacturing side of the publishing industry and 3D manufacturing has potential to do the same thing to manufacturing in other industries. The question is not whether patents help manufacturing, it is whether it makes us wealthier.
How Strong Patents Make Wealthy Nations by Devlin Hartline & Kevin Madigan
I was having a discussion with Objectivist colleague about the Austrian Economic idea of subjective value. In economics the subjective theory of values (STV) was developed in response to the classical economic ‘labor theory of value’. The labor theory of value states that the value of an item is equal to the sum total of the labor that went into making it. Thus the value of your computer is equal to the total amount of labor used to produce it, including all its components.
The Austrians, particularly Carl Menger, explained that this was clearly incorrect. In response he said the value of a thing is determined by each person’s own mind. Most economists today adhere to some sort of subjectivist theory of value.
Ayn Rand, in Capitalism for the Unknown Ideal, discussed the differences between intrinsic, subjective, and objective theories of value. In my opinion it was her way of making it clear that she disagreed with her friend Ludwig Von Mises.
The subjectivist theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality.
The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man’s consciousness.
The objective theory holds that the good is … an evaluation of the facts of reality … according to a rational standard of value.
(Ayn Rand Lexicon “What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 21)
The Subjective Theory of Value (STV) in economics results in economics being a subjective social ‘science’, instead of an objective, true science. It is important that we define what Austrians’ mean by the STV. They mean that people’s economic choices are not connected to reality. People have subjective values that they attempt to fulfill and we cannot say whether a person’s economic choice is correct or rational.
According to the STV we could not say that if Robinson Crusoe’s choice to trade his canteen of water for a gold doubloon to the only other survivor of a shipwreck, when there is no potable water on the island and no foreseeable chance of rescue before Crusoe dies of dehydration and no foreseeable chance of rain before Crusoe dies of dehydration, is irrational. We cannot even make this decision if we know that Crusoe’s goal is to stay alive and he has no connection to the other survivor.
If we take the STV seriously, then I can be rich if I just subjectively believe that my slum house in a decaying part of Detroit is worth $200 million. Value is all subjective, so as long as I firmly hold to this belief then I will suddenly be wealthy. Pointing out to me that the market value of my house is only $15,000 is founding your opinion “upon an arbitrary judgment of value.”
Unfortunately, the Austrian STV turns economics into a popularity game. As a result the only reason John Galt’s motor has any economic value is that other people value it. This is obvious nonsense. Galt’s motor has economic value even if no one else subjectively values it. The motor produces almost unlimited electrical power for almost zero marginal cost. Thus it has economic value to Galt, even if no one else is smart enough to see its value or take advantage of its value.
You will often hear Austrian economists describe why someone became wealthy in terms of a popularity contest. They rarely discuss the value that the wealthy person created, instead they talk about how the wealthy person made so many people happy. If wealth creation is just the result of an arbitrary popularity contest, then there is no logical reason that we should not redistribute wealth.
The macroeconomic evidence does not support the idea that people make arbitrary economic decisions. The wealthier people are the longer they live on average. If peoples’ decisions were truly subjective (disconnected from reality) then we would expect that there would be no correlation between wealth and longevity at least for those people living above the subsistence level. But in fact, there is a strong correlation. There is also a strong correlation between wealth and a number of factors related to the quality of life. This shows that people are not spending their money arbitrarily (subjective valuation), but spending it on things that enhance their longevity and their life.
Some people suggest that once people are above the subsistence level of living then economic decisions become subjective. The evidence does not support this point of view either. People who are wealthier tend to drive safer cars, have better built houses that can withstand natural disasters better, have better access to high quality health care and so on. Very few people are wealthy enough to afford the highest quality goods and services for the rest of their lives. Clearly, the wealthier people are the more they can afford to indulge some of their whimsies, however if they make enough irrational economic decisions they will not only go bankrupt, they will die – see Venezuela.
Wealthier people are also happier. There are some old studies that attempted to show that additional wealth/income above a subsistence level did not increase people’s happiness (The Easterlin Paradox). However, more recent studies have shown that increasing levels of wealth do correlate with increasing levels of happiness. The original studies were clearly biased and trying to make a political point.
Several of the ideas of Austrian economics are actually inconsistent with the STV For instance, how Austrians explain marginal utility implicitly shows that they understand peoples’ economic decisions (values) are not arbitrary. The most common way Austrians explain marginal utility is to explain that if they have one unit of water per day they will use if for drinking. If they suddenly have two units of water per day they will use the second unit for watering their garden, which they value lower than drinking. If they then find they have three units of water per day, then they will use the third unit for washing.
Why do Austrians always select drinking for water as having the highest priority? Clearly they inherently understand that people have to drink to stay alive (an objective – reality based decision) and that drinking water is more important than washing if the person wants to live.
Another example is the Austrian Business Cycle (ABCT). ABCT argues that we grow wealthier when we invest in (purchase) “higher order goods”, which is just a fancy way of saying increasing our capital. Thus they are arguing that purchasing capital goods has a higher value (economic and moral) than purchasing consumer goods. Some Austrians recognize the contradiction and try to dance around it by saying that economics can tell you what the result of certain policy actions will be, however economics cannot tell you which choice you should make. This is like a doctor telling you that a poison will kill you, but the physician cannot tell you that you should not ingest it.
Economic and moral values are not separate and cannot be isolated. Both are based on the objective nature of man. Austrians by choosing a STV for economics are logically compelled to the conclusion that ethics is subjective. The STV also condemns economics to the category of a social ‘science.’ Only by rejecting the STV and replacing it with an objective theory of value can economics be an objective science.
 If human action always aims at a purpose, which by definition it does, then human action must be rational, that is, consistent with reason or guided by one’s will and intellect. It can never be termed irrational.
In making this point, Mises in Human Action (p. 19) writes “Human action is necessarily always rational. The term ‘rational action’ is therefore pleonastic and must be rejected as such. When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man.”
Seemingly irrational action is rational, that is, has an aim. To appraise it as irrational, the appraiser merely imposes some other external source of value. Mises writes (p. 104): “However one twists things, one will never succeed in formulating the notion of ‘irrational’ action whose ‘irrationality’ is not founded upon an arbitrary judgment of value.”
https://mises.org/library/what-do-austrians-mean-rational, What Do Austrians Mean by “Rational”?, MISES DAILY ARTICLES, Accessed 6/9/16.
 Of course it is entirely possible that Von Mises (see footnote 1) believe trying to stay alive is an arbitrary choice.
 http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/05/10/money-does-buy-happiness-says-new-study/#29669cf440b5 (accessed 6/10/16) and http://www.nber.org/papers/w14282.pdf?new_window=1 (Accessed 6/10/16) Betsey Stevenson Justin Wolfers, ECONOMIC GROWTH AND SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING: REASSESSING THE EASTERLIN PARADOX, NBER WORKING PAPER SERIES.
 Austrians tend to have a very fluid definition what they mean by the STV. They shift the definition based on the discussion they are involved in and use the one they believe will make their argument most effectively.
 Murray Rothbard tried to span this contradiction. A likely result was the non-sense of anarcho-capitalism.
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