Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Cloud No Bigger than a Man’s Hand

I’ve got this little worry. It occurred to me the other day that the government research that made the Internet and the various Apple products possible was actually conducted in the 60s and 70s. Much of the work that underlies green technology and biotech also dates back to that era. The lag time is not peculiar; scaling up and commercializing new ideas takes a lot of doing; and the transition from dream to product has probably been slowed down by the increasing reluctance of American business to invest in anything tangible. What bothers me is the suspicion that there isn’t a great deal left in the pipeline after 40 years of neoliberal hostility to government initiatives and tax changes that discourage corporate research—Bell Labs are a distant memory.

The off again on again support for photovoltaics and other renewables offered by the current administration is not encouraging. The real scandal of Solyndra was not that it got into difficulties, hardly a surprising vicissitude for a pioneering company, but that Obama allowed the company to collapse simply because the venture capitalists got cold feet and he wanted to avoid political unpleasantness. The Chinese government wouldn’t have allowed an outfit with similar problems to collapse. In fact, when the main Chinese PV firm did go bankrupt, its management lost out, but the enterprise was saved.

PV and windmills and the like are already an enormous industry worldwide and have the potential to get far more important. China and Germany and even (you’ll pardon me) fucking Denmark realize this rather obvious fact and their pols act accordingly. Renewable power, however, is probably not a realistic candidate to serve as the basis for a new industrial revolution that could support another hundred years of prosperity. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, might just be as revolutionary (and destabilizing) as cars and electronics previously were. If we’re missing the boat on so obvious an opportunity as new power sources whose commercialization is already under way, how likely are we to have the patience, foresight, and nerve needed to fund and stick by nanotechnology or, for that matter, any really promising new technology? There isn’t going to be a juicy IPO for amalgamated Nano in the next ten years. There are no quick snacks to whet the appetites of hedge fund operators with high-speed intestines. Realizing the promise of nanotechnology will almost certainly take decades and involve putting up with serious risks without the sure prospect of immediate profits. Earlier technological revolutions required copious government support, but in the past American business people were still interested in building great things. How likely that the greedy little posers in charge of our great firms will be willing—or able—to mobilize the requisite investment money and stick to a long-term plan? And how likely that the trimmers and fanatics that control our political system will rally the country to look after its own interests? It is fatally easy for businessmen to pile up profits by exploiting aging research and sitting on patents, especially since the effective tax rate is so low that they get to keep the lion’s share of the extracted rents. It is equally easy for politicians to opt for inadequate levels of government investment in the name of compromise. So I worry that the great torpid serpent that is America in 2013 has forgotten that you do eventually have to swallow a new pig.

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