Economists and policymakers are always lauding innovation. In its purest form, innovation is like a free lunch: it boosts growth and incomes, creates good jobs, and opens up new possibilities for social reform and social mobility.
Today, innovation is needed more than ever. Productivity growth has been slowing in recent years. The 10-year growth rate of nonfarm business labor productivity is only 1.3 percent in 2015, compared to 3 percent as recently as 2005. A full one percentage point of that 1.7 percentage point decline, or more than half, is due to a slowdown in the growth rate of multifactor productivity, an indicator of innovation. In other words, the economic evidence suggests that this is an era of relatively weak innovation, outside of information technology.
Indeed, encouraging innovation is more essential than ever before. Fortunately, industries such as health care, education, finance, and tech are attempting to adopt new technologies that offer the chance of faster growth and higher wages, desperately needed to overcome years of stagnation.
But regulators, both in Washington, and at the state and local level, struggle with a rapid pace of innovation. Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, embodies unpredictability, change, and the creation of new products and markets. By contrast, regulators thrive on rules and predictability. They maintain a process of identifying an existing market failure and then issuing regulations that aims to make consumers and society better off by correcting that failure. The regulation process is far more straightforward when markets change slowly and predictably.