F-ing Up Innovation

The FAA recently laid down a ruling restricting some drone use cases. The FCC is not adequately defending the citizenry’s right to a neutral Internet. And, the FDA makes it painfully hard for all sorts of health-related startups, from hard science to wearables, to get into the clinical phase. And this doesn’t even begin to cover what the legislation of another acronym (SEC) has done to capital markets, most notably encouraging today’s most dynamic companies to stay private longer, to forego public markets, and to reward private investors in the name of protecting the public.

What The F?

The spirit of these bodies is to protect the public. That, however, was when our economy was working well. Today, despite what you see in the DOW or jobs reports, the economy has fundamentally shifted. This is, in part, why so many startups can provide local services — they have access to labor and routes (smartphones) to engage and manage that labor. But, people don’t want to be delivery-people all their lives. The economy, which has undergone a massive structural change, likely needs to loosen the noose around regulation and carefully let innovators push on the boundaries of what is possible. The hope here is harm is limited (if any) and the potential upside of a breakthrough could ignite new jobs and building blocks of a new economy.

That’s the theory, though. The reality is quite different. The leaders and team members of these Federal Agencies are politically appointed operatives, and they, just like elected officials, have twisted incentives. I won’t go into those here, but think of a revolving door where people give each other money in a never-ending merry-go-round. Anyway, we all know this. So, what to do? Outside of innovators leaving the country (a real threat), I think we all need the big technology companies (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook) to use their lobbying power to sway the regulators on specific cases where innovative ideas are explored. Clearly, some of these companies have major interests in what the FDA, FCC, and FAA have struck down or frowned upon. In a way, these technology companies transform into our politicians, lobbying on behalf of creators and the folks who back them. The technology sector has to play this game, has to collect and organize its financial power into these efforts, to make sure regulators don’t go so far as to reward the old incumbents, which would surely be a strategy for more lethargy in the labor markets.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus