Opening Lincoln Labs' "Lobbying for the Future"

Derek Khanna, Aaron Ginn, Garrett Johnson, and Chris Abrams in Lincoln Labs’ Lobbying for the Future (pdf) claim:

The problem today is that there is no lobbyist for the future, to advocate for start-ups that don’t exist yet.

Their theory of change:

Our objective is to force solutions onto the national stage that can jumpstart the economy and thereby bypass the traditional lobbying class averse to changes that affect their clients.

Presumably “force” just means holding events and publishing policy papers and “bypass” means something like changing the terms of discourse so that the traditional lobbying class and their clients are slightly and temporarily disadvantaged.

I suspect they are following an extremely well-worn path set by previous generations of free-market-oriented think tanks making proposals outside of the range of polite conversation for the lobbying class. Indeed such groups are the origin of the Overton window concept.

In any case their proposals are similar to many of those mentioned in the Cato (perhaps the most prominent U.S. free-market-oriented think tank) “Reviving Economic Growth” forum and by Cato’s Brink Lindsey in Low-Hanging Fruit Guarded by Dragons: Reforming Regressive Regulation to Boost U.S. Economic Growth, but lacking any attempt to address progressive concerns, and from a slightly younger, more futuristic, or credulous (take your picks) perspective. The former difference might be in part explained by Lobbying for the Future’s apparent constituency of future entrepreneurs, whereas the Cato pieces seem to imagine a broad coalition of policy wonks.

Both are worth comparing the the (EU, Green/market skeptic) A Commons Approach to EU Knowledge Policy perspective, which takes a much more skeptical view of the goodness of business entrepreneurial permissionless innovation. But copyright and patent are probably the area of strongest agreement among hopeful policy wonks of both free market and market skeptic persuasions. I suspect this agreement largely reflects an underlying reality – IP is a freedom infringing corruption of property, but also an aggressive expansion of property, so draws calls for reform from both those who see property and markets as something to defend, and those who see property and markets as something to defend against. But I also wonder the extent to which this level of agreement on IP reform, even down to specific proposals, across this ideological divide, is not also an indicator of the poverty of knowledge policy discourse. Consider sharp disagreement about physical telecommunications policy. I predict that as knowledge policy becomes more obviously central, “left/right” positions will become more distinct, even as awareness of many “no brainer” reforms builds across ideologies.

On to some pertinent extracts from Lobbying for the Future:

This report focuses on the policy ideas that would be game-changers, but have zero substantive discussion in Washington. Specifically this report identifies:
1. How to open the government-sector to competition;

I will return to two other policy areas the report identifies below (also bolded). Regarding this point:

Four common sense principles are necessary for reform:
A. All non-sensitive government data to be made public, accessible, and in a computer readable format. And consider allowing new innovative companies like Palantir to use their software to find cost-savings and get a portion of the cost savings back through a finders fee mechanism.
B. Allow for real competitive bidding with low barriers to entry for new venders for government contracts. Federal, state and local spending is $6.2 trillion in 2015, making this the largest market essentially off limits to start-ups, entrepreneurs, and innovation.
C. Applying technology to how the government functions that will reduce costs to the federal government, increase efficiency and access to its constituents, increase transparency, increase cybersecurity and help the private sector grow.
D. Apply management-consulting solutions to reform federal and state agency structure, many agencies are duplicative and simple private sector solution can lead to a leaner and more effective and responsive government specifically we need to make it easier to fire under-performers, as the bottom 5% must go on an annual basis.

These need to be imbued with an open source mandate, otherwise they serve as lock-in vehicles for proprietary vendors. Not only data, but all software used by government, must be public at the source code level so that this important operational and regulatory mechanism of government can be inspected and questioned by the public, and may be serviced and improved by any vendor, or by governments themselves.

2. How to reform the primary way the government directly regulates innovation which is through copyright and patent laws;

I’m happy to see this recognition, though I’m not sure it is that straightforward. Through patent and copyright laws government delegates direct regulation of innovation to private parties. Also, it is hard to disentangle this delegation from funding policy and also direct regulation, e.g., of drugs.

The report’s brief mention of copyright reforms:

Sensible reforms to copyright policy based upon constitutional principles, starting with term length, damages, fair use and DMCA reform, will do much to jumpstart the economy while protecting legitimate copyright related interests. Thus far there has been no attempt by Congress to seriously deal with these issues and no serious investigation into optimal copyright policy.

How do any of these “bypass the traditional lobbying class”? In short, this dilemma is why I favor at a discourse level delegitimizing the treatment of knowledge as property (including copyright), but far more importantly, prioritization of commons-favoring reforms which grow the constituency and policy imagination for freedom respecting policy.

Lobbying for the Future very effectively illustrates the regulatory nature of patents with a comparison:

Recent attention has focused on the growth of federal regulations, as published in the Federal Register. The Register came in at 78,978 pages in 2014 with 3,541 agency-issued rules and regulations. These regulations directly limit business activity and personal liberty. Some researchers estimate that mounting regulations have slowed economic growth by an average of 2% per year. United States Patent Office (USPTO) patents are another form of regulation, and when wrongfully granted they can be more pernicious. Patent regulation far outstrips administrative rule-making. If the patents granted in 2014 by the USPTO were published in the Federal Register, it would be over 25-37 times the length of agency-issued regulations and almost 100 times the number of agency-issued rules and regulations. Patents are a form of restraint on individual freedom. A patent confers a right to exclude others from making, using, or selling in the United States the invention claimed by the patent. Every Tuesday, there are roughly 6,270 new things that no American is allowed to do.

Lincoln Labs previously previously published How to Fix Patents: Economic Liberty Requires Patent Reform (pdf), which includes the Federal Register analogy and many proposals. Lobbying for the Future’s summary:

To increase patent quality we need:

  1. Greater Congressional oversight of the USPTO;
  2. Reform the incentive structure for the USPTO;
  3. Institute a second pair of eyes rule for patent approval;
  4. Reform the patent examiner “prior art” search process;
  5. Change how the USPTO is paid in the US budget;
  6. Revise statutory language for standards of granting a patent, “novel, non-obvious, and useful” by strengthening Sections 101, 102, and 103; and,
  7. Add new language to statutes that independent creation by others is evidence that the patented idea is not “nonobvious” to someone skilled in the art.
    Additionally, given the scale of the problem these reforms are just the beginning, we also need to:
  8. Require patent applications actually provide teachable information to someone of average skill in the art;
  9. Reduce or eliminate “business method patents” and “design patents,”;
  10. Create an independent invention defense;
  11. Institute a firm loser pay rule;
  12. Increase pleading requirements;
  13. Speed up the USPTO approval and rejection process; and,
  14. Supplement the US patent system with a prize based system to encourage other innovations.

I might revisit their patent reform paper later, but for now I’ll note that these could use analysis from the perspective of how to “bypass the traditional lobbying class” and tweaks to favor commons and thus build a an actual, ongoing constituency aligned with promoting intellectual freedom, not a hypothetical constituency (future entrepreneurs) who anyway will be as interested in seeking to leverage anti-freedom policy to gain monopolies as they will be in allowing future-future entrepreneurs permission to compete. As I put it in comments on recent calls for patent reform in The Economist, fix the knowledge economy, not patents.

3. How to systemically reform the regulatory process to remove old laws and regulations, and keep new ones of the books, that would stifle competition and innovation.

This section is a bit of a grab-bag, much of which could be related to knowledge policy but does not directly concern it. Overall, they want cost-benefit analysis of and procedural hurdles for regulation, as is typical of the free market advocate/government skeptic position. One way to tie this section back to the previous two would be to make such analysis and procedure part of ongoing development of government self-regulation (part 1) and government delegation of knowledge regulation to private parties (section 2); this also hints at ways to expand appeal to market skeptics.

The conclusion sort of reiterates a theory of change:

We wrote this report to begin to initiate a “new order of things.” And we expect enemies of those who “profit by the old order.” Despite the enormous challenges in front of us, there is reason for optimism. We can get this done. We’ve done it before under worse adversity. Everything described in this report is eminently doable – as Steven Johnson would create the phrase – this report represents the “adjacent possible.”

That’s a nice phrase. I have a strong sense of the adjacent possible, including the adjacent counterfactual. I look forward to Lincoln Labs’ further explanation of how to move the world to an adjacent and better reality and realization of such.

Regarding the title of this post, in addition to serving as a call to make “open” or commons-favoring policy a stronger element of proposals, see peer producing think tank transparency; I’ve long wished think tanks would apply their recommendations to government to themselves.