Friday, January 22, 2010

Voting Against Innovation? Really?

Bruce Nussbaum is a voice I generally respect in innovation, but this time I think he's got it exactly backwards.  In his latest post he argues that the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance law locks in all advantages to large corporations.  His position is that since large organizations have buying power in political campaigns and lobbying organizations, they can elect politicians who will do their bidding.  Thus, his reasoning goes, any new innovation or idea will be regulated or legislated out of existence by pliant politicians who are in the pockets of big commercial contributers.

How many times do we have to see this movie?  I remember Rollerball, when I was kid. We were all going to be singing the Coca-Cola national anthem.  Every ten years or so we are warned that big corporations will take over our government and will dictate to us, the consuming population, who will be powerless to resist.  This is such a nihilist view of the world I scarely know where to begin.

Let's frame this around innovation, since that's where these concepts intersect.  Nussbaum is asserting that big corporations will be able to block or eliminate innovation that threatens them if they are allowed more opportunity to fund political campaigns.  So, I guess Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and all the social media will simply disappear, and we'll all become compliant drones.  The ever increasing capability for ANYONE to complain and build social networks to others who feel the same way will only grow, so I find it hard to believe we won't be able to build coalitions to push back against any infringements of our needs.  Second, I don't recall Yahoo or better yet Microsoft even noticing Google or taking them seriously, and if they had attempted to regulate or legislate Google out of existence many people would have rebelled.  Nussbaum seems to think there are a cabal of people standing ready to tell us how to think and what to buy, and those people will be unleashed with a vengenace when the corporations can support candidates.  News flash:  corporations, large and small, have competing interests and different goals.  They don't work in lockstep or we'd have far fewer choices in our markets.  And this supposition ignores the fact that we import much of the products we use, so unless we are willing to outsource all innovation, the US firms will have to at least keep pace with foreign innovation or build walls around our economy.

I find it very difficult to believe that the campaign finance laws will impact innovation.  If large corporations in this country actually believe they can legistate or regulate their way around competitors, then they'll need to eliminate an entire generation of entrepreneurs in this country and build blockades against good ideas and products from a host of other countries.  Once we've shot our children and walled ourselves in, it won't take long to realize we've become Zimbabwe and for those people who wanted choice and new products and services to overthrow their government, hopefully at the ballot box.

I believe Nussbaum is working from an old, corporatist model in which few companies control the media and dictate what we learn and how we interact.  I think we are smart enough and connected enough that regardless of the amount of corporate financing that flows into Washington, we the people will be able to overcome any movements to limit innovation, if for no other reason than the quality of our lives depend on it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:05 PM

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