Kindleberger on the loss of technological leadership

The following passage by the economic historian Charles P. Kindleberger, from his slim book Foreign Trade and the National Economy, was written in 1960-61 but feels remarkably relevant to the present moment:

Technology today spreads in some degree through illegal imitation, including the pirating of design and industrial espionage, but mainly through licensing, direct investment, a simple reading of technical literature, foreign education, and so on. There is little doubt that the speed of diffusion of technology has increased not only among developed nations but between developed and underdeveloped. There need be no direct communication. That one country can produce a particular article may be sufficient spur to others, as Russian, French, and Israeli work in atomic energy may demonstrate.

Technological leadership is harder than ever to maintain, although historians may think it was never held long. The result is that trade based on technical leadership must keep changing, for any given technical gap is foredoomed to closure.

As a general principle, to me that seems probably right. China is busy trying to close many technological gaps between its own industries and the global leaders, and the forces of technological diffusion suggest that time is on its side. Does that mean that the US, by imposing export controls on Chinese makers of telecom equipment, semiconductors and supercomputers, the US is engaged in a hopeless strategy doomed to failure? Not exactly. Historical inevitability can take a long time to play out, and the difference between technological gaps closing in 5 years, 10 years or 20 years is very much a nontrivial one for companies and nations.

And using this general principle to make predictions about how leadership in specific technologies plays out is not always going to work. Kindleberger’s own observations about the threat to US technological leadership from Europe have held up less well:

It looked for a time as though the technical gap between the United States and other developed countries was an enduring feature of international trade. Isolation from the battlegrounds of two world wars, plus an economic history of great labor scarcity relative to land, and later to capital, gave the United States an interest in innovation which was more widespread among the populace and among economic sectors than in other countries.

This view can no longer be held with assurance. … Europe and Japan are innovating positively. Major developments in the particularly American field of innovation–the automobile–have mainly been of European origin: the disc brake, the two-stroke engine, independent springing, and so on.

Particularly interesting is the new spirit of innovation in France, which has produced in the 1950s the Caravelle and Mystere in airplanes, the Citroen DS 19 and “deux chevaux” (two horsepower) in automobiles, high-voltage long-distance electric transmission, and direct transmission at 25,000 volts to electric locomotives. These and other equally radical departures from simple imitation of leading technical performance suggest a surge of independent innovation in France…

The general principle that technological diffusion is going to happen does suggest that the best way to combat the loss of technological leadership in one area is to open up technological leadership in a new area. The US did this fairly successfully in the decades after Kindleberger’s book was written. It still seems that the best response to today’s technological challenge from China (and others) is not going to be a bunch of delaying actions, but a renewed push forward.

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