Paul Romer was once Silicon Valley’s favorite economist. The theory that helped him win a Nobel prize — that ideas are the turbocharged fuel of the modern economy — resonated deeply in the global capital of wealth-generating ideas. In the 1990s, Wired magazine called him “an economist for the technological age.” The Wall Street Journal said the tech industry treated him “like a rock star.”
Today, Mr. Romer, 65, remains a believer in science and technology as engines of progress. But he has also become a fierce critic of the tech industry’s largest companies, saying that they stifle the flow of new ideas. He has championed new state taxes on the digital ads sold by companies like Facebook and Google, an idea that Maryland adopted this year.
And he is hard on economists, including himself, for long supplying the intellectual cover for hands-off policies and court rulings that have led to what he calls the “collapse of competition” in tech and other industries.
“Economists taught, ‘It’s the market. There’s nothing we can do,’” Mr. Romer said. “That’s really just so wrong.”
free-market theory. Monopoly or oligopoly seems to be the order of the day.
The relentless rise of the digital giants, they say, requires new thinking and new rules. Some were members of the tech-friendly Obama administration. In congressional testimony and research reports, they are contributing ideas and credibility to policymakers who want to rein in the big tech companies.
Their policy recommendations vary. They include stronger enforcement, giving people more control over their data and new legislation. Many economists support the bill introduced this year by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, that would tighten curbs on mergers. The bill would effectively “overrule a number of faulty, pro-defendant Supreme Court cases,” Carl Shapiro, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, wrote in a recent presentation to the American Bar Association.
Some economists, notably Jason Furman, a Harvard professor, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration and adviser to the British government on digital markets, recommend a new regulatory authority to enforce a code of conduct on big tech companies that would include fair access to their platforms for rivals, open technical standards and data mobility.
his Nobel lecture in 2018 prompted him to think about the “progress gap” in America. Progress, he explained, is not just a matter of economic growth, but should also be seen in measures of individual and social well-being.