As groundbreaking as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is in its scope, sticker-price and level of bipartisan endorsement, the global pandemic it was rightly drafted to combat remains even more historic. Economists will be measuring the impact of the novel coronavirus on the global economy for decades, but each day that emergency rooms and unemployment claims swell brings physical and financial pain to real people right now. The depth of that pain and the uncertainty it introduces into every phase of life suggest that the CARES Act will not be the last stimulus President Donald Trump will sign into law in 2020.
From a technology policy perspective, there is a lot to like about the CARES Act. Investments in new medical technologies, including increased access to telehealth services, are a terrific use of taxpayer dollars at a moment to which countless health-care professionals have admirably risen. From a cybersecurity perspective, the act dedicates $400 million to progress in the realm of election security ahead of what stands to be the most unconventional, and perhaps vulnerable, election cycle in US history.
These are good ideas, and we need more of them. The next stimulus (or perhaps the one after that) ought to go further in empowering technology companies of all sizes to lay the foundation for the post-pandemic American economy.
First, the next stimulus must address a notable sin of omission in the CARES Act. Inexplicably, companies owned at least 50% by venture capital firms are ineligible for the nearly $350 million in funds set aside for small businesses thanks to ambiguous legislative wording. It is no secret that small businesses have been, and stand to be, hit hardest by the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19. Denying access to needed federal support for venture-backed startups, the preponderance of which are in technology, not only hurts those companies right now but risks endangering the otherwise thriving innovative lifeblood of America’s most promising sector.
Second, the fiscal stimulus packages to come have the potential to both resuscitate and reinvent America’s education sector in much the same way the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act supercharged investment in renewable energy. America’s education system has been ripe for disruption for years. Debt-ridden college students and under-resourced teachers abound. Now, with colleges and universities forced to send students home early, and local K-12 school districts anticipating the diminished revenues that accompany recessions, education leaders across the country have already decried the CARES Act as insufficiently supporting this essential pillar of childhood development and national competitiveness. Therefore, the federal government should provide tax credits to investors in and developers of educational technologies while matching private capital put toward this critical area of innovation. Additionally, state and local funds should incentivize curricula to incorporate lessons in using new technologies in targeted, positive ways.
Even before being forced to learn remotely, the next generation of students stood to become the most tech-savvy that has ever walked the earth. So why not lean into providing them the kind of foundational technical understanding the evolving economy demands? After months of quarantine, we should formally retire the phrase “I’m not really a technology person” from the American lexicon.
Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) — the gatekeeper of the world’s most valuable intellectual property — should transition from its fee-based funding system to a more traditional reliance on appropriated taxpayer dollars. The USPTO accomplishes the rarest feat in government: achieving its mission while costing taxpayers nothing. However admirable, this model transfers the burden of its operating budget onto innovators themselves through a complex web of fees. These application and processing fees may minimally impact the decisions of larger, established firms, but they can eat through large portions of precious funding available to start-ups without accounting for the additional costs of legal guidance required to navigate compliance matrices.
Reducing, or potentially eliminating, the costs to an inventor filing a patent or trademark would fundamentally reshape the USPTO’s operating model, but a nation committed to innovation and investing in its future should not shy away from purposing taxpayer dollars to make those indispensable pursuits more accessible to a broader number of people and firms.
Financial stimulus alone cannot replace what has and will be lost to COVID-19. Yet somewhere amidst the pandemic’s pain, confusion and uncertainty, there is an American tinkering with a new product or application that might just save an entire industry, a struggling company or someone’s life. What kind of blessing might her success afford the rest of us? What a pity, and what else might we lose, should we stand in her way?
*[Benjamin Verdi is a global innovation manager with Grant Thornton International Ltd. The views expressed in this column are his own and are not those of his employer. Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.