Although no EDA company counts among its membership (for good practical reasons), it is fair to describe the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) as one of technology’s most broadly representative trade bodies. From retailers and brand holders to the hardware and software companies that directly supply components for CE products, the CEA has a position – and a duty – to speak for them all.
That is what makes the organization’s campaign to protect free trade interesting. First, it claims that a very tent pole of the market is under threat. Second, it is reasonable to infer from the campaign that a wide community of technology’s leading players see the threat as a clear and present danger during a general election year – otherwise, they would not have approved the CEA’s activities.
And there is a third aspect. High technology and mainstream economic lobbying are comparatively infrequent bedfellows, certainly less than other industries. This is fundamental to how the industry works. Free markets and a light regulatory touch have given it the space to innovate and develop, to the point where CE accounts for $220bn – or one fifth – of US exports annually and is the largest sector countering the trade deficit. Electronics functions best if, excuse the pun, it is left to its own devices.
So, when CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro warns of “thunderous voices” advocating protectionism and its mix with isolationism leading to “economic disaster”, we must look at how electronics engages with the political process. Because, yes, there are shrill voices – both Republican and Democratic – filling cable news channels and the mainstream press with aggressive flavors of policy-wonkery that provide some foundation for Shapiro’s fears.
It may be that the CEA is indulging in some rhetorical license of its own with its portrait of the apparent threat – one of its primary functions is political lobbying. At the same time, the surprisingly widely held belief that high technology can stand apart from the political fray – including at the individual level – appears increasingly less tenable.
The circumstances and experiences of more heavily regulated countries show that any disconnection between US trade policy and its historical free market focus would probably undermine performance, entrepreneurship and innovation. This would logically place a serious brake on the technology economy.
So, what does become incumbent on us all is the act of exploring and securing our own answers to the question being posed. Sorry folks, but suddenly that politics thing matters.