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Aruba, March 1, 2013 - As the battle over taxes, spending ,and sequestration rages in Washington, D.C., one answer to our mounting debt problems rarely gets a mention. Journalist David Leonhardt explains in his new book, Here’s the Deal: “A strong economy can outgrow its debt.” He suggests a number of ways we could accomplish that—not least, greater immigration to increase the number of taxpayers. That’s why, if it passes, comprehensive immigration reform is likely to be the most important piece of debt-reduction legislation of the year.

There’s another step Congress could take that would have as big an impact on long-term growth as letting in more foreign workers: an overhaul of America’s chronically excessive intellectual property laws.

Our current system of patent protections is a considerable drag on gross domestic product—a dead weight on the economy that is likely to grow. In a recent article (pdf) in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Michele Boldrin and David Levine of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis conclude “there is no empirical evidence” that more patents or stronger patent laws contribute to productivity. Instead, patents are used to protect incumbent companies in mature industries from new competitors.

In other words, existing patent law slows innovation. Across industries within the U.S., no significant relationship exists between patenting activity and either output per worker or overall productivity. In 1983 the U.S. issued fewer than 60,000 patents. In 2010 that had climbed to 244,000—a fourfold increase. Yet research and development spending in the U.S. has stagnated at around 2.5 percent of GDP, and total factor productivity growth has been slowing rather than rising over that time. One big reason is that over the past three decades, the standards required to show an invention deserves a patent have been significantly diluted.

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