...Archive for February 2011

The overpayers’ club

The overpayers’ club is a club I’d like to join. Somebody, please, help me pay too much. I want to overpay, but I insist on overpaying well.

Here is how the overpayers’ club would work. I’d enter a restaurant, and present my club card. The hostess would swipe the card (or perform whatever the newtech equivalent of a card-swipe is), and then either agree or apologetically refuse to accept my custom as an overpayer. If I am an overpayer, then my meal is on pay what you wish terms. At the end of the meal, an ordinary check would be tabulated and presented. But my payment of that check would be optional, and the amount I pay entirely at my discretion. After the meal, both the amount charged and the amount paid would attach to my permanent record with the club.

Service providers of many different kinds, not just restaurants, could participate in the program. The club would promote a norm, voluntary and nonbinding, that overpayers pay on average at least 10% more than amount billed at pre-agreed or ordinary prices. Providers would have instant access to members’ average overpayment (dollar-weighted), dispersion of overpayments, and any other information they contrive to mine from customers’ overpayment history, when deciding whether to offer price flexibility. The benefit for service providers in participating in the overpayers’ club is obvious. After refusing known cheapskates, they would expect to earn a substantial premium from overpayers. In exchange for that, they risk uncertainty and volatility of cash flows, which they can somewhat mitigate by delivering reliable quality.

Customers benefit from the ability to monitor and discipline relative quality among service providers, from increased agency and bargaining power within the context of isolated transactions, and, when quality is high, from the pleasure and mutual goodwill that comes from overpaying. When quality is low, customers can express that in a way that bites. At a restaurant, if I am unhappy with the quality of food or service, I can pay only half the check. Note that I cannot actually avoid the cost of my meal without putting my reputation in jeopardy. I’ll have to make up for stiffing the bad restaurant by overpaying other establishments unusually much in order to maintain my average overpayment. But I have the power to redirect funds from bad to good establishments without putting my overpayment record in jeopardy.

Besides restaurants, the overpayment club would obviously extend to businesses like hotels and salons. It could be useful for meat and produce purchases at grocery stores (whose bill would be payable after, say, a week, during which the food’s quality could be experienced). More ambitiously, a wide variety of professional services — consulting, programming, even doctoring, lawyering, and teaching — might benefit from the combination of discretionary payments disciplined by transparent and valuable customer reputations.

That’s the basic idea. There are lots of extensions and details to consider. Should merchants’ overpayment experience be accessible by club members or the general public? (Overprice transparency!) Should there be a mechanism by which members can augment past overpayments after some time has passed, both to allow a considered evaluation and in order to ensure that members who express dissatisfaction aren’t shut-out of opportunities to make up for the underpayment? Perhaps there should be a lottery that occasionally denies requests for price flexibility even by the very generous, in order to reduce the social stakes associated with refusals. How should tips and gratuities be dealt with? These are important details, but they are details.

In financial terms, this proposal can be described very simply. I want to give consumers the option to issue equity rather than debt in exchange for goods and services. You and the SEC may not have noticed, but when you sit down at a restaurant, order, and are served a meal, you issue debt. The restaurant extracts an unwritten but enforceable obligation that you pay a fixed sum of money. In exchange for that obligation, you receive an asset of uncertain consumption value. Canonically, the result of financing an asset with debt is to concentrate valuation uncertainty — risk — on the asset’s purchaser. Equity finance, on the other hand, diffuses risk, in exchange for sharing some of the upside if things works out.

Equity finance by vendors is particularly appropriate when the seller has better information than the buyer about the quality of the asset being sold. Vendors selling opaque but high quality assets can predict good realizations, and so are happy to take an equity position. Purchasers interpret sellers’ willingness to bear risk as a credible signal of quality that justifies extra cost. I think that we underutilize equity arrangements at every level of our society. We have made an error, from which we need to backtrack, that can be summed up by the word “commodification”. In the name of a false efficiency, we have struggled to cram everything from corn to cars to financial and legal relationships into the mold of widgets that can be competitively produced, objectively characterized, and then priced in fixed numeraire at arms-length by open markets. If only this could work, if things like financial services really were goods just like soda pop, the uncontroversial parts of microeconomics would vouchsafe easy, efficient commerce and we’d live happily ever after. But it can’t work. Pretending is killing us.

Commodification is a reasonable framework for managing trade in corn and manufactured goods, but is an inappropriate for any thing or practice whose quality is revealed over time. Commodities are appropriately priced in money and financed by debt. Goods and services that are not commodities require more complex forms of exchange than what’s imagined by an introductory economics textbook. What we must “buy and sell”, most of what matters, is relationships. Managing relationships is mysterious, a difficult problem. But we know more than nothing. Just as commodities are naturally exchanged for debt and money, relationship finance naturally takes the form of equity arrangements, in which cash flows are contingent upon variable outcomes. The trouble with equity is that, in most cases, the space of potential outcomes is too complex for the amount and timing of cash flows to be firmly contracted ex ante. Choices must be made, costs and benefits must be allocated, after events have unfolded. Ex post allocation implies discretion and requires trust. Trust outside of local social networks depends upon reputation. As economies have grown, we’ve gravitated to the commodity exchange model, because it is easy to scale with low information and transaction costs. We do not yet know how to reconcile large-scale open commerce with trade based on relationships, reputation, and equity. But in an IT-rich world, we should be able to make progress.

Equity arrangements, when they are successful, have positive social externalities. Fixed-price commodity exchange and ex ante contracting discourage both trust and what most of us would recognize as virtue. If a person receives poor value from a commodity purchase, the question to ask is whether she shopped well. Did she research the product or service she was buying? Did she look elsewhere for better pricing? Caveat emptor becomes a moral duty. Any hint that a transactor has not fulfilled her obligation to be energetically cynical disqualifies her from any claim to our sympathy. Sellers in a commodity world have no obligation but to maximize their advantage within bounds prescribed by law and formal contracts. After all, if buyers are informed, competitive shoppers who assume no beneficence on the part of counterparties, then anything that might go wrong after the sale must already have been priced into the contract.

Equity arrangements flip this logic 180 degrees. Equity relationships are based primarily on trust. Caveat emptor still has a role to play, in that extensions of trust should be merited. Not everyone is trustworthy or competent, so equity providers must be discriminating. But once the relationship is formed, an equity issuer who abuses her discretion and metes out an unfair distribution of risk and benefit, who seeks to maximize her own position to the disadvantage of collaborators, is justly condemned. In an equity world, well-placed trust, fair dealing, reputation, and character are rewarded, while in a debt/commodity world, shrewdness and informational advantage win the day. Designing and understanding our economic interactions more on equity rather than commodity terms would help to diminish some of what is parasitic about liberalism (ht Chris Mealy).

Both modes of commerce, debt/commodity and equity/collaboration, have their place. It’s nice that we can buy toothpaste and cereal without forming a relationship with the convenience store or much worrying about its reputation. Goods that can be standardized, that are easily understood and perform reliably, ought to trade as commodities. But most goods and services fall somewhere between toothpaste and astrology on the information spectrum. Real people in real economies have already invented hybrid schemes that mix the debt/commodity and equity/collaboration styles. Often when we buy complicated and expensive products, we trade them like commodities, but they come bundled with something called a “warranty” that shifts some of the uncertainty surrounding performance back to the seller. Most of us rely very little on the contractual fine print in these warranties, but depend instead on the reputation of the manufacturer or the retailer. We trust that these businesses will deal fairly with us ex post, even if we lack any formal assurance that they will. Without this kind of risk-sharing, a lot of markets would be severely handicapped. In restaurants, the American custom is to issue debt to the restaurant owner, but equity to the server, who is paid almost entirely from discretionary tips. This makes some sense, since we can gather information about restaurants from reputation and experience, but with each visit we patronize a server whom we do not know or choose. Still, even after wasting hours on Yelp, restaurant outcomes are highly variable. The arrangement is a rough on servers, who are at the mercy of generous clients and cheapskates alike, and who bear most of the consequences of errors made in the kitchen. The lack of any means to translate virtue on the part of clients into reputation is unfortunate.

Just as we’d be collectively poorer if no one had made workable the idea of a product warranty, we are poorer than we might be because we’ve not yet invented off-the-shelf tools to manage the information- and risk-sharing appropriate to variable-outcome services. These services resist commodification, but perhaps the infrastructure we use to manage them can be made more standard. The overpayers’ club, and its mirror image, equity finance of business by consumers and other stakeholders, amount to experiments in combining the risk-sharing of a relationship economy with the low costs, openness, and scale of a transactional economy. They are imperfect experiments, but they could be tried. Like always, we’ll stumble into the future. We might as well get started.

Two followups, in way too many words

1. Asymmetry of information about information

In the previous post, I identified government, health care, education, and finance as the “asymmetric information industry”. Arnold Kling makes an important point:

[I]nformation asymmetry is that the sellers know what they are selling much better than the buyers know what they are buying. However, I do not think this is what distinguishes those four industries. There are plenty of other situations of information asymmetry, including buying a house, buying a car, or buying a piece of electronic equipment.

I think what distinguishes these four industries is that the sellers themselves know less than what people expect. Educators do not know what, if anything, actually adds value. For all we know, test scores are determined by the backgrounds (mostly genetic) of the students, with remaining differences that are random and irreproducible.

Kling is right, of course. When writing the previous post, I considered switching to the term “uncertainty industries”, as both buyers and sellers of government, healthcare, education, and financial services are often in the dark about the degree to which transactions will provide value. But “uncertainty industries” suggests a similarity of confusion between buyers and sellers, which isn’t right. Sellers still have substantially better information. First, there is plenty of old-style information asymmetry in all of these industries: Politicians sometimes do know they are favoring or overpaying financially supportive suppliers. Health care providers sometimes do recommend tests and procedures that from a distance they would recognize as superfluous (even accounting for defensive medicine concerns). Educational institutions notoriously play up successes among graduates they know to be outliers. And, of course, the Wall Street tradition of “putting lipstick on a pig” is denied before every jury but widely and even fondly acknowledged when the context is nonspecific.

Still, as Kling observes, this kind of thing goes on in almost all industries. Sellers know more than buyers, salesman overstate benefits and downplay weaknesses of which they are aware, etc. So what makes these four industries different? Two things:

  1. Information asymmetries are unusually difficult to resolve in these industries. A substantial fraction of people who buy a low quality house, car, or stereo eventually come to notice that. This makes it possible for new purchasers of these goods to manage their information problem by researching others’ experience and seller reputations. But in the four industries I’ve described, even after we have purchased services, we are often unable to evaluate their quality.

    • Lots of Harvard grads do well, so reputation “yay!”. But people accepted to Harvard probably would have done well regardless of their choice of college. To the degree Harvard grads do unusually well, it’s hard to disentangle socialization and signaling effects from the benefits of education.
    • In finance, if a merger destroys value or an investment performs poorly, it is rare that the loss can be traced back to poor work by an intermediary. It’s clear that a lot of RMBS were constructed shoddily, even criminally. Yet impeccably produced RMBS of a 2006 vintage would also have performed poorly. Ex post, with full benefit of hindsight, most investors can’t easily tell the difference. Investment banks that put shoddy deals together have not taken reputational hits relative to their peers.
    • Government programs work well or poorly, perhaps provide some value but not as much as we hope. We rarely have apples-to-apples benchmarks by which to evaluate them.
    • Health care outcomes are jointly determined by health care services and often unobservable aspects of patient health. These are hard to disentangle just to evaluate effectiveness. Ranking health-care services in terms of value-for-money, while stakeholders with diverse interests necessarily participate in the research, is very challenging.

    In fact, despite ostentatious use of high technology and sometimes desperate fetishization of metrics, one might describe all four of these industries as premodern.

  2. More interesting is Kling’s point: “sellers themselves know less than what people expect”. That is, service providers in these industries are themselves uncertain of the value they are able to provide. Yet providers work hard to hide and downplay their uncertainty. Politicians pushing new programs offer authoritative projections of brilliant outcomes, although many initiatives fail once the lights of the bill-signing fade. Healthcare, finance, and education are built around credentials and prestige, despite questionable correlations between these tokens and value provided. Healthcare, finance, and educational institutions market themselves hard, portraying themselves as professional, competent, and above all, effective. These claims are not certain to be lies: High competence might sit within the wide confidence intervals that would surround a fair evaluation. But successful institutions do, and must, misrepresent those confidence intervals (to others, and sometimes to themselves). After all, would you go under the knife of a surgeon who told you that he thinks he might be competent? In all of these industries, there is an information asymmetry surrounding the degree of certainty that the services provided will in fact provide value. Providers have reason to be far less confident of their ability to deliver than they lead their customers to believe.

Note that these problems are not just a matter of bad actors. These industries face intrinsically difficult information problems. We can condemn a used car salesman who finesses odometers, but we can’t condemn the surgeon who thinks he is a god. We need him to think he is a god, despite the evidence, so that he is willing to come to work and we are willing to permit the violence he will do to us. Absent reliable markers of quality, we imagine that unreliable self-evaluations are probably better than nothing. “At least he his willing to put his reputation on the line,” we say of the confident doctor when we choose him over his modest colleague, although an egotist’s reputation may not suffer more than anyone else’s when things fail to work out. If our heuristic is to take self-evaluations as informative, competitive forces demand that providers offer “aggressive” self-evaluations. And so they do, in all four industries.

That doesn’t mean politicians, doctors, teachers, and bankers should get a free pass for all the ways they mislead us. There are corrupt practices in these professions that we can detect, that we should condemn and sometimes criminalize. But as long as these are fields in which providers themselves can’t reliably evaluate the quality of the services provided, the rest of us will have a very hard time distinguishing between corrupt practices and natural variability of outcomes. Moreover, these industries are likely to foster particularly insidious forms of corruption. Human beings want both to do well and to do good. Uncertainty leaves insiders ample room to persuade themselves, genuinely, that practices they find remunerative are in fact “best practices”. Under most circumstances, corrupt actors try not to be discovered, and when they are discovered, they are ashamed. When corrupt practices are discovered among bankers, lobbyists, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and teachers, our op-ed pages overflow with explanations of how activities that may smell questionable to the uninformed nose are in fact in the public interest. The columnists may be quite sincere. In fact, if you had the sort of detailed understanding available only to industry insiders, you would surely agree with them.

Which brings us back to the original point: We need the “information asymmetry industry”. One way or another, we’ll have bankers, health care providers, educators, politicians, and other sorts of professionals the quality of whose work is difficult to evaluate, by practitioners or by outsiders, ex ante or ex post. But we should acknowledge these are problematic industries for a capitalist economy and a democratic polity. Forecasts that they will dominate, or prescriptions that we should specialize in these sectors to exploit alleged comparative advantage, should be greeted unenthusiastically. I hope that Timothy Geithner takes note.

2. You know that you are getting old when explaining how Marx was wrong now makes you a Marxist

Okay. This is kind of trivial, but it made me giggle.

In response to the previous post, commenter john c. halasz writes:

Your Tyrone has lots of hair on his head and a gray bushy beard.

Matt Yglesias makes the reference more explicit:

[S]ome recent posts from Steve Randy Waldman and Ryan Avent that seemed to me to be walking up toward a Marx-style theory of overproduction, crisis, and the collapse of capitalism.

John Halasz is a good commenter, but I don’t know how old he is. Wikipedia tells me that Matt Yglesias is just over a decade younger than I am. What made me laugh is that the story he describes as “walking up toward a Marx-style theory of overproduction, crisis, and the collapse of capitalism” is basically a retread of the story my parents and high school history teacher told me about why Marx was wrong. That led me to wonder — were Halasz and Yglesias ever told the same story?

Specifically, the story I was told in my impressionable youth was this: Karl Marx had been a sharp analyst, but he was a terrible futurist. He did a good job of describing the dynamic of capital accumulation and the near-term stresses that dynamic would put on the 19th and early 20th century societies. But his prescriptions about how societies would and should respond to those stresses were catastrophically mistaken. In particular, Marx thought that capitalists were trapped in an unstable dynamic of capital accumulation from which they benefited, on the one hand, but which led inevitably to collapse and from which they could not, as a class, escape. Individual capitalists who tried to be “enlightened” in some sense would simply be sloughed off by competitive forces and join the ranks of masses. In modern economic lingo, there was a collective action problem. Capitalists would not, could not, surrender their privilege voluntary, therefore violent revolution by the working classes was the only possible way forward.

I remember pride in my businessman father’s voice when he explained to me that this was wrong. Marx had underestimated the ingenuity and flexibility of capitalist societies, and particularly of the United States during the New Deal. Government intervened to solve Marx’s collective action problem, enabling capitalists secure their enlightened self-interest by keeping a distribution of prosperity sufficiently broad that the predicted collapse could be avoided. My parents were (and still are) center-left, but staunchly anti-Communist. My mother had “escaped” — that was always the word — Communist Romania; she was (and remains) deeply grateful to the countries (Israel and the United States) into which she was rescued. To my father, American capitalism’s adaptability and ingenuity had proved Marx definitively wrong, in the best possible way — by producing a stable society that served the vast majority of its citizens, while countries whose politicians had followed Marx’s prescriptions grew into monsters.

I am not a particularly original thinker. Most of my posts are mutations of ideas that people better than me have whispered in my ears. I used Tyrone, in the previous post, as an exaggeratedly arrogant mouthpiece for my father’s story, with the minor twist of letting technology rather than capital dynamics be the force that would lead to collapse, but for the ability of the system to adapt via new institutions. Having heard essentially the same explanation in high school history class, I took this story to be widely shared conventional wisdom, at least within the mainstream, slightly center-left milieu in which I adolesced.

That would have been 1985 or 1986, Ronald Reagan’s America. Communism was a living rival then. Stories of our relative material success, of our system’s ability to deliver far better lives, even to the “working classes”, than the Communists, were a matter of national security. Matt Yglesias lived his 16th year in a very different world. America was triumphant and forging the “Washington consensus”. “Right-sizing” had already been invented as a euphemism for firing people. The project that Reagan had begun by “standing up to” the nation’s air traffic controllers was well underway. If a young Matt Yglesias had the misfortune of chatting with me in, say 1997, I would have had little good to say to him about labor unions but would have enthused about the transformative power of free markets and technology. I like to think of myself as unconventional, but I like to think a lot of things. I think it fair to say that the conventional wisdom that surrounded a curious, very bright teenager in 1997 would have been different from what I experienced a decade earlier, for better and for worse. I think this matters, it affects us all a lot more than we think it does.

Anyway, I really did giggle when I realized that an argument I thought of as conventional wisdom about how America proved Marx wrong sounded, perhaps because my audience was of a different generation, vaguely Marxist.

I’m not taking issue at all with the substance of Yglesias’ post, which I think is smart and quite right. Health care costs are millions of people’s livelihood, and inefficient health care costs are a big part of that. Much of how modern economies survive is by protecting information problems and barriers to competition that sustain overpayments. This broadens the wealth distribution while permitting recipients the fiction that flows of purchasing power involve no transfers (“welfare”), only proud, self-reliant income. The theory of labor unions and the theory of an inefficient health sector are identical, except one is more transparent and the other has proved more capable of buying political protection. The problem, in both cases, is not that there are transfers, but whether the distribution of transfers — to whom, from whom — is wise and fair. By forcing ourselves to pretend there are no transfers, we prevent ourselves from even posing the question.

Perhaps I am a creature of the conventional wisdom of my day, but I want to tell it strong. It is not those who advocate, but those who prevent, stabilizing transfers of purchasing power, who are the true Marxists. These self-styled capitalists do not espouse Marx’s theories, but they do something much worse: They perform them. They behave in precisely the way that Marx expected capitalists to behave. They cripple the American system’s greatest strength — its ingenuity, flexibility, adaptability. They prevent the sort of collective action through which earlier generations proved that capitalism could made be consonant with decent, stable, and broadly prosperous societies. In doing so, they risk proving Marx right.

Update: Not unusually, commenters have had much more interesting things to say than I’ve said. Nicholas Gruen @ Club Troppo has made a full post of an excellent comment by Indy. Also, Arnold Kling has responded.

Update History:

  • 21-February-2011, 7:45 a.m. EST: Added bold up about Nicholas Gruen hoising Indy’s post, and noting Arnold Kling’s response

On Tyler Cowen’s “Great Stagnation”

I’m late to this party, but I’m late to every party. Tyler Cowen’s recent microepic, The Great Stagnation, has been pretty throughly chewed over by the blogosphere. The essay is a quick read, thought-provoking, and getting to give Cowen a couple of bucks for the privilege only adds to the pleasure. The quick summary, for those who’ve been living in a cave, is that since 1973, we’ve been living in a “great stagnation”, during which the pace of growth experienced by the median American household slowed relative to expectations set in the period preceding. Cowen suggests that the explanation for this is a slowdown in the rate of technological change combined with an exhaustion of “low hanging fruit” afforded us by earlier advantages and innovations. Cowen simultaneously disputes both conventional measures of economic performance (we do not observe a “great stagnation” in headline GDP) and left-ish arguments that economic unhappiness stems primarily from maldistribution. We suffer instead from an absence of anticipated wealth. As Cowen puts it, we’re simply “poorer than we thought”.

  • I think the deepest issue Cowen brings out has less to do with technology than with problems in what economists measure (and people perceive) as “revenue” or “production”. In particular Cowen makes two related points:

    1. Many activities that generate apparent revenue are detached from reliable judgments of value. Using revenue as a measure of production requires, at a minimum, that discriminating, budget-constrained actors determine that whatever is “paid-for” offers real-economic value superior or at least comparable to activities that could be inspired by alternative expenditures of the funds.

      Cowen is appropriately general with this critique. Expenditures by government may not meet this “market test” because political actors may direct expenditures for reasons other than inspiring high-value economic activity, or because, for informational or organizational reasons, government may be unable to discern relative value. But the private sector is not immune. In spheres such as health care and education, the benefits of private sector as well as public sector expenditures are difficult to evaluate relative to alternative uses of resources. Cowen reminds us that health care and education are widely viewed as “growth” sectors, but to the degree we collectively overpay for them, “revenue” overstates economic value. A substantial portion of these expenditures should probably be accounted for as transfers and excluded from measures of aggregate production. But of course, we have no means of estimating the size of the appropriate haircut.

      I’d add another important industry to government, health care, and education: financial services. Like with health care and education, we simply are unable to evaluate the degree to which payments to financial service providers represent wise use of resources and to what degree they represent transfers to financial industry stakeholders. Inherent informational problems associated with investment quality, combined with the temptation by service providers to exploit these difficulties to extract transfers, render financial sector revenue highly suspect as a marker of value. Also, financial services are intimately involved in the other problematic sectors: One thing that binds government, health-care, and education is that all are financed in roundabout and sometimes opaque ways that soften near-term budget constraints and that shift costs and risks, both across time and onto people other than the purchasing decisionmaker. The means by which government, health-care, and education are financed help keep them vulnerable to agency and information problems.

      I think of government, education, health care, and finance collectively as the “information asymmetry industry”, and I find it terrifying that many people presume that they are the future growth industries for the United States. Dani Rodrik has pointed out that tradable goods are special, in terms of engendering development in often corrupt emerging markets. Cowen offers an astute explantion: tradables that compete in international markets are usually low-information-asymmetry goods. Apparent value (revenue from trade) and real value are likely to be closely aligned and hard to fake. I worry that specialization in the information asymmetry industry could be an antidevelopment strategy for developed countries.

    2. Conversely, Cowen points out that many new technologies generate value without generating commensurate revenue. It is clear that we would collectively pay a lot more for recorded music or news, for example, because we did in the past (and it’s likely that our reduced payments have more to do with technology and industry changes than with changes in our preferences). Cowen suggests that many of the current era’s technologies are like this, which is nice from a certain perspective (yay! free stuff!) but can cause a kind of sclerosis in an economy that nourishes itself via flows of monetary exchange.

    I think that Cowen is right on both counts. And note that these two factors, in and of themselves, go some way towards explaining “The Great Stagnation”, even before we get to the headline argument about a slowdown in technological change. I’m not referring to an argument Cowen addresses (but cannot entirely dispose of) that there is no great stagnation at all, once we account for measurement error. Instead, I wonder whether, rather than a paucity of new technologies, we might be experiencing a breakdown of an older gizmo that economists refer to as “markets”. As our economy tilts away from sectors in which value (however defined) and financial revenue are reliably cojoined, our primary means of orienting our behavior towards valuable activity, individually and collectively, become less and less effective. We simply don’t know what we ought to do. So we err. If the quality of economic decisionmaking is poorer than it was in past, that has consequences for welfare.

  • An interesting corollary of Cowen’s argument is that a substantial fraction of notional savings are in fact empty claims — no meaningful real economic activity accompanied the generation of that income, so no real investment could have attended its non-consumption. This suggests that any attempt to mobilize savings in aggregate — any net dissaving — is likely to result in either inflation or displacement of consumption by current earners. I think that this is true, that it is now and increasingly will be a source of social and political problems.

  • Despite the evidence that Cowen is able to muster (and lively internet debates about kitchen appliances and time travel), I remain agnostic on the question of whether a slowdown in the pace of technological change is largely to blame for whatever it is that ails us. I wouldn’t rule it out, but like Kevin Drum and others, I see a lot of very real “low hanging fruit” arising enhanced capabilities to coordinate and collaborate via internet and information technologies. These benefits go well beyond “cognitive surplus” and bemused infovoria. [1] Coordination technologies, ranging from assembly lines to the limited-liability joint-stock corporation, contributed mightily to past golden ages of advancement and growth.

    Cowen is clearly right that, with the exception of the internet, recent years have offered few technologies that radically and visibly altered how people live. But I think we need to think carefully about an “extensive” and “intensive” margin for technological change. The early industrial revolution largely streamlined manufacture of existing categories of goods (think textile factories rather than spinning wheels and molded products replacing hand-smithed metal). Producers saw their world turned upside-down, but consumers mostly found themselves with recognizable stuff, just more and cheaper. Still, one wouldn’t characterize it as a low-growth era.

    Cowen seems really focused on the “extensive margin” — the development of qualitatively new goods. I don’t think “growth”, in aggregate or as experienced by the median family, really captures what Cowen thinks we are missing. Instead, I think that Cowen is lamenting a scarcity of breathtaking resets. Developments like electrification and the widespread adoption of automobiles didn’t make people richer as much as they completely changed the circumstances of everyday life. Indirectly, they also made the production and marketing of previously extant goods much more efficient: Electricity helped make bread cheaper. But I don’t think cheap bread impresses Cowen as much as the fact that, post-electricity, humans colonized the night and Presidents colonized living rooms. Income statistics do end up capturing these sorts of changes, but in a manner that is arbitrary and formal. Ultimately, different technological regimes are incommensurable in welfare terms. While most of us would choose more food over inadequate nutrition and better health over worse, adoption of new technology is less a matter of individual choice than social evolution. One must adopt an automobile-centric lifestyle if workplaces move far from available housing. One must become internet proficient if current modes of employment are contingent upon it. The fact that the gas we are forced to purchase is factored into computations of real income and GDP doesn’t really imply that our preferences have been satisfied more completely than they would have been in a different-technology alternative. [2] It might be the case that the big changes whose absence troubles Cowen are welfare-destructive in and of themselves, but occurred only because they came bundled with large improvements in the productivity of prior goods, or simply because new possibilities rendered unstable earlier equilibria that were superior outright. If this is the case, we should celebrate rather than fret if recent modes of innovation have succeeded at increasing productivity without reseting the technological terms of our existence. [3] Ultimately, society is a game and big technological changes rescramble both the available strategies and payouts, leading to changes that are unpredictable both in form and in terms of welfare (under almost any welfare criterion that you might choose).

  • Suppose that it is true that we’re poorer than we’d anticipated, that past growth trends have eased. It’s not at all clear that what people conventionally think of as technology is the growth-limiting factor. Cowen looks to emerging markets for examples of how the availability of low-hanging fruit — technology and institutions already prevalent in developed economies — can hypercharge growth. But the less-developed world offers a different set of examples as well. There are many many economies where despite free and full availability of scientific information and plenty of institutions to emulate, low-hanging fruit is left to wither on the vine. We have (usually cartoonish and patronizing) explanations for other economies’ failures — “they” are corrupt and their cronies keep them down; they were scarred because of colonization by Belgians rather than Brits; (in whispers) they are culturally or even genetically inadequate to the task of development; they simply fail to make good choices. Whatever your just-so story, it’s pretty clear that from the inside, intelligent people struggle unsuccessfully to find means to overcome barriers that prevent them from picking delicacies that are hanging in front of their noses. We might be in a similar situation, with plenty of technological fruit ripe for the picking, but invisible barriers — political, cultural, whatever — that prevent us from doing so.

  • A few nights ago, a gentleman accosted me in a dream and declared himself to be “Tyrone”, Tyler Cowen’s evil twin. Tyrone told me that his brother had “as usual” got it all backwards. In fact, he told me, we’ve been in the Great Stagnation for a century as a result of, rather than for the lack of, technological progress. The median household is experiencing wealth stagnation caused by technological change. Households are feeling the pain now more than in the past, even despite a relatively modest pace of change, because over the past few decades we have managed to avoid employing the sort of durable and effective countermeasures to stagnation that have succeeded in the past.

    For the most part, Tyrone pointed out, technological progress is labor displacing. It simultaneously creates valuable new techniques for reconfiguring real resources while diminishing the number of people who are required to participate in those transformations, and who can therefore trade their participation for spending power. There is a myth among neoliberal economists that labor markets have always “adjusted” sua sponte: that when laborers were displaced from farms, “higher value” factories arose to employ them; that when the factories were downsized and offshored, a more pleasant, higher-value service economy came to be; etc. That narrative is wrong, he told me. At best it is criminally incomplete. With each technological change, new social institutions had to arise to sustain dispersed purchasing power despite a reduction of numbers and bargaining power of workers in old industries. Displaced workers ultimately did find new work, but only because the new social institutions “artificially” created buyers for all the things displaced workers reinvented themselves to sell. Without this institutional innovation, Tyrone tells me, something like the Great Depression would have been the new normal. Historically, institutions that have arisen to sustain purchasing power despite increasingly labor-efficient core production include direct government transfers and expenditures, labor unions, monetary policy interventions, financial bubbles and financial fraud.

    Cowen (Tyler, that is) argues that technological development creates opportunities for “bigger”, more extensive and intrusive government than existed during earlier periods. As Tyler tells the story, there is a progressive expansionary impulse to government, for which technological change creates opportunities, so government expands until those opportunities are fully exploited. Tyrone says his brother has the story backwards. Why, asks Tyrone, does government not only expand in absolute terms as a response to technological change, but also in relative terms? After all, as Tyler points out, private enterprise also has a natural expansionary impulse. With technological change, Tyler writes, “Everything was growing larger.” Yet, to the degree that we can measure it, government has grown dramatically in its share of the overall economy. Why does government win? Tyrone says government is a reluctant adopter of new technology (“Have you been to a government office?”), but that government outgrows the private sector despite this, because the concentration of economic power that attends technological changes demands countervailing state action if any semblance of broad-based affluence and democratic government is to be sustained. Tyrone (who is much more arrogant and less pleasant than his brother) proclaims this to be his “iron silicon law”: In (non-terminal) democratic societies, technological change must always and everywhere be accompanied by the growth of institutions that engender economic transfers from the relatively few who remain attached to older productive enterprises to the many who require purchasing power not only to live as they did before, but also to employ one another in novel or more marginal activities that were not pursued before. Inevitably those institutions develop in state or quasi-state sectors (which include the state-guaranteed financial sector and labor unions whose “collective bargaining” rights are enforced by the power of the state). Tyrone tells me that the only thing the post-Reagan “small government” schtick has accomplished is to push this process underground, so that covert transfers have been engineered by a “private” financial sector in ways that are inefficient, nontransparent, and often fraudulent according to traditional laws and norms. Some of these weak institutions upon which we relied to conduct transfers broke in 2008, so now we’re really feeling the pain. We’ll continue to feel the pain until we restore the ability of the financial system to hide widespread transfers, or until we employ some other sort of institution to provide a sustainable dispersion of purchasing power.

    Having met both brothers Cowen, I can state with some confidence that Tyler is smarter, better-looking, and much more engaging company over lunch. Tyrone is kind of icky, hygienically speaking, and he strikes me as gratuitously mean. But I think he has a point.

  • [1] Cowen does acknowledge the possibility the internet is generating low-hanging fruit, but that there are lags in the indirect process by which a communication and coordination technology translates into consumer visible improvements.

    [2] Even a thought experiment that holds health and nutrition constant but contemplates switching technologicolifestyles doesn’t cut it, because preferences are history-dependent. Emigration is a painful option even when better health and more food await on the other side of the border. We love the world that makes us. We’d really need to ask people in 1900 whether they’d prefer to move to our strange, televised world or to stay where they are but with 21st century health and wealth in terms of then-extant goods. If we allowed cross-migration between the 1900 and 2011 on those terms, giving people of both eras ample time to sample both eras, it’s not clear to me in which direction net migration would flow. To run this experiment, we’d have to correct for population differences and exclude groups that were plainly oppressed in 1900. (We’d want to exclude those groups from the sample, if what we are interested in is the welfare associated with technological, rather than social, change. It’s not obvious that the civil rights movement could not have happened independently of electricity or automobiles, although one could make a case that relaxation for the need for exploitative labor was a precondition for that movement.) Also, there’s the difficulty of simultaneously allowing both ample information for comparison and the sublime pleasure associated with not knowing what you are missing with respect to life in the other era.

    [3] I hasten to add that I, personally, am a technophile, and curious enthusiasm for technological resets is much of what I live for. But I don’t think that’s a very general or even common preference.

    Update History:

    • 14-Apr-2012, 10:00 p.m. EDT: More than a year later, Tyler Cowen and Scott Sumner have said nice things and relinked this piece. I gave it a reread, and though I remain happy with the substance, I found some textual and grammatical embarrassments. So no substantive changes, but I’ve made some small edits:
      • “…renders render financial sector revenue highly suspect as a marker of value.”
      • “it’s more likely that our reduced payments have more to do with technology”
      • “any attempt to mobilize savings in aggregate — any net dissaving — is likely to be attended by result in either inflation or displacement of consumption” (eliminated repetitive use of “attended by”)