Archeconomics

archangelI made up the term “archeconomics.” I’m using “arch” in the sense of “first principles” — e.g., as in “archetype.” An “arch” is the larger version of the smaller expressions of itself — e.g., not just a villain but an arch-villain, not just an angel but an archangel. Life goes big when an arch-something is at work:  experience expands beyond circumstance, meaning magnifies, significance is exaggerated.

Archeconomics is therefore the larger story behind economics.

I ended last week’s post by referring to the larger story behind the rentier economy. As usually happens when I’m on a research trail, several commentaries have appeared in my various feeds lately that look beyond the usual opinionated mash of current events and instead address over-arching ideas and issues. All of them deal in one way or another with the current status and possible future of the liberal worldview — an arch-topic if there ever was one.

The term “liberal” in this context doesn’t refer to political liberal vs. conservative, but rather to historical liberalism, which among other things gave us post-WWII neo-liberal economics. Mega-bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari describes this kind of liberalism in his latest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

“In Western political discourse the term “liberal” is sometimes used today in a much narrower sense, to denote those who support specific causes such as gay marriage, gun control, and abortion rights. Yet most so-called conservatives also embrace the broad liberal worldview.

“The liberal story cherishes human liberty as its number one value. It argues that all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans, as expressed in their feelings, desires, and choices. In politics, liberalism believes that the voter knows best. It therefore upholds democratic elections. In economics, liberalism maintains that the customer is always right. It therefore hails free-market principles. In personal matters, liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and allow their hearts — as long as they do not infringe on the liberties of others. This personal freedom is enshrined in human rights.”

If you read Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. you have a sense of what you’ll find in 21 Lessons, but I found it worth reading on its own terms. Two recent special magazine editions also take on the fate of liberalism:  Is Democracy Dying? from The Atlantic andA Manifesto for Renewing Liberalism” from The Economist. The titles speak for themselves, and both are offered by publications with nearly two centuries of liberal editorial perspectives.

Another historical liberal offering from a conservative political point of view is “How Trumpism Will Outlast Trump,” from Time Magazine. Here’s the article’s précis:

“These intellectuals are committed to a new economic nationalism … They’re looking past Trump … to assert a fundamental truth: whatever you think of him, Donald Trump has shown a major failing in the way America’s political parties have been serving their constituents. The future of Trump’s revolution may depend on whether this young group can help fix the economy.”

Finally, here’s a trio of offerings that invoke environmental economics — the impact  of the global ecology on global economics being another archeconomics topic. The first is a scientific study published last week that predicted significant environmental degradation within a surprisingly short time. Second is an article about the study that wants to know “Why We Keep Ignoring Even the Most Dire Climate Change Warnings.” Third is last week’s announcement that the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics is an environmental economist.

Some or all of those titles should satisfy if you’re in the mood for some arch- reading.

Next time, we’ll return to plain old economics, with a look at how the low income social strata is faring in all the dust-up over rentiers and economic inequality, robotcs and machine learning, and the sagging paycheck going to human labor.

The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog post sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980’s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest  written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007-2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.

The Rentier Economy — Primer Part 1

rise of the rentiers

As we saw last week, the original Monopoly game — then known as The Landlord’s Game — offered a choice of two different games, one played under “Prosperity” rules and the other under “Monopoly” rules. The post-WWII economic surge was a real-life Prosperity game:  it generated a rising tide of economic benefit that floated all boats across all social classes. The surge peaked in the 1970’s, and since then the Monopoly rules have increasingly asserted themselves, resulting in, among other things, stagnant employee compensation (except for the top 10%) and rising returns to capital owners — the lion’s share paid in the form of rents. The latter reflects the rise of a “rentier economy.”

First, we need to define “rent”:

Economists use the term ‘rent’ in a special way. For them, rent refers… to the excess payment made to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital) due to scarcity.

The scarcity factor that gives rise to rents can be natural, as with the case of land.

But rents can also arise from artificial scarcity — in particular, government policies that confer special advantages on favored market participants.

The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles (2017).

And “rentier”:

A rentier is someone who gains income from possession of assets, rather than from labour. A rentier corporation is a firm that gains much of its revenue from rental income rather than from production of goods and services., notably from financial assets or intellectual property. A rentier state has institutions and policies that favour the interests of rentiers. A rentier economy is one that receives a large share of income in the form of rent.

The Corruption of Capitalism, Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2016)

Economists didn’t see the rentier economy coming. They especially didn’t foresee how government policy would create it. The following is from The Corruption of  Capitalism:

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the mid-twentieth century, famously dismissed the rentier as the ‘functionless investor’ who gained income solely from ownership of capital, exploiting its ‘scarcity value.’ He concluded in his epochal General Theory that, as capitalism spread, it would mean the “euthanasia of the rentier,” and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity value of capital:

“Whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital… I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work.”

Keynes was mistaken because he did not foresee how the neoliberal framework built since the 1980’s would allow individuals and firms to generate ‘contrived scarcity’ of assets from which to gain rental income. Nor did he foresee how the modern ‘competitiveness’ agenda would give asset owners power to extract rental subsidies from the state.

Eighty years later, the rentier is anything but dead; rentiers have become the main beneficiaries of capitalism’s emerging income distribution system.

The old income distribution system that tied income to jobs has disintegrated.

And this is from The Captured Economy:

The last few decades have been a perplexing time in American economic life. Following a temporary spike during the Internet boom of the 1990’s, rates of economic growth have been exceptionally sluggish. At the same time, incomes at the very top have exploded while those further down have stagnated.

As a technical matter, rent is a morally neutral concept. ,,, Nevertheless, the term ‘rent’ is most commonly used in a moralized sense to refer specifically to bad rents. In particular, the expression ‘rent-seeking’ refers to business activity that seeks to increase profits without creating anything of value through distortions to market processes, such as constraints on the entry of new firms.

Those advantages can also take the form of subsidies or rules that impose extra burdens on both existing and potential competitors. The rents enjoyed through government favoritism not only misallocate resources in the short term but they also discourage dynamism and growth over the long term. Their existence encourages an ongoing negative-sum scramble for more favors instead of innovation and the diffusion of good ideas.

Economists have had an explanation for the latter trend, which is that returns to skill have increased dramatically, largely because of globalization and information technology. There is clearly something to this explanation, but why should the more efficient operation of markets be accompanied by a decline in economic growth?

Our answer is that increasing returns to skill and other market-based drivers of rising inequality are only part of the story. Yes, in some ways the US economy has certainly grown more open to the free play of market forces during the course of the past few decades. But in other ways, economic returns are now determined much more by success in the political arena and less by the forces of market competition. By suppressing and distorting markets, the proliferation of regulatory rents has also led to less wealth for everyone.

To be continued.

 

The End of the Firm

industrial revolution factory

 “The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing — and so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.”

Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985)

Peter Drucker’s famous dictum  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” established math and management as the indisputable co-sovereigns of the modern workplace. As it turns out, Drucker apparently never actually said that[1], but the concept has dominated the workplace since the advent of factories and railroads, telegraphs and electricity. Consider, for example, what it’s like to work at Amazon.

amazon 2

But, while math and management prospered together under the Industrial Revolution’s mechanistic worldview, today’s digitally-driven marketplace demands a freshly-nuanced management style, or in some cases, no management at all. Either idea challenges an even more foundational historical assumption:  that commerce is best conducted by a firm that must be managed. Eliminate the firm and you eliminate the need to manage it. Get rid of both, and you have an unimaginably different “description of the modern workplace” than Bob Black wrote about 33 years ago.

Last time, we looked at an article by science writer and artificial intelligence engineer George Zarkadakis called “The Economy Is More A Messy, Fractal Living Thing Than A Machine.” In it, he says this about the firm:

Ever since the invention of the assembly line, corporations have been like medieval cities: building walls around themselves and then trading with other ‘cities’ and consumers. Companies exist because of the need to protect production from volatile market fluctuations, and because it’s generally more efficient to consolidate the costs of getting goods and services to market by putting them together under one roof.  So said the British economist Ronald Coase in his paper ‘The Nature of the Firm’ (1937).

“Why do firms exist?” asks Ryan Avent in his book The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016). He provides the same answer as Zarkadakis:

According to a 1937 paper by Nobel Prize- winning economist Ronald Coase, it’s to bring all the necessary people, processes, and information under one roof, instead of contracting it all out. In exchange for the convenience of one-stop shopping, one-size-fits-all,  employees trade their independence and the possibility of greater personal market returns for the firm’ management structure and financial capital, which — as long as they conform to the company culture –  the way we do things around here — promises to keep them on task and to deliver a paycheck in return.

Today, however, the new “gig economy” is fast making that unimaginable the new normal — and that’s only the beginning, says Zarkadakis:

Now, in an era of Ubers-for-everything, companies are changing into platforms that enable, rather than enact, core business processes. The cost of reaching customers has dropped dramatically thanks to the ubiquity of digital networks, and production is being pushed outside the company wall, on to freelancers and self-employed contractors. Market and price fluctuations have been defanged as machine learning and predictive analytics help companies manage such ructions, and on-demand services for labour, office space and infrastructure allow them to be more responsive to changing conditions. Coase’s theory is nearing its expiry date.

The so-called ‘gig economy’ is only the beginning of a profound economic, social and political transformation. For the moment, these new ways of working are still controlled by old-style businesses models – platforms that essentially sell ‘trust’ via reviews and verification, or by plugging into existing financial and legal systems. Airbnb, eBay and Uber succeed in making money out of other people’s work and assets because they provide guarantees for good seller-buyer behaviour, while connecting to the ‘old world’ of banks, courts and government. But this hybrid model of doing digital business is about to change.

Avent concurs, and describes two key dynamics of the new anti-firm business model:  operating culture and rent: — how a business gets things done, and whether it owns the kinds of assets it can let others use, for a price:

Current workplace trends are bidding fair to tear down the firm model of operating. If you take employees out from under the firm umbrella — make them mostly freelancers, outsource jobs to countries on the make — then what’s left of value is mostly the company’s way of getting things done and the assets for which it can charge rent, in the economic sense of billing a premium for scarce assets. How assets become scarce becomes an essential policy-making function. These become essential “intangible” or “social” capital, replacing “human” capital.]

We’ll be talking more about social capital, rent, and other changing dynamics of the workplace.

[1] According to the Drucker Institute, Drucker never actually said that. And see this Forbes article for a rousing condemnation of the idea.