It’s what happens after innovation that matters for productivity

Having been guiltily reading a thriller or two, as well as David Olusoga’s Black and British, this is a brief post about an economics paper I’ve read, Paul David on Zvi Griliches and the Economics of Technology Diffusion. (Zvi was one of my econometrics teachers at Harvard, a very nice man who was still so obviously brilliant that he was a bit scary. He would ask a question which might be completely straightforward but one would have to scrutinise it carefully before answering, just in case.) Anyway, the Paul David paper is a terrific synopsis of three areas of work which are implicitly linked: how technologies diffuse in use; lags in investment, as new technologies are embodied in capital equipment or production processes; and multifactor productivity growth.

As David writes here: “The political economy of growth policy has promoted excessive attention to innovation as a determinant of technological change and productivity growth, to the neglect of attention to the role of conditions affecting access to knowledge of innovations and their actual introduction into use. The theoretical framework of aggregate production function analysis, whether in its early formulation or in the more recent genre of endogenous growth models, has simply reinforced that tendency.” He of course has been digging away at the introduction into use of technologies since before his brilliant 1989  ‘The Dynamo and the Computer‘. Another important point he makes here is that there has been little attention paid to collecting the microdata that would permit deeper study of diffusion processes, not least because the incentives in academic economics do not reward the careful assembly of datasets.

By coincidence, the paper concludes with a description of a virtuous circle in innovation whereby positive feedback to revenues and profits from a successful innovation lead to both learning about what customers value and further investment in R&D. Here is the diagram from the paper.

diagThis was exactly the argument made yesterday at a Bank of England seminar I attended by Hal Varian (now chief economist at Google, known to all economics students as author of Microeconomic Analysis and Intermediate Microeconomics, and also with Carl Shapiro of Information Rules, still one of the best texts on digital economics). Varian argued there are three sources of positive feedback: demand side economies of scale (network effects), classic supply side economies of scale arising often from high fixed costs, and learning-by-doing. He wanted to make the case that there are no competition issues for Google, and so suggested that (a) search engines are not characterised by indirect network effects because search users don’t care how many advertisers are present; (b) fixed costs have vanished – even for Google-sized companies – because the cloud; (c) experience is a good thing, not a competitive barrier, and anyway becomes irrelevant when a technological jump causes an upset, as in Facebook toppling MySpace. I don’t think his audience shed its polite scepticism. Still, the learning-by-doing as a positive feedback mechanism argument is interesting.

Power, plenty – and Brexit

It seems a good time to take this wonderful book, Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy by Ronald Findlay Kevin O’Rourke, off the shelf again: “It would be foolish … to simply assume that the remarkable progress achieved by globalization in the last few decades will be sustained into the future.”

Although I agree with this VoxEU column that the gains are well worth defending, the global political context for continuing trade growth is depressing. And yet the UK government seems determined to get as bad a deal as possible in removing the country away from the most successful free trading area there has ever been. A bad move being made ever worse by its incompetent implementation.

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The merit of methodological individualism: individuals count

I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, which accompanies the excellent BBC series (& is an amazing bargain at £6 for a big hardback on Amazon at the moment). Just a short way in, I’m delighted to find reference to the true origins of Thomas Carlyle’s description of economics as ‘the dismal science’. Carlyle was, as Olusoga notes, “an apologist for slavery.” He thought economics was dismal because prominent economists were in the abolition campaign, and thereby – in his view – undermining the sanctity of private property rights with their ‘expertise’. This was surely an occasion when the methodology of economics – based on identical, individual agents – was surely on the side of right. There is an excellent detailed essay on this in the Library of Economics and Liberty (in 2 parts).

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Among the others on the right side at this time were those Lancashire mill workers who supported the Union blockade of the southern ports in the American Civil War, despite the great personal cost the Cotton famine imposed on them. I hadn’t heard of Cotton Famine Road, despite growing up nearby. Manchester still remembers the episode thanks to the donated statue of Abraham Lincoln. There was a super In Our Time about it a while ago.

Lincoln in Manchester

Lincoln in Manchester

I’ve also enjoyed the book’s demolition of the vile Enoch Powell, a pompous man who prided himself on historical knowledge, as completely unhistorical in his beliefs about the England of yore.

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New books, more to read

It’s always exciting getting the new catalogues and a couple of Spring 2017 ones have recently landed. There are quite a few enticing titles in the Princeton University Press one (my own dear publisher of course). Cass Sunstein has #republic, about democracy in the social media age, Jean Tirole’s Economics for the Common Good will be out in English, and Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler looks intriguing – it seems to take the Piketty-esque line that violent episodes are needed to equalise society, looking at the long sweep of history since the stone age. I also like the look of Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped The Modern World (and I thought it was cotton…..)

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Speaking of Piketty, Harvard University Press has After Piketty edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum. Philosopher Pascal Bruckner has a book called The Wisdom of Money, somewhat contrarian in our anti-capitalist times. Mark Granovetter’s Society and Economy looks like a must-read. I’m intrigued by Barak Rishman’s Stateless Commerce: The Diamond Network and the Persistence of Relational Exchange – an exploration of a surviving ethnic trading network.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the holidays to make a dent in the current towering pile of books….

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Digi-trust-busting

As someone who spent eight years on the Competition Commission, the changing shape of competition in the digital world is a question of compelling interest to me. Mainly, I blocked mergers, but the exceptions were retail inquiries where the growing competition from online retailers (especially Amazon) was, to me, a clear constraint on merging high street chains (some of my colleagues were less convinced – this was 2001-2009). Looking more recently at the literature on digital platforms, it is clear that economists have to step up and deliver new, practical analytical tools for competition authorities. As Jean Tirole and his co-authors famously established, the old tools of market definition and SSNIP tests are inadequate for assessing competitive conditions. And when the dynamics of competing for versus in the market, and the evolution of ecosystems, are so important now, the longstanding failure of competition economics to deliver a systematic way of thinking about static versus dynamic impacts of mergers really matters.

This is a long-winded preamble to mentioning Virtual Competition: the promise and perils of the algorithm-driven economy by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke. The authors clearly are concerned about the failure of competition policy tools in the new context, and although it tries to be even-handed the book paints a picture of a world of increasing market power, to the detriment of consumers and citizens.

The most interesting thread in the book from an economist’s perspective is the reflection on the role of information in markets. Reductions in search costs should improve consumer and economic welfare, make markets more competitive. However, the greater availability of information in the online world is illusory because there is a staggering imbalance. Digital platforms have an extraordinary amount of extra information about us – and there are very interesting chapters covering the struggle between platforms, advertisers, app developers etc to gather and aggregate the personal information. However, the information we consumers get about the goods and services we’re looking to purchase is diminishing. The book raises the question as to whether the use of cookies and geo-tracking is enabling ever-better price discrimination by platforms and online sellers; there has been no systematic evidnce that this is so, but then it would be hard to gather the data to test this properly.

At the start of the internet era, there was great optimism that this was a technology for empowering consumers with more nearly perfect information, allowing easy price and product comparisons. In fact, it may be returning us to the era of the bazaar, with reducing transparency of information about prevailing market prices and conditions. “In a market that is in reality controlled by bots and algorithms, what power does the invisible hand posess?” Instead, maybe we have a digitalized hand, determining the specific market price in any given context. As others have done (Francis Spufford in Red Plenty – not cited – and Eden Medina in Cybernetic Revolutionaries – which is cited here), the book notes that in the limit a profit-maximizing market with perfect information and a social-welfare maximising central planner similarly well-informed would reach the same prices and allocations (although contrasting distributions).

The book does a good job of describing the changing dynamics of competition in digital markets, and why there is every reason to be concerned. Written by two lawyers, it is frustrating that it hardly mentions the economic research literature, which is proliferating even if not yet reaching policy-ready conclusions. The authors also over-do some of their critique of digital businesses – for example, they include a section on the use of framing and choice architecture to manipulate consumer choice, but that dates back to the pre-digital days of Mad Men. Still I share their view that we are in an age similar to those of the giant industrial trusts, and some digi-trust-busting is going to be needed.

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