Grasping the intangible nettles

Second albums after a huge first hit are always tricky, but the famous econ duo of Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake pull it off with Restarting the Future: how to Fix the Intangible Economy, a sequel to their best-selling Capitalism Without Capital.

That title was missing a ‘Physical’ in parenthesis before ‘Capital’, because the point was to underline the relative importance of intangible capital in the economy now – everything from patentable drug formulae to reputation to social trust to the tacit know-how that makes complex organisations function. While intangibles have always been important in the economy, they now predominate in the creation of economic value. Indeed this has been the case for decades now (my book The Weightless World is 25 years old this year). Jonathan and Stian (who are friends of mine) set out the special characteristics of intangibles – fours Ss, scalability, sunkenness, spillovers, and synergies – and explored the implications.

The new book starts with the observation that all is not well in the economy, with a litany that has become all too familiar: stagnant productivity, excessive inequality, a lack of resilience, ‘dysfunctional’ competition and what they term inauthenticity. They note, too, that investment in intangibles has slowed down markedly. Their diagnosis is that while existing institutions (in the broad sense in which that term is used in economics) were able to support intangible growth up to a point, progress now will depend on institutional reform: “institutions are out of sync with the intangible economy”. In their sights for reform are institutions and policies to support better (and fund) research and development, a redesigned competition policy, improvements to the financial architecture and monetary policy, and fixing cities.

The first half of the book is diagnosis, including rejecting some alternative diagnoses. In particular, they reject the idea that markets have become too concentrated, arguing that firms’ mark-ups have not risen when their intangibles are measured properly. I must say I don’t find this persuasive, given for example the steady consolidation of service sectors (pharmacies, vets, private healthcare, accountancy firms, financial advisers….) or simply observing the steady degrading of big tech service offers (eg Amazon searches being dominated by paid-for items). Still, competition policy certainly needs (and is getting) a refresh. Nor does this mean the intangibles explanation is invalid – on the contrary, it seems to be an integral part of the way production has been restructured.

The second half of the book then goes on to recommendations for reforms of policies and institutions, all rather sensible albeit not tangling with the politics of how these changes might come about except to observe that winners from the old regime will use their power to lobby against change.

I have some other quibbles. Jonathan and Stian put James Scott (Seeing Like A State) and Ernst Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) in the same ideas basket, which seems a bit odd to me although it’s decades since I read Schumacher. I don’t really understand their argument about inauthenticity, which draws on Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs‘ and on Baudrillard, as an economic phenomenon – I decided it was about (lack of) trust or social capital but am not sure. The chapter on competition seems to claim that the debate about big tech etc only has one proposition, namely break-up, whereas in fact there is a rich debate about reshaping competition policy and enforcement in these large scale, spillover-laden markets. It also shoehorns in positional arms races in the jobs market into the ‘dysfunctional competition’ basket, when this is ja distinct labour market phenomenon.

But these really are quibbles about an excellent book. Their fundamental point about institutions lagging the structure of the economy is spot on, as is the implication that different kinds of collective approaches are needed to the economy. In the world of the four Ss, individualism and market-knows-best policies make for stagnation and discord. A final note: the book is published as the Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us that tangibles from tanks to wheat really matter too. Simon Schama writes in the Financial Times that Ukraine’s ‘software’ has so far held out better than anybody might have feared against Russia’s hardware. But the world of the post-1989 era is changing.

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Taking ideas seriously

In preparation for delivering the 2021 John Urry lecture at Lancaster University on Thursday, I’ve been re-reading the book that introduced me to his work, Economies of Signs and Space, co-authored with Scott Lash. It was published in 1994, but being an economist, and therefore more ignorant of the other social sciences than I ought to be, I had only just found it when I wrote my 1997 The Weightless World. The commonalities in our ideas were striking – more so to me now than I recall them being 25 years ago, although I cite the book.

These included the intuition about the increasing salience of time and space – both books have a ‘cities’ chapter – fragmenting production systems, the importance of the cultural industries, the deficit of institutions lagging behind economic and cultural change. But above all the increasing share of value assigned to the intangible or weightless. They write: “What is increasingly produced are not material objects but signs,” and note the “increasing component of sign-value or image embedded in material objects.”

The lecture this week will pick up on these insights – I think I and they were pretty prescient – to talk about what it means to have an economy of ideas, but will also talk about the need to re-focus on the material foundation of this economy: giant warehouses and energy-guzzling AIs. Oh, and human brains.

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The history – and future – of American capitalism

Reading Jonathan Levy’s Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States has been quite a commitment: over 700 pages of text, plus notes, in hardback. The sheer weight militated against my taking in the grand sweep if its ambition, as I had to read it sitting at home propped on cushions. Nevertheless, it was well worth it.

As the title suggests, the account is organised into different ages: commerce (early days from late 17th century, and the role of slavery); capital (post Civil War to Fordism and the Depression); control (New Deal & postwar golden age); chaos (1980 on). The organising idea is the changed relationship between state and business in each of the eras, but importantly that the state, and political decisions, always ultimately determined the character of capitalism. The private sector – titans such as Morgan and Ford – clearly made a massive contribution to shaping US industrialisation through their business model choices, union-bashing and personal force of will; but they were not writing the story of capitalism on a blank sheet of paper. Government decisions and political forces constrained them and tamed them. And in each of the eras, there were distinct political visions, starting with the conflicting Hamilton and Jefferson visions.

This political economy framing made the final section the most interesting to me, given the many straws in the wind indicating that the 2020s will prove another junction between eras as belief in the “Magic of the Market” (Chapter 19) evaporates. This isn’t to say the Biden presidency will form the template for a new era – and indeed the book stops with the post-GFC recession – but rather that the Reaganite/Thatcherite order has become a disorder.

As in any Big Book, there are lots of interesting details and eye-catching turns of phrase. The superior logistics of the Union Army for example, involving vast military contracts for provisions and even railroad-building: “A highly functional political economy of corruption helped the Union win the war.” The early signs of the importance of the changing geography in US economic development as NASA and companies such as IBM opened facilities in Alabama in the late 1950s, signalling the rise of the sunbelt. The role of JP Morgan in creating forward-looking corporate valuations in the late 19th century merger movement.

There are points at which it seems like the book isn’t 100% in control of the economic terminology. For instance, Levy frequently uses a phrase about deposits ‘pyramiding into New York’ as if it’s a technical term of art. And there are a few scattered graphs that don’t add much to the words – the reproduced paintings are better illustrations of the points being made, be it about the frontier or 1960s consumerism. These are minor quibbles.

The book ends: “I have emphasized that American capitalism is an especially forward-looking economic system, in which expectations of the future play a prominent role in determining the present.” I think this statement is always true, and that it’s the balance between optimism about the future and nostalgia for the past that shapes an economy. The same page later lights on what is particularly distinctive about the US: “its pronounced historical amnesia.” And as Levy concludes, now is the moment for a better imagined future to come into play. Over to the politicians, Biden and the not-yet dormant spectre of Trumpism.

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From Hobbes to Locke – and back again?

I’m a fan of Deirdre McCloskey, but accept that her writing style is a bit marmite – it’s always clear but she has a rather arch tone which some readers don’t like. Some of her books are also rather long, and the three in her terrific Bourgeois Era trilogy, The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity and Bourgeois Equality, fall into this camp. They repay the time required, drawing as they do on McCloskey’s extensive reading and research (to get a flavour of how extensive, look at some of her posted course syllabi here).

Now, however, anybody unwilling to commit the time to the whole Bourgeois Era trilogy can read instead this new summary version by McCloskey and Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. Where Acemoglu and Robinson’s Narrow Corridor takes inspiration from Hobbes, this book is inspired by Locke, and argues that liberty is the key to the great enrichment of the past two and a half centuries.

At a time when the mood – and reality – of the times is swinging toward state intervention in the economy – and rightly so, given the potentially Hobbesian world to which the combination of market power and pandemic have brought us – it’s all the more important to keep an open mind and take these arguments from economic liberty seriously. Don’t be put off by the blurbs on the back from Stephen Davies of the IEA and Matt Ridley. Besides, the sweep of McCloskey’s historical knowledge is such that the book is just a good read (if you like the tone), and a fraction of the length of the trilogy!

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Burning platforms

In 2011 the CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop sent a memo to staff comparing the business to a burning platform from which it was essential to jump in order to change course. He was referring to the disruption of Nokia’s revenues and profitability by Apple and Android smartphones, and he was right. Rebecca Henderson’s Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire is essentially arguing that most of the world’s businesses are on burning platforms, if only they knew it. Either the disruption of climate change consequences, or of social insurrection due to inequality – or, as it turns out, the effect of a global pandemic, though the book predates this – will destroy capitalism. Unless businesses across the board change their ways.

I got the book as it was one of the FT Business Book award shortlist titles I hadn’t yet read (I don’t fancy the ones on Netflix or Instagram, but have read & enjoyed all of Deaths of Despair, If/Then and The World Without Work). Henderson clearly has vast experience of engaging with businesses of different kinds, and much of the book is about the success stories – those that have re-engineered themselves to become oriented toward purpose rather than profit. The examples include Unilever and Aetna, described in some detail, as well as old chestnuts like the worker-owned John Lewis and Mondragon, and a range of smaller companies, and industry initiatives like the move to purchase sustainable palm oil.

The book has a good term for what’s needed to make the kinds of changes described in these examples: architectural disruption. As Henderson acknowledges, many more businesses are still oriented toward short term profit and share price rather than long-term social purpose – even though the purpose-driven businesses ultimately do far better in conventional terms. She identifies some key barriers, among them the necessary big internal re-organisation and culture change. Becoming a purpose-driven and high productivity business requires a high level of trust within the firm, and many managers are unwilling and able to embark on this programme.

There are external barriers too: the short-termism of some investors, the difficulties of getting co-operation among businesses, and the political and regulatory context. So reforms to corporate governance and finance (including proper risk-measurement and accounting), and to the political climate of ideas will be needed in addition. List all that’s needed and it can seem daunting. But we’re all on a burning platform. My guess is that several forces will converge to bring about change – millenial employees demanding better, political upheaval given the state of the world, and un-ignorable consequences of the damage to nature. Whether the change will happen fast enough is another matter.

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