Who owns the future? Not you

It’s taken me a while to get through Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? It was highly recommended to me and I found it an interesting read. But as it’s a book about digital economics by a non-economist, and therefore written in a language foreign to the way I think about the issues, it was a surprisingly difficult read. I don’t think normal people would have the same difficulty.

The theme of the book is that the economy has developed in ways that enable what Lanier calls ‘Siren Servers’ to appropriate the past and present labour of many other people for themselves, and thereby hollow out the middle classes. This situation is the result of the way the Siren Servers – he means Amazon, Facebook, Google etc – have used the presumption that “information is free”, specifically the data they all gather about all of us and by all of us, but advertising is paid for. Lanier quite rightly points out that the customers of these titans are the advertisers, not the individual users. Lengthy user agreements that nobody reads means the corporations take no risks, only revenues.

Lanier seems to believe that eventually this economic structure will become unsustainable because it is destroying normal middle class livelihoods and there will be nobody to buy the products being advertised. The Siren Servers become so big that they eat their environment (just as the financial markets did).

His proposed solution is nano-payments attached to information generated by individuals, whether that’s their ‘data’ or their creative or digital products. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” He points out that HTML, although marvellously convenient, only links one way, while Ted Nelson, an early thinker about linking, argued for two-way links. This is less convenient because of the additional updating required. In fact, the book left me completely unclear how two way linking to enable nano-payments would work in practice. However, Lanier argues: “This is the only way that democracy and capitalism can be in alignment.” Without greater symmetry between supplier and acquirer of information, the information economy will collapse.

I have an instinctive sympathy with the book’s argument, but do not think the unsustainability in capitalism we all can see at present boils down to the absence of micro-payments implemented via two-way hypertext linking. One question is Jean Tirole’s: will new digital giants benefiting from network effects come along and displace Google et al? If that hasn’t happened within, say, a decade, then the time would come to regulate these vital utilities to ensure they serve the public interest. More generally, I would look at beefing up competition policy as one of the levers to loosen the political power acquired by ‘Siren Servers’ – in which category I’d include the financial sector as well as the ICT sector.

The question of distributing productivity gains to the population as a whole is not confined to the digital economy either. While it’s right to be concerned about the jobbing musicians and journalists whose jobs are being destroyed by “free” online content, there are lots of other standard middle class jobs seeing living standards decline, so the economic and political issues go far beyond what’s covered in Who Owns the Future? For of course this started some time ago with blue collar jobs. However, it’s an interesting book, and it’s always worthwhile to hear what experts in other fields have to say about economic issues, for their different perspective. I think Lanier’s diagnosis and solution will have quite wide appeal.


Money as a process, not a thing

Nigel Dodd’s The Social Life of Money is fascinating. I’ve never understood money and don’t think I do yet. One of the signs of its abstraction as a concept is the way people bring their own interpretations to it, perfectly plausibly.

In my first ever job, in the Treasury in the mid-1980s, I had the task of looking at the properties of different linear combinations of deposits, all corresponding to different definitions of money – not that I over-thought it at the time. Economics textbooks over the years have blithely carried a completely fictional, institution-free account of the money multiplier, and give us probably the least plausible explanation, typically – and unhistorically – claiming money emerged from barter trade.

Information scientist Jaron Lanier’s book Who Owns The Future, which I’m currently reading, says, “Money is simply another information system.” Digital identity and currency guru Dave Birch tells us Identity is the New Money. This echoes Keith Hart in his classic The Memory Bank: “The two great memory banks are language and money. Exchange of meanings through language and of objects through money are now converging in a single network of communication, the internet.” Another anthropologist David Graeber in his tome Debt: The First 5000 Years rooted money in group cultures. Nigel Dodd is a sociologist so he gives us the sociological perspective.


Dodd’s book starts by looking at the various origin myths and links each to current (sociological) monetary theories. It then takes money by theme: capital, debt, guilt, waste, territory, culture and utopia. The chapter covering the terrain most familiar to economists is that on debt, but it takes an entirely different perspective, with Keynes and Minsky the principal economists named here. The chapter’s conclusion gives its flavour: “A monetary system that i defined by an over-arching orientation toward the interest of creditors is inimical to democracy. …. Democracy, or society, now appears to be in open conflict with the needs of finance. Debt is no longer facilitating capitalism, it is driving it.”

In a way, I found this book very heavy going because it is written in the language of sociology, and with lots of references unfamiliar to me. But it’s good for any of us to look through the lens of a different discipline. I find Dodd’s conclusion persuasive – that money is not a thing but a social process. This tallies with Dave Birch’s argument that the combination of ubiquitous mobiles and their record of a dense social graph means digital identity is fast becoming the latest manifestation of money.

Dodd also presents the paradox that money is both outside the realm of values it describes, as the means of measurement, and inside it as a particular commodity with a value – he quotes Georg Simmel as saying money is both the measure and measured. And he links this self-referential character to the capacity for financial bubbles and crises to inflate themselves. True value lies in the social life of money, in the activities of human societies.

What this means for monetary policy is another matter entirely, and Nigel Dodd’s forays into economics are far less persuasive – not that there seems to be a more compelling approach to money on offer from the macroeconomists either at the moment. Sticking a bit of ‘institutional’ friction into DSGE models to represent the banking and shadow banking sectors can only be a sticking plaster until monetary economists start to take seriously the insights to be drawn from sociologists and others.

Trains, planes and no automobiles

On my planes and trains just recently I read Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. No automobiles in my travels, and, as it happens, not much about the automobile left in Motor City either.

It’s a gripping read, in the same post-crisis-America genre as The Unwinding by George – another superb read that paints a depressingly realistic picture of life for so many people in the post-industrial US. Detroit is a rather gonzo journalism version – LeDuff used to report from war zones. As it turns out, that perspective seems all to appropriate when he returns to his home city.

One of the most depressing aspects is how quickly and comprehensively the polity and economy crumble when trust or social capital falls below some threshold. Everybody is afraid. Normal contact and transactions become impossible. There are, for example, no high street names left in the city of Detroit, none – the chain stores have all left. Politics had become – this was written before the official bankruptcy – absolutely venal with all the usual manifestations of corruption and incompetence that characterise poor countries with failed institutions.When LeDuff writes: “The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed,” he surely speaks for many of his fellow citizens. Among the most incompetent, as portrayed here, are the managers of the big auto companies, whose bailout by the Federal Government in 2009 did nothing to stem the tidal wave of job losses.

The book is interesting about the loss of this factory work. It doesn’t romanticise it at all, recognising how dull, dispiriting and disempowering it is. At the same time, LeDuff argues that it taught workers an important perspective on the world and – at least in the past – an understanding of the nobility of the hard grind. “Turning away from our birthright – our grandfather in the white socks – is the thing that ruined us,” he writes of his generations aversion to the discipline of hard graft that – at least – factory work gave earlier generations.

The collapse theme harks back to my last post here, about how essential trust is to a modern (any) economy. Detroit offers an example of the post-trust economy. Read this book and be afraid.

Market failures and government failures

It’s lecture preparation time of week again, and the general theme for next week is the state as a producer: nationalisation and privatisation, PFIs and PPPs, contracting out and industrial policy.

This is one of those areas where there is a vast amount written, but much of it furiously ideological, or else at the wrong focal length for undergraduate students – far too specific or detailed. However, courtesy of Alex Marsh, I have found You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatisation by Elliott Sclar.

This refers to privatisation in the US meaning of contracting out, rather than the UK sense of the sale of state assets. It starts by situating the debate in the context of the shifting tides of political beliefs over the 20th century, towards planning and the role of government as an agent of social change, and then back towards “free” markets and individual action. It then has a few chapters on the basics of markets versus administered or planned services and market failures, and also the basics of writing contracts and how hard or easy it is to specify the service and level of quality to be provided. This part has some very good and clear examples about how difficult it can be to get the incentives right in such contracts – indeed, how often there are perverse incentives due to contract structure.

The book goes on to market structures and competition, and organisational theory – the distinction between exchange in a market and a continuing relationship between individuals or organisations. The book ends with a plea for a less ideological debate about the issue, in favour of one more informed by economic and institutional analysis, by the realities of information asymmetries, moral hazard, principal-agent problems and the like. I wholly sympathise, for of course markets and governments fail in the same places for similar reasons – and this is why Elinor Ostrom‘s study of the idiosyncrasies of non-market, non-state collective institutions is so interesting. But am not optimistic about shedding the ideology.

There’s no doubt what Prof Sclar’s views about contracting out are, so this is in that sense a partisan book. However, it is carefully reasoned and the economic issues are set out clearly. The writing is lively with loads of examples (albeit all American), and the book is extremely clear – perhaps it helps that Prof Sclar is an urban planner rather than in an economics department!

It’s too long, and perhaps a bit too demanding, for 2nd year undergraduates though. (One of the things I’m learning in delivering my course is that my idea of a reading list is far longer than others like the look of.) If anybody knows of anything alternative (short-ish) readings that shed more light than heat, I’d be glad to know, especially UK-centric ones.

The crisis of inaction

A guest review by Bill Allen

 The crisis in Eric Helleiner’s title is not something that has happened, but something that hasn’t happened. The aftermath of a real crisis – something that has happened - can provide the opportunity for institutional change. Helleiner’s choice of title reflects his observation that there has been very little effective change in the panoply of international financial institutions since the financial crisis of 2007 – 08. Specifically, he claims that the G20 has achieved very little, that financial regulation has remained undesirably ‘market-friendly’, and that no effective international organisation for financial regulation has been set up.

 Helleiner is quite right about the G20, whose main boast – agreement on a doubling of IMF quotas – has not been ratified by the United States Congress. He could have gone a lot further. International institutions generally were not much use in the crisis. The IMF lent very little in 2008. The Chiang Mai Initiative, which had been set up in the late 1990s as a source of mutual liquidity support in East Asia, was not used at all in 2007 – 08. There is a reason for this. International financial institutions, despite having extremely talented staff and managers, are inherently slow in reacting to fast-moving situations and lack the ability to improvise. This reflects their governance structures, and the caution that democratically-accountable governments display when faced with any new invitation to put up money. Fear of moral hazard always trumps recognition of a new urgent need. There is no getting over this problem, and it will be a considerable surprise if the recently-announced BRICS financing facility turns out not to be purely ornamental.

Just as well, then, that the Federal Reserve was unilaterally ready, able and willing to provide emergency dollar liquidity in short order and in massive amounts when it was most needed in the autumn of 2008. Chairman Bernanke received democracy’s traditional reward for doing the right thing when he was attacked for lending money to foreigners by Congressmen who either could not or would not understand that the Fed’s actions were in the interests of the United States as well as those of other countries, and that the Fed had prevented what is now known as the Great Recession from turning into a repetition of the Great Depression.

Where does this leave the international monetary system? Helleiner notes that China is in favour of a system based more heavily on Special Drawing Rights, and bemoans the failure to create more SDRs. But getting agreement to increase the SDR issue is always going to be slow and difficult, no matter how urgent the need. And in any case, an SDR is merely a right bestowed on an IMF member country to get some real money (dollars, probably, or possibly euros) from another member country which is willing to take SDRs in exchange. As Richhild Moessner and I have shown, the expansion of the SDR issue runs the risk of undermining the liquidity of the IMF itself. The key issue is what counts as real money and who controls the supply of it.

Past experience shows that it is desirable for the international monetary system to be capable of expanding international liquidity quickly in a crisis. That means that international reserve currencies have to be managed by single countries, which are sufficiently enlightened to understand that what is in the global interest may also be in their national interest. On this criterion, the dollar is the only plausible reserve currency at present and in the foreseeable future. The euro and its managers have structural problems - no single government,constipated decision making, and a penchant for looking inwards rather than outwards: the European Central Bank was dangerously slow in extending swap lines when they were needed in 2008 – 09, and bizarrely confined its swap lines to EU member countries. The renminbi, often suggested as a possible challenger to the dollar, has the crippling handicap that there is no separation in China between the government and the judiciary. No responsible reserve manager could rely on the RMB as a large-scale repository of liquid assets. Helleiner also claims that Russia was ‘strongly committed to goal of ruble internationalization’ after the crisis (p 85), but if so, Russia did nothing about it, and incomprehensibly passed up the opportunity to win influence among former Soviet Union countries by offering dollar swaps from its large reserves during the crisis.

Unfortunately the outlook for the dollar as a reserve currency is not assured, despite the Fed’s masterly crisis management of 2008. There is the perennial problem of the budget deficit, and the new threat that the Congress will force the U.S. Treasury to default by refusing to increase the Federal debt limit. Without the dollar, the international monetary system would be thrown into chaos, and an undesired return to gold would be on the cards.

What of financial regulation? Helleiner wishes that financial regulation had become less ‘market-friendly’, but he seriously underestimates the amount of new bank regulation that has been introduced and does not seem to understand its effects. For one thing, he says virtually nothing about liquidity regulation, which has been introduced into the Basel regulatory apparatus. In practice, in the UK at least, liquidity regulation has forced banks to buyenormous amounts of government securities, and to curtail lending to private borrowers. It has subsidised government borrowing and taxed private borrowing, and arguably prolonged the recession unnecessarily.

More generally, Helleiner misses what I think is the key issue in bank regulation, namely theproblem of banks that are too big to fail. They were too big to fail in 2008 and they are still too big to fail. This fact has profound implications. Too-big-to-fail imposes contingent liabilities on governments. Naturally the governments want to minimise the liability; hence official regulation of finance. As Helleiner points out, regulators cannot always be expected to co-operate with their foreign counterparts. All of them are servants of their own states, and are obliged to act in the interests of their own state and in accordance with its laws. If those interests and laws don’t conflict with those of other states, then fine; if not, not. So governments want to ensure that their contingent risk is monitored by people they control: international co-operation is limited in scope. All this explains increased capital requirements, the introduction of maximum bank leverage ratios, and the new-found aversion to foreign bank branches and pressure for subsidiarisation of international banks, country by country.

If it could be arranged that financial companies were not too big to fail, then most official financial regulation would be unnecessary; private incentives would be better aligned with social welfare and corporate governance, lamentably feeble in many cases before the recent crisis, could be expected to be more effective. It is impossible to contemplate all parts of the financial landscape being arranged in such a way: for example, the clearing houses through which financial companies are now required to settle derivative and other transactions are inevitably going to be too big to fail. But is possible to contemplate a less concentrated banking and securities-dealing industry, both in the retail and wholesale fields. Paradoxically, heavier and more intrusive regulation protects big companies, because potential competitors cannot bear the heavy fixed costs that it imposes. We have got stuck in a concentratedfinancial system/heavy regulation world, but a dispersed financial system/lighter regulation world would be much better.

 Helleiner is concerned that the banking industry has too much lobbying power, and asserts that reforms have been watered down in consequence. He provides no evidence, merely referring to similar claims by others. He complains that ‘the G20 made little effort to develop international standards that might tackle the issue of the potential “capture” of regulatory process by private financial actors’ (p 126). The United States addressed this issue in 1991when ‘Prompt Corrective Action’ was enacted, removing regulators’ discretion in managing failing banks, but that did not prevent the recent crisis. How serious is the issue of regulatory capture now? In the years before the crisis, bankers, regulators and governments shared many of the same illusions about the durability of the boom. Bankers were respected, consulted, and knighted. Financial companies had a lot of lobbying power, since they paid a disproportionately large share of taxes, in Britain at least – tax receipts that were sorely missed when the financial companies stopped making profits. But now, in many countries, the main issue between banks and governments is the ‘deadly embrace’ in which governments depend on banks to finance their deficits while banks depend on governments to guarantee their deposits. The situation in those countries is a lot more complicated than Helleiner suggests. And, as already noted, some of the post-crisis regulation that has been imposed has, predictably, had unintended bad consequences; perhaps it would have been wise to pay a little more attention to the lobbying of the banking industry.

Helleiner laments the ‘soft law’ character of international regulatory institutions like the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the Financial Stability Board. He would prefer them to have powers like those of the World Trade Organisation, which has rules and settlesdisputes between its member countries. But such an arrangement in the field of financial regulation might not be conducive to financial stability. There are signs that these bodies have become fora in which the main issue at stake is not financial stability but the financial and political interests of national governments. How else can the absurdly generous treatment of government securities for both capital and liquidity purposes be explained, and the extremely lenient treatment of mortgages for the purpose of the Net Stable Funding Ratio? Arguably, the world would be a better place if Basel 1, 2 and 3 had never been invented, because it would have been clear to bankers that it was their responsibility to judge the adequacy of their capital, and not something that could be assessed formulaically by reference to a set of complicated rules arrived at as a compromise among national negotiators in Switzerland. The truth is that nobody has yet worked out how to do bank regulation properly, and it would not be a good idea to entrench present-day customs and practices in an international treaty.

‘More regulation’ may be a good slogan but there isn’t much substance behind it. Helleiner denies this, claiming that there are a lot of new ideas in ‘the new macroprudential regulatory philosophy’, which, he says, provide a ‘broad intellectual justification for many…regulatory initiatives…such as counter-cyclical buffers, tighter controls on liquidity and SIFIs, the extension of public oversight to new sectors, transaction taxes, and support for capital controls’ (p 127). Broad, indeed. By these standards, ‘the new macroprudential regulatory philosophy’ could provide intellectual justification for just about anything. Regulation of this kind would be like doing brain surgery with a penknife.

Many of the issues arising from the crisis are unresolved and contentious. Helleiner addresses a great many of them. He has a point of view, with which readers may agree or disagree, but he is well informed and his book is a serious contribution to the continuing discussion. It is well worth reading.

 Bill Allen is a former Bank of England director and is on the sdvisory board of the Cass Business School