Money stuff

Modern money is intangible, electrons whizzing around – unlike older forms of money, whether paper and coin, or wartime cigarettes, or huge stone wheels. Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks and Other Money Stuff, edited by Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz, is a reminder that even the 1s and 0s have a material basis – such as credit card machines, dongles, mobile phones, and indeed the whole physical infrastructure of the wired and wireless networks and the electricity network. What’s more, the less tangible the tokens of exchange, the more important the accounting system recording transactions. This explains the emphasis crypto folks put on the blockchain, but as one of the essays in the book points out, this has its drawback as nothing is reversible, not even transactions that ought to be reversed. There is no substitute for trust in a co-ordinating institution that keeps record.

The book is a nicely illustrated collection of essays by money afficionados from different disciplines, and spanning the Inca civilisation to Dogecoin. As a collection, there’s no central argument – except that we would do well to remember the physical and social embededness of money. There are lots of, “Well, who knew?” moments, which makes it an enjoyable read – at least if you have a fact-magpie mind like mine. I particular enjoyed Keith Hart’s reminiscence of becoming a fence and money lender during his PhD fieldwork in Ghana – which gave rise to the notion of the informal economy; I’ve met Keith (a fellow Mancunian) and love his book The Memory Bank.

Also Swartz’s essay about cash, and the notion that technological innovation in money – the Diners Club card and later credit cards – was forced by the postwar economic boom and associated travel. It reminded me of my first job at the Treasury in the 1980s, trying to find a monetary aggregate that wouldn’t grow too damn quickly for a monetarist government, at a time when rapidly increasing use of ATMs and credit cards was affecting the velocity of money and making monetary aggregate control a hopeless task.

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Use it or lose it – semiconductor version

I highly recommend Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. It starts with the history of the development of semiconductors, which might be familiar from other Silicon Valley histories (such as Margaret O’Mara’s also excellent The Code). But the book then goes on to less familiar and more recent territory, encompassing the technological changes needed to manufacture ever-more precise chips and the huge scale, complexity and sophistication of their fabrication. This introduces companies that have recently become familiar (AMSL in the Netherlands, making the machines that are needed to do the fabrication, and TSMC in Taiwan, which produces more than 90% of the most advanced chips) – and also others key to the process that are still not very well known in general.

The narrative arc is a steady shift from US leadership in both technology and manufacturing, to Asian leadership in manufacturing and rapid catch-up – especially in China thanks to large-scale subsidies and IP theft – in some slices of the technology. The result is an extraordinarily complex global supply chain with a number of very narrow 1 or 2 firm bottlenecks. The best to hope for seems to be a version of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine: no country can afford disruption. The worst? Massive disruption of all aspects of modern economic life.

That there would be some shift seems inevitable: as East Asian economies developed in the late 20th century they would always try to move up the value chain into more sophisticated sectors. However, the book is quietly but strongly critical of the pro-globalisation philosophy of the US (and rest of the west) that gave up on retaining core manufacturing and engineering competencies at home – their loss didn’t matter until it really did, with the re-emergence of geopolitical strife. As the book puts it, there was a “liberal internationalist ethos that guided officials of both political parties amid America’s unipolar moment.” Yet Andy Grove’s paranoia was valid, when he said in the early 2010s: “Abandoning today’s ‘commodity’ manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.” (One of the best summary articles making eactly this point is Gregory Tassey in JEP in 2014.)

There is a lot of interesting detail. For example, I hadn’t realised how much Darpa focused on educational infrastructure – funding students and workshops, and university computer equipment, as well as futuristic tech research. There are lots of great examples of the difficulty of copying advanced chip technology because of the necessary tacit knowledge: for instance, every AMSL photolithography machine comes with a lifetime supply of AMSL technicians to tend to it. This is either hopeful – China will find it hard to catch up fully –  or not – the US or EU will not be able to catch up with TSMC because of the latter’s vast embedded know-how. Another example is the fact that defence dollars bought 72% of all integrated circuits produced in 1965, but Robert McNamara’s deffence budget cuts led Robert Noyce of Fairchild to bet on the consumer market and slash chip prices from $20 to $2. Annual US computer sales went from 1000 in 1957 to 18,700 a decade later.

All this and much more. The book has no easy policy solutions but is an essential contribution to current debates about industrial policy.

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Goliaths everywhere

James Bessen’s The New Goliaths is one of my books of the year so far (with a fashionably chatty subtitle). Indeed, I’d been looking forward to it because I liked his previous one, Learning By Doing, so much. Based on his impressive research on technology over a number of years, and on his prior experience as the founder of a successful early digital startup, the core of the argument is that a small number of (generally) large companies have built IT systems that can manage immense complexity in their operations. Sophisticated software and massive flows of data enable them to co-ordinate in previously unimaginable ways, delegating decisions to where the information can go. The complexity – say of a new model of software-laden car or a major retailer’s logistics system – increases the cost of entry for potential competitors. The Goliaths are to be found not just in ‘Big Tech’, but in many sectors of the economy.

What’s more, “The investment in software is only part of the total investment in these systems. The entire technology investment that firms make in these proprietary systems goes well beyond software code to include data, workforce skills and investments in alternative organizational structures.” An example used throughout the book is Walmart – which McKinsey found accounted for a substantial proportion of the US 1990s productivity boost. Somewhat counter-intuitively, at least for those who see Big Tech as the main competition problem, Bessen sees Walmart as the unassailable incumbent in US retail, whereas Amazon is the one example of successful entry, and one offering a platform to other retailers.

This dynamic, of superstar firms in many industries from retail to autos to finance with a widening productivity advantage, has consequences for income inequality: the workers in those firms are paid more because they gain invaluable experience simple by working in the superstar companies, so wages are dispersing within sectors. The skills are scarce because you have to work for a big, sophisticated complex firm to get the skills, which are thus in short supply. It has led to less dynamism – fewer entries and exits in many markets. Small firms simply can’t match the spending on R&D of the big ones: one example given is voice recognition software, where pioneer Nuance was a massive commercial success, but still couldn’t match the spending of big firms: Amazon (again) has more than 10,000 engineers working on Alexa products, more than ten times the number Nuance had at its peak. “Proprietary information technology is exacerbating economic and social devisions. It is widening the gaps between the pay of workers at different firms. It is leading to greater segregation of skill groups across firms and cities.”

The complexity dynamic has implications too for competion policy – which becomes challenging, because after all the superstars generally offer great services – and regulation more broadly – because the information asymmetry between company and regulator grows ever wider.

So what to do? The book advocates for mandating open standards, morecompulsory licensing, and for reforming IP law to tilt the incentives for big companies to do more voluntary unbundling of their services, clamping down on worker non-compete agreements to spread skills. All excellent, and ultimately inevitable policies, as the inequalities are socially and politically unsustainable. But there’s much devil in the detail, and there will be massive lobbying against change. So this is a political struggle rather than a technocratic one.

But that’s to wander off into the future. I highly recommend The New Goliaths. It synthesizes a growing body of research into how firms use technology, how that interacts with organisational structures and markets,  and what the consequences are. It’s also really well-written, with lots of examples and a grounded understanding of the realities and limits of technology policy.

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Whose brain is it?

This weekend – despite having a small and demanding visitor – I polished off The Idea of the Brain: A History by Matthew Cobb. It has nothing to do with economics of course, but there are a number of things that resonated with me.

One was the way the Nobel-winning Cambridge brain scientist Edgar Adrian brought wartime experience of radio technology to thinking about how neurons respond to stimulus – and also how his commitment to public communication led him to “think about what nerves do in a rather different way from that expressed in his scientific papers. In hunting for terms that would help non-experts understand, “These concepts – messages, codes and information – now form the basis of our fundamental scientific ideas about how the brain works.” I’ve always been deeply committed to (a) explaining things clearly and in ways people can understand and (b) that you can’t explain something like this if you don’t properly understand it yourself.

There’s an interesting but brief discussion of the contrast between reductionist approaches to understanding the brain (which seems dominant) and others pointing to the emergence of complex phenomena from a few simple neural networks. I don’t know what to think of it in this context, but the path of reductionism hasn’t served economics all that well.

Then there’s an extraordinary story about an Australian patient who had an electrode implanted in her brain to manage her severe epilepsy. When she grew used to the device, it transformed her life: “With the device I felt like I could do anything …. nothing could stop me.” But the manufacturer went bust and the device had to be removed. The woman said: “I lost myself.” Horrific. How can the law and economic arrangements enable such a thing to happen? Cobb writes: “In a future world where companies are funding interfaces with our brains, we may lose control over our identity.” This goes to the heart of debates about health data as well, and the legal construct that allows data to be alienated as a piece of economic property. How can an electrode in a woman’s brain be corporate property? Well, in the way General Motors claims it still owns the car you bought because your car sends data back to GM. Watch out for ‘smart’ hip replacements or pacemakers….

Finally, another section that spoke to me points out that ‘The Brain Has a Body’ (the title of a 1997 article) and the body has an environment – “but neither the body nor the environment feature in modelling approaches that seek to understand the brain.” The input from the world is part of the system in which brains operate.

The book‘s history of thought approach is terrific, as is its linkage of technological  innovations (watches, computers, radio ….) with how scientists have thought about brains – I found this a really gripping and informative read.

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Casting off the digital chains

The joy of travel to conferences – conversations with people you wouldn’t set up a Zoom to chat to, hearing new research you wouldn’t dial in to a webinar to hear, and the travel time for reading. It definitely (still) outweighs the aggravation of checking in. My recent Eurostar journeys saw me through Jamie Susskind’s The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century.

We held a workshop on a first draft of the book at the Bennett Institute, where Jamie is an affiliated researcher, so I suppose I’m bound to look kindly on it. It’s an ambitious and largely persuasive diagnosis of the political problems caused by the power of big tech, and a set of proposed solutions. It’s thoroughly argued – as you’d expect from a skilled lawyer –  and avoids the sweeping generalisations and analytical wooliness of some well-known attacks on the digital giants.

The book has many parts. It starts by setting out the fact of digital power and why this is a significant political problem – and one created by law: “There is nothing natural about the power of modern business corporations. They accrue power because the law allows them to.”  It follows this with an analysis of the more granular problems, such as dark patterns, the coding of significant ethical decisions, the pretence that ticking the T&C box is meaningful consent (“When we click ‘I agree’ we are usually surrendering, not agreeing”), and so on.

The book then moves on to set out four republican principles (NB not in the US party sense of the word, but in the engaged, free citizen sense):

  • the preservation principle: democracy must be protected
  • the domination principle: no power can be unaccountable
  • the democracy principle: powerful tech should reflect the moral and civic values of those it affects
  • the parsimony principle: governments shouldn’t constrain companies more than they have to.

All seem perfectly reasonable, at least in the abstract. Then, refreshingly for a book about the need for countervailing power to big tech, Jamie has a lot of proposals. Among them are:

  • deliberation and mini-publics to determine the limits of digital behaviours
  • tribunals to hear complaints about treatment by big tech
  • professional certification of software and ML engineers
  • an inspectorate of algorithmic decision making
  • a duty of openness on tech companies
  • more appropriate anti-trust policies
  • minimum standards for social media platforms eg to prevent harassment, foreign interference in elections etc

I don’t agree with all of the suggestions – some (eg compulsory licensing for anyone who codes software) seem to fall foul of the parsimony principle – but that isn’t the point; the point is that governments are not powerless in the face of digital power. Indeed there is an awful lot they could be doing to tackle the ills while recognising the great benefits the tech titans have brought.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book, and relished its can-do approach. I agree about the need for constraint on unaccountable digital power. Was I wholly persuaded? No, and mainly because there’s an assumption of beneficent governments doing all this on our behalf. It’s reasonable to doubt either their goodwill or their competence. More on this in my next post after I’ve finished reading Deirdre McCloskey’s latest offering.

61pyJfOI4FL._AC_UY436_QL65_Other reviews: Joahn Naughton in The Guardian, Andrew Lilico in The Telegraph….

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