How Much Disruption Can We Take?

As a culture, we've spent the last 20 years romanticizing the notion of "disruption" without adequately assessing the potential consequences. In the romanticized version, disruption is viewed as a positive Darwinian trend, a necessary clearing of the underbrush, a winnowing of the field as sluggish incumbents are swept aside by more nimble insurgents.

But what if "disruption" is occurring on a larger scale, involving major portions of the economy almost simultaneously? What if basic economic assumptions that guide governments and nations are themselves disrupted? What might be the human cost of such disruption? What institutions would need to change? How will those changes be adjudicated and implemented? Can the changes come fast enough?

Recently, we've seen some basic tenets of our economy turn upside-down -- housing was supposed to be a safe investment, yet it blew up in our faces; low interest rates are supposed to propel business investment and job growth, yet they haven't had this effect in many large economies -- Japan being the most noteworthy, Europe not being far behind, and the US exhibiting some of the same characteristics; low oil prices are supposed to lead to more consumer spending and a bullish stock market, yet recently the opposite has happened; high corporate profits are supposed to lead to more jobs and higher pay for employees, yet wages are stagnant and job growth, while incremental and steady in the US, is not at the levels you'd expect historically, and certainly not indicative of profits being spent with an eye toward growing them further.

There are clearly some underlying reasons for these strange trends, including lax regulatory oversight, weak executive and legislative leadership at the national level, tolerance of tax havens and other loopholes incentivizing the hoarding of wealth, and short-term corporate reward systems and attendant thinking.

But there may be another factor, as well.

A recent thought piece entitled, "Limits of Capitalism" by Albert Wenger posits that this upside-down world may actually be partially explained by the disruption of the digital economy as it comes home to roost. In fact, the lax regulatory approaches, bewildered national responses, and short-term cash-hoarding thinking of corporate leaders may be partially explained by an emerging economy that is poorly understood and viewed as highly volatile and risky.

And that is -- no matter how revolutionary your mindset -- not good news. Why? Because we haven't created alternatives, and because the digital economy is moving so fast that it might take over before we can learn to manage it.

Wenger's essay is a mixed bag, but raises some interesting aspects of the digital economy worth considering.

He begins by analyzing the lack of scarcity for digital goods, which leads to difficulty pricing them. Because marginal costs for digital goods approach zero, pricing them requires projecting demand against fixed or sunk costs. It also means dealing with piracy and non-payers, who can share in the benefits of a digital economy without paying for those benefits. This makes pricing more perilous, as pricing beyond a certain point invites non-paying abuse. But the lack of scarcity is the core problem, and there is no clear solution that capitalism, as an economic philosophy, naturally extends. This is an unsolved problem.

This leads directly to another unsolved, central problem of the digital economy: incredible uncertainty. Rare events are potentially more damaging in a networked world (just think of the rapid meltdown that occurred in 2007-08 when the lending system "broke the buck," or consider the "dark pool" trading centers that create advantages that are measured in milliseconds, with cases of algorithms destroying large tranches of wealth in the blink of an eye). Rather than having days for news to traverse human interactions, many things happen so quickly and, in some cases, automatically that it's hard to fathom the risk and reward that capitalism assumes can be evaluated by rational human actors working on human time scales. Black boxes can quickly breed black swans.

Then there is the rapid rate at which new knowledge or findings can change the game, adding to uncertainty and creating a vacuum for future planning. As Wenger writes, "There is no price right now for an immortality treatment. Or for quantum computing at scale. We do not have enough knowledge to do either. How much attention should humanity devote to these? There are no prices to guide that allocation."

While these are fanciful examples, a simpler example illustrates the point -- the likely emergence in the next 5-10 years of self-driving cars. Automakers, insurance companies, city planners, tax authorities, and technology providers will all be reeling from the widespread availability of self-driving cars -- parking space needs will shrink, insurance pools will collapse, tax bases will crater, and technology companies will move to dominate transportation in ways we've only tasted slightly so far. And it will probably happen quickly, as senior citizens, commuters, and teenagers immediately benefit from a rapid adoption of safer, more reliable, less demanding, and cheaper automotive technology.

What will a ride in an autonomous vehicle cost? More or less than Uber? (There is a compelling case to be made that Uber is unsustainable and full of hidden costs for its drivers, costs that autonomous companies will not be fooled into accepting, like depreciation.) Where will they park during big events? Will some people pay to have a priority in the fleet? Will some cars be dedicated to taking Aunt Mildred to the pharmacy no matter what?

The rapidity of a shift in automotive technology and its attendant economy leads to one of the most concerning aspects of the digital economy -- the emergence of power laws governing this economy. As Wenger writes:

. . . with digital technologies we are seeing a shift to power laws for many more situations. For instance, on Youtube the most watched video has been watched billions of times compared to the vast majority of videos which has been watched just a few times. Or in ecommerce, Amazon is an order of magnitude larger than most other retailers. The same goes for apps in the appstore. The leading apps have hundreds of millions (and some even billions) of users. But the vast majority of apps has just a few users. Digital technologies are driving these power laws because of network effects combined with zero marginal cost.

Google is positioning itself to dominate the self-driving market. Is there any doubt that they and perhaps one other firm (Tesla, possibly) will manage to do so? In the digital economy, there's a powerful trend toward power laws and duopolies.

Perhaps at this point it's worth introducing a problem Wenger illustrates nicely. When farming was a major economic driver, agrarianism was the focus of government policy and practice, and the farm lobby was powerful across nation-states. This endured even during the emergence of large capital markets, until the shift was clear. Then, we moved into capitalism, where capital -- its flows and preservation -- became the focus of governmental policies and practices. Agrarianism hung on for a time, and still has a powerful effect in some states that remain agrarian, but in general our government is now one focused on building and retaining capital.

As the technology economy emerges, there is likely going to be a continued reliance on capital and capitalism, with its assumptions and basic tenets used to guide economic policy and shape sources of power. It will quickly become outmoded, however, and is already showing signs of irrelevance. Amazon, Google, and Facebook seem to operate in a new economic zone -- digitalism, let's call it -- which scales differently and disrupts capitalism with dispatch. But we will be left wondering how to manage this economy -- politically, socially, economically. And that's disruption that will be both deep and wide.