Old Playbooks, New Playbooks

My mom lives in Sweden, but she worked in the US for 10 years, so she qualifies to get a small little Social Security check each month. When I talked to her on the phone the other day, she complained that she wasn’t getting a very good exchange rate anymore. “That’s because you live in pretty much the only country on earth whose government hasn’t screwed up their economy,” I said. The relative health of the Swedish economy versus the rest of the world makes the Swedish crown stronger and worth more. When she tries to buy Swedish crowns with her US Dollars now, she doesn’t get as much as she used to.

Then we talked a bit about the American elections. I’m finding this year’s elections mostly uninteresting. Romney is trying (not too successfully) to stick to the narrative that Obama has screwed up the economy. I can agree that the US economy has been mishandled, but at the same time, I find that everyone else’s economy around the world (save Sweden’s) has been mishandled, too, and most of them have been mishandled far worse than America’s. I wouldn’t trade America’s economy right now for Europe’s. Or China’s — they’ve got a real estate bubble that’s probably going to burst soon just like ours did in 2008.

So America isn’t doing so well — but the competition is worse. That kinda makes us like a young athlete who is playing in a league that he’s too good for. He doesn’t have to work to improve; it seems pretty safe to just use his same old tricks to win the game he’s playing today. He’s not challenged by outside competition to innovate. And so I see both political parties are pretty much sticking to the same old playbooks they’ve used since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. There are really no new ideas in this election.

I feel, though, that these playbooks are almost all used up. Each party is very near to getting what they have fought hardest for during my lifetimes. When the Democrats finally get gay marriage and universal healthcare on the books, which will probably happen if Obama wins, what will they want next? When the Republicans finally get taxes down as far as they can realistically go, and they’re pretty darn close, what’s their plan beyond that? I don’t see anything. It just looks like trench warfare in America to me after that, pushing the lines six inches here, six inches there, but not really getting anywhere new.

Which is fine, as long as the rest of the world stagnates along with us.

I worry, though, that the technology of the 21st century is producing a tectonic shift in economics itself. These sorts of disruptive technological shifts can punish the old guard who are too slow to change, and create new winners out of those who are less invested in an old way of doing things.

I’ll give some examples of what I mean. Here’s a talk by Daniel Pink about the what the latest science tells us about human motivation:

 

The interesting thing there is that basic carrot-and-stick economics–pay someone more if he does a good job–works remarkably well as motivation if the task is mechanical and/or routine. Those types of tasks formed the large majority of jobs all throughout human history, until the invention of the personal computer.

What has the computer done to those types of jobs? They’ve taken them over. If a job is repetitive or routine or algorithmic, a computer can now do that job cheaper and more effectively than a human being. So human beings have to move on to other types of jobs.

What types of jobs are those? Jobs that require human creativity and complex cognitive thought. And these are precisely the jobs where Daniel Pink points out that monetary rewards suppress productivity instead of enhancing it.

What does it do to the science of economics when higher monetary rewards suddenly start resulting in lower productivity? How do you design economic policy around that? The old playbooks that our political parties use now don’t address that question. Those old playbooks assume carrots and sticks always work. And they did work just fine, up until the time that you could fit a whole network of supercomputers in your pocket.

Computers also affect basic economics by ruining the supply/demand ratio. Throughout human history, up until the computer, anything of an economic nature that was made or done, was done in an environment of scarcity. Anything you can think of, there was a finite, limited supply of that thing. But now, thanks to computers, you can make 7 billion copies of this blog entry with barely any extra added cost to you at all. Scarcity does not exist in a digital environment. Supply is infinite.

This goes beyond just digital media. It affects other areas of human endeavor, like education. Our education system is designed around the concept that information is scarce, and it needs to be transferred from teacher to student, in order to prepare them for adulthood. But now, information is not scarce, students can acquire as much of it as they like for practically nothing. The jobs today’s kids will have when they grow up will not depend at all on what information they have, but on their skills in manipulating an infinite supply of information in creative new ways. How do we set up our educational institutions to function in a world of information plenty?

And soon, as 3D printers become more and more ubiquitous, scarcity will become a thing of the past for many physical objects, as well. What does that do to the manufacturing industry? What kind of policies do we need to manage that transition?

I have no answers to these questions. Neither do any of today’s political parties or candidates. It’s too new, too strange, and there’s not really a competitive threat that is forcing them to try to figure any of this out.

But at some point, if we Americans don’t at least start asking ourselves these new questions instead of re-asking the same old ones, some upstart countries will. And when the upstarts ask themselves these questions, at least one of them will be a Billy Beane-type who figures out some good answers, and moves his little country from an afterthought to a powerhouse. If we’re serious about winning the 21st century like we did the 20th, we should work hard to Moneyball them before they Moneyball us. Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day as the stodgy old rich team needing to scramble to catch up, wondering what happened to the good old days when America did things better than everyone else almost as a mechanical routine, without needing a second thought.

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