Answering Brad DeLong’s “Deep Question”: Productivity vs. Power

As a naive young noodler on economic topics I always wondered: Why are players in the financial industry — which produces very few real, human, consumable goods and services that people value in their lives — so well-paid?

I figured it out pretty quickly: it’s because they are able to control who gets that real stuff. Sure: the financial industry is necessary to our ongoing assault on scarcity — increased productivity and production, yadda yadda yadda. But that’s not really why they get the big bucks. It’s because they’re playing the rivalry game. Anyone who doesn’t use their services (or become one of those players) loses that game.

Which brings me to an answer to Brad DeLong’s excellent question.

What is it, precisely, about Apple technology and today’s economy that gives it much more of a winner-take-all nature than Eastman-Kodak technology? And why was the same true of Andrew Carnegie-age technology and organization, but not of Alfred P. Sloan-age technology and organization? Deep questions.

I do like deep questions. My answer:

There are new technologies that produce more/better consumables (and methods to produce consumables with less human effort), and ones that give control over who gets to do the consumption (and take the leisure).

Computer technology is more like double-entry accounting and limited-liability corporations in that respect, and proportionally less like steam engines and electric motors.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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