Much of the innovation we’ve seen lately hasn’t led to growth but instead to efficiency – that is, shrinkage.
I’ve been mulling over Mike Mandel’s cover story in last week’s BusinessWeek, in which he tried to puncture another bubble: the belief that we’ve had a rich decade of American innovation. He argues that there’s actually an “innovation shortfall” and he uses economic stagnation to plead his case. Now I’m not economist (that’s a straight line) and so I won’t argue about the impact of other events on growth – starting with the so-called financial crisis.
But as I thought through the major innovations of the last decade, many of them have not led to economic growth; they haven’t added money to the economy but left it in the economy. Thus measuring innovation’s impact in the revenue, growth, productivity, and market cap of large companies may not be valid. Instead, we are seeing innovation take money out of their pockets, leaving it with their customers. What they, in turn, do with that extra money and what impact it has on the economy is an entirely different question – and that impact is likely seen in any case not in large companies but in individual consumers and in small businesses. But I think the proper measure of the changes in the last decade is the innovation dividend. See:
* craigslist is blamed for destroying (that’s from the publishers’ perspective) $10 billion in classified ad value annually**, replacing it with its reported $100 million revenue. Newspapers act as if that was their money – as if they had a God-given right to it – but, of course, it wasn’t. When Craig Newmark spoke with my students at CUNY, and they asked him why he didn’t maximize revenue at craigslist and sell it for billions and then use that money for philanthropy, he told them that he thought he was doing more good for the country and the economy by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who were doing the transactions he now enabled. He cut out a gross inefficiency born of the monopoly that newspapers held over the means of production and distribution. If you try to measure his innovation’s impact on the economy with old methods and metrics – built on the assumptions of the old economy – you can’t see it. He didn’t make companies grow or become more productive. He added efficiency.
* Amazon, eBay, and the internet as a whole are blamed for destroying large swaths of the retail marketplace. But again, they brought efficiency in a number of ways: price transparency, which leads to lower prices for customers; critical-mass efficiency; the reduction of brick-and-mortar and staff costs; and I’d imagine a reduction in distribution and warehousing costs. The net result is fewer jobs, less rent, less waste (that is, books on shelves that get pulped; now they’re made just in time), and lower prices. Again, more money is left in the pockets of the transcators. The impact of innovation on retail is seen in shrinkage and efficiency, not growth.
* Google is blamed for destroying media but, of course, all it did was give advertisers a better deal. It dared to compete. Google did this not just by creating abundance rather than selling scarcity born of control of those means of production and distribution. This created a more efficient – read: less expensive – marketplace for advertising. More important, Google revolutionized advertising by selling performance, proving a return on investment. So the money that didn’t stay in the pockets of people buying and selling cars and homes, thanks to Craig, now stayed in the pockets of retailers and manufacturers thanks to Google. More efficiency. In What Would Google Do”, I argue:
We have shifted from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance. The control of products or distribution will no longer guarantee a premium and a profit. . . . We are entering a post-scarcity economy in which Google is teaching us to manage abundance, challenging the bedrock rule of economics, first written in 1767: the law of supply and demand.
Old rules and measures and analyses can’t track that.
* Web 2.0 is credited with making it much faster, easier, and far less expensive to start new companies. That is the other innovation dividend – the innovation that happens on the back of innovation. But this is happening, again, not at a large-company level but at a small-company level. Measuring spending on innovation, then, becomes another unreliable metric. The economics of innovation itself have changed.
The reliability of the standard metrics and analysis matters greatly because profound – and expensive – policy and economic decisions are being made on the basis of them and I’m not at all sure they’re valid anymore, or at least as valid. They miss too much of the change and impact and value and dynamics in this new economy. They lead us to bail out GM and Chrysler. One could argue, as George Will did in yesterday’s Washington Post, that that the bailout violates even old rules:
The administration’s deepening involvement in designing and marketing automobiles through two crippled companies ignores this truth: Capitalism is a profit-and-loss system, and the creative destruction it produces is supposed to clear away failures such as Chrysler, freeing capital for more productive uses.
But that capital, once freed, may not go to building huge new ventures. It may go to building small new ventures. It may stay in the pockets of people doing transactions and now instead of spending it on Toyotas, it may go to banks. You won’t see all the impact – except negatively – on the Dow Jones Average and the Fortune 500; those were the measures of the old economy. We need new measures.
** I had said craigslist and the internet replaced $100 billion in revenue in newspaper classified, which was an attempt to calculate over the life of the web, but that was difficult to calculate, so I changed the figure to $10 billion, the difference between classified revenue at its height in 2000 and in 2008.