from the interesting-book,-questionable-premise dept
As regular readers here on Techdirt will know, I’ve been talking about the importance of understanding what happens to economic equations when the marginal cost of something is zero for over 15 years already. It’s a very common theme around here. One of my complaints has been that those who came out of an economic world viewpoint in which economics is entirely about dealing with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, tend to fall into a weird intellectual black hole when they try to put a zero in the equation. But I’ve long argued that this is the wrong way to look at things. The basic equations still work fine, it’s just that you have to recognize the flip side of zero is infinity. When you have a zero marginal cost item, you are creating an infinite good — a resource that can never run out. When you begin to realize that you have a new form of resources — inputs in economic terms — suddenly you realize that you’re massively expanding the pie, allowing incredible new things to be created from that limitless pool of resources. That’s powerful stuff.
So, as you can imagine, I was excited when the publisher of Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, reached out to send me a promo copy a few weeks ago. I am only halfway through it, so I’ll probably write more about it when it’s done, and there’s an awful lot of really interesting examples and profound thinking going on. So I’m really enjoying the basic part of it. However, there’s one aspect of the book that I have trouble with, and it’s exemplified in Rifkin’s op-ed in the NY Times a few weeks ago, called The Rise of Anti-Capitalism. You can probably already suspect the problem I’m seeing, based on the title. The explanation of zero marginal cost and how more and more of our economy is heading there is spot on. And, as we’ve been noting for over a decade as well, this goes way, way beyond just “content” like music and movies. It’s going to impact nearly every important industry in our lives:
The first inkling of the paradox came in 1999 when Napster, the music service, developed a network enabling millions of people to share music without paying the producers and artists, wreaking havoc on the music industry. Similar phenomena went on to severely disrupt the newspaper and book publishing industries. Consumers began sharing their own information and entertainment, via videos, audio and text, nearly free, bypassing the traditional markets altogether.
The huge reduction in marginal cost shook those industries and is now beginning to reshape energy, manufacturing and education. Although the fixed costs of solar and wind technology are somewhat pricey, the cost of capturing each unit of energy beyond that is low. This phenomenon has even penetrated the manufacturing sector. Thousands of hobbyists are already making their own products using 3-D printers, open-source software and recycled plastic as feedstock, at near zero marginal cost. Meanwhile, more than six million students are enrolled in free massive open online courses, the content of which is distributed at near zero marginal cost.
Frankly, I think the power of zero marginal cost goods — or, as I prefer to call them, infinite goods — is almost entirely ignored in energy, manufacturing and education (and, importantly, also in healthcare and finance). So it’s certainly encouraging to see Rifkin highlight where this is all heading. Where I run into trouble, however, is his belief that this then leads to “the end of capitalism” or “anti-capitalism.” To be clear, he explains how what comes out of this, a more collaborative society, will be a great thing. And, again, there’s some agreement there. I just think that it’s still very much capitalism. Capitalism does not mean that collaboration does not happen. In fact, collaboration is a key part of a well-functioning capitalist society. Ronald Coase famously laid out his theory of the firm in 1937, which explains how transaction costs are a key element in leading people to create long term collaboration. A zero marginal cost world will change the nature of those transaction costs, and will certainly change the nature of collaboration and companies, but it’s not anti-capitalist. It’s actually more exactly capitalist, where collaboration takes place with more transparency and more information. Those who believe that collaboration is anti-capitalist tend to misunderstand capitalism — either as extremist Randian Objectivists, or those so opposed to capitalism, often based on believing capitalism is what Randian Objectivists say it is.
Take, for example, this aspect of Rifkin’s argument in the NY Times piece:
THE unresolved question is, how will this economy of the future function when millions of people can make and share goods and services nearly free? The answer lies in the civil society, which consists of nonprofit organizations that attend to the things in life we make and share as a community. In dollar terms, the world of nonprofits is a powerful force. Nonprofit revenues grew at a robust rate of 41 percent — after adjusting for inflation — from 2000 to 2010, more than doubling the growth of gross domestic product, which increased by 16.4 percent during the same period. In 2012, the nonprofit sector in the United States accounted for 5.5 percent of G.D.P.
This collaborative rather than capitalistic approach is about shared access rather than private ownership. For example, 1.7 million people globally are members of car-sharing services. A recent survey found that the number of vehicles owned by car-sharing participants decreased by half after joining the service, with members preferring access over ownership. Millions of people are using social media sites, redistribution networks, rentals and cooperatives to share not only cars but also homes, clothes, tools, toys and other items at low or near zero marginal cost. The sharing economy had projected revenues of $3.5 billion in 2013.
Except, when you look, the most successful and disruptive examples of this “collaborative” approach are not non-profits or civil society, but rather perfectly capitalist companies, that have actually unlocked tremendous potential for revenue not just for themselves, but their users. Things like AirBnB, Uber, Lyrt, Sidecar, FlightCar, RelayRides, Zaarly, LendingClub, AirTasker, Kickstarter, LiquidSpace and many, many more are disrupting all sorts of industries, but doing so in ways that are actually about the more efficient use of resources, unlocking potential that had previously been locked up (often because the transaction costs were too high). But they’re not anti-capitalistic at all. They’re making capitalism much better. They’re helping to move away from power being held by just a few large companies, towards ones where individuals have more power directly.
These aren’t non-profits or civil society creating these disruptions, and it seems odd for Rifkin to imply that’s what’s happening. That’s not to knock non-profit organizations or civil society groups — both of which do great things in many cases. But it conflates a variety of different issues to argue that the response to a zero marginal cost society and infinite goods is that non-profits and civil society “take up the slack.” Instead, what we are seeing is that new forms of (very capitalist) companies are forming. They’re disruptive — but disruptive in a good way. They’re often about providing more economic freedom and power out to users, such that the transactions are actually beneficial to all players, rather than having a few large companies hoarding the power in the middle.
But having companies hoard power has never been true capitalism in the first place. It’s always been the problem that occurs when you have transaction costs that are too high, sometimes driven through political and regulatory capture, allowing certain firms to gain monopoly or oligopolistic control over certain markets, allowing them to create economic friction, increase transaction costs, and keep most of the value created, rather than distributing it to the end points. However, the new disruptive players in the market are often reversing that trend. They’re increasing trust, decreasing transaction costs, spreading much of the value to the end points, and simply taking a small cut of the transaction along the way. That’s not anti-capitalist, or the “end of capitalism” — it’s about a better recognition of what true capitalism is supposed to be about: more efficient transactions, with minimal friction, where all parties benefit from the transaction.
So there’s plenty that I find compelling in Rifkin’s book and theories, but I think that he makes a leap too far in arguing that it somehow goes against capitalism, or that civil society and non-profits are somehow “the solution” to a problem that’s not clearly a problem.