Geo-Economics and Politics

Why we’ll have to pay to make valuable investments happen

Ricardo Hausmann
Founder and Director, Growth Lab, Harvard University
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Something is definitely rotten in the state of capitalism. Despite unprecedentedly low interest rates, investment in most advanced countries is significantly below where it was in the years prior to the 2008 crisis, while employment rates remain stubbornly low. And even investment in the pre-crisis period was unimpressive, given low prevailing interest rates.

For some reason, achieving a level of investment that would generate full employment seems to require negative real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates, which is another way of saying that people have to be paid to invest. But in a world of low inflation and zero nominal interest rates, getting to the required negative real rate may be a challenge. This is the ailment that Larry Summers, recalling a 1938 paper by Alvin Hansen, has dubbed “secular stagnation.”

The policy consequences of this state of affairs remain open to debate (the issues are well summarized in an e-book edited by Coen Teulings and Richard Baldwin). For Keynesians, the answer is unconventional monetary policy (for example, quantitative easing), fiscal stimulus, and a higher target inflation rate. But, as Summers and others point out, lax monetary policies may trigger asset bubbles, and prolonged fiscal stimulus may end in a debt crisis.

Moreover, the Keynesians’ preferred policies address only the consequences of secular stagnation, not its causes – about which there is even less agreement. For some, the problem is a savings glut associated with slower demographic growth, rising life expectancy, and static retirement thresholds – a combination that forces people to save more for their old age. But, as Barry Eichengreen points out, the rise in savings appears to be too small to explain this.

For others, the problem is lower investment demand, caused partly by the fact that machines are now much cheaper and that technological progress has slowed since 1970. Economists like Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen argue that the technological breakthroughs of the past, including piped water, air conditioning, and commercial air travel, had a greater social impact – giving rise to the suburban lifestyle of cars and shopping malls, for example – than many of today’s advances.

This assessment bothers optimists like Joel Mokyr or Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who do not believe that technological progress has slowed. Instead, they argue that the traditional concept used to measure economic output and growth, gross domestic product, understates that progress. After all, our lives have been made dramatically more productive thanks to Google, Wikipedia, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Waze, Yelp, Hipmunk, Pandora, and many other companies. But all deliver their services for free, which means that the benefits they provide are not counted in GDP.

As Edward Glaeser has argued, it is hard to believe that the median family in the United States, which supposedly is worse off than in 1970, would be willing to give up its cell phones, Internet access, and new health technologies in order to return to that halcyon era. Thus, the GDP numbers must be excluding much progress.

The fact that so much innovation is given away for free does not only create a measurement problem for economists; it is also a real problem for those trying to find investment opportunities. In the good old days of the post-World War II boom, if you wanted an air conditioner, a car, or a newspaper, you had to buy one, making it possible for producers to earn money by providing them.

Information-intensive products – typical of today’s technologically advanced economies – are different. Because the cost of providing an extra copy is almost nil, it is hard to charge for them.

Broadcast radio and television were the first to confront this problem, because they could not prevent those with a receiver from getting the signal. They had to develop an advertising-based model, making it possible for others to pay for the benefits received by the consumer. This is supposedly what makes Google so profitable, though I have trouble believing that the enormous benefits I receive as an assiduous and happy user are paid for by my rather infrequent Internet purchases.

So we live in a world where much of the progress that new technology permits is embodied in products that must be given away for free. A somewhat haphazard sub-set of potential products can, with the right business model, be profitable – say, through advertising or by selling the information that they passively collect from users.

But many others, like Wikipedia and public radio, have trouble making ends meet. Free products also depress the value of close substitutes. While it may require charging $100 per ticket to recover the costs of a $1 million theater play, some filmmakers can make money on a $200 million film by selling $10 tickets to consumers who are unwilling to wait a few weeks until their cable TV provider offers it.

The e-book mentioned above, which prompted this column, is available to you, the reader, for free (as is this column). No wonder so many people have trouble making ends meet. But the Center for Economic Policy Research, which published the e-book, and Project Syndicate, which distributes this column, are both (at least to some extent) donor-funded.

This may not be a coincidence. To harness the possibilities of new technology, we may need non-market forms of payment for valuable contributions. The traditional capitalist model may have made Bill Gates rich, but his foundation now finances valuable technological breakthroughs in unprofitable ways. As with negative real interest rates, but in a more targeted and efficient manner, we may have to pay to make valuable investments happen.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Ricardo Hausmann is Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at Harvard University.

Image: A visitor tastes food using Tasteworks technology, a Virtual Reality experience that augments and stimulates taste.  REUTERS/Edgar Su 

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Related topics:
Geo-Economics and PoliticsFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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