Sunday, September 2, 2018

Book Review: Tomorrow 3.0

Tomorrow 3.0, by Michael Munger, is subtitled Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy. That's actually a much better title--more descriptive of the actual thesis. The "three-point-zero" claim is, in my view, over the top. Version 1.0 was the Neolithic revolution, when hunter-gatherers settled down and became farmers. Version 2.0 was the industrial revolution, when said farmers moved to cities, got "jobs" in our modern sense of the word, and created the consumer cornucopia we enjoy today.

Version 3.0, upon which we are just now embarking, is when workers (most of them, anyway) will lose their jobs because the new economy will not depend on production in the way it has in the past. Instead of finding new and better ways to produce things, entrepreneurs will instead "sell reductions in transaction costs."

The first fruits of this new world are represented by Uber, a company which does not sell taxi services. Instead, taxi services are sold by drivers, for which they are paid by passengers. This exchange is unchanged from the good old days.

What Uber sells instead is a reduction in transaction costs. Consider the bygone era: on a rainy NYC evening after the theater you had to go outside and try to hail a cab. You spend a lot of time waving at yellow cars as they whiz by, already taken. If you're lucky you'll find a taxi within 10 or 20 minutes--or possibly you'll wait an hour.

None of this helps the cabbie. Despite the desperate desire for taxi services, he can't raise his rates by even a penny. He has no incentive to spend his Saturday evening sitting in Broadway traffic in the rain. Better to go someplace else where a passenger can be found with less hassle. (As a former cab driver I am intimately familiar with these sorts of trade-offs.)

So now comes Uber, which solves three problems: triangulation, transfer, and trust. Triangulation is the problem of the driver finding the passenger--the phone tells him exactly where you are. Transfer is the problem of getting you to your destination--the driver already knows where you're going along with the best route to get you there. Finally trust means that you've already given your credit card information--the driver knows he's not gonna get stiffed. And further, the driver has been vetted by all his previous passengers--you are unlikely to be assaulted or robbed.

Beyond which, Uber knows where more cars are needed. No, it doesn't keep track of when the theaters let out, but it realizes that all of a sudden lots of people on Broadway need cabs. So to incentivize the drivers to put up with the traffic, a "surge" is added to the price--which means you'll have your cab within 10 minutes. (Uber now gives you the option to pay a cheaper rate, in exchange for waiting until all the surge payers have already gotten their rides.)

In short, Uber clears the market. It's selling reductions in transactions costs. It saves passengers long waits in the rain, and it compensates drivers for putting up with traffic and hassle. It automates payment, security, and transfer problems, to the advantage of both passenger and driver.

Expand the Uber concept to all sorts of goods and services. Airbnb isn't selling lodging--instead it's selling a reduction in transaction costs for both landlord and tenant. Uber itself is expanding its business in the form of Uber Eats--again not selling take-out food, but instead a reduction in transaction costs.

Mr. Munger argues that this transition from selling products to selling reductions in transaction costs will be as profound a change as the Neolithic and industrial revolutions--Tomorrow 3.0. Somehow I doubt that, but there is no question it will change the way we live.

One implication of the Uber model (especially after robots start doing the driving) is that people won't see any need to buy their own car--they'll just rent a ride when they need one. The result is the automobile market will be far smaller than it is today. So auto workers are gonna be put out of work, and not just because of automation.

Similarly, Airbnb easily puts all hotel front desk and reservations office employees out of a job. Indeed, it likely erases the distinction between a hotel room and an apartment. People--according to Mr. Munger--will be much more likely to rent. (Count me skeptical--most people want to put down roots.) Similarly, take-out food with sharply lower transaction costs competes with the home kitchen--the market for kitchen appliances goes south.

In short, a reduction in transaction costs means that 1) many more items will be rented rather than purchased, implying that 2) less space will be required for storage (you don't need to park your Uber car), and 3) a much smaller market for manufactured goods.

Yesterday we bought personal computers with big hard drives. Today we buy software as a service and store our stuff in the cloud. The size of your computer's hard drive becomes irrelevant. Mr. Munger suggests the same trajectory for many manufactured products--we'll rent them rather than own them, and the need for large garages and extra storage lockers will decline accordingly.  Further, manufacturing firms will also avail themselves of the reduction in transaction costs by sourcing their products from whatever facility in the world is cheapest.

Two things will result from this trend. First, many people, if not completely unemployed, will experience significantly lower wages. And second, prices for manufactured items will decline dramatically. (See my piece, Getting Richer While Feeling Poorer for a description of this trend.)

Mr. Munger describes two phenomena: saltation and separation. The former is a dramatic change in lifestyle because of a disruptive change in technology. Mr. Munger cites a woman named Parisa--a burkha-clad lady from Herat, Afghanistan, not permitted to attend school. But she had a smartphone through which she enrolled in coding class, enabling her to write apps that she posted on Github, for which she was paid in bitcoin. It earns her a first-world income. She's a beneficiary of saltation.

Separation, meanwhile, refers to those who can't adapt to new technology. Consider Parisa's hypothetical cousin (not mentioned by Mr. Munger) who was a seamstress--until the dramatic fall in apparel prices rendered that profession completely obsolete. She wound up unemployed.

The dual trends--saltation and separation--will blur the distinction between the advanced and developing world. The beneficiaries of saltation will get rich, regardless of where they live. Those who are separated, meanwhile, will become poor, again independent of location. Global inequality will grow--not between countries but within countries.

Mr. Munger's solution to a world in which large numbers of people are unemployed is a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), also known as a negative income tax. In his version, BIG will replace all other social welfare spending: food stamps, housing vouchers, education costs, social security, Medicaid, etc.--maybe even Medicare. Everybody (not just poor people), in lieu of the panoply of vouchers will instead get cash--perhaps as much as $20,000/year per person--just for being alive.

I'm not against the idea, though I think it's a political non-starter.

There's lots more in Mr. Munger's book. It's well worth the read.

Further Reading:

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