Tuesday, October 27, 2015

While the Cost of Stuff Declines, The Cost of Political Power Skyrockets

In the comments section of an FT Alphaville piece on Andreessen-Horowitz-backed bitcoin play, 21 Inc. Alphaville's benevolent overlord  pounded home a point Izabella raised in the article:

Paul Murphy FT
I'd missed the screaming irony here.  You don't seem to be able to buy the 21 Bitcoin computer with bitcoin.

Paul Murphy FT
Ah, 21 address this in their FAQs.  Sort of:
Why can't I buy the 21 Bitcoin Computer with BTC?
Patience - we will be adding support for this! However, the deeper answer is that we think payment in BTC is not as big an improvement at the present time over standard ways to purchase macroscopic physical goods. Offline currencies are fairly well adapted for that use case. We believe that where Bitcoin really shines is for micropayments, as a medium of exchange for digital goods and services.

Izabella Kaminska FT
@Paul Murphy So since they're peddling a macroscopic good they'll take dollars for that. In short Bitcoins for the digital serfs, dollars for everyone else in the real economy -- with access to a non-soylent existence.
And why doesn't M. Andreessen accept bitcoin in payment?
Because it is not the coin of the realm he is actually interested in: The Political.

When the plebs are bought off with their $12,000/yr. guaranteed basic income (plus a smartphone) the things that will cost serious coin will be political access and law-making power.
And we're already on the way.

But before that happens here's Alphaville with the current state of play:

The mainstreaming of technological abundance thinking

FT Alphaville started its “beyond scarcity” series in June 2012, having explored the core tenets of technological abundance theory and utopianism from about February 2012 onwards — influenced at the time by the thinking of Kurzweil, Diamandis, Brynjolfsson and a whole bunch of technological utopians who had come before. 
Fundamentally, it was our way of going against the grain at a time when markets were still overly obsessing about the causes and side-effects of the global financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the subprime banking crisis and in general maintaining a “glass half-full” outlook on growth and the global economy. 
It seemed to us that the bearish take was completely overlooking the innovation going on around us. So we thought, time to give these technological utopians a platform. Perhaps they do have a point? 
Not that the FT Alphaville readership bought into the ideas. Here’s a selection of reader comments from back then on everything from the rise of the de-monetised sharing economy and whether it represents real growth, to having robots do all the work in a leisure economy: 
Uh huh, said Buckminister Fuller, the dude who worked for a living. Well, if he thinks we should all quit and navel gaze I guess we should. Will Waitrose give me food for free? Will the cows milk themselves? Man, some of this stuff is so hippy-dippy. We should organise an FT Alphaville drum circle.Also this goes back to the point about the difference between value and utility. Value is a function of scarcity, utility is not. GDP measures value not utility. If something is not scarce no matter who useful it is (eg water) than it’s value will be low. So things like information (which are public goods, and have little or no scarcity value – other than that created by intellectual property rights), despite their high utility often have no value.Doing the same things with less inputs is growth, nobody should dispute that. But sharing and collaboration are different, and there’s nothing new about either of them. Hotels, taxis, apartment buildings, office buildings, airplanes, power grids, all examples of sharing. Corporations, governments, clubs, IPOs all examples of collaboration. The internet is enabling new, sometimes more efficient ways of sharing and collaborating, which do represent some, generally modest growth. There is no new, separate “collaborative economy”.Hah, as I’ve been saying, centrally imposed negative rates lead to barter, avoidance of use of currencies. It could seem as a good thing locally, but it ain’t, on an international scale since it reduces world trade. Be careful, what you wish for. This is a disaster, INTERNATIONALLY. 
Reassuringly realistic. And constantly keeping us in check. (For that, a thank you.) 
Well, it’s now October 2015, and things have changed a lot. 
Technological disruption is no longer the fringe view of some wildly over-optimistic guys at MIT. In the last two years, techno abundance has become a core investment thesis, rivalling that of the rise of the Chinese consumer before the crisis. Every analyst or consulting team worth their salt has issued research on “the great disruption” to come — from IoT, AI, and autonomous cars to the sharing economy. The effect has been to legitimise ideas once considered far-fetched or over-hyped, mainstreaming them to the point that it’s simply taken for granted that these things will be universally deployed, that they will work perfectly, and that even if they will be greatly disruptive in the roll-out stage overall they will be a positive force for everyone with little to no ill-effects.
Here’s the latest example of that thinking by way of Independent Strategy (our emphasis): 
Artificial intelligence (AI) will vastly reduce the cost of making things, as AI is cheaper than even the cheapest labour and unbelievably more productive. Unlike previous technological waves, it affects services as much as manufacturing… It threatens 45% of DM jobs and deprives EMs of their major comparative advantage: cheap labour for manufactured products or low-cost commodities and energy. 
How the AI supply-side gain is matched by demand is undecided, but crucial; making things for virtually nothing still needs people with earnings and assets to buy them. The income and wealth distribution effects of AI are a major political challenge. The AI impact on the current recovery is still gradual. It will become disruptive. But not yet. The human cloud is already a significant example of the economy of sharing — but on the supply side. Here people do bespoke piecework online and gather ratings based on the quality of their output. It is an unmeasured source of job creation that transforms individuals into businesses, lowers the cost of production and increases the flexibility of labour markets (no minimum wage, nor work place regulation nor hiring and firing restrictions). 
There are many other such technologies at work such as Big Data, shared (anonymised) medical data and diagnostics, the internet of things etc. But the common denominator is that they all destroy existing systems and replace them with new ones. They are all “intangibles”. And whereas they will impact the production of things, their real value-added is derived from their intangible nature. At a guess, they will:• Increase living standards by lowering costs and improving quality. Even at stable income levels, living standards will rise.• Make economic growth less dependent upon capital and raw material inputs. Weak gross fixed capital formation alongside booming R&D spending in the US highlights this shift. 
Disruptive technologies will improve the quality of life. A bigger slice of economic life will be intangible. That uses less material inputs (the major desecrators of the planet) and uses them more efficiently. As an example, if one-third of food production currently wasted globally were distributed efficiently, one-third of crop land could be returned to the wilderness for our children. And that’s before counting the production gains per acre of crop land from advancing agricultural technology. 
That’s the new techno-utopian investment narrative in a nutshell: rising inequality doesn’t really matter because the future of wealth is all about intangible consumption and full capacity utilisation, meaning who cares who funds or owns the asset — we’re all long-term beneficiaries of the newly maximised efficient order. Even if Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Larry Page don’t have a tendency to rent out their spare mansion capacity on AirBnb....MORE