Speculative Bubbles: Good for Innovation?

In a 2009 presentation, IT pioneer Bob Metcalfe argues that

Speculative bubbles accelerate technological innovation.

So he argues that we should “try not to outlaw bubbles,” but adds the warning that one should

Just be sure to have a chair when the music stops.

(See Metcalfe’s presentation “Enernet: Internet Lessons for Solving Energy.”

I would be hard-pressed to argue that the real-estate bubble was a good thing, except that it revealed the extreme perversity of the financial services industry. But I have long felt that the so-called “Internet Bubble” of the 1990s was a great thing in many ways, except possibly for investors swept along in the exuberance. The money and effort that were funneled into developing Internet startups helped to fuel an important surge of technology innovation and an intensive training period for new technologists and innovators, and we are still benefiting from that surge today.

In the notes from his presentation, Metcalfe adds some notes that are right on-point:

We saw from the many Internet Era bubbles that investment, speculation, inflation, competition, and collapse are tools of innovators against the status quo. Bubbles accelerate technological innovation. DC’s reflex (the reflex of the status quo) with each bursting of a bubble is to outlaw bubbles. This is counterproductive.

In the Internet Era, we had many bubbles, including generations of bubbles in memory, storage, LANs, wireless, PCs, spreadsheets, Internet browsers, databases, operating systems, VOIP, telecom equipment, optical technologies, programming languages, e-commerce, …

They all kept the Internet coming, against the vicious rearguard resistance of the status quo.

They go hand in hand with Christensen Disruption. The status quo declares innovations insufficient, non-standard, unsafe, and just plain HYPE!

During the mid-90s, some marketing professionals I respected then and still respect now dismissed Internet communication and marketing in just those kinds of terms. Nowadays, hardly anyone would deny the importance of the Internet as a component of a sound marketing program.

So I think I would have to agree that not all bubbles are all bad all of the time.

AB — 23 May 2011

Historical Chart of Home Values Shows Extent of the Housing Bubble

This chart, originally developed by economist Robert J. Schiller, then updated by Steve Barry, shows the recent housing bubble in dramatic fashion. This image is linked from the original at The Big Picture — click through for the original:

100-year chart of home values

AB — 15 April 2011

‘American Dream’ Film: Communicating Economic Ideas Dramatically

I’m interested as much in the way ideas get communicated as the ideas themselves. What brings this to mind is the animated film I saw today called The American Dream. This is the most creative expression I’ve seen of the more non-mainstream view of economics — the idea that the Federal Reserve is an evil conspiracy against America.

Some of the film’s explanations are less controversial — how banks manipulate the economy and create what amounts to a house of cards that is supposedly too big to fail. But the film does move into some uncomfortable areas, almost advocating violent revolution — patriotic language and images are used to whip up sentiments. Still, as I said, the most interesting thing to me is the innovative presentation of the creators’ arguments.

By the way, I also like Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course in Economics” — kind of a ‘chalk-talk’ approach — as another example of creative presentation of economics ideas.

The American Dream is a half-hour film available in two parts on YouTube.

AB — 25 January 2011

Do Companies Really Act in Their Own Interests?

Economics 101 would make one think that all actors always act in their own self-interest and that that is what makes a free-market economy work so well. But deeper economic study helps you to appreciate that the reality is much more nuanced.

This is emphasized in posts today by James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario and Felix Salmon at Reuters. What they are saying confirms my frequent observation that economic actors — from individuals to large companies to governments — can do really stupid things that are contrary to their own self-interests, as well as to the benefit of society.

In his post “Why banks are self-defeating on housing,” Salmon discusses banks’ disinclination to move ahead with short sales (in the real-estate sense — in such a case, the sale price is less than the amount owed on the loan — see the Wikipedia entry on this kind of short sale), even though the bank will lose in the long run if they let the property go into foreclosure. The problem is the human disinclination to got through pain in the short term, even though they will benefit in the long run:

Bank executives, it’s worth remembering, are human. Every time you do a short sale, you take a substantial loss on your loan. And no one likes doing that: it’s painful. So it’s understandable, from a psychological perspective, that they will drag out the process as much as possible, putting off until tomorrow the pain they know has to come at some point.

In his post, “The Private Sector Fallacy,” Kwak makes a similar point about large companies in general. He points to three factors as to why that is so:

One [factor] is that big company executives are prone to exactly the same sort of cognitive fallacies as ordinary people, and hence make stupid decisions routinely.

The second is that the incentives of individual people who make decisions (or provide information to people who make decisions) are only tangentially related to the interests of the company as a whole, and certainly not when you think of those interests over the long term.

A third factor is simply that companies are big, dumb, poorly designed institutions.

In spite of these problems with the classical “invisible-hand” model of economics, says Kwak,

the belief that the private sector is the answer to all our problems remains deeply rooted. One might even call it an ideology. I would hope that the financial crisis (and the BP disaster) might cause people to question that ideology, at least a little bit.

AB — 30 June 2010