Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Efficiency" Is Tyranny; Scale Is Violence

These are a couple of thoughts that occurred to me as a result of my discussion with an economist friend on Tuesday. 

My friend's premise, with which I disagreed, was that society prefers a small number of producers that make a particular good because that is the most efficient outcome.  I argued that his conclusion assumed a definition of "efficiency" that simply did not have to be.  If we were to define efficiency differently and construct a different set of rules to enforce that new definition (i.e., reconfigure the accounting rules, tax laws, etc. that enforce the current definition of efficiency), then the outcome could be different; i.e., society would prefer several small producers over one or two.

That didn't set well with him.  He insisted that "this was physics," that economies of scale command industry consolidation into one or two firms.

I had to disagree again, and that's when the fun really began.  Having worked at both monopolists (Intel) and startups, I know that most of the vaunted economies of scale arise from the fact that large firms demand-- and get-- much lower prices from their vendors.  They likewise get much more favorable financing terms from banks and other financial institutions.  Because large firms tend to have much lower input costs, they have a better cost structure than their competition, who falls farther and farther behind.

Desparate to make a point that could not be countered, he trotted out the division of labor and Adam Smith's pin factory, arguing that in many industries there is a minimum capital expense required just to get started, and that the widget maker who made a million widgets a year has a cost per widget that is a lot lower than a widget maker who uses the same size factory to make just one widget.  Again, I disagreed, noting that it is accounting rules and tax laws regarding depreciation and amortization that drive his conclusion, not any law of nature. 

So he called me irrational, at which point I took him a bit deeper into Adam Smith's body of work to identify a major weakness of modern economics, which is that it assumes that humans make economic decisions purely in monetary terms.  Even Adam Smith recognized that was not the case, as his Invisible Hand was the manifestation of society's "moral sentiments," the set of rules that makes every citizen consider how his actions will be perceived by the rest of society.  And behavioral economists, leveraging off of recent advances in cognitive science, have confirmed Smith's fundamental insights.    As a result, I argued that modern economics is complete hogwash.  The saying in corporate America is "if it can't be measured, it doesn't exist." and economists refuse to measure anything other than money.

I then turned his economies of scale argument on its head, noting that the returns to scale a large firm receives can be viewed as a tax on the rest of the industry.  The vendor has its own success metrics, including profit margins that it will have to support by charging the large firm's competitors substantially more.

We quickly agreed to disagree and moved onto friendlier topics, but I have not been able to stop thinking about our conversation. 

One thought is that efficiency, as currently understood, is tyranny.  Economic efficiency is a prerequisite to maintaining the illusion of perpetual exponential growth.  It is always and everywhere the enemy of competition and self-determination.

Another thought is that scale is violence, at least in economic terms.  Too Big To Fail is a clear manifestation of this violence.