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Today, it seems that almost everyone wants to be the “Uber” of something, and why not? With very little capital investment, the company has completely disrupted the taxicab industry and attained a market value of over $100 billion. In an earlier era, it would have taken decades to have created that kind of impact on a global scale.

Still, we’re not exactly talking about Henry Ford and his Model T here. Or even the Boeing 707 or the IBM 360. Like Uber, those innovations quickly grew to dominance, but also unleashed incredible productivity. Uber, on the other hand, still gushes red ink even after more than a decade and $25 billion invested. Just last year it lost more than $6 billion.

The truth is that we have a major problem and, while Uber didn’t cause it, the company is emblematic of it. Put simply, a market economy runs on innovation. It is only through consistent gains in productivity that we can create real prosperity. The data and evidence strongly suggests that we have failed to do that for the past 50 years. We need to do better.

The Productivity Paradox Writ Large

The 20th century was, for the most part, an era of unprecedented prosperity. The emergence of electricity and internal combustion kicked off a 50-year productivity boom between 1920 and 1970. Yet after that, gains in productivity mysteriously disappeared even as business investment in computing technology increased, causing economist Robert Solow to observe that “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

When the internet emerged in the mid-90’s things improved and everybody assumed that the mystery of the productivity paradox had been resolved. However, after 2004 productivity growth disappeared once again. Today, despite the hype surrounding things such as Web 2.0, the mobile Internet and, most recently, artificial intelligence, productivity continues to slump.

Take a closer look at Uber and you can begin to see why. Compare the $25 billion invested in the ride-sharing company with the $5 billion (worth about $45 billion today) IBM invested to build its System 360 in the early 1960s. The System 360 was considered revolutionary, changed computing forever and dominated the industry for decades.

Uber, on the other hand, launched with no hardware or software that was particularly new or revolutionary. In fact, the company used fairly ordinary technology to disintermediate relatively low-paid taxi dispatchers. The money invested was largely used to fend off would-be competitors through promoting the service and discounting rides.

Maybe the “productivity paradox” isn’t so mysterious after all.

Two Paths To Profitability

Anybody who’s ever taken an Economics 101 course knows that, under conditions of perfect competition, the forces of supply and demand are supposed to drive markets toward equilibrium. It is at this magical point that prices are high enough to attract supply sufficient to satisfy demand, but not any higher.

Unfortunately for anyone running a business, that equilibrium point is the same point at which economic profit disappears. So to make a profit over the long-term, managers need to alter market dynamics either through limiting competition, often through strategies such as rent seeking and regulatory capture, or by creating new markets through innovation.

As should be clear by now, the digital revolution has been relatively ineffective at creating meaningful innovation. Economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo refer to  technologies like Uber, as well as things like automated customer service, as “so-so technologies,” because they displace workers without significantly increasing productivity.

Joseph Schumpeter pointed out long ago, market economies need innovation to fuel prosperity. Without meaningful innovation, managers are left with only strategies that limit innovation, undermine markets and impoverish society, which is what largely seems to have happened over the past few decades.

The Silicon Valley Doomsday Machine

The arrogance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seems so outrageous—and so childishly naive— that it is scarcely hard to believe. How could an industry that has produced so little in terms of productivity seem so sure that they’ve been “changing the world” for the better. And how have they made so much money?

The answer lies in something called increasing returns. As it turns out, under certain conditions, namely high up-front investment, negligible marginal costs, network effects and “winner-take-all markets,” the normal laws of economics can be somewhat suspended. In these conditions, it makes sense to pump as much money as possible into an early Amazon, Google or Facebook.

However this seemingly happy story has a few important downsides. First, to a large extent these technologies do not create new markets as much as they disrupt or displace old ones, which is one reason why productivity gains are so meager. Second, the conditions apply to a small set of products, namely software and consumer gadgets, which makes the Silicon Valley model a bad fit for many groundbreaking technologies.

Still, if the perception is that you can make a business viable by pumping a lot of cash into it, you can actually crowd-out a lot of good businesses with bad, albeit well-funded ones. In fact, there is increasing evidence that is exactly what is happening. Rather than an engine of prosperity, Silicon Valley is increasingly looking like a doomsday machine.

Returning To An Innovation Economy

Clearly, we cannot continue “Ubering” ourselves to death. We must return to an economy fueled by innovation, rather than disruption, which produces the kind of prosperity that lifts all boats, rather than outsized profits for a meager few. It is clearly in our power to do that, but we must begin to make better choices.

First, we need to recognize that innovation is something that people do, but instead of investing in human capital, we are actively undermining it. In the US, food insecurity has become an epidemic on college campuses. To make matters worse, the cost of college has created a student debt crisis, essentially condemning our best and brightest to decades of indentured servitude. To add insult to injury, healthcare costs continue to soar. Should we be at all surprised that entrepreneurship is in decline?

Second, we need to rebuild scientific capital. As Vannevar Bush once put it, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.” To take just one example, it is estimated that the $3.8 billion invested in the Human Genome Project generated nearly $800 billion of economic activity as of 2011. Clearly, we need to renew our commitment to basic research.

Finally, we need to rededicate ourselves to free and fair markets. In the United States, by almost every metric imaginable, whether it is industry concentration, occupational licensing, higher prices, lower wages or whatever else you want to look at capitalism has been weakened by poor regulation and oversight. Not surprisingly, innovation has suffered.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to shift our focus from disrupting markets to creating them, from “The Hacker Way”, to tackling grand challenges and from a reductionist approach to an economy based on dignity and well being. Make no mistake: The “Uber Economy” is not the solution, it’s the problem.

– Greg

Image: Unsplash