Steve Denning is one of our most important and insightful writers at the intersection of economics, business, and management. He has been in the lead in alerting the business world to the imperative of new thinking about organization, embracing agility and the end of hierarchy, agile processes, and digital transformation. His message: management must change to keep up with technology.
Recently, he turned his attention to economics. His conclusion: economics must change to keep up with technology. Mainstream economics that is; we Austrians may claim a special position, as I’ll argue below.
A school or tradition of economics (such as “mainstream economics”) tends to be defined by stacking dead economists and their theories one on top of another and calling the resulting intellectual edifice a definitive body of work for the filling of textbooks. Later arrivals to the school limit themselves to publishing marginal elucidations. Keynesian economics continues as a set of theories derived from the conditions between the first and second world wars in socialist Britain. Keynesian economists in 2021 continue to insist that these theories still hold, and, in fact, they are the backbone of US Government economic policy today, and the reason it is so disastrous.
In his article Why Mainstream Economists Miss Digital Innovation, Denning drives home just exactly why this backward-looking process of economic theorizing takes us so far off base. Mainstream economists (he quotes Nobel prizewinner Robert Solow) had a very difficult time even recognizing the contribution of digital services to economic value. The “real economy”, Solow opined, was about physical products. Now the largest firms in the world are those delivering primarily digital services. So much for the validity of Nobel rise recognition.
Denning also calls out Robert J Gordon, who asserts that the great innovations occurred before 1970 – innovations such as electricity, household appliances that reduce work, air conditioning that increases comfort and productivity, flushing toilets that improve sanitation and health. Gordon dismisses innovation after 1970 as narrowly focused on entertainment, communication, and information technology. He referred to the arrival of the iPhone as a minor event in entertainment and communications. He failed to realize how a handheld computer in the hands of billions of people radically increases productivity and economic growth, which has been associated with the eradication of poverty, as well as changing how people are educated, given access to healthcare, and put on a pathway to higher aspirations and better lives.
Denning uses this example as an illustration for his conclusion that mainstream economics misses “that digital innovation has changed almost every aspect of human life”. Of what relevance is a field of study that is so oblivious to real life?
Fortunately, there’s a school of economics that understands the dominant role of digital innovation: Austrian economics. There are several points of difference with mainstream economics. One is the understanding that Austrians have of the market as a process and the economy as a constantly changing capital structure. Mainstream economists’ main tool is the study of equilibrium: under what conditions would the economy be perfectly balanced with no more change? Austrians understand that there is no equilibrium, and equilibrium is not a state we desire. The market is a flow of continuous, often dramatic and always accelerating change. Technologies build on technologies and change becomes exponential in terms of impact on growth and improvement. More and more customer value is generated, without limit.
Austrian capital theory recognizes capital in the economy as a flowing river of technology enabling more and more customer value, and constantly changing and improving in response to customers’ never-ending demand for betterment – faster, cheaper, more efficient, more convenient, more comfortable, more productive. Customers demand this continuous change, and technology helps to deliver it.
Another tool in the Austrian economists’ toolbox is the understanding of the role of the entrepreneur, entrepreneurship, and the entrepreneurial method. The entrepreneur has no role in mainstream economics. No one has figured out a mathematical equation to represent this most human of innovative influence. Entrepreneurs are those who look at the world and ask themselves how they can make it better than it is. That’s why Steve Denning can quote an entrepreneur like Marc Andreessen who wrote “Why Software Is Eating The World” but can’t find any economists to quote.
He could have referred to W. Brian Arthur’s paper, Competing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In By Historical Events, where he anticipated exponential growth and the rise of the tech titans. Brian Arthur calls his brand of economics “complexity economics”, which is a strand of Austrian economics. Denning might also have quoted Todd H. Chiles on Organizational Emergence, his theory about how firms and markets advance rapidly through stages of dramatic change and increasing value generation as a result of both technology and changing consumer preferences.
Steve Denning is right to say that it’s imperative that mainstream economics catches up with technology. He should go further and call for the widespread recognition of Austrian economics as the economics of radical economic change. It’s already the go-to theory to explain bitcoin, free software, and the economics of video games. Mainstream will never catch up.