Many activities that generate apparent revenue are detached from reliable judgments of value. Using revenue as a measure of production requires, at a minimum, that discriminating, budget-constrained actors determine that whatever is “paid-for” offers real-economic value superior or at least comparable to activities that could be inspired by alternative expenditures of the funds.
Cowen is appropriately general with this critique. Expenditures by government may not meet this “market test” because political actors may direct expenditures for reasons other than inspiring high-value economic activity, or because, for informational or organizational reasons, government may be unable to discern relative value. But the private sector is not immune. In spheres such as health care and education, the benefits of private sector as well as public sector expenditures are difficult to evaluate relative to alternative uses of resources. Cowen reminds us that health care and education are widely viewed as “growth” sectors, but to the degree we collectively overpay for them, “revenue” overstates economic value. A substantial portion of these expenditures should probably be accounted for as transfers and excluded from measures of aggregate production. But of course, we have no means of estimating the size of the appropriate haircut.
I’d add another important industry to government, health care, and education: financial services. Like with health care and education, we simply are unable to evaluate the degree to which payments to financial service providers represent wise use of resources and to what degree they represent transfers to financial industry stakeholders. Inherent informational problems associated with investment quality, combined with the temptation by service providers to exploit these difficulties to extract transfers, renders financial sector revenue highly suspect as a marker of value. Also, financial services are intimately involved in the other problematic sectors: One thing that binds government, health-care, and education is that all are financed in roundabout and sometimes opaque ways that soften near-term budget constraints and that shift costs and risks, both across time and onto people other than the purchasing decisionmaker. The means by which government, health-care, and education are financed help keep them vulnerable to agency and information problems.
I think of government, education, health care, and finance collectively as the “information asymmetry industry”, and I find it terrifying that many people presume that they are the future growth industries for the United States. Dani Rodrik has pointed out that tradable goods are special, in terms of engendering development in often corrupt emerging markets. Cowen offers an astute explantion: tradables that compete in international markets are usually low-information-asymmetry goods. Apparent value (revenue from trade) and real value are likely to be closely aligned and hard to fake. I worry that specialization in the information asymmetry industry could be an antidevelopment strategy for developed countries.
Conversely, Cowen points out that many new technologies generate value without generating commensurate revenue. It is clear that we would collectively pay a lot more for recorded music or news, for example, because we did in the past (and it’s more likely that our reduced payments have more to do with technology and industry changes than with changes in our preferences). Cowen suggests that many of the current era’s technologies are like this, which is nice from a certain perspective (yay! free stuff!) but can cause a kind of sclerosis in an economy that nourishes itself via flows of monetary exchange.
I think that Cowen is right on both counts. And note that these two factors, in and of themselves, go some way towards explaining “The Great Stagnation”, even before we get to the headline argument about a slowdown in technological change. I’m not referring to an argument Cowen addresses (but cannot entirely dispose of) that there is no great stagnation at all, once we account for measurement error. Instead, I wonder whether, rather than a paucity of new technologies, we might be experiencing a breakdown of an older gizmo that economists refer to as “markets”. As our economy tilts away from sectors in which value (however defined) and financial revenue are reliably cojoined, our primary means of orienting our behavior towards valuable activity, individually and collectively, become less and less effective. We simply don’t know what we ought to do. So we err. If the quality of economic decisionmaking is poorer than it was in past, that has consequences for welfare.
Truly frightening, and not only because it might mean that I have to re-examine a great deal of my philosophy.