Technical and Communications Skills

Catherine Weinberger writes,

while math scores, sports, leadership roles, and college education are all associated with higher earnings over the entire 1979-1999 period, the time trend in the earnings premium was strongest among those individuals who participated in sports or leadership activities during high school and had higher levels of cognitive skills. Supporting evidence based on Census and CPS data matched with the Autor, Levy and Murnane (2003) job-task measures provides an independent observation also suggesting that the labor market increasingly favors workers with strong endowments of both cognitive and social skills. These findings, coupled with evidence of growing employment, suggest increasing complementarity between cognitive and social skills among young workers.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who sees the findings in an average-is-over context. Indeed, if cognitive skills and social skills are both somewhat scarce and imperfectly correlated, increasing complementarity would lead to greater inequality.

I would always tell my AP Statistics students that they were learning technical communications skills. I would say that communicators without technical skills end up as baristas. Those with technical skills but poor communication skills will end up as Dilbert, working for a boss who appears to be an idiot.

Joshua Gans on Apple Pay and Market Power

He writes,

So last week, in some of these stores you could use Apple Pay. This week in CVS and Rite Aid you can’t. The reason appears to be that a bunch of large retailers got together a couple of years ago to develop their own mobile payments solution — mostly to compete with existing banks and credit card associations. They are still doing that and will only launch their app, CurrentC, next year. In the meantime, they have acted to stop Apple Pay and Google Wallet from getting traction.

When a consortium of big legacy companies tries to take on a tech company in an innovative area, I expect an epic fail.

Matthew Yglesias on Amazon and Market Power

He writes,

What is indisputably true is that Amazon is on track to destroy the businesses of incumbent book publishers. But the many authors and intellectuals who’ve been convinced that their interests — or the interests of literary culture writ large — are identical with those of the publishers are simply mistaken.

Pointer from Jason Collins.

I agree that we should not be rushing to the barricades to defend the traditional publishing business model. Rooting for the book publishers to have strong negotiating leverage with Amazon is equivalent to rooting for the legacy music industry to have strong negotiating leverage with iTunes.

Thoughts on Two-Sided Markets

Lynne Kiesling writes,

the distribution wires firm can, and should, operate as a platform and think about platform strategies as the utility business model evolves. An electric distribution platform facilitates exchange in two-sided electricity and energy service markets, charging a fee for doing so. In the near term, much of that facilitation takes the form of distribution, of the transportation and delivery. As distributed resources proliferate, the platform firm must rethink how it creates value, and reaps revenues, by facilitating beneficial exchange in two-sided markets.

Until now, I have not thought much about this whole two-sided market concept. I am struggling to see what it buys you. Earlier in her post, she quotes from a Harvard Business Review article.

In the traditional value chain, value moves from left to right: To the left of the company is cost; to the right is revenue. In two-sided networks, cost and revenue are both to the left and the right, because the platform has a distinct group of users on each side. The platform incurs costs in serving both groups and can collect revenue from each, although one side is often subsidized

If I’m understanding this correctly, then a brothel is a traditional value chain, but a singles bar is a platform. In terms of that metaphor, Kiesling is suggesting that electric utilities could change from operating like brothels to operating like singles bars.

Some problems I am having:

1. I am not sure what, if anything, makes brothels the natural business model in one industry and singles bars the natural business model in another.

2. Suppose that a singles bar has to pay women in order to get them to show up. By my reading of the HBR excerpt, then it becomes a traditional value chain. Metaphorically, it becomes a brothel, although I assume that it can avoid legal difficulty as long as the beds are off premises.

3. To me, cable TV looks like a brothel, not a singles bar. And to me, electricity looks like cable TV.

4. Metaphorically speaking, taxi companies and hotels operate brothels. Uber and airbnb operate singles bars. What Uber and airbnb are tapping into is supply-capacity that taxi companies and hotels were not using, either because they didn’t think of it or because it didn’t fit their business model. Is there spare electricity-generating capacity that utilities could be tapping into? If so, do they have the know-how and flexibility to tap into it?

Textbooks, Venture Capital, and Pharmaceuticals

Timothy Taylor writes,

It is by no means obvious that a lower-cost book (yes, like my own) works less well for students than a higher-cost book from a big publisher. Some would put that point more strongly.

Yes, I know that professors do not care much, if at all, about the prices of the textbooks they select for their students, but that is not the only reason that prices are so high.

Another factor is that the industry is similar to venture capital and pharmaceuticals. The organizations that fund projects in these areas incur heavy expenses on failures. A lot of textbook projects fail. The author may not even finish the book. Or it will flop in the market.

For a VC firm to stay in business when most of the companies that it funds wind up failures, it has to earn spectacular returns on its successes. For a pharmaceutical firm to stay in business when a lot of its research fails to yield a marketable compound, it has to charge a lot for those drugs that do make it. And for textbook publishers to stay in business when many of their projects flop, they have to charge a high price for the books that do sell.

Advances in technology have made it easier to produce a textbook at low cost. However, by the same token, it has probably increased the probability that any given textbook will fail to get a toehold in the market. So the overall economics of the business still requires publishers to absorb a lot of failed-project costs.

Industrialization, Bureaucracy, and the Nation-State

Robin Hanson quotes from a subscription-only New Scientist article by Deborah MacKenzie.

hierarchical control structures ballooned, with more layers of middle management. Such bureaucracy was what really brought people together in nation-sized units, argues Maleševic. But not by design: it emerged out of the behaviour of complex hierarchical systems. As people do more kinds of activities, says Bar-Yam, the control structure of their society inevitably becomes denser.

In a sense, I began thinking about this fifteen years ago.

Consider two evolutionary processes that could lead to a winner at a particular business.

a) natural selection. Many small firms enter the market and make decisions, and one of them has the skill and luck to make the fewest mistakes, becoming the dominant firm.

b) bureaucratic filtering. A single firm with a large bureaucracy faces many of the same choice points, and it uses its resource-intensive planning processes to sort out the decisions. These processes minimize mistakes, enabling the firm to reach the same point that would be reached in the natural selection process.

My guess is that process (a) will increase in importance in the future, and that process (b) will be less productive. The challenge with defending this guess is the fact that large companies with bureaucratic management are so successful at present.

That particular essay did not deal with the issue of nation-states. But it is consistent with the idea that industrialization and the nation-state would evolve at the same time, because bureaucracy was more important and effective in an industrial economy than in a pre-industrial or post-industrial economy.

Joshua Gans on Apple Pay

He writes,

This is why I think the resolution for the identification challenge is more significant. Last year, with the iPhone 5s, Apple finally got fingerprint recognition right. Last week I actually had to use a iPhone 5c for a few days without Touch ID and I couldn’t believe how much I had learned to rely on it. It really does work and you really do use it and it really is less hassle than a pin or even swiping to unlock the phone. But the security issues were not paramount but a fortunate side product.

Now they are paramount and what is more Touch ID solves the identification problem. It is really hard for criminals to spoof it or steal your identity using it. They would literally have to hold a gun to your head or take a hostage and, frankly, at that point, they are better off just robbing merchants directly.

U.S. credit cards are quite insecure. Biometric ID would seem to me to be a big improvement. Financial intermediaries will still have to put in back-up security measures, so that somebody who figures out how to copy your fingerprint is not able to make unlimited purchases. But I see phone-based payment technology as leapfrogging the current European model of more-secure credit cards.

Incidentally, I want an i-Watch, as long as it can use Google Maps as input. It would make bicycle navigation easier, but not with the crummy default maps app. Since the product won’t be available for a few months, and it since it won’t be biking weather for a few months after that, there is time to see how it develops.

I Wish I Knew More About This

From Technology Review.

Heimerl’s innovation comes in a gray box roughly the size of a microwave oven. It has solar panels on the outside to power cellular equipment inside, along with the software for management functions like billing and analytics. Secure the box somewhere and link it via satellite to a voice-over-IP network, and you’re ready to open shop as a mobile service provider. Heimerl’s nascent company, Endaga, sells it for $10,000

…Just one hitch: it’s illegal. Regional mobile providers hold licenses to the necessary airwaves. Indonesian officials were willing to look the other way, but in general, regulation is a significant hurdle for Heimerl’s vision of universal access. To resolve that issue, he has helped develop a “white space” workaround that occupies unused radio frequencies until another network needs them.

The Endaga company web site does not tell me much.

Health Care Innovation

I review the book by Jonathan Bush and Stephen Baker. An excerpt:

Bush argues that for most medical services, flagship research hospitals are high-cost providers. He believes that in a rational marketplace, the leading hospitals would have to specialize in particular areas of expertise. A hospital with unique skills at treating a certain type of cancer might attract patients from all over the United States with that cancer. However, it would not treat local patients for ailments that are more common and more easily treated. Instead, those cases would be handled by smaller community hospitals or clinics.

Why I would be inclined to replace the FCC and the FDA

Francis Fukuyama writes,

Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

The same holds true in business. Business organizations develop group-think biases and constituencies that resist change. However, if this gets to the point where the organization becomes dysfunctional, the market weeds out the organization. Government agencies lack such a weeding-out mechanism.

Overall, I found Fukuyama’s views did not correspond well with mine. I am concerned with the fundamental knowledge gaps that plague government policymakers. I think that the difference between market competition and government monopoly is significant. I also think that there are diseconomies of scale and scope in government.