Thursday, November 6, 2014

New bubbles: how much disruptive innovation can one economy take?

The next bubble has already started.   I think it's the sharing economy.  Or to put it anther way 'the desperately trying to monetize everything you own, so you don't have to live on the street' economy.  There is also the disruptive innovation economy or the 'lets destroy or circumvent regulations using the internet so our investors can get rich and to hell with everyone else' economy.  "Sharing" and "disruptive innovation", the one evokes lessons learned in kindergarten and the other images of poor buggy whip manufacturers clinging to an outmoded business model at the dawn of the automotive age.

Companies like Uber and Lyft, who call themselves logistics companies, get people to use their personal cars as an 'independent' taxi in return for a cut of the fare, the price of which they, not the drivers, determine. The independence of the drivers is a legal fiction, allowing Uber and Lyft to build and operate a nationwide taxi service without the bother and expense of 1) getting a taxi cab license in the local municipality or complying with local regulations, 2) employing drivers and paying benefits 3) buying and maintaining a fleet of cars and paying for fuel. 

Now, they are advertising subprime auto loans to drivers with bad credit, the terms of which can add $10,000 to the price of a $27,000 car.  I think this demonstrates pretty clearly that the best interest of their drivers is not their highest priority.  Servicing that loan will cost in excess of $100 a week, which is a big extra expense for a person working for what Uber and Lyft claim are 'tips'.

It is a particularly innovative form of capitalism, to charge people for the privilege of using their own property to make money illegally.

I think it is an idea whose time has come.  Smartphones can do more and more.  They can empower people to work from nearly anywhere.  Give a person a charged smartphone and a bluetooth headset, and they can do any number of customer service tasks.  Book a flight?  Troubleshoot windows?  Call out on dodgy scams? Take an order? Resolve billing issues? No one needs to set up a call center anymore.  Right now it is possible to set up and staff a call center and not buy a single thing, server space can be rented, programming a call center app can be contracted, and hundreds or thousands can download a 'work from home' app that lets them do anything that it previously took a dedicated call center operation to perform.

 Google is already testing self driving cars in California.  These technologies are ripe for convergence.  Once Uber and Lyft have their brand established all over the country, what's to stop them from replacing their drivers with cars that don't require drivers at all?  Within a year, the Oculus Rift VR goggles will release their consumer model, followed shortly by Samsung's lower spec'd smartphone based VR goggles. Will trucking companies put self driving trucks on the road with one or two people virtually riding herd on a fleet to get the automated trucks out of jams their programming can't cope with?

I'm not against our roads being full of self driving cars.  It's a technology that could save lives.  What I'm against is the goldrush mentality that will result in millions people unemployed when disruptive technologies are implemented without any consideration of the consequenses.  Every bus driver, truck driver, tractor driver, combine harvester driver, forklift driver, pizza delivery driver, taxi driver that can't earn a living is going to stretch the already weak economy even further. 

We don't have the kind of social safety net that can support millions of people leaving the workforce.  And let's not kid ourselves that ay brand new replacement jobs will be as well paying or plentiful enough to put all of the unemployed drivers back to work.

Once corporate America sees the potential of cyrpto-currencies, they'll be able to avoid paying taxes entirely.  The only people still paying taxes will be those too stubborn to change to the new currencies.

So, imagine Google and Amazon and other web giants wholeheartedly embracing 3-d printing, warehouse automation, driverless deliveries, and TOR encrypted untraceable commerce with crypto-currencies, and what you're looking at is the end of capitalism as we know it. I'm not so in love with American capitalism that I think it is the acme of economic systems, but we are living in times that are about to get a lot more interesting.