We Consistently Bet On The Wrong Horses for Success as a Nation
Posted by Bob Warfield on January 1, 2013
Happy New Year’s all!
I’m waking up well-rested this first day of the New Year and my blog reader is full of more of the same as regards how to fix our ailing economy and what our nation should do going forward. There’s quite a lot of hand wringing about how the Fiscal Cliff deal was too weak because it didn’t address spending, how we’re going to have to learn to get by as a nation with fewer and fewer jobs, and a bunch of other malarkey I use the word “malarkey”, because I have come to believe that as a nation and a culture (both naturally and in the sub-culture that is high tech startups), we consistently bet on the wrong things for long term success.
In no particular order, let me use this post to tell you what I mean:
– We’re focused on the Fiscal Cliff, raising taxes on the rich, and cutting our deficit. Nothing wrong with any of those possibilities except that not one of them will help the biggest problem our economy faces right now, which is that unemployment is way too high. In fact, a lot of it, actually makes that problem worse. Instead, we seem content with the idea that if we tax the rich more and slash the deficit enough, that will somehow fix the problem. Paul Krugman, love him or hate him, is a Nobel prize-winning economist. I don’t much care for his politics, but one thing I’ll say for him is that whatever proposition he puts forth, he provides data to support it. One thing he’s been saying since the mess started is more spending, not less is what’s needed. He’s gone on to show vast amounts of historical data on why this is so and we have the very convincing benefit of a double blind test where Europe went heavily down the austerity path while the US went with a (not quite big enough) stimulus plan. Guess what? We’re much better off economically and you can see that in black and white. Fred Wilson writes that we’re now going to have to endure a “Death by a Thousand Cuts“, and I think his sentiment is totally wrong. If Keynesian economics is write, and the data continues to show it is, that those “Thousand Cuts” represent forestalling real spending cuts to a time when they can be better afforded and we don’t need the extra propping up. Sure, the money could be better spent, but none of the proposals are about how to do that. Bottom line is there is a ton of data on this stuff, the path is clear (spend when the chips are down and cut when times are booming), but we’re so focused on the wrong targets and so politicized this is ignored.
– We allow ourselves to believe that the job problems are structural, that there will simply be fewer jobs going forward, and there is nothing we can do about it. Fred Wilson’s partner, Albert, says as much in his New Year blog post, “Starting 2013 with a whimper“. Krugman will give you link after link where he suggests it isn’t structural at all. Heck, I have seen it myself. I recently visited family in Houston, Texas. The place is absolutely booming. There’s so many jobs there is a danger of overheating. At one point in the Presidential debates it was pointed out that 1/2 of all the jobs created during the Great Recession where in this one state: Texas. For a real eye opener, use Zillow to compare real estate prices there versus Northern California. They basically never felt the crunch the rest of the nation is experiencing. Why? Because of the Oil Business. It is a business that creates real jobs. It is an industry that spends on expensive machinery that wears out quickly. Machinery and technologies that were developed here, where we are the world’s foremost experts. Machinery that operates under conditions of extreme stress and breaks a lot. It’s an industry where we can’t afford to wait for a container of parts to come from overseas from the low-cost bidder because that is too expensive and the low cost parts just break again even sooner. It’s an industry that can’t outsource itself overseas and keep all of its profits overseas to the degree Apple has. Imagine what it would do for the economy if we were more focused on job creating industries like this one than on building the next advertising driven social network.
– We’re completely focused on the need for ever more progressive taxes on individuals while having let the real horse, corporate taxes get well out of the barn. All that chit chat about how great the economy was when individuals were much more highly taxed goes double for corporations. In fact, the difference in historical taxation for corporations is much larger than for individuals. We hear that raising taxes on corporations destroys jobs, but as far as any logic goes, it is quite the opposite. The most profitable company on the planet, Apple, has vast hoards of cash sitting in the bank and what few jobs they do create are all overseas. If their profits were taxed like crazy, two things would happen. First, they’d have a much higher incentive to raise their expenses (e.g. hire more people) and invest rather than salting it away and paying taxes on it. Second, it would result in indirect progressive taxation because it would be far less attractive to pay huge earnings multiples for a share of stock and it would be far less attractive to distribute profits as dividends. Making capital more expensive wouldn’t matter though because Apple is clearly not a particularly capital intensive company else they’d be investing and not salting away all that cash. Why aren’t we making corporate income tax hugely progressive just like individual taxes. Leave small businesses alone and tax the heck out of the Apple’s?
– As a complete aside from taxes, we are too focused on Big Companies and not nearly focused enough on Small Business. It’s been shown time and again that Small Business creates jobs while Big Companies destroy jobs. Yes, when Obama came to Silicon Valley, who did he meet with?
– As a country, a culture, and in the Digital Technology Microcosm, we have focused far too much on price and not nearly enough on building the best there is. It has become popular to say that because companies like Facebook have ad-driven models, “we are the product”, and that’s why we are not treated well even though we think of ourselves as customers. This goes a lot further when we focus entirely on price (where ad-driven is the ultimate price focus). Pricing focus destroys a disproportionate number of jobs while quality focus creates a disproportionate number of jobs. There have been some articles that point this out. A focus on efficiency can only free up capital. A focus on doing fundamentally new things that haven’t been done before might create some jobs.
– We are too focused on investing in endless get rich quick schemes. The Darwinian model of throwing out a tiny bit of seed and waiting to see what takes off with little capital is just too appealing when you have a big portfolio to help balance the risks. Unfortunately, it self selects temporary fashion hits and things that are easy to do (they have to be) and creates few jobs and very little lasting value. Compare and contrast creating the world’s best system for frac-ing oil reservoirs versus reinventing a better system for restaurant menus and ask yourself which one is going to do more to buoy our economy and create good jobs? Here’s the list of food-related startups the same VC mentions in his article on reinventing menus:
E la Carte, and other food-tech startups like Blissmo, Chewse, ClubW, CraftCoffee, CultureKitchen,DailyGobble, EcoMom, Farmeron, FoodA, FoodSpotting, KitchIt,GoSpotCheck, LoveWithFood, MileHighOrganics, NetPlenish, Ordr.in,ShopTouch, TeaLet, Ven.io, WholeShare.
I just look at the list and see more of the same, no real companies, no real jobs. What could have been done in terms of creating the next real software company if all the seed money that went to the long list of food-related startups from the same VC had been focused? Half the stuff Dave bemoans as being missing I can get pretty close to with Yelp already. Do we really need to divide that pie to finer and finer degrees? And just because it is a popular meme for bashing, do we need any more photo startups? Which among the ranks of the unemployed have the inclination to do all the dining out and photo taking to grow those markets? It kills me to admit it, but it is enough to make me want to agree with Arrington–not only is this ineffective, it’s downright boring.
The worst iteration of this has been Wall Street, which successfully sold the doozy that a “Free Market” is the same as a “Competitive Market’, and that therefore we should deregulate them as much as possible. It’s only the competitive markets where the invisible hand is strong enough to do the right thing. Anything else is a monopoly of one kind or another. Monopolies can come about in industry, and they can also come about when the leverage inherent in exotic derivatives and deregulation puts control of too much in the hands of too few who are then willing to make a profit no matter what the cost.
– We are too focused on riding the bubble rather than on building lasting value. I will refer you to my post on Riding the Bubble for more. Just do a search on this blog for Bubble and you’ll see it isn’t a new theme. The Bubble Riders are all Momentum investors because there seems to be very little Value Investing at all in the Venture World. It’s a shame because the most successful investor of all time, Warren Buffet, is a value investor, not a momentum investor. But, we live with a monoculture when it comes to investment thesis.
If all this is what passes for how it will be done in the future, we shouldn’t wonder if the economy continues to suffer.
Meanwhile, it’s a New Year. We don’t have to keep doing things the old way. Selfishly, we can realize that ultimately you have to be a Contrarian at some level in order to have an edge. I hear the VC’s are ready to switch to Enterprise for a while. Let’s all turn over a New Year’s resolution to look at a bigger picture, see a longer term, and consider a change.
We’re due for it. This other stuff has been failing us for a long time.