Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 3): Innovation means creative destruction

The concept of creative destruction was popularised by Joseph Schumpeter and assumes that the economy is in a equilibrium. The “entrepreneur,” therefore, is an unbalancing factor that, through innovation, displaces the winners of the prevailing situation until then, generating a new equilibrium. This notion was criticized by other economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Israel Kirzner, who saw that the entrepreneur, far from being a disequilibrating factor, obtained its benefits by identifying the points of disequilibrium of a system and arbitrating between them.

The concept of “creative destruction,” on the other hand, focuses on businesses that go to waste from the irruption of the entrepreneur. This emphasis allows us to understand why there will be those who see with fear or disgust the very idea of ​​innovation. In contrast, Hayek and Kirzner emphasize the benefits of the new equilibrium: greater efficiency in the allocation of resources and, consequently, a greater generation of wealth. The notion of Schumpeter allows us to explain why many oppose innovation, that of Hayek and Kirzner gives us reasons to move forward with it. Strictly speaking, in order for innovation not to cause damage at the aggregate level, it must satisfy the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, that is, the gains from innovation must be so high as to allow a hypothetical compensation to the ones who lost the new distribution of resources.

In short, the notion of creative destruction that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson use, although it might differs from Schumpeter’s, meets the said Kaldor-Hicks criterion. In these cases, innovation does not represent a social disvalue, but on the contrary it generates a benefit for the whole. Therefore, it goes without saying that any brake on an innovation of this nature generates social loss. At this point, if innovation -also called “creative destruction”- is systematically curtailed, in order to seek to protect activities that would otherwise be displaced, society may encounter the following scenarios: a relative delay (regarding its potential) of its development, or a stagnation, or setback. In all three scenarios, inequality in wealth and income increases, or society sees its standard of living delayed or diminished in a homogenous way. In this last case, the protected sectors are also harmed by the brakes imposed on innovation.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 2; Here is the entire Longform Essay.]

Is planned obsolescence a good thing?

There is this recurring argument that goods don’t last as long today as they did fifty years ago. My father berated me a few months ago about my economics by saying that back in his time, goods lasted longer. I questioned his data (there are signs that goods last as long as they did twenty or thirty years ago). This new ATTN video on Repair Cafes would have caused my father to rejoice greatly. However, I am going to ask a question here and go a step further: is planned obsolescence the symptom of a good thing?

Here is my argument (feel free to throw rocks after).

Improving the lifespan of a good requires a greater level of inputs which increases the marginal costs of the good. Producing a higher-quality good basically shifts the supply curve leftwards. Basically, we pay a little more for something that lasts longer. However, if we are living in a world of rapid technological innovation, what is the point of expending more resources on a good with a twenty-year lifespan but which will be obsolete two years?

Take my previous iPhone – it lasted three years before it simply decided to not work. In the three years between my old phone and my new phone, there was a rapid change in quality: more memory, better camera, faster processing, better sound. Imagine that Apple had invested billions to increase the life of my iPhone from three to nine years. Would I have bought that phone? In all honesty, it would depend on the price increase but the answer would have been closer to “no” than to “yes”. So in a way, Apple reaches a marginal consumer like me by lowering the price and turns me into a technology adopter. However, let’s imagine this from Apple’s perspective. Its in a race for its life against competitors who keep inventing new widgets and features that change the manner in which we consume. So, its choice is the following:

A: Increase lifespan, higher marginal costs and a leftward shift of supply that causes slightly higher prices and less demand. These resources cannot be expended on R&D and innovation
B: Shorten lifespan, lower marginal costs, lower prices, more goods consumed; more resources on R&D and innovation.

If everyone is inventing rapidly, then B is the dominant strategy. If innovation is zero, A is the dominant strategy. Basically, in a Schumpeterian world like I am describing, the short lifespan of goods is a symptom of great innovations and better days to come.

What do you think?