Companies forget that they pay wages; don’t understand complexity of economy

Apparently 68 out of the top 100 retailers are concerned about flat or falling wages. Huffington Post did some poking around their 10-K forms and aggregated the top risks for the top 100 retailers. Huffpo found that low spending, unemployment, and falling or flat wages were the top 3 items. To me this is really interesting. Apple was recently identified as part of a wage fixing scheme that looks like it could have cost employees something on the order of $3.2 Billion, Wal-Mart has cut hours of their employees as to prevent themselves from paying for ObamaCare for those employees, which means that those employees have to pay for their insurance out of pocket, as they have to insurance now.

All of these things together impact the web of our economy. What we’re seeing is local optimization which leads to sub-optimization of the entire system. Companies that are cutting wages or benefits to maximize their profits are likely taking a cut out of their own revenue stream. It’s likely that many Wal-Mart employees shop there because it’s the lowest priced place in most areas for most goods. The fact that WinCo is Wal-Mart’s largest threat now, is pretty indicative that wages are falling.

When Henry Ford raised the wages of his employees to a real living wage, it wasn’t out of kindness or some perceived social good. It was so that his employees could buy his car. If a large mass of people are unable to buy a good you produce because of your own wage policies you’re creating a problem for yourself. Furthermore, economies are networks, they interact with each other. Each and everyone of those employees would then become representatives for the Ford brand and be able to show off the good they were manufacturing. With every new employee hired, Ford knew that there would eventually be one more sale.

Companies today have clearly forgotten this. Retail is one of the largest segment of our economy, with a huge number of employees. If this entire swath of our population cannot afford to buy consumer goods, then it’s likely that we’re going to be continually be at risk for another recession. People buying stuff is what keeps our economy going. If the companies that staff the most people do not pay them well enough to keep buying stuff beyond food, then we’re at a great risk.

Wages are a very difficult thing. There’s a Socialist party in Seattle that’s trying to get minimum wage up to $15, but offered a job starting at $13/hour. Employees have gone on strike to get higher wages. I’ve written about it several times, however, whenever companies are indicating that low wages are a risk to their business, it’s time for them to start looking in the mirror. There are large retail industry groups, these groups should start to investigate the root cause of these risks and propose recommendations to address these concerns.

Should the Fed look to take action to protect the companies from themselves in order to protect the economy? Should the minimum wage be increased to address the problem? Should the government take action at all, it’s the businesses fault if they fail because they didn’t pay their employees enough. What do you think?

China, Technology and creativity

Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been hanging out with my Awesome wife! She gave a talk in Ireland, which I went to for most of a week. It was a good time. She then came here to Eindhoven for a week and had an interview. So that’s why I haven’t been updating. Sorry faithful readers.

At a party on Saturday, I got into a fairly active discussion with 4 PhDs and myself. They are all engineering PhDs, so they understand research and how technology works rather well. We got into a discussion on if China was going to actually really over take the US in scientific research. I said I think it’s likely, but there were many arguments against that likelihood. I didn’t really get to finish my argument on why it’s possible. So, I’m going to do that now.

Basically, some of the core arguments against China being able to overtake is us lack of creativity. China is a country of followers, not a country of creative leaders. Another argument was the lack of high quality education and research centers in China. I’ll address the second argument first and then discuss the first argument.

Americans know that we educated a lot of foreigners at our universities, 2008 was an all time high for the number of international students. In fact my roommate at one point explained to me that one of the groups at the University of Texas was comprised entirely of Chinese students. They conduct their meetings and research all in Chinese and, in fact, leave the US speaking worse English than when they arrived. But why are they leaving? The link above notes that there simply aren’t enough H1B Visas or green cards for them all to stay. Effectively we’re throwing out the people we educate. Over time enough good scientists and engineers will be sent back and will start teaching in China. China has big ambitions and has been creating universities as fast as it can. Using an evolutionary perspective, we can see that it’s likely they will continue to create variation and students will be selecting the best universities. One of them is likely to start producing more science and better science than another. This will lead to the best students and best researchers going to that school. One or two could become the Chinese version of MIT, Berkeley or Harvard. I think it’s clear that education won’t hold them back. Eventually, they will have several universities in the top 200 list according to the Times Higher Education ranking.

The second argument is a little tricker to argue against. The Chinese aren’t creative enough to create radical innovations. First, I’m sure that the Chinese I know would object to this blanket statement. However, let’s assume for the moment that’s it’s some what correct. There’s a culture that doesn’t reward creativity and rewards conformity. I can think of two countries that have similar types of culture that have been creative and are excellent centers of research and innovation, Japan and South Korea. Now are they as good as the US at innovation or research, No. However, they have had some great innovations and do great research.

When it comes to patent research there’s something called a Triadic patent. It’s a patent that is filed in the US, Europe and Japan. Europe and Japan have higher standards for patents than the US and are more difficult to acquire. Why does this matter? Well effectively Japan is the only country in Asia that would fit better with the European countries in terms of GDP per capita, protection of IP and research.

Both South Korea and Japan have a few companies that are on the leading edge of their respective fields. Samsung is in a huge number of different areas and is the world leader in many of them. Japan has Nikon, Sony, Toyota and a few other big companies that are on the cutting edge in research, design and innovation. So, I don’t accept the argument that the Chinese couldn’t be creative.

Another point I was trying to make, is that over time as a country becomes the center of manufacturing and incremental innovation on a product, it’s likely that they are going to be able to create the next radical innovation in that field. There are two things that support this. First, in a book by Andrew Liveris, the British CEO of Dow Chemical, there is anecdotal evidence to support bringing manufacturing back to the US along with the R&D that goes with it. The other argument is based on the research of Cesar Hidalgo of MIT that shows through network theory, that to become a leader in technology you have to build your way through a series of other technologies. It helps explain why it’s so hard for countries to pick up creating semiconductors. However, as a country develops the technological capability to work within a type of technology they are likely to create innovation and changes in that technology.

China has effectively been given the ability to manufacture just about everything through outsourcing. They have the technological capabilities to build and design new technologies. China also has the resources devoted to it. They created a five year plan where they are going to invest $1.5 trillion in 7 science sectors. Because of these factors I believe that China is a real threat to US and European leadership in research and technology. For any one to dismiss China because of cultural reasons or technological capabilities is making a mistake and is likely to be surprised in 20 -30 years when China becomes a leader in at least one field, likely more than one.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: Society

This is the last post I discussed the impact on the computing industry of ubiquitous high speed free wireless internet. In this post I’ll discuss some of the societal changes. In some ways the societal changes may be smaller, at first, than we’d anticipate.

First, we’ve seen how much people have jumped on playing with their phones in public spaces. I fully expect this trend to continue and in fact to increase. Simple to play games like Angry Birds will become more advanced and will likely look better. People will do more work on their phones and will likely begin using video calls in public. Which will be annoying, but it’s going to happen.

There may be a wave of apps that will try to increase the amount of social interaction of players. This doesn’t mean that we’ll have an increase of in person social interaction, but will likely be an increase of virtual social interaction. Which for some people is significantly better than what would happen otherwise.

I think that the ubiquitous internet will have a mixed impact on the ability to do work. As it is a lot of people already spend a great deal of time working from home off the clock. This will likely increase, but I think there will be a trade off. As people will, hopefully, be able to work while commuting more easily on trains and buses. People will begin to work in more places like cafes compared to the amount that currently do.

There will be other changes as new devices and applications are created to take advantage of the high speed internet. Many of these changes will happen as these devices are developed.

I would like to be completely optimistic that the greater the amount of internet will lead to a larger amount of user created content. That the increase of wireless internet will increase personal engagement in political and social activities, but I don’t think it will. I think that there will be a small increase because there will be a larger number of people that weren’t able to do it before are able to do it.

I think that a high percentage of engagement in social networks, content creation and other types of engagement will take some time to occur. I think it’s because of a mind set. A lot of people have no desire to become involved in these types of things. I would like to imagine that these changes will happen over night. However they will not. People will need time to understand how to exploit this infrastructure. It will take time for unique social experiments to develop using the network. Some people will understand immediately how to create new tools for the new environment, but it will take many established firms time to fully exploit it.

It will also take people time to adapt to the change. It’s not obvious in what ways the average user will exploit this technology. In many ways it will just increase the amount of general web browsing going on, in other ways video viewing will increase as well.

In this series I’ve looked at how our government, business, computer and social environments will change based on ubiquitous free wireless internet. It will have immediate changes and longer term changes that currently fall into the realm of science fiction. Device makers and app developers will have a new world to exploit because of increases in computing power locally and remotely. Creating novel methods of using this power is what will drive the next phase in our economy.

Technological Adjacency

Two days ago I talked about Technological convergences, yesterday I discussed how firms can enable technological convergences. Today I’m going to talk about technological adjacencies. First though, why do we care about these? There’s a couple reasons. One at the micro level, specifically you, understanding how technological adjacencies work can help you determine different industries that your skill set applies. Does understanding ceramics only help in making durable dishwares or can they be used in the semiconductor industry too? It turns out they can be. Ceramics are great insulators and are used on many different types of tools for manufacturing semiconductors. A step above, at the firm level, being able to produce ceramics can allow a company that used to only make dishware to move into creating other types of technologies, like for semiconductors. This shift can eventually open up an entire new market to allow for continued growth. However, as I mentioned yesterday, this doesn’t always work and can leave a company weaker than it was before the shift into the new industry. Finally, technological adjacencies can help spur regional and national growth.

Companies aren’t the only thing that can be viewed to have specific capabilities. Regions and countries typically have specialties Pittsburgh used to be the major hub in the world for steel. However, steel collapsed in the 70’s and 80’s there. Now Pittsburgh has turned itself into a medical and biomedical hub. Because of the steel industry Pittsburgh already had two world class universities and a number of great universities. After the crash of steel these became the main drivers of the economy. The firms that were created helped to rebuild the area.

As I mentioned above technological adjacencies are fairly simple to find after the fact. They are difficult to see ahead of time. It’s difficult to know what is a good bet and what is not a good bet for a company. This is why it’s important to have an R&D branch that is allowed to explore the adjacent technology spaces around your major technologies. If you don’t do this then there could be some great markets your missing out on.

Technological Convergences

Convergences happen in all different ways. They happen in books or book series, where a good author can plan to have plotlines converge in a specific time and place. In the case of the series I just finished, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the author was able to get two totally unrelated characters meet in really unexpected ways. It happens in films too, Crash and 21 Grams are two great examples of this. This happens in technology as well. Most of the time, we as consumers never even see it happening. When we look back though we realize it was incredibly obvious that it would happen. Two great examples of this happened with cell phones.

MP3 players have been wildly popular since they came out in the late 90’s. Napster and easy to rip CD’s made them incredibly useful and provided hours of great listening. Around the same time cell phones were becoming smaller and more popular. No unexpectedly, phone manufacturers decided that it would be useful to put a music player onto the phone. These were clunky and really only used when people didn’t have a better MP3 player. Apple had created a great MP3 player and realized, like the phone manufacturers that users only wanted to carry one of these devices. This is one of the reasons that drove them to make the iPhone. Great interface and good music experience. At this point they already had the music infrastructure and the loyal fan base to be sure of a high number of sales.

Around the same time as the MP3 boom businessmen were starting to use Portable Digital Assistants (PDA). This was a replacement to the calendar and phone book. It also provided a few applications that allowed some work on documents. It could also be used to schedule emails when the PDA was synced with the computer. It was obvious that this would be a great device to connect to some sort of network aside from plugging it in. Blackberry used to make two way pagers and figured out a way to send emails and other useful data over the pager network. This was one of the earliest smart phones. Eventually Microsoft and Palm got into the phone manufacturing game for the same reason. People didn’t want to carry two device a PDA and a phone. If you put them both together you’d have a better product and would sell more.

These two technologies converged on a similar product, smart phones. Both types of phones had a very different set of users initially. However, since the iPhone there has been a further convergence of these phones into general purpose phones. Blackberry, while still catering to the business side, is shifting to compete directly with the iPhone because business users want the apps that the iPhone has. Palm has vanished from the market being unable to compete and Android has appeared as the first PC based OS. Android is a distribution of Linux, it doesn’t run well on PCs but MS and Apple are moving in a direction of merging mobile OSes and PC OSes (sure it’s a Mac, but it uses Intel so there’s no different besides the OS).

If we look back at these convergences, aside from new competitors and firm failure, they appear to be pretty obvious. Why wouldn’t these companies move into these market spaces? I’ll discuss some of that in my next blog.

Innovation, Science and Money II

In my last blog I discussed some of the budgetary cuts occurring in the US and how these cuts are going to impact the future of science. I want to spend some time explaining why this is the case. I mentioned something called Path Dependency, what do I mean by this? Well it’s a pretty simple concept, once you start down a policy path your choices are constrained by your previous choices and the results based on those choices.

This type of path dependency can be seen in scientific and technological changes. For example, if a piece of technology has three parts each one can be improved independently. If each one can be changed in one direction, from a 0 to a 1 each change could impact how likely a specific technology would be selected by consumers. Each change could lead to a local optimal, and could prevent the technology from becoming a global optimal. Additionally, these changes over time, with further research, could lead to radical different technologies. This happening from changing a single feature from on or off. Basically, it’s an evolutionary process.

Policy works the same way. There’s a paper written by Mustar et al (2008) that discusses the policy choices in France and the UK. The objective of the paper was to investigate the impact of policy choices on the creating of academic spin-offs. Some of the results lead to additional technology incubators in the UK and in France. However, the number of academic spin-offs in France actually decreased, however in the UK they increased significantly.

These differences came about because of previous policy choices. For example, France has laws related to civil servants and starting a new company. In France all professors are considered civil servants, so there is a history of professors not starting companies. There’s a lack of culture for entrepreneurship in France for increasing the number of academic spin-offs.

This is what I meant by path dependencies. Decreasing the amount of money going into meaningful academic research will have an impact in other ways. In the US there has been an increased push for increasing the number of companies being started. Scientific research can be turned into new companies through academic spin-offs. Decreasing the funding at two of the biggest funding agencies will decrease the number of academic spin-offs.

References:
Mustar et al 2008 http://www.springerlink.com/content/68282r1460889062/

Innovation, Science and Money

The death of Steve Jobs has really shaken the technology community. It has really made people do a lot of thinking about innovation and the impact of technology based companies on the economy. The Economist notes that the American work force is on the decline and the high tech companies aren’t making up enough jobs. That now companies like Apple and Google employ less than a third of what companies like GM used to employ. These high tech companies don’t need as many employees. Additionally, it’s a different type of work force that are required in the US. Apple outsources manufacturing because they are really concerned with driving down the cost of manufacturing and maximize profits. This is good business.

In a long article by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay Pal and a venture capitalist, he discusses what he calls the end of the future. Where he claims that we’ve been in an innovation slow down since the 70’s. He also argues that scientists and technologists aren’t living up to the claims they are making. He argues that in a lot of ways we’ve been technologically stagnant. Politicians have been making the same promises on energy since the 70’s and that we’ve been slowing down are rate of increase of production for food barely keeping up with population growth. I think that he does make some good points, but he definitely goes a bit over the top with his statements. He’s looking at things only within the national and regional context and is ignoring the fact that there have been cultural changes that have driven a change in how companies innovate.

Historically, companies don’t find value in doing basic research. If you look at the history of research labs within industry, they hire researchers to do incremental and radical innovation. However, this research is carried out within a scientific paradigm which was created in basic research.

In fact we’ve seen a decrease in the amount of R&D being spent by companies. This has lead to some of the stagnation in innovation that Thiel mentions. To combat this and to reduce the risk borne by the company they have been doing more and more contract research with universities and have increase the amount of money they spend with universities.

Thiel also mentions that the government might be able to help but doesn’t see it ever going to happen when you have to justify the expense by cutting something else. Since he’s a libertarian he feels that the budget must be balanced. However, our politicians are cutting budgets to the largest scientific funding agencies in the US. My wife sent me an email with some of the funding cuts, National Science Foundation is getting cut by 2.3%, in fact it’s 14% below the budget requested by the administration. The National Institute for Standards and Technology’s budget is getting cut by 9.3%. Both of these agencies create a large number of jobs. It’s been shown that one research job creates several other jobs. Cutting these budgets will reduce the amount of research which can be conducted. This will impact the number of researchers, impact the quality of education at universities and slow down the ability for universities and firms to exploit new research.

It typically takes 10 years for research to be monetizable. Cutting funding now impacts employment now and future employment. In fact, these changes will have a long term lasting impact. These choices create a path dependency within our society. Without proper funding we’ll be passed by some one that feels research is paramount.