By Charles Hugh Smith
Source: Of Two Minds
The anti-social carnage unleashed by Corporate America’s “lock-in” / negative network effects has no real limits.
Here’s the U.S.economy in a nutshell: Corporate America is an anti-social Black Plague, gorging on cartel-monopoly profits reaped from negative network effects running amok, enriching the few at the expense of the many and concentrating political power in the hands of the most rapacious, anti-democratic corporate sociopaths.
Let’s start with network effects: the conventional definition is “When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases according to the number of others using it.”
So for example, when telephone service was only available to a few users, its value was limited. As more people obtained telephone service, the value of the network increased to both its owners and to users, who could reach more people and conduct commerce more easily as a result of having telephone service.
In the conventional analysis, negative network effects occur from “congestion,” i.e. the network is adding new users so quickly that “more users make a product less valuable.”
But this superficial analysis misses the fatally anti-social consequences of corporate negative network effects, a dynamic described by analyst Simons Chase in this essay. Here is an excerpt:
Even the most imaginative and far-reaching narratives about non-obvious economic fragility and off balance sheet risks are mere rants without constructive ideas about causes and solutions.
Consider network effects, the popular economic construct applied to market concentration and increasing returns for strategies pursued by some leading tech companies. This dynamic economic agent is also known as demand side economies of scale.
W. Brian Arthur, the economist credited with first developing the theory, described the condition of increasing returns as a game of strategic positioning and building up a user base to the point where ‘lock in’ of dominant players occurs. Companies able to tap network effects have been rewarded with huge valuations and highly defensible businesses.
But what about negative network effects? What if the same dynamic applies to the U.S.’s pay-to-play political industry where the government promotes or approves of something through a policy, subsidy or financial guarantee due to private sector influence.
Benefits accrue only to the purchaser of the network effects, and consumers, induced by the false signal of large network size, ultimately suffer from asymmetric risk and experience what I’m calling a loss of intangible net worth for each additional member after the ‘bandwagon’ wares off.
If this were the case, then you would see companies experience rapid revenue growth (out of line with traditional asset leverage models), executives accumulating huge fortunes and political campaign coffers swelling.
But the most striking feature would be the anti-social outcomes, the ones not available without the instant critical mass of government-supported network effects, the ones that, at scale, monetize a society’s intangible net worth.
Some products tied to these metrics include: prescriptions drugs, junk food targeting children, mortgages, diplomas, and social media. The list of industries that are likely to have gained through the purchasing of network effects in D.C. maps closely to the decay that is visible in U.S. society.
The loss of intangible capital and other manifestations of non-obvious economic fragility (to use Simons’ apt phrase) is the subject of my latest book, Will You Be Richer or Poorer? Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World, in which I catalog the anti-social consequences of negative network effects and other forces eroding our nation’s intangible capital.
Consider Facebook, a classic case of negative network effects running amok, creating immensely anti-social consequences while reaping billions in profits: Facebook isn’t free speech, it’s algorithmic amplification optimized for outrage (TechCrunch.com).
The full social cost of social media’s negative network effects are difficult to tally, but studies have found that loneliness and alienation are correlated to how many hours a day individuals spend on social media. (An Internet search brings up dozens of reports such as NPR’s Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why.)
Facebook is trying to leverage its social media “lock-in” to issue its own global currency and both Facebook and Google are trying to offer banking services without any of the pesky regulations imposed on legitimate banks. (Will $10 million in lobbying do the trick? How about $100 million? We’ve got billions to “invest” in corrupting and controlling public agencies and political power.)
Once Corporate America locks in cartel-monopoly power, i.e. you have to use our services and products, the corporate sociopaths use their billions in market cap and profits to buy the sociopaths in government. Pay-to-play is the real political machinery; “democracy” is the PR fig-leaf to mask the private sector “lock-in” (monopoly) and the public-sector “lock-in” (regulatory influence, anti-competitive barriers to entry, the legalization of corporate fraud, cooking the books, embezzlement, etc.)
Consider Boeing, an effective monopoly which used $12 billion in profits to buy back its own shares and “invested” millions in buying political influence so it could minimize public-sector oversight.
Rather than spend the $12 billion designing a new safe aircraft, Boeing cobbled together a fatally flawed design dependent on software, as described in The Case Against Boeing (The New Yorker) to maximize the profitability of its “lock-in”.
Google is running amok on so many levels, it’s difficult to keep track of its anti-social “let’s be evil, it’s so incredibly profitable” agenda: Google’s Secret ‘Project Nightingale’ Gathers Personal Health Data on Millions of Americans (Wall Street Journal). The goal, of course, is to reap more billions in profits for insiders and corporate sociopaths.
The anti-social carnage unleashed by Corporate America’s “lock-in” / negative network effects has no real limits. Consider the essentially limitless private and social damage caused by Big Tech: Child Abusers Run Rampant as Tech Companies Look the Other Way (New York Times).
Then there’s the opioid epidemic, whose casualties run into the hundreds of thousands, an epidemic that was entirely a creature of Corporate America seeking to maximize “lock-in” profits by buying regulatory approval and pushing false claims that the corporate products were safe and non-addictive.
Note the media sources of these reports: these are the top tier of American journalism, not some easily dismissed alt-media source.
What does this tell us? It tells us the anti-social consequences are now so extreme and so apparent that the corporate media cannot ignore them. Once Corporate America locks-in market, financial and political power, it acts as a virulent Black Plague on the social order, legitimate democracy, and an entire spectrum of intangible social capital including the rule of law.
As Simons put it: “The ethical dimension underpinning the whole system is this: what’s moral is what’s legal and what’s legal is for sale.” Where does this Black Plague pathology take us? To a collapse of the status quo which enabled it, cheered it, and so richly rewarded it.