Earlier this month, Clayton Christensen published a fascinating essay in the New York Times on the barriers to growth in the U.S. He offers a brief distillation of the different kinds of innovation that contribute to growth:
Executives and investors might finance three types of innovations with their capital. I’ll call the first type “empowering” innovations. These transform complicated and costly products available to a few into simpler, cheaper products available to the many.
The Ford Model T was an empowering innovation, as was the Sony transistor radio. So were the personal computers of I.B.M. and Compaq and online trading at Schwab. A more recent example is cloud computing. It transformed information technology that was previously accessible only to big companies into something that even small companies could afford.
Empowering innovations create jobs, because they require more and more people who can build, distribute, sell and service these products. Empowering investments also use capital — to expand capacity and to finance receivables and inventory.
The second type are “sustaining” innovations. These replace old products with new models. For example, the Toyota Prius hybrid is a marvelous product. But it’s not as if every time Toyota sells a Prius, the same customer also buys a Camry. There is a zero-sum aspect to sustaining innovations: They replace yesterday’s products with today’s products and create few jobs. They keep our economy vibrant — and, in dollars, they account for the most innovation. But they have a neutral effect on economic activity and on capital.
The third type are “efficiency” innovations. These reduce the cost of making and distributing existing products and services. Examples are minimills in steel and Geico in online insurance underwriting. Taken together in an industry, such innovations almost always reduce the net number of jobs, because they streamline processes. But they also preserve many of the remaining jobs — because without them entire companies and industries would disappear in competition against companies abroad that have innovated more efficiently.
Efficiency innovations also emancipate capital. Without them, much of an economy’s capital is held captive on balance sheets, with no way to redeploy it as fuel for new, empowering innovations. For example, Toyota’s just-in-time production system is an efficiency innovation, letting manufacturers operate with much less capital invested in inventory.
In Christensen’s view, the central problem with the modern U.S. economy is that firms are focusing on efficiency innovations to emancipate capital, and this capital is then being reinvested in further efficiency innovations. This flows from an intellectual focus on husbanding scarce capital (the Doctrine of the New Finance) that no longer fits our economic circumstances:
In a way, this mirrors the microeconomic paradox explored in my book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which shows how successful companies can fail by making the “right” decisions in the wrong situations. America today is in a macroeconomic paradox that we might call the capitalist’s dilemma. Executives, investors and analysts are doing what is right, from their perspective and according to what they’ve been taught. Those doctrines were appropriate to the circumstances when first articulated — when capital was scarce.
But we’ve never taught our apprentices that when capital is abundant and certain new skills are scarce, the same rules are the wrong rules. Continuing to measure the efficiency of capital prevents investment in empowering innovations that would create the new growth we need because it would drive down their RONA, ROCE and I.R.R.
Christensen concludes by calling for a new mix of economic policies and a new emphasis on empowering innovations. His most specific proposal is to change the way we tax capital gains by reducing the tax burden for longer-term investments:
We should instead make capital gains regressive over time, based upon how long the capital is invested in a company. Taxes on short-term investments should continue to be taxed at personal income rates. But the rate should be reduced the longer the investment is held — so that, for example, tax rates on investments held for five years might be zero — and rates on investments held for eight years might be negative.
Federal tax receipts from capital gains comprise only a tiny percentage of all United States tax revenue. So the near-term impact on the budget will be minimal. But over the longer term, this policy change should have a positive impact on the federal deficit, from taxes paid by companies and their employees that make empowering innovations.
One wishes that the Romney campaign had embraced something like Christensen’s proposal, as Christensen’s narrative would have been a good fit for a Republican campaign and, more importantly, it seems like an intriguing way to address some of the pathologies of financial engineering.