F. M. Scherer: Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

Editor’s Note: F. M. Scherer is Aetna Professor Emeritus in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Born in 1932, he received an A.B. degree with honors and distinction from the University of Michigan in 1954; an M.B.A. with high distinction from Harvard University in 1958; and a Ph.D. in business economics from Harvard University in 1963.

From 1974 to 1976, he was chief economist at the Federal Trade Commission. His research specialties are industrial economics and the economics of technological change, leading inter alia to books on Patents: Economics, Policy and Measurement; Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance (third edition with David Ross); New Perspectives on Economic Growth and Technological Innovation; The Economics of Multi-Plant Operation: An International Comparisons Study(with three coauthors); International High-Technology Competition; Competition Policies for an Integrated World Economy; Mergers, Sell-offs, and Economic Efficiency (with David J. Ravenscraft) and Innovation and Growth: Schumpeterian Perspectives.

You can read his full bio from here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed F. M. Scherer recently to gain insights about Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation which is given below.

Niaz: You are an expert in Industrial Economics.  At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about Industrial Economics?

Scherer: “Industrial economics,” the name commonly applied in Europe, is also called “industrial organization” in the United States.   It is primarily concerned with studying the functioning and malfunctioning of real-world markets, using an array of methods – theory, econometrics, and history.  It also has substantial policy implications, for example, encompassing all varieties of regulatory policy and antitrust policy (called in Europe competition policy).

 Niaz: How is industrial economics different from our traditional economics?

Scherer: The main differences are a strong real-world orientation and a focus on individual industries or markets rather than generalized markets or the overall macro economy.

Niaz: As you know, the economy is transforming to a digital economy.  What revolutionary changes have occurred in this era of digital economy?

Scherer: Virtually every era experiences changes that might at the time be viewed as revolutionary.  The digital economy is not really different.  I suspect most readers know the main elements: the enormously increased capacity and reduced cost of digital devices following Moore’s Law; the evolution of much more capacious means of transmitting information from one place to another – notably, optical fiber cables; and the application of information theory to compress more information into a given transmission medium, either cable or over-the-air.  Building upon these fundamental changes are a host of specific applications, ranging from smaller and more powerful computers to smart phones to the use of computers and robots in automation.

Niaz: What are the impacts of industrial economics in our digital economy?

Scherer: The field of industrial economics has evolved to track and understand the economic implications of the changes mentioned earlier.   We’ve done a lot, for example, to measure the economics of learning curves, which are one facet of Moore’s Law.  Perhaps our most important contribution has been a rethinking of the proper framework for, and means of, regulating specific industries, including telecommunications.  Regulatory reform in telecoms helped open the way for optical fiber cable networks and reassignment of the ether’s frequency space to new modes of information transfer.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about the future of the digital economy?

Scherer: Economists don’t have a particularly good reputation for predicting the future, try as we may.  It’s quite clear, e.g. from studies by economists such as Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, that more powerful computer systems are helping to raise industrial productivity, as non-digital innovations have been doing for at least two centuries.  Among other things, computerized systems have improved inventory control and logistics in industries such as retailing.  Wal-Mart has been a prominent example here.  But the phenomenon is not really new.  In the 1960s, for example, Anheuser-Busch applied computer-based operations research to optimize its plant structure and shipping patterns, becoming in the process the nation’s largest and most efficient brewer.  And my own experience as a scholar using computers for quantitative data analysis suggests that the changes have been less than revolutionary.  I was able to analyze some rather large data sets successfully in the 1960s using computers that were by today’s standards primitive, but the analysis went through nevertheless.  Long processing queues meant foregoing instant gratification, but the gratification was all the greater for the waiting.  True, today one can access richer data bases – e.g., data on millions of health care interventions, complete retail product transaction tape records, and the whole historical set of U.S. patent grants – that would have been impossible in 1965.

The digital revolution affects not only industrial productivity, but also diverse consumer activities, including communication patterns and entertainment methods.  Here I’m much less confident about the consequences.  Surveys show prodigious numbers of hours spent in the average week, especially by younger people, on computer games and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Many individuals’ use appears from my observation to border on addiction.  (Disclosure: I seek an e-mail fix several times daily.) I suppose people get a lot of pleasure, some narcissistic, from social networking, but I’m much less sure that we are becoming better or more productive human beings as a result.

Education is likely to be affected with special force through the growth of massive open online courses (MOOC).  I’m personally thankful that I’m exiting from teaching just in time, for I know nothing more alienating than talking to an anonymous video camera.

Niaz: There is a tremendous problem of digital divide in under developed, developing, and poor countries.  What are the core challenges for those countries to embrace the blessings of digital economy?

Scherer: Yes, there is such a digital divide, just as there is a less immense digital divide between the United States and nations such as South Korea, Japan and Belgium with faster and more extensive internet connections.  The good news is that cell phone technology is diffusing rapidly into many relatively poor nations, permitting richer intercommunication generally and better information, e.g., on future weather events and market prices, which farmers can use in their planting, harvesting and crop shipping decisions.  From the base that has been established, there will be growth into more advanced generations of digital phone capabilities.  Important to this future progress is the construction of additional cells and high-capacity optical fiber cables to interlink them.  Cheap computers are also becoming available to students in less-developed nations, giving them richer access to the world’s information resources and enhancing their educational progress and, among other things, introducing them to writing software.  These things take time and money.  Both are in short supply, but progress will occur, perhaps faster than I suppose.

Niaz: So what are the new perspectives on economic growth and technological innovation?

Scherer: I suspect the wording of your question implies the identical wording of a short book I published in 1999.  My answer incorporates some of the pessimism I expressed in that book.  The world’s most advanced nations have experienced truly extraordinary technological progress and productivity growth during the past two centuries.  Some nations once viewed as less developed, such as China, are joining in, taking advantage of what has been learned elsewhere to advance at even more rapid rates.  But in the most advanced nations, growth rates have been ebbing, and nations like China and other later developers will experience diminished growth rates once they have extensively installed imitative  capital goods and must then innovate to advance further – a phenomenon called convergence.   The key question is, what can we sustain?  My own view is that environmental constraints, even if not raw resource constraints, will make future growth more difficult than it has been in the past.  But I confess I could be wrong, as other skeptics have been in the past, and indeed, I hope I am wrong.  I also worry about the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth that has occurred over the past four decades as skill requirements, patterns of international trade, and modes of competition have changed.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about your book, ‘Innovation and Growth: Schumpeterian Perspectives’?

Scherer: That was a collection of articles, mostly previously published, issued by the MIT Press in 1984.  It pretty well reflected what I had accomplished during the first two decades of my professional career, at least in the field of technological innovation.  Its main emphases were identifying salient characteristics of how innovation occurs and works its magic on the economy, how market structures affect incentives for investing in innovation, and  how innovation shortfalls contributed to the productivity growth rate slump experienced by the United States beginning in the early 1970s and continuing up to the time the book was published.  (Growth did pick up, at least temporarily, in the 1990s.)  These were, I believe, some of my best contributions.

Niaz: What are the new scopes and opportunities of innovation and growth?

Scherer: As I said before, predicting what will happen is difficult.  In the 1984 Innovation and Growth book, I included one 1978 article with my characterization of technologies that were still evolving rapidly.  My list of potential breakthrough areas included molecularly engineered pharmaceuticals, hormonal insecticides, asexual plant reproduction, optical fiber message transmission, and energy from thermonuclear fusion.  Making allowance for developments that emerged in somewhat different forms than I visualized, I was pretty much right on the first four.  I missed badly on the nuclear fusion score, which people had been cultivating intensively beginning in the 1960s and are still pushing without evident success.   Earlier in the list, I also erred seriously in classifying digital computers as “approaching maturity.”  I completely missed the PC revolution!  The big continuing breakthrough areas, as I look to the future, are further developments in human and plant gene sequencing and splicing, among other things revolutionizing some aspects of health care, and of course, continuation of the information revolution.

Niaz: Do you think we have already solved all of our interesting problems with technology and innovation?  If not, what are your suggestions to come up with big ideas and solve big problems?

Scherer: Clearly, we have not solved all the interesting problems.  The previous answer listed two of my breakthrough candidates.  The biggest yet-unsolved problem in my view is learning how to use energy in ways that will allow the world’s huge and increasing population to prosper without precipitating disastrous climate change.   Seeding the atmosphere with sunlight-deflecting substances is one possible solution, but it is unproven and poses significant risks of getting the balance wrong.  How do we come up with the big ideas?   The essential facet in my view is continuing support of first-rate basic scientific research across a wide diversity of fields.  Chairman Mao was right in urging that we allow 100 flowers to bloom, because we can’t accurately pre-select which ones will thrive best.

Niaz: What is the economics of technological change?

Scherer: It’s a sub-specialty in several fields of economics concerned with the issues I have alluded to earlier.  I’ve been working in the area for more than five decades.  In the 1950s and 1960s, there were only a handful of us.  We were the “happy few … the band of brothers” in Henry V’s soliloquy.   Now there are hundreds of us working in the vineyards.

Niaz: My readers will love to know about your new book, ‘Quarter Notes and Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the 18th and 19th Centuries’.  Can you briefly tell us about it?

Scherer: It unites two dominant interests in my life: classical music and the study of innovation.  It uses among other things a statistical sample to reveal how 646 composers kept body and soul together in pursuing their chosen profession or avocation.  Among other things, it investigates composers’ education, their motives, their employment modes and entrepreneurship, their remarkable geographic mobility, and how they were affected by the spread of music publication and the emergence of copyright law.

Niaz: Last but not least, can you please leave us some points, ideas and advice to build a strong economy in this era of digitalization?

Scherer: You left the hardest question until last.  Education is of course critical.  We’ve come a long way, but there is very much more to be done, especially in the less affluent nations.  And even in the United States, our results leave lots of room for improvement. Among things, we need to provide higher status and pay for primary and secondary school teachers.  For economic strength, we also must reverse the increasing inequality of income distribution.  If the majority of our citizens don’t share the gains from our economic growth, it will be difficult to sustain continuing advances in broad-based consumption technologies.  And discontent is likely to manifest itself politically in ways that could destabilize the economy.   And finally, we need to avert disasters such as rising sea levels and adverse crop-growing conditions likely to be associated with global warming and to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle.  I grew up under the ominous shadow of nuclear disaster.  We had some frightfully close calls.  We’ve been fortunate thus far to avoid that fate, but the danger continues, and we need to keep it in check.

Niaz: Dear Scherer, I am thanking so much for finding time, sharing invaluable ideas and educating us with impressive thoughts in the midst of your busy schedule. I am wishing you very good luck for your good health as well as for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Scherer: I am happy to contribute.

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Further Reading:

1. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. Robert Stavins on Environmental Economics

4. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

5. Stephen Walt on Global Development

6. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

7. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

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