Why economics must go digital

By Diane Coyle – One of the biggest concerns about today’s tech giants is their market power. At least outside China, Google, Facebook, and Amazon dominate online search, social media, and online retail, respectively. And yet economists have largely failed to address these concerns in a coherent way. To help governments and regulators as they struggle to address this market concentration, we must make economics itself more relevant to the digital age.

Digital markets often become highly concentrated, with one dominant firm, because larger players enjoy significant returns to scale. For example, digital platforms incur large upfront development costs but benefit from low marginal costs once the software is written. They gain from network effects, whereby the more users a platform has, the more all users benefit. And data generation plays a self-reinforcing role: more data improves the service, which brings in more users, which generates more data.

To put it bluntly, a digital platform is either large or dead.

As several recent reports (including one to which I contributed) have pointed out, the digital economy poses a problem for competition policy.

Competition is vital for boosting productivity and long-term growth because it drives out inefficient producers and stimulates innovation. Yet how can this happen when there are such dominant players?

Today’s digital behemoths provide services that people want: one recent study estimated that consumers value online search alone at a level equivalent to about half of US median income.

Economists, therefore, need to update their toolkit. Rather than assessing likely short-term trends in specific digital markets, they need to be able to estimate the potential long-term costs implied by the inability of a new rival with better technology or service to unseat the incumbent platform.

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This is no easy task because there is no standard methodology for estimating uncertain, non-linear futures. Economists even disagree on how to measure static consumer valuations of free digital goods such as online search and social media.

And although the idea that competition operates dynamically through firms entering and exiting the market dates back at least to Joseph Schumpeter, the standard approach is still to look at competition among similar companies producing similar goods at a point in time. more>

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