Not our ABC

With Sinclair Davidson

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a $1.04 billion piece of public policy and we treat it as exactly that: a government intervention into the market for news, entertainment and communications. Policy interventions are financially costly. Policy interventions are also costly in a non-monetary sense. They can have unintended or counterproductive consequences. They can crowd out non-government activity, stifle entrepreneurship or technological innovation, distort the marketplace, systemically favour particular political interests and ideologies, and create fiefdoms of unaccountable bureaucrats.

The ABC was established in a moment of history significantly unlike our own, facing a cultural and political environment greatly different to our own, with technological and economic challenges completely opposite to those we now face. Over the course of eight decades the ABC has embedded itself in the Australian political system and public consciousness. But the original rationales for the ABC have long since expired. Technology has made the concerns of Australian policy makers in the 1930s – or even the 1990s, when the ABC was last subjected to a major review – redundant or anachronistic. Economic justifications for a state-owned media broadcaster simply do not fit the modern media landscape.

The arguments for public broadcasting in the twenty-first century are simply not compelling. It is certainly the case that the ABC has bound within it an enormous amount of cultural capital as a consequence of its eighty years of pre-eminence in the Australian media industry. But that should not be confused with either a claim that a publicly-funded broadcaster was necessary to build that cultural capital or that Australian culture would suffer in a world where the ABC had been reformed or privatised.

The ABC is an Australian ‘icon’ in the same sense that the Commonwealth Bank was an icon before its privatisation, and in the same anachronistic sense that Qantas, the ‘national carrier’, is imagined to be an essential part of the Australian psyche. We can celebrate the achievements of the ABC, its cultural significance, and its role in Australian history. But that should not prevent us from looking sceptically – as we should with all costly government interventions into the economy and society – at whether the ABC remains good public policy. Does it have a good reason to exist, now?

That question invites us to speculate as to the rationale for the ABC. The ABC itself denies that it is a market failure broadcaster, while the notion of it being independent is difficult to pin down. Independent of whom? It is publicly funded and its management are required to appear before parliament and answer questions posed by politicians. True, the ABC is independent of the demands of commercial reality, but it is not independent of its political paymaster. Of course that undermines the argument that the ABC is a bulwark of democracy. A free press may well be a necessary condition of democracy but that does not necessarily imply that the government should subsidise the press. To the contrary, many non-democratic nations have maintained very high levels of government ownership and subsidy in the media. A further argument undermining the ABC’s claim relates to the large and obvious political bias in its reporting and news coverage. A 2013 survey revealed that ABC journalists are almost five times more likely to be Greens voters than the average voter and twice more likely to vote Greens than the average journalist.

Other arguments for the ABC include quality programming, Australian content, and rural subsidy. What constitutes ‘quality’, however, is a value judgement. Australian content and rural subsidy can be provided for much less than $1 billion per annum. That is the challenge; the ABC is a massive government program with no clear objectives and no clear accountability.

Few Australians would realise that the ABC charter does not include the word ‘fair’ nor does it include the word ‘balanced’. The charter is at best only a loose guide to what the ABC does. Nor is it any constraint on ABC operations. While the charter is spelled out in legislation, section 6(4) explicitly states that ‘Nothing in this section shall be taken to impose on the Corporation a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court.’ Additionally, there is nothing in the charter that could be described as an enforcement mechanism, nor any penalties detailed for potential breaches. The charter is in law – insofar as it exists on the statute books – but it is not law that the ABC has to abide by.

What should be done about the ABC? It is certainly the case that doing nothing and muddling through is very much underrated as a government policy. Yet lower-cost alternative public policies are available and clear savings can be made. One possibility would be to refine the charter. In the first instance, the ABC could be redesignated to be a market-failure broadcaster. Alternatively, it could be required to be self-funding, i.e. commercialised. Here the ABC could be required to finance its activities through advertising revenue and then pay dividends to the government. A further option would be to reform the governance of the ABC.

Then there is privatisation. The ABC could be sold off to a single bidder or consortium. Or it could be listed on the stock exchange. Our preferred option would be for shares in the ABC to be given away, either to all Australians or to existing and previous staff. The staff are the best people to realise the value of the ABC – and they would pay for their shares over time through the capital gains tax as they sold their shares.

In this sense the privatisation of the ABC would proceed much like higher education is currently funded. ABC employees would receive their shares at zero-price and only pay for them when they disposed of the shares and only then if the shares had increased in value. The proceeds of the privatisation would be realised over time and would not constitute a ‘sugar-hit’ to the budget. Nor can the privatisation be characterised as a stunt to balance the Budget in the short term. Rather, it is a program to establish a newly-private ABC on a firm footing, vesting it with a cohort of new owners who have the most interest in making it a commercial success.

ABC is about partisanship not diversity

With Sinclair Davidson

The difference between the ABC and Fairfax and News Ltd is that the ABC is a $1 billion government program that provides media services to Australians. Fairfax and News Ltd are private entities that do so at their own expense and hope to earn a profit. Those small details were missing from Laura Tingle’s defence of the ABC published in Weekend AFR.

As such we can expect somewhat different behaviour from the national broadcaster than from the private sector. Indeed, holding the public sector to a different standard is commonplace in our society. The ABC, very often, wants to have it both ways. For example, paying its employees market rates of pay when they don’t have to compete in marketplace for income.

But some criticism of the ABC is unfair. Of course the ABC would send journalists to cover the recent royal wedding. As every other serious media organisation did. That, however, should not detract from the mounting criticism that is being levelled at the ABC.

For all its protestations of “independence” the ABC as a large and generously funded government program can and should be scrutinised by government, the Opposition, and ultimately the taxpayers who pay for it. Having embedded itself into the Australian psyche and culture the ABC has managed to avoid serious scrutiny for a long time. The ABC – like all government programs – should be an election issue at every election.

To justify its existence the ABC and its supporters posit a range of mostly overlapping rationales. We hear a lot about independence, quality and diversity. Less about being a market-failure broadcaster. Rural subsidy also appears to play a role in justifying the ABC’s existence – although it seems to be very Sydney-centric for a rural audience. It was the diversity argument that Laura Tingle emphasised at the weekend.

>But it isn’t quite clear what is meant by the term “diversity”. The idea that media markets might lack diversity has its origins in a famous spatial economic model by the mathematical economist Harold Hotelling. In his model, firms, in a market with a small number of firms and not competing on price, would offer near identical products. Hotelling believed this explained the “excessive sameness” in capitalist markets. That is an interesting model but it does not explain the creation of public broadcasters in Australia and the UK.

To the contrary, public broadcasting in the UK was introduced explicitly to reduce diversity – the perceived cacophony and anarchy of radio broadcasting seen in the United States. The ABC was designed to follow the BBC model (albeit with a small commercial sector alongside). To argue that the ABC provides diversity where the private sector does not is entirely incorrect. What the ABC does is provide those very same services without having to attract an audience.

A generous interpretation of that feature is that there are some media services that should be provided that the private sector won’t provide. But it is difficult to imagine what those services might be. In any event, the ABC explicitly denies that it is a market-failure provider.

What the ABC does provide in excess, however, is partisanship. Any media organisation should be ashamed to be told that it is reporting political falsehoods as facts. Yet Mitch Fifield – the Minister for Communication and (very) nominally responsible for the ABC, did just that. No doubt he’ll be told something about consistency with “editorial standards”.

Those would be the same editorial standards that saw Emma Alberici publish Labor talking points on company tax cuts as if they were uncontroversial facts. The same editorial standards that saw two News Ltd journalists compared to a mass murderer just last week. Yet we are supposed to be fed up with News Ltd antics.

Let’s be blunt here: the ABC burns through $1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. Not shareholder money, not a mogul’s money. Taxpayer money. The ABC is a not a blog run on a shoestring, or out of someone’s basement. To argue that being left-partisan is simply to compensate for right-partisanship in the commercial sector is to disfranchise all those coalition voters who pay for the ABC. Australians do not expect their government agencies – even nominally independent agencies – to exclude other Australians without excellent reason.

Blockchain is (now) a competitive industry

With Sinclair Davidson, Jason Potts and Ellie Rennie. Originally a Medium post.

With the anniversary of the Bitcoin whitepaper looming on October 31, it is remarkable how far and fast this industry has come since it was anonymously launched on a crypto bulletin board just ten years ago. Ethereum, which gave us smart contracts and ICOs, was only started in 2015. The Consensus conference, only in its fourth year, packed over 8500 attendees into the New York midtown Hilton with representatives from most major corporations and industries being present.

Blockchain is quickly becoming mainstream. The industry is entering the phase of industrial competition — and this is happening on a global scale.

Consensus is the centerpiece of Blockchain Week in New York City, and the main global industry conference for cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. It is also increasingly a platform for major industry announcements. Two clusters of announcements in particular are propitious markers of where we’re up to in the development of the industry.

In politics, David Burt, Premier and Finance Minister of Bermuda, announced his country’s Parliament had tabled the Digital Asset Business Act, staking an ambition and claim to be the world’s leading crypto-regulator. On Tuesday, Eva Kaili, Chair of European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment, announced the Blockchain Resolution had passed the European Parliament.

In enterprise, Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx called blockchain the next big disruption in supply chains and logistics with the potential to completely revolutionise the global trade system. Circle, a Goldman Sachs backed crypto finance company, announced it will be issuing a fiat stablecoin, which is to say a crypto-version of the $USD. And buried in the announcement by Kaleido — a blockchain business cloud — of a partnership with UnionBank i2i (a Philippines Bank specializing in rural banking), was a joint partnership with Amazon Web Services.

These announcements indicate that we have entered a new industry phase, moving well beyond the first entrepreneurial phase of highly speculative market-making start-ups operating entirely in a disruptive mode, and are now at the onset of a second phase of industrial dynamics, that of industrial competition. While still incredibly young, because of the speed and scale at which it has developed, the blockchain industry has now entered the phase of market competition.

The Bermuda announcement is a competitive response to the innovative regulatory frameworks built by jurisdictions such as Singapore, Zug (CryptoValley), Estonia, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, and other crypto-havens. The Bermuda announcement clearly signals that we’re now in the phase of global regulatory competition, and that crypto-regulation and legislation in countries such as the US and Australia will be held by the competitive pressure of exit-options from departing too far from the competitive equilibrium.

The announcement by Kaleido is in itself less significant than that of the AWS partnership, which signals the new shape of competition in cloud computing. Technology companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM are competitively positioning themselves to provide foundational infrastructural services and standards in this new space, and the Fred Smith’s pronouncement signals that the logistics industry is about to be competitively disrupted again.

The difference between the first and second phase of industrial dynamics is that in the first phase entrepreneurs are inventing new technology, disrupting existing markets, and seeking to create new business models. It’s a process of de-coordination of an existing economic order. But this is not generally well described as a competitive market process, usually because markets themselves are still forming, and uncertainty is very high. Cooperation in networks and innovation commons is the predominant institutional form.

Competition emerges when uncertainty begins to clear as the outlines of how the technology works and what it will be used for, which markets are affected and how, and which firms will be involved, and a speculative game turns into a strategic game because it becomes clear who the players are and what they are doing. Investment is not just for R&D, for discovery of new technology; but is strategic investment to compete for market share, and ideally for market dominance.

This is where we are up to now: the phase of global market competition.And further evidence of this is that the main concern of industry participants is global regulatory uncertainty, which is to say the rules of the competitive game.

Now to be clear, crypto and blockchain is still an experimental technology. But we’re now past the early innovation phase — the start-up phase — and have investment is now a C-suite concern, and a parliamentary agenda item.

What does competition mean for Web 3.0?

So blockchain is being absorbed into the economy and global political system. But what does this mean for the future of the internet?

The other big question arising from the Consensus 2018 announcements was the extent to which the involvement of incumbent internet platforms, such as Microsoft and AWS, will affect the distributed nature of the emergent blockchain ecosystem.

Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum, argued that the technological foundations for a distributed future have been built and that the essential task now is to achieve scalability. Data storage is an important aspect of scalability that will be essential to the success of decentralised applications (dapps), and more radical solutions (such as the InterPlanetary File System, IPFS) are apparently not ready for widespread adoption.

The involvement of AWS in Kaleido enables enterprise participation in the Ethereum blockchain whilst ensuring that the data (including oracles) are housed securely. While numerous self-sovereign identity dapps are available (as displayed through Civic’s identity-checking beer vending machine at the conference), common standards are necessary for those providing verified information.

Microsoft’s partnership with Blockstack and Brigham Young University is a development towards these standards that is potentially significant for this new approach to online privacy.

Neither development necessarily threatens Web 3.0, but this is now being driven by a competitive logic of market forces.

Crypto constitutionalism

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

Blockchains are constitutional orders — rule-systems in which individuals (or firms, or algorithms) can make economic and political exchanges.

In this sense, blockchains look a lot like countries. They have currencies (tokens), property (digital assets), laws (protocols), corporations (DAOs), and security systems (proof-of-work, or proof of stake, or delegated byzantine fault tolerance, etc.).

And like countries, blockchains have systems of governance.

Satoshi built one system of governance into Bitcoin: how the network comes to a consensus when miners announce two equally valid blocks to the network. The protocol (the constitution) resolves this problem by incentivising nodes to prefer the chain with the most work.

But this is a tiny fraction of the governance questions that just surround Bitcoin. How should the Bitcoin network be upgraded? Who decides? How should the various interests be accommodated — or compensated?

In these blockchain governance debates — disputes about whether governance should be on-chain or off-chain, who writes the rules, who can be a node, the role of voting, and the relative position of protocol developers, miners, block producers, HODLers and third party applications — we’re seeing the history of thinking about political economy being rediscovered.

Happily there exists an enormous body of thinking on governance, constitutions, the function and efficiency of voting and voting mechanisms, and how power is allocated in a political and economic system.

Blockchains as constitutional experiments

Historically, experimenting with new constitutions has involved things like civil war, secession, conquest, empire, and expropriation. The English fought civil war after civil war to limit the power of the monarch to tax. Expanding the franchise involved protest and violence.

In the real world, constitutional experimentation is costly and slow: limited by the rights and preferences of real populations and the real endowments of physical land and property.

By contrast, blockchains offer a space for rapid, hyper-experimentation. New constitutional rules can be instantiated by a simple fork. New protocols can be released in months or weeks.

Blockchains are an environment for institutional innovation — a place to apply hundreds of years of thinking about political governance.

Why vote?

For instance, networks such as Decred, NEO and EOS use voting to manage their decentralised consensus mechanisms. Vitalik Buterin and Vlad Zamfir have argued that on-chain governance is overrated.

What this debate is missing is an understanding of the economics of politics. Blockchain developers aren’t writing protocols — they’re writing constitutions. And we know a great deal about constitutional design and voting mechanisms.

The first thing we know is that choosing the rules of a voting system is effectively choosing the result of the vote.

The eighteen-century mathematician the Marquis de Condorcet found that a three cornered vote using a simple majority rule might not come to a clear consensus on the winner. A might beat B, B might beat C, but C might beat A. The ‘ultimate’ winner of this cycle will depend on how the votes are ordered.

Kenneth Arrow generalised this into his impossibility theorem: there’s no unique procedure that reliably comes up with a stable ordering of aggregated preferences. A set of quite reasonable institutional assumptions — such as no dictator, the independence of irrelevant alternatives and so forth — can’t be combined.

The lesson economists have taken from all this is: tell me what you want, and I’ll design you a mechanism to get it. What matters is how we decide how to decide.

Public choice scholars have focused on problems how political agents shape their policy positions to suit median or marginal voters. Retrospective voting models suggest that voters assess how happy they are (in general, not just with politics) at the time of voting and vote for or against incumbents on that basis.

Other scholars have focused on why people even bother to vote — given there is a miniscule chance that they can change the outcome of a vote. This had led scholars to the theory of ‘expressive voting’, where voting is effectively a form of consumption or signalling.

This is a rich body of political and economic theory that has been absent from the blockchain governance space. For instance, is voting a positive or negative externality?

It depends on what the purpose of the voting is. If preference aggregation is your goal, ‘low-information’ voting is a problem — it introduces noise. Blockchains should then tax voting.

However, if simple legitimation is the purpose of voting (as Vlad Zamfir argued at the Ethereal conference) then even low-information voters add value. Ideally the mechanism would subsidise all voting.

The incentive design problem for blockchain voting depends on what you think the purpose of the voting is.

And it turns out that this question has been one of the over-riding concerns of economists, philosophers and political scientists for hundreds of years.

Only A Flesh Wound

With Sinclair Davidson

Howls of outrage from the ABC and its fans on social media over the most mild of cuts to the broadcaster’s budget ignore the fact of an institution that has drifted far away from its charter’s demands for objectivity.

Judging by the howls of outrage echoing through twitter it seems that the Turnbull government has destroyed our democracy, if not Australian civilisation itself. But no. The Turnbull government has frozen ABC operational funding for three years. That translates to a ‘funding cut’ of some $83 million.

Not $83 million per year, mind you. Over three years.

Not quite a rounding error, but hardly a crisis.

The ABC only has itself to blame. In the pre-budget period it went well out of its way to annoy the government. The prime minister – a former communications minister – is something of a fan. Yet the ABC chose to publish a highly opinionated and factually challenged analysis by the ABC’s Chief Economics Correspondent of the government’s centrepiece economic policy. Then there was the small matter of pooh-poohing the current communications ministers’ complaint about a conservative politician being pointlessly abused in a comedy skit.

These hostilities have not come cheap.

There may well be a market for ‘edgy’ humour, but the ABC’s efforts tend to boorishness. Reproducing flawed ALP and Greens talking points on company tax cuts as being ‘independent’ and ‘trust worthy’ is arguably a greater problem. These are not minor lapses in editorial policy – the ABC is politically biased and incapable of self-regulation.

Rather than viewing the ABC as a ‘trusted’ news source we should recognise it as being a political actor in its own right. Not just any sort of political actor. Journalists, as David Marr has suggested, are usually ‘vaguely soft-left’ and sceptical of authority.

The ABC, however, is not so vague and not so soft. A 2013 survey of journalists revealed that 41.3% of ABC journalists intended to vote Greens at the 2013 election. That compares with 19.8% of journalists at both Fairfax and News and just 8.7% of the electorate.

ABC journalists are well to the left of journalists in general, and nearly five times more likely to vote Greens than the general public.

To be fair – there is nothing wrong with voting Greens or being left-wing. Journalists are citizens too. But the ABC claims to be a bulwark of our democracy. While nearly 80% of Australians claim to believe that the ABC is balanced and even-handed there is a huge drop off in actual audience numbers. There are three to four times as many Australians who claim to trust the ABC than who actually watch the ABC. Sure 86% of Australians value to ABCs service to the community, but that probably reflects its status as an emergency broadcaster.

Generally there is no reason why political opinion should cloud professional performance. Coalition voting journalists are a minority even at News. Yet none of the mechanisms that crowd out personal preference operate at the ABC. It does not have to please advertisers, it does not have to earn a profit, nor does it not have to explain itself to controlling shareholders.

To claim that the ABC Charter constrains it is laughable. The Charter is written in legislation but it is not law. It doesn’t require anyone to do anything, it contains no penalties for non-compliance, and it has no enforcement mechanism. If only the Tax Act worked on the same principles.

The ABC pleases itself; in practice that means it pleases its staff. To the extent that many ABC journalists are professional in their activities that is a personal preference and not institutional discipline.

Unsurprisingly the ABC does as it pleases and largely it gets away with doing as it pleases.

Being stripped of a mere $83 million over three years is a very mild rebuke from an otherwise indulgent government. Yet the ABC seems to have chucked a temper tantrum in response. Threats to bully the government into restoring funding indexation should be resisted.

Rather than simply restore indexation after three years the Turnbull government should be looking at innovative market solutions to commercialise and professionalise the ABC. Expecting value for money from the ABC is not an attack on its independence but rather a minimum expectation of any government program that costs the taxpayer $1 billion per annum.

Identity as Input to Exchange

With Alastair Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Identity is an integral part of all but the most trivial economic, social and political transactions. Using transaction cost economics, we determine that identity costs are a distinct and measurable subset of transaction costs. In certain transactions, such as credit arrangements, identity costs are incurred at considerable expense for commercial and compliance based reasons. Vertical integration can be seen through the lens of identity cost economising, including in the financial sector, due to high costs of complying with KYC regulations as well as commercial risk management. Such organisational structure is also contingent on available identity technologies. The introduction of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies in identity applications may see new models of institutional structures develop.

Working paper available at SSRN.

What does the blockchain mean for government? Cryptocurrencies in the Australian payments system

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Executive Summary: This paper introduces the radical opportunities that the invention of distributed ledger technologies offer for government, using the Australian payments system as a case study. The paper presents a model for the reform of government in light of the blockchain based on the new comparative institutional economics literature. In response to invention of the blockchain, governments should:

  • Allow firms to experiment and introduce blockchain enabled services – that is, take “permissionless innovation” approach.
  • Adapt regulatory environments to accommodate the use of blockchain applications where those applications cross over existing regulatory requirements – for example, in the space of taxation, and financial and prudential reporting.
  • Directly adopt blockchain technologies for delivering government services and to enhance (or replace) existing government processes.

Available in PDF here.

Beyond Money: Cryptocurrencies, Machine-Mediated Transactions and High Frequency Bartering

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts.

Abstract: As blockchain technology is adopted into modern economies, the underlying institutional protocols will evolve. In this paper we set out the reasoning behind how this will likely take us to an economy beyond both money and money prices. Money facilitates human-human exchange in the presence of cognitive limitations. However in the near future personal artificially intelligent machine agents will be able to conduct exchanges with a matrix of liquid digital assets (such as cryptocurrencies). We call this process high frequency bartering. The existence of markets without money present complex public policy challenges around privacy and taxation.

Working paper available on SSRN


With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: This paper develops the ledger-centric view of the economy. Ledgers provide an underlying infrastructure for exchange by allowing actors to prove, validate, and verify property ownership. In this sense ledgers map economic, political and social relationships. This paper provides some theoretical distinctions to frame the analysis of the economics of ledgers. First we offer a philosophical and institutional definition of ledgers. Second we provide three analytic categories of ledgers (general, actual, and perfect). Third we offer a ledger theory of the firm as a map of relationship between labour, capital, production processes, and information, and emphasise the economic significance of ledgerisation in the history of entrepreneurial firm creation. Fourth we draw some implications of our theory for the development of complex economies. This paper is based on the theory of institutional cryptoeconomics which was developed to understand the economic implications of distributed ledger technologies.

Working paper available on SSRN

Outsourcing vertical integration: introducing the V-form network

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

The Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson distinguishes between U-form companies and M-form companies.

Traditional U-form companies are unitary— their units are divided by business process (for instance, accounting, human resources, component manufacturing, assembly) and are not treated as separate cost centres.

M-form companies are multidivisional — their units are self-contained divisions that report profits and losses to an umbrella central body. They’re fully owned by a parent company, but they tend to have their own business services (accounting and human resources departments, for instance) and even market relationships.

But now we see a new corporate form — the V-form network — made possible because thanks to the application of distributed ledger technology to supply chain problems.

These V-form networks consist of a number of fully independent companies that effectively operate as one vertically integrated company through blockchain technology, coordinated and supplied by a third party.

This is a big change to the nature of the firm. We can already see V-form networks in the real world. They date as far back as January. It is surprising the economic community haven’t noticed them yet.

The IBM and Maersk TradeTech

Two weeks into 2018, IBM and the shipping giant Maersk announced a joint venture to develop a digital supply chain management system on their Hyperledger blockchain platform. Hyperledger is a private blockchain which requires permission to access.

In a previous Cryptoeconomics piece, we described how international trade is an information problem. As goods are shipped around the world, they are accompanied by information — really stacks of paperwork — that describe their provenance, destinations, regulatory and tax liabilities and so on.

In the IBM-Maersk system, each firm and bureaucracy in the supply chain — producers, shippers, port authorities, regulators, importers, retailers — will access and update a shared blockchain ledger containing all the information needed by each organisation.

And each organisation would have access to that information everywhere, ensuring complete visibility on where goods are in the world and which economic and regulatory hurdles they next need to overcome.

Before blockchains, there were only two basic ways to coordinate a supply chain: vertical integration, or regulation.

Vertical integration has problems. Large conglomerate firms struggle with the challenges of specialisation, and size tends to make firms less efficient.

Regulation has even worse problems. At the very minimum, regulation only works plausibly well within a single nation. The cost of multilateral harmonization — which includes things like treaties and global courts — is very high.

Blockchains can work to coordinate supply chains without the need for either (traditional) vertical integration or regulation. The vertical integration is outsourced to a distributed ledger. The blockchain provides the managerial service that coordinates each ‘unit’ (that is, firm) in the supply chain.

Regulators in any country can deal any firm in the supply chain as if it was a small unit of a larger, global company.

Each firm in the supply chain get the benefits of vertical integration through a network rather than a hierarchy.

The crucial role of IBM and Maersk

In this, the IBM and Maersk joint venture plays a novel economic role.

We’ve written in the past about the paradox of trust in the blockchain world: it takes a lot of trust to establish a trustless ledger.

Imagine a supply chain with seven firms in it: primary producer, manufacturer, exporter, shipper, importer, wholesaler, retailer. Each firm has an established and trusted business relationship with the firms above and below them on the supply chain. But do they have a similar relationship with those one- or two-steps removed? Would the wholesaler in one country necessarily trust the primary producer in another?

A supply chain of two or three firms would be able to easily come to an agreement over shared digital systems. They wouldn’t even need a blockchain — market discipline would be enough to ensure stable coordination.

But firms which do not have direct market relationships with each other face a trust problem when they try to coordinate.

IBM-Maersk provide the trust. They are a large trusted firm that can broker a solution — get all parties around a table — and build the network.

This is a different sales and service model to the IBM of the 1960s. But not that different. With Hyperledger for supply chains, IBM is selling a single solution to multiple clients — just as they did with mainframes or do today with their Watson artificial intelligence machine.

It is only possible because IBM (and Maersk) has already built up deep client relations over past century or so. It is both trusted and has internal information and knowledge about client needs.

(A regulator has none of this information. Neither would a potential corporate raider attempting to vertically integrate through a merger and acquisition strategy.)

We expect to see competition between firms (IBM and and other full-stack technology/strategy/management consultants) to seek ongoing (that is, locked in) contracts for these sorts of services.

The innovative thing here is that they aren’t offering their services to individual firms. They are consulting to a group, or chain, or network of firms — a network that they may have themselves helped create. Economic coordination in the simplest sense of the term.

That’s why IBM is involved. But why is Maersk? The shipping company in this case is the firm with the most to gain from the adoption of the new technology and architecture — that is, which would benefit most from reducing the costs of the existing market architecture.

Vertical integration can be outsourced elsewhere

In the V-form network, the blockchain’s token establishes the consortium, and incentivizes cooperative behaviour.

The token also serves to move rents around the network. In this way, the blockchain provides a market mechanism to solve the sort of bargaining problems described by another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, that may occur as the network operates.

Outsourced vertical integration could be applied to many industries that are now integrated. Energy firms that currently integrate the exploration, production, generation, and retail of electricity might be better decomposed, with blockchains and tokens taking the place of head offices. The token economy, rather than energy regulators, could make decisions about the distribution of rents around the network.

We expect that a blockchain economy will have more, smaller firms linked together by protocols. One question — which we expect will preoccupy regulators for decades to come — is how just many protocols? It’s worth pointing out that these networks are inherently global, and any regulatory questions global as well.

Governments might be able to exploit the V-form network themselves. Instead of selling a vertically integrated state-owned asset to shareholders (and then controlling rents with price regulation) they could then privatise components directly on a blockchain network. Ports and airports might be privatised successfully in this way.

In that sense governments would provide the initial coordination now being provided by IBM and Maersk — a trusted third party to broker and establish a decentralised economic network.