In the 19th and 20th centuries, we made stuff, David Brooks says — corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols — sets of instructions:
A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.
A protocol economy has very different properties than a physical stuff economy. For example, you and I can’t use the same piece of metal at the same time. But you and I can use the same software program at the same time. Physical stuff is subject to the laws of scarcity: you can use up your timber. But it’s hard to use up a good idea. Prices for material goods tend toward equilibrium, depending on supply and demand. Equilibrium doesn’t really apply to the market for new ideas.
The shift from stuff to protocols is the subject of From Poverty to Prosperity, by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz:
“From Poverty to Prosperity” includes interviews with major economists, and it is striking how they are moving away from mathematical modeling and toward fields like sociology and anthropology.
What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).
A protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.