Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Innovation Takes Center Stage, Living Standards Will Rise

There was a bet made in 1980 over the future prices of  copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Julian Ehrlich bet that prices would increase, because population growth would outstrip supply. Julian Simon disagreed, claiming that prices would actually decrease. Even though between 1980 and 1990, the world's population rose by 800 million people, the price of each metal fell. Tin, sold for $8.72 a pound in 1980, was going for $3.88 in 1990.

Why did the prices drop? As the price of a resource rises, people find ways to either stretch the resource further or abandon it entirely for a substitute. As demand for plumbing and telecommunications networks grew during the said decade, better and cheaper alternatives to copper were used more often. Fiber optics became a major part of communication networks and plastics were used more widely in plumbing.

When, broadly speaking, people are faced with constraints, they innovate to make things work. That is what we're going to see that over the next five years.

The resource constraints that are upon us will be met by innovative technologies that will keep our standard of living, on average, in a state of improvement.

A perfect example of this today would be Square, the credit card reader a vender can plug into his phone's headphone jack. A small business owner can now accept credit card payments with no hardware costs. He just pays a credit card fee, like the big boys do.

Square is a brilliant way to lower the barrier to entry to the retail and restaurant markets. I live in Austin, Texas, and we now have a thriving community of food trailers. The people of Austin benefit because of the wide selection of food. The people in the food trailers benefit because they are earning an income.

We will see many more technologies meeting constraints that are becoming increasingly palpable.

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