If They’re Talking ‘Monopoly,’ They Don’t Have a Clue What One Is

It’s easily forgotten that around the turn of the century, Palm’s valuation was greater than that of Amazon, Apple and Nvidia combined. To which more than a few readers will reply with “who” or “what” the hell is Palm. Which is the point.

At risk of aging myself, Palm Pilots were the accessory of choice for obnoxious, wannabe business titans well before tapping away furiously on a RIM/Blackberry device became an obnoxious quality of would-be titans. And if you’re wondering “who” or “what” the hell is RIM/Blackberry, that’s realistically the point too.

For now, there was a time when business show-offs could regularly be seen with Palm Pilot in hand, along with the attached stylus. The combination was meant to give off the impression of important planning of one’s busy business life. The company’s valuation was a reflection of this brand perception.

Except that more than a few readers have once again never heard of Palm. Which in a paraphrase of George Will is a gentle reminder that tomorrow when it comes to business is another century. Opaque quite simply doesn’t do justice to how different tomorrow will be, which is why stock brokerages print on every statement that past performance should not in any way be construed as a predictor of future performance. Applied to Palm, it was great until it wasn’t.

Keep this in mind as overnight antitrust advocate William Barr warns in prominent pages of opinion that if “allowed to dominate AI,” Microsoft, Google and Amazon “could reinforce and extend their supremacy over more of the economy.” To which the only rational reply to Barr’s advocacy has to be let’s hope he’s right.

Seriously, what a service the three technology giants would provide if they could discover for the rest of us an AI future that we’re not remotely sure of. Think of all the precious capital that would be more expertly allocated if Microsoft, Google and Amazon could figure out for the world what AI will mean for it.

For now, we just hope. And we speculate. Venture capitalists like Vinod Khosla who, have actually backed their visions of the future with capital, say that AI could erase 80 percent of the work from 80 percent of the jobs. If so, the future is blindingly bright. What automates away work doesn’t push humans into breadlines as much as it frees humans to specialize, and in specializing, work exponentially more productively.

Which means that if Microsoft et al can “dominate” AI, their doing so will set us humans up for remarkable leaps in terms of productivity, living standards, and wealth. Of course if they’re wrong, Amazon et al will still bring great benefit to all by showing us through their billion-dollar-plus stumbles what not to do in the future.

All of this is seemingly lost on Barr. In a piece bursting with vague platitudes, Barr writes that “Once these platforms establish monopoly or near-monopoly power in their primary markets, they enter and gain competitive advantages in adjacent markets.” Can’t understand it? Don’t worry, you’re not meant to. Barr is just writing to write.

Rest assured that he can’t possibly understand what he’s asserting, and he can’t because he hasn’t a faint clue what the future of AI is, and by extension he hasn’t a faint clue about which companies will dominate this future. Evidence supporting this claim can be found in Barr’s own assertion that Microsoft, Amazon, and Google presently enjoy “supremacy” in the sectors where they compete. What he leaves out is that when the 21st century began, Microsoft was seen as yesterday, Amazon couldn’t figure out how to make a profit, and Google was years from merely going public. If Barr could have predicted their “supremacy” when the 21st century began, and he was in the prime of his career, he would be too rich (we’re talking billions) to be policing “monopolies” from his laptop.

Except that Barr didn’t predict their dominance, hence what he’s doing now. And what he’s doing now tells us he similarly lacks knowledge not just of what AI will be, but which companies will prove prominent in what AI will be.  The simple truth is that anyone who would fear monopoly can’t possibly know what they are.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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