12/10/2017 15:56

Selling and Buying

We live in unusual times, which in itself is fairly typical. The issue is less whether the current times are distinct from periods before and after, but which particular changes are occurring in this particular moment of history.

This morning it occurred to me that this is a time of change in buying and selling. Or in selling and buying, because it would seem that the relationships are undergoing something of an inversion.

Let me offer an example: banking. When I was young, which for each of us seems the the quintessence of normality, banks sold services and bought money. Actually, they rented money; my grandfather retained the ownership of his money and eventually passed some of it on to me for college. In the meantime, however, the bank paid for the use of it. To make money, the banks aggregated and sublet the rented funds to larger banks and sold liquidity to companies and individuals as loans and credit. The bank also sold services, such as collection of negotiable instruments and secure vault space, and retailed investment security which is wholesaled by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Today, banks sell money and buy services. They retail money which they get cheaply from the Federal Reserve Bank or other large banks. It still goes out the door as loans and credit, but the process is less based on aggregating local assets and more a matter of wholesale money, retail money. On the other side, the banks buy services from companies like FiServ and Intuit and give them away to the customers. The banks still make money of course but now it comes in the form of rebates from the financial services companies when bank customers use a credit card or other service.

Another example. Newspapers, in the centuries of printed journals, would sell advertising "space". It was more than just space; they were selling setup, printing, and distribution of advertisements to willing subscribers, and the newspaper companies worked hard to earn their fees. Today, news outlets on the world wide web buy advertising from advertising brokers like Google Ads, Akamai, and so on; they make their money from rebates when their readers see the ads and follow links to the advertisers' websites. In both cases the news media is facilitating the reader seeing the ad, but under the old system the news company provided services directly to the advertiser and knew what ads appeared on their pages. In both cases, purveying the news is a sidelight to the business model; in both cases, advertising is juxtaposed to editorial content. But the relationships among the buyers and sellers has shifted.

I've made a similar case about health insurance. These are the times.

What strikes me as usual in all of this is how the ascendency in business relationships seems to be moving a step farther away from both producers and consumers. When I was young, it seems to me, both banks and newspapers could be understood as brokers of esoteric goods such as information, credit, and access. In brokering these things, the companies dealt directly with both producers and consumers. Now, as it seems to me, a higher level of broker has arisen and taken on more of the power to shape business relationships.

You've lost some power to skew local news coverage to paint your business in a favorable light; I've lost influence to increase the coverage of events that matter more to me. You've lost leverage to get the bank to give you special treatment; I gain the equality of being treated no worse than anybody, and no better either.

It seems less personal and less local -- and it is. In actual reality we are facing in the direction of integrating the entire world into a single civilzation. That's unusual in scope, but not unprecedented in direction and the precedents, on the scale of nations and continents, show both the dangers and the possible countermoves as we continue to play this game.