Metrosexual competition

Writing about the macho world of pure mathematics (at least, in my experience, in analysis and group theory, less so in category theory and number theory, for example), led me to think that some academic disciplines seem hyper-competitive:  physics, philosophy, and mainstream economics come to mind.  A problem for economics is that the domain of the discipline includes the study of competition, and the macho, hyper-competitive nature of academic economists has led them, I believe, astray in their thinking about the marketplace competition they claim to be studying.  They have assumed that their own nasty, bullying, dog-eat-dog world is a good model for the world of business.
If business were truly the self-interested, take-no-prisoners world of competition described in economics textbooks and assumed in mainstream economics, our lives would all be very different.  Fortunately, our world is mostly not like this.   One example is in telecommunications where companies compete and collaborate with each other at the same time, and often through the same business units.  For instance, British Telecommunications and Vodafone are competitors (both directly in the same product categories and indirectly through partial substitutes such as fixed and mobile services), and collaborators, through the legally-required and commercially-sensible inter-connections of their respective networks.  Indeed, for many years, each company was the other company’s largest customer, since the inter-connection of their networks means each company completes calls that originate on the other’s network; thus each company receives payments from the other.  Do you seek to drive your main competitor out of business when that competitor is also your largest customer?   Would you do this, as stupid as it seems, knowing that your competitor could retaliate (perhaps pre-emptively!) by disconnecting your network or reducing the quality of your calls that interconnect?  No rational business manager would do this, although perhaps an economist might.
Nor would you destroy your competitors when you and they are sharing physical infrastructure  – co-locating switches in each other’s buildings, for example, or sharing rural cellular base stations, both of which are common in telecommunications.   And, to complicate matters, large corporate customers of telecommunications companies increasingly want direct access to the telco’s own switches, leading to very porous boundaries between companies and their suppliers.   Doctrines of nuclear warfare, such as mutually-assured destruction or iterated prisoners’ dilemma, are better models for this marketplace than the mainstream one-shot utility-maximizing models, in my opinion.
You might protest that telecommunications is a special case, since the product is a networked good – that is, one where a customer’s utility from a particular service may depend on the numbers of other customers also using the service.    However, even for non-networked goods, the fact that business usually involves repeated interactions with the same group of people (and is decidely not a one-shot interaction) leads to more co-operation than is found in an economist’s philosophy.   The empirical studies of hedge funds undertaken by sociologist Donald MacKenzie, for example, showed the great extent to which hedge fund managers rely in their investment decisions on information they receive from their competitors.  Because everyone hopes to come to work tomorrow and the day after, as well as today, there are strong incentives on people not to  mis-use these networks through, for instance, disseminating false or explicitly-self-serving information.
It’s a dog-help-dog world out there!
Iain Hardie and Donald MacKenzie [2007]:  Assembling an economic actor: the agencement of a hedge fund. The Sociological Review, 55 (1): 57-80.

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