Paper entrepreneurs — trained in law, finance, accountancy — manipulate complex systems of rules and numbers. They innovate by using the systems in novel ways: establishing joint ventures, consortiums, holding companies, mutual funds; finding companies to acquire, “white knights” to be acquired by, commodity futures to invest in, tax shelters to hide in; engaging in proxy fights, tender offers, antitrust suits, stock splits, spinoffs, divestitures; buying and selling notes, bonds, convertible debentures, sinking-fund debentures; obtaining government subsidies, loan guarantees, tax breaks, contracts, licenses, quottas, price supports, bailouts; going private, going public, going bankrupt.
Product entrepreneurs — engineers, inventors, production managers, marketers, owners of small businesses — produce goods and services people want. They innovate by creating better products at less cost.
Our economic system needs both. Paper entrepreneurs ensure that capital is allocated efficiently among product enrepreneurs. But paper entrepreneurs do not directly enlarge the economic pie. They only arrange and divide the slices. They provide nothing of tangible use. For an economy to maintain its health, entrepreneurial rewards should flow primarily to product, not paper.
Yet paper entrepreneurialism is on the rise. It dominates the leadership of our largest corporations. It guides government departments, legislatures, agencies, public utilities. It stimulates platoons of lawyers and financiers.
It preoccupies some of our best minds, attracts some of our most talented graduates, embodies some of our most creative and original thinking, spurs some of our most energetic wheeling and dealing. Paper entrepreneurialism also promises the best financial rewards, the highest social status.
The ratio of paper entrepreneurialism to product entrepreneurialism in our economy — measured by total earnings flowing to each, or by the amoung of news in business journals and newspapers typically devoted to each — is about 2 to 1.
Why? Our economic system has become so complex and interdependent that capital must be allocated according to symbols of productivity rather than according to productivity itself. These symbolic rules and numbers lend themselves to profitable manipulation far more readily than do the underlying processes of production.
It takes time and effort to improve product quality, exploit manufacturing efficiencies, develop distribution and sales networks. But through strategic use of accounting conventions, tax rules, stock and commodity exchanges, exchange rates, government largesse, and litigation, enormous profits are possible with relatively little effort.
When paper entrepreneurs look for solutions to America’s declining productivity and international competitiveness, they come up with paper remedies to stimulate large-scale capital investment: accelerated depreciation, tax credits, government subsidies, relaxation of antitrust laws.
Product entrepreneurs focus on techniques for improving output: better quality controls, improved labor-management relations, more effective incentives for managers and employees, more aggressive marketing and sales.
If we are to increase the economic pie, we will need to redress the balance of entrepreneurial effort. Which strategies will stimulate more paper, and which more product?
[I wrote this thirty years ago. It appeared on the The New York Times oped page May 23, 1980.]
This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission