Economic Rents and the Contours of Conflict in the Data-Driven Economy
Policy Brief, Centre for International Governance Innovation, June 2020
15 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2019 Last revised: 26 Jun 2020
Date Written: June 25, 2020
In the era of continuous and steadily accelerating technological change that started with the industrial revolution, economies and societies were repeatedly transformed in ways that can be linked to ownership of the essential and scarce factor of production of the day and command of the economic rents that flow to that factor. While history allows many narratives to be spun, the contours of conflict, both internal and between states, can be seen as aligned with the contest over rents – from the wars of territorial acquisition of the feudal era when land was the main source rents, to the wars of mercantilist expansion when the economies of scale generated by the machinery of mass production became the main source of rent, to the resource-rent-fuelled oil wars of the modern era, and in recent decades the proliferating conflicts over intellectual property. With the digital transformation we are seeing the emergence of a new type of economy – the data-driven economy, in which data is the essential factor of production. Data generates massive rents, fuels the rise of superstar firms, and generates powerful incentives for strategic trade and investment policy. The emergence of this new economy signals a new era of conflict, on new battlegrounds, with new tools or weapons, between new coalitions within and amongst countries. This conflict is already upon us. The vast rents prospectively at play in the data-driven economy arguably constitute a major (perhaps the major) trigger for the open trade and technology war between the United States and China. They also are at the heart of the brewing conflicts over taxation of digital platform firms. This note describes the contours of the conflicts that are to be expected with the digital transformation as it realigns interests, compares these expectations with actual developments, and comments on the implications for the rules-based system of international commerce.
Keywords: data, data-driven economy, digital transformation, rents, China, United States, European Union, trade war, technology war, labour, capital, land, intellectual property
JEL Classification: F13, F52, F55, F63, L40, L52, O30, K21, K24
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