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Going from global back to local: Kathryn Judge explains why reducing our reliance on the ‘middleman’ may make for a healthier economy

Podcast & Video

Law professor and author Kathryn Judge joins host Rudyard Griffiths on Hub Dialogues to break down her enlightening new book, Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source.

They discuss how “middlemen” companies are transforming our economy, how they actually stifle innovation, and what can be done to rebalance our system so that more of the power flows back to creators and consumers.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hello, Hub listeners, Rudyard Griffiths here, the executive director of The Hub, stepping in for Sean Speer today, our editor-at-large, to host this Hub Dialogues. Our guest today is a renowned Columbia law professor, financial markets expert, and the author of a big new book called Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source.

In a moment, you’ll hear the voice of Kathryn Judge, the author speaking with me about how our economy is being transformed by middlemen, and a few middlewomen too, and why this is both a challenge for the future of capitalism but also an opportunity to rethink our communities, rethink many of the markets that we rely on, and rethink how big corporations are doing business. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Kathryn Judge, the author of Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source.

Kathryn, so many issues and ideas that I want to unpack with you. First, just thank you for coming on Hub Dialogues.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Let’s go to basics. You’re writing about something you’ve called and what others have identified as a “middleman economy”. Explain to us what this is and why you have a view that it’s something unique and important that demands our attention.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes. When I’m talking about the middleman economy, my focus is on two phenomena that really feed off each other. One is the growth of these outsized intermediaries, these outsized middlemen, in so many different aspects of our economy. In retail, we have Amazon and Walmart. In finance, we have these incredibly large banks, these incredibly large mutual funds.

In food, we have middlemen like Cargill. Part of what we’ve seen is that as these intermediaries have grown in scale and grown in power, that has actually led to longer and more complex supply chains, and the two have fed off of each other because these long supply chains seem to create short-term efficiencies. And the bigger the intermediary, the more you can justify these small efforts from additional short-term gains from doling out one step in the process to whoever can do it most cheaply.

We’ve seen the simultaneous rise of these very long and complicated supply chains facilitating the production of goods and the flow of funds, and these very large and powerful intermediaries, and the middleman economies are the way the two feed off each other. The core idea is just this has made our lives incredibly easy and provided unbelievable conveniences. It’s really allowed goods to be far cheaper than they otherwise would, investing is easier, and access to credit is easier. There are a lot of long-term costs. We’re seeing it right now in the supply chain fragility and we saw it in 2007-08 when the securitization chains really broke down.

We’re also seeing it now as people want to know something not only about the good but about the people and the places affected by the production or affected by their investment. The opacity created by chains makes that hard to know. So, a lot of benefits and some meaningful drawbacks. It’s helpful to focus in on the trade-offs that we might not have realized that we’re making either individually or collectively.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Okay, let’s talk about some of those trade-offs. There are many, and you’ve just mentioned, obviously, the biggest one is convenience, that being what you get in turn for the middleman interjecting him or herself between you and the goods and services you want. It could be obviously the centralization of power that these middlemen have in our economy, the effects that that has on us, maybe that we don’t realize in terms of higher prices, or the sourcing of goods and services that may not meet our ethical needs or demands.

Kathryn, give us a sense of where you think there’s the most friction and distortion in our economy, in our society, in our day-to-day lives in terms of the impact of these middlemen, these middlewomen, and the economy that they control on our society.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes, I think that there is a number and it varies. One of the important things that the book really draws out, that I explore and direct as I look at the specific rise of the middleman economy in a lot of sectors, is that very often in the near term there are incredible gains. Part of the challenge, though, is the middlemen come in and they build this incredible infrastructure. You know, you had real estate agents creating the multiple listing service particularly for the internet that allowed buyers and sellers to see homes. Amazon has this very user-friendly platform and incredible filament. So, they’re coming in, they’re providing real value, but what we see over time is that their control over that critical infrastructure, the expertise they develop, and the relationships that they develop, allow them to meaningfully contort how the market evolves. It allows them to change and influence regulation. They’re changing the rules for the game in ways that protect what they’re doing. It also allows them to take a bigger cut over time and oftentimes blocks innovations that could reduce their power.

Part of the challenge is that, first of all, drawing attention to this allows us to stand individually. Like, where are we making decisions that don’t suit us, because intermediaries and the middlemen that we dealt with are just so good at understanding all of our little behavioural biases? How do they exploit that, and how can taking a step back help us to live a better life for ourselves? Part of it is also understanding the structures and the way the structures create power. Where we actually need innovation and better policymaking to actually restore meaningful choices and a healthier balance of power.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Part of what you’re describing here, Kathryn, sounds like in many ways inherent features of capitalism where we know there are tendencies towards oligarchy, monopoly, let’s face it, businesses love when there’s less competition and they can extract higher profits as a result. You also think the internet though has played a key role here as an accelerator of the middleman economy.

That might be counterintuitive for many of us because we tend to think that the internet is a disaggregator, that it encourages the rise of smaller, more disruptive groups and business ideas. Explain to us a little bit more about why you think the internet is a factor that’s accelerating, not impeding the middleman economy.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes. A couple things there. One, going back to the internet, what’s really interesting about the internet and that I try to draw out is it simultaneously has created the opportunity for bigger players to come in and actually increase their size and power, but it has also created an environment where there is the possibility of disruption. Originally we had the internet and we had all these idealistic voices.

You had Bill Gates early on saying, “All right, we’re no longer going to need middlemen, everybody’s going to go direct because a lot of the role of middleman is to help us just overcome the informational challenges of finding one another when the provider of goods and the buyer are far apart. The internet has allowed us to facilitate a possibility of connections without the aid of the big middleman.”

We see that with eBay, we see that with Etsy, we see that with Shopify. The way it helps small businesses is there are a lot of ways you can now connect, but the challenge today is Amazon also use an incredible amount of data and incredible IT to create this really great platform where it feels really great, where every time you log in, you have this little store that’s customized based on your history, but also the wealth of data they have about the buying habits of other people who shop like you.

Now the typical consumer who regularly shops online, when they’re logging in to start shopping, they’re not starting at Google, they’re going straight to Amazon. There’s a value in that, but then that changes over time. So, for Amazon, just as an example, we now have recent surveys that show that a number of people feel guilty when they shop there, they want to shop elsewhere, but they have a hard time doing so.

Similarly, when you’re looking at the seller side, the fees that you’re paying every time you buy a good on Amazon, the amount that’s going to that third-place seller relative to the amount that’s going to Amazon has shifted every single year for the last seven to eight years with a bigger and bigger portion of that cut going to Amazon. Part of what we’re seeing here is this weird pivot point of this technology that’s coming in. Capitalism I think never operates in a vacuum.

It operates based on the rules of the game that are set up, but also the way the players involved help to shape those rules and shape that format, and they’re creating the structures that we interact with. Part of what we’re seeing right now is there are more opportunities for direct connection, including direct connections that actually span national borders. Yet also simultaneously, as a result of the wealth of data that’s available and the dynamics of what economists like to call these two-sided markets where buyers attract sellers and sellers attract buyers of pattern, we’ve had the largest middlemen really growing in size and power and influence.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: You know the other argument, you must hear it all the time and that’s that there are efficiency games, there are trade-offs that come with the middleman economy, yes, but at the end of the day, what really matters is price. Well, I seem to remember Walmart’s slogan, The Lowest Price is the Law. If we have these big businesses, these powerful middlemen in our economy, why isn’t it right to acknowledge that they are delivering to us goods and services at a lower cost? We might not be entirely happy with the sourcing. We might be entirely happy with their pricing power or the extent to which they may function as duopolies, oligopolies, you name it.

But at the end of the day, they’re delivering a higher standard of living by virtue of furnishing people with goods and services on a mass scale, again at significantly lower prices than if they were not acting in the marketplace.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Three things on that. One, up to a degree, some of that is certainly true. As a reason, the goal in the book is not to get rid of any of these systems but to rebalance the power so there’s more meaningful choice. Two, when you’re talking about the quality of life that people enjoy as a result of that, most people right now are thinking about consumer welfare.

What is it on paper we’re actually able to consume as a result of the money that we have to spend and now we can buy more? The challenge is that most of us are not just consumers, we play a lot of other roles in our lives. This has played a meaningful role in shifting the nature of work that’s available and where that work is available. If we think about Amazon and Walmart, there are not only the two biggest revenue producers in the United States, they’re the two biggest employers.

We have a lot more people working for middlemen and a lot fewer people working actually as creators because those jobs have very often gone abroad as a result of the system. The last point I would make, a part of what the book tries to explore is this core tension between the decisions we make and our long-term happiness and wellbeing. Part of what we’re seeing right now in the United States, for example, and I expect this is also true in Canada, is we have a loneliness epidemic, that’s almost on par with the obesity epidemic in terms of morbidity and mortality outcomes.

Part of what we’re seeing is the way we’re getting everything we want, but we’re able to do it in a very isolated way that seems convenient, that seems great, but sometimes actually forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones to create some of these connections—again, it’s not doing it all of the time, but once in a while can help to build some of those casual relationships that can also be part of what makes a life meaningful. There’s a lot there. What the book explorers are all of these different avenues that may be we’ve gotten slightly out of whack.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, let’s talk about some examples because I think it really helps people to think through in more practical, real-world terms, what the middle man economy is. I want you to imagine, let’s say the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to middlemen. Maybe you could give us an example of each so we get a sense of the spectrum of these businesses because you’re not against middlemen.

You do think there are some genuinely innovative things that they’re doing, new ways that they’re delivering services. There is the potential here for a middleman economy to be repackaged, refurnished, repositioned in ways that are beneficial to society, that advances the needs of our communities, and maybe at the deepest level advance some of our most carefully held values. Look, talk to us about that spectrum, the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to middlemen companies.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes. I like the framing. Starting with the good. Again, the middlemen are those actors who are just helping us overcome all the information challenges, all the logistical challenges separating us from the goods that we want, or savers and entrepreneurs who need a little cash. I think that they play a critical role in a whole variety of areas of our economy. One of the core ideas that the book draws out is to understand which middlemen to trust and how much to trust them. It’s helpful to just think a little bit about what their incentives are, what their business model is.

If we think about a lot of small local retailers, really they depend on long-term relationships and being trusted by those customers that they’re serving and word of mouth so people really are willing to continue to go there. Oftentimes there’s a meaningful, positive correlation between their long-term viability as a business and actually really serving customers’ needs in a long-term way. That can play a really great role. We also have these great intermediaries that are propping up creating markets for secondhand goods in an environment where we’re more concerned about climate impact, whether it’s eBay or the real reel for clothes are part of what intermediaries do, which is to help people connect. I think these incredibly effective online marketplaces for secondhand goods have also been an incredible area of innovation.

You also have platforms that are middlemen that are helping people connect, but doing so in a way where there’s still transparency, there’s still a connection, and there’s still accountability. There are all kinds of great middlemen, and also middlemen who are neutral.

For the bad and the ugly, again, here I will look at what are the long-term consequences. One thing I’ll talk about is when they’re using their power in bad ways, and the other is just the opacity that comes from this. One in terms of power, real estate agents, great connectors, they really came up helping people buy and sell homes, but the internet should meaningfully reduce the need for their services. You can just do a lot more today online than you used to be able to.

In the United States, but not so much actually in Canada or the U.K. or Australia, we still have an incredibly expensive full-service real estate model where people are paying 5 percent and sometimes 6 percent total on the value of their homes. If you look at the history of how they’ve managed to entrench themselves, they’ve used their control over this critical infrastructure, incredibly effective lobbying, and these norms of both cooperations with each other, but also refusal to cooperate with people who are being more innovative to really entrench this system so it’s very hard for individuals to opt-out.

Part of the concern there is not that this is specific to real estate, but this is what happened generally which is why going back to your earlier question about capitalism, why we have to be a little more worried when you have outside power with intermediaries than with others because they’re able to perpetuate their role in particularly troubling ways. The ugly two things, one are those hidden sources of fragility is that you’re getting oftentimes very short-term gains, but maybe we’re actually paying too little in price because that price doesn’t actually cover the cost of building a resilient system.

When people actually need baby formula, when they need goods, suddenly their access is limited. I would say, yes, we want low prices, but we also need a resilient system when we’re talking about fundamental goods. Those were the failures that we saw in 07-08 in finance. Those are the failures we’re seeing in supply chains now. I’d actually say a little bit of rebalancing is part of what we need and the length and the complexity of the chains contributed to this outsized dysfunction.

We can talk about it later if you want, but then there’s also just the question of accountability. What happens when people care about more than just the good and they actually care about the impact on the world and other people?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Okay. Let’s shift gears here and pick up on one more thing you mentioned that fascinates me, Kathryn. When you think of the effects of middlemen, especially in the last period of time, they may have had a direct bearing on the struggles that advanced economies are having with inflation, particularly how central banks and governments may have misunderstood the threat of inflation, let’s hear more from you on that topic.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes. A lot of it is the challenge of what becomes unknown and not easily knowable as a result of the complexity of the ecosystem that these long chains create. So, if you want to understand the impact of what central banks tend to know and don’t know, we can actually even rewind to 2007 and 2008, which I think provides a very helpful parallel in unappreciated ways for what we’re facing right now. Actually, the origins of the financial crisis were not inside of banks. It was weaknesses in these long securitization chains and the quality of some of the mortgages.

The subprime mortgages that were underperforming were a really small part of the overall mortgage market. Most of the other mortgages in time performed pretty well. The actual losses that drove the crisis were sufficiently modest that they should have been able to be absorbed. The challenge is, starting in August 2007, over a year before the failure of Lehman Brothers and AIG and all of the explosive developments, the FOMC, the Federal Open Market Committee was sitting around and they say, “Look, liquidity is going bad. We’re suddenly seeing dysfunction in all of these different markets that we didn’t think were related to one another.”

A core challenge is it used to be all of the loans were on a bank balance sheet. We knew where the problems were, and it wasn’t just securitization: there are layers of securitization feeding into other types of innovative financial products, and we don’t know where the risks are. They were saying this in the fall of 2007, and yet it was a full year until, again, we had the explosions in 2008, but because the system had gotten so complex, they couldn’t figure out where the problems were and operate strategically to address those problems in a proportionate way, or to understand quite the full magnitude of what might go wrong. Similarly, if we rewind to the early stages of the current inflationary bout, we saw Fed Chair Powell and others saying, “Yes, we’re seeing supply chain problems, but they’re going to be transitory. Yes, prices are going up, they’re going up faster than we expected, but that’s going to self-correct.”

Again, there’s an assumption going back to the earlier point, markets self-correct. If we see dysfunctional markets are self-correcting, as long as we provide enough liquidity and we provide enough time, there’s going to be self-correction. The challenge is that you have this incredibly long chain, which is really a web as it gets built up, and all of the little players have only a little bit of information.

They know who they’re exposed to, and they understand their risk exposures, but they don’t understand all the risk exposures of all the other parties that they are potentially exposed to indirectly through the complexity of the system. Once you have a shock to the system, rather than just recalibrating in light of that bad news, there’s suddenly all of these questions over like, “Well, what am I exposed to?” Or, “How bad is it going to get?”

Then you suddenly have everybody really looking out for themselves, sometimes panicking, but even shy of panicking, potentially sending full signs over what they need, or what they can do, as a way of trying to figure out, let’s look out for ourselves. And when you have a complex, interdependent system, that means that shock, in the absence of really new credible information about how these risks are allocated, is going to lead to more and more dysfunction in ways that build on itself.

A core challenge has just been, I think, the failure of policymakers to understand the nature of the fragility and the way that the dysfunction is going to build and also the opacity that meant they couldn’t go in and understand, “Oh, here’s, at least within the case scenarios, something is probable.” We’ve had additional shocks, the pandemic was a significant shock, the invasion of Ukraine was a significant shock, and we had a fundamentally fragile system that was fragile and created these massive information gaps I think in ways that were preventable and hadn’t been adequately addressed ahead of time.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: What’s your advice, say for these big three groups? Let’s start with corporations first, because they’re in the middle of this, many of them are middlemen, middlewomen, embracing their role as powerful brokers, nodal points in our economy. Others maybe don’t like to advertise that fact, they’re taking advantage of that middleman status and don’t want us really to understand their pricing power or how they’re distorting free markets. Let’s start with corporations. Get your views on their future in the middleman economy. Then we’ll move on to what government and consumers could or should do with your thesis about our economy today.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yes, I think corporations are very broad. I think private industry is both part of the problem and has already been a huge part of the solution. I think in a self-interested way, part of what’s going to be really helpful for corporate leaders in understanding these dynamics, going back to what we’re just talking about, is you understand your own risk exposures, but also you don’t know about potential risk exposures in a different way.

For any environment where you think this high geopolitical risk, there might be various climate-related risks, and there are other kinds of disruptions that could occur, understanding that you might have made a bunch of decisions because in the short run they seem to be easier or create cost savings but where there might be embedded complexity or risks that you haven’t adequately taken into account, understanding this bigger picture can help you understand where should we go in and make different changes if we want to build up more resilience.

Also going back to real estate, understanding that some of the middlemen you come to rely on might be what you’ve been doing for a while, that maybe there are innovations out there that could allow you to forego their services and save yourself some real money in ways that you don’t appreciate. It’s reevaluating both on the supply side, but also in your relationship with customers. What is it you don’t know how are you delayed? We’re seeing a lot of firms that have just made bad calls regarding what their customers wanted, but sometimes it wasn’t that direct relationship there. Understanding the intermediation can make things easier to enable efficiencies, but also have drawbacks in terms of connection, communication, information flows, and potential sources of fragility and so revisiting in a more conscious way kind of the choices you’ve made.

Again, just separately, a lot of great firms are coming in and innovating. We’re seeing direct-to-consumer and Shopify and all of these other new innovations that effectively are saying we think the system is broken. We think that there are people who actually care about the impact of what they’re consuming on the environment or on other people. As a practical matter, today’s chains are so long and complex that no certification scheme is actually going to provide consumers with the information they want.

We need to start from the ground up, build a shorter, more accountable, more transparent supply chain, build a way of connecting companies to consumers, and that can be part of trying to create an alternative ecosystem, again, which just creates that healthy level of competition and meaningful choice for all the players involved.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: More than a century ago, we know that Teddy Roosevelt broke up the big monopolies of oil and steel and many people looked back at that period and say, “Well, that was an event that in no small way unleashed a wave of productivity and growth and dynamism in the American economy.” In advanced economies generally, we are now seeing concentrations of corporate wealth and power within broad swaths of the new key players of the 21st century. I’m thinking, most notably, Silicon Valley.

Is deregulation really the key here to breaking down the new syndicates, the new middlemen companies that are now being built up within the industries of the 21st century? Are there other policy changes that we should be thinking about?

KATHRYN JUDGE: I think there’s a variety of tools. One is we do need to have healthy enforcement of competition policy and antitrust. It’s existed in the books for a long time. It’s gotten more rigid and narrow in practice. Taking a more dynamic view of the economy and of market share and of influence and power I think is part of what’s going on right now in reintegrating the field in healthy and critical ways.

And then there are policymakers just not being part of the problem and part of what directly explores the ways that middlemen have used their influence through lobbying and through expertise. Sometimes these people are captured, but sometimes it’s just people don’t know any better and they’re scared. It goes through the ways in so many different sectors that are going to use their influence to push for laws that are really entrenched in the outdated and self-serving systems. Don’t be part of the problem.

The last is really thinking more creatively and proactively about what we can do from the ground up to create the infrastructure that allows people to opt-out of a dominant system. There are farmers’ markets all over the place, but there’s usually public space that is set aside for the farmers’ market. Setting aside that space matters. If we think about the U.S. Postal Service or postal services in other countries, oftentimes right now the focus is on let’s make sure that they’re actually financially viable. I actually think that’s the wrong focus. We should certainly make sure they’re incredibly well run. We don’t want there to be wastefulness and inefficiency in how they’re operating.

On the other hand, if we are worried that outside power could actually have crippling effects on the health of the overall economy and limit the viability of small businesses, limit consumer choice, then finding ways to actually speed up rather than slow down, as we currently are, the Postal Service, and provide a potentially subsidized rate to smaller players who can make it so people can go off Amazon and wait two or three days—as opposed to now they’ve just shifted and said, “Oh, for some packages, four or five days will still be on time, even for first class,”—to try and figure out how can we provide that infrastructure, not to pick winners and losers, but to ensure there’s ongoing, healthy competition.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Okay, moving on to the consumer and the individual, what choices can be made because the relationships do seem incredibly asymmetric? Amazon has all my data. I have very little information on Amazon. Certainly, I know nothing about Facebook or Google’s algorithm. They’re opaque to me. So, how do we reassert ourselves as arbiters, as participants in the economy, as agents of our own economic destiny as opposed to simply accepting, I guess, the power of middlemen which is real and cannot be ignored?

KATHRYN JUDGE: Yeah, and I think that is really the aim. I mean, the aim over time is not to destroy any of the systems we have in place but to rebalance so more of the power lies with creators and consumers and a little less of the power lies with the middlemen. One of the things the book really explores is to say like, look, we live in this incredibly heavily intermediated world right now, and here is everything that you are not seeing about the impact of your consumption. Part of the challenge we face today is it’s very easy to discount that which you do not see.

Suddenly there are all of these adverse consequences actually for the well-being of people on the planet that are feeding my family and the clothes that we wear in ways that I hadn’t been aware of because it’s systematically blinded to me. I think a cornerstone of a better balance starts with just once in a while figuring out where can you actually go direct to a maker. You know, is there a farm stand that you can go to or a farmer’s market? Or if you hate to cook don’t do that.

Maybe instead for you, it’s going on Etsy and occasionally shopping there with somebody who actually is a small production maker. Figuring out where are a couple of areas of your life where going direct might take a little more work but might also bring rewards in terms of supporting your local community and creating new types of connections.

That just serves to remind us in this way that we’ve been dulled to of the impact of our actions on others. Then in other areas, a lot of it is about trying to figure out where is there a slightly shorter supply chain in ways that could create more accountability and then are more consistent with my values. Part of it is just being honest, and the book goes through a lot of the evidence of the way a lot of claims made in an ESG investment fund oftentimes aren’t living up to the promises they’re making. It’s forcing us to make some of those harder decisions and be more honest about the trade-offs.

The goal is not to abandon the life that all of us have come to know but to start to cultivate more meaning and more connection and a better balance by bringing just greater awareness to the fact that it’s not what we buy and what we invest, but through whom we are buying and through whom we are investing that really changes the nature of the goods that we’re bringing into our lives and the ripple effects oftentimes in the broader world of those decisions.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: This is also partly about capital remaining in local communities, i.e how do we make sure that the wealth of our own economic activity stays in the locales where we live and work as opposed to being expropriated and sent all around the world?

If we think of the hollowing out of our main streets, our high streets, across a lot of the advanced economies today I think many of us rightly cite middlemen and middlemen companies as the catalyst for these changes that are uncomfortable, destabilizing, and impacting our social fabric in very real ways. How could we reimagine our economy to lend new strength and vitality to our own local communities?

KATHRYN JUDGE: I think that’s up for us to decide. Really what we see is I think we’re at a pivot point. On the one hand, we are seeing all of the costs of the current system coming to light. We’re seeing these supply chain fragilities that are becoming manifest in ways that are incredibly disruptive to the health of the economy and to individual lives. We’re seeing that as people care more about the impact of their purchases and their investments that they’re not actually able to get that in the current system. There’s this sense of disconnect between the values many people hold and the outcomes that we’re seeing.

Part of the book says globalization matters and scale matters but intermediation design is really part of what we need to think about. There is the possibility that through technology, through different decisions, and significantly through better policy-making, because it’s not the individual opting out—that’s part of the shift but it’s not going to be all of it—but through new types of innovation and through policy-making that really takes these dynamics seriously. Building up an alternative ecosystem which doesn’t try to destroy what we have right now, but is sufficiently a robust that we do have more of that meaningful choice and the ability to opt out. That in and of itself undermines a lot of the opportunism and self-serving behaviour in the ways that are most destructive and costly that the current system potentially allows and enables. There is the possibility of a healthier—I will say also I see a lot of signs of the opposite, too. I think it’s just right now so easy to fall into the most familiar patterns. As you said, there are certain big actors, they have all our data, they’re the easiest ones, they’re putting a huge amount into lobbying, a huge amount into protecting their power.

There’s a lot to be said for the concern that the status quo doesn’t just get maintained, but actually, we see a continued growth of the outside power. I think we’re really at a pivot point of more of the same or consciously making more meaningful investments and realizing it took decades to get here, it’s going to take decades to change. But how do we create more meaningful choice in a healthier balance.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Common question, is there a country, a place in the world that you think is starting to strike a better balance between the consumer and the middleman-denominated economy? Europe certainly has tried to do some things in terms of regulation, especially of internet companies. Where would you point us to try to search out some of the best practices in terms of reforming economic policy?

KATHRYN JUDGE: I think we see it all over the world in pockets. I think when you open your eyes, it is already everywhere. I remember working on part of this book in Taiwan. One of the things I love about Taiwan is, particularly in the south where we were, there’s just so many of these small little food stands and small little creators and you’re interacting and oftentimes it’s like the front of their house and you see their families.

There’s transparency, you know where that money’s going. You don’t want to cut them out because you see the impact in these very concrete ways. They are incredible producers of semiconductors. It’s an incredibly productive country, but one where there are still incredibly thriving, small businesses and where that is a lot of the ecosystem.

I think we see that throughout small parts of the United States and Canada and Europe. There are a lot of areas where actually still, oftentimes smaller areas, but not only smaller areas, where we see some of those signs that are there. I’d say some of the areas I hope are not within a particular jurisdiction, but also span jurisdictions. We still live in a world where wealth is so far from equally distributed that if all of it moves to direct and is more local, then you could just exacerbate some of the existing inequalities.

We have these really innovative entrepreneurs who are using their own backgrounds that oftentimes span different parts of the world to create companies where consumers in North America or Europe can buy shea butters, and actually see the way that the women are labouring to crack the nuts and to produce the shea that goes into them and then really providing those women support that they need. We’re seeing it with spices from India. We have also these kinds of new things coming up that are not just about in one place, but let’s figure out how to create community and bridges that are new.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Wow. That’s a really key point to think about, how technology can be used for the good, as you say. It can allow you to go direct beyond the global to the local and maintain these very human connections to the people that are providing the goods and services that you want. You could even take that further as you said, to lifting people in groups out of poverty, by taking that extra time, making that extra effort to source your products from groups or organizations that resonate in real ways with your own values, your own ethics. Kathryn Judge, thank you so much for spending this time with me today.

KATHRYN JUDGE: Thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, Hub Dialogue listeners, that is a wrap for this, our latest hub dialogue.