Best-selling author Michael Lewis joined Freightwaves CEO Craig Fuller on day 2 of Marketwaves 18 near Dallas in a lively, wide-ranging conversation about Lewis’ latest book, private interests v. public data and how the digital revolution will reshape the trucking industry.
In one of many baseball analogies, the author of “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” noted the manager in the dugout used to get paid multiples of the general manager.
The tables have turned now that big data rules America’s favorite pastime.
“Now, the manager of the dugout is making a fraction of what the general manager gets paid,” said Lewis. “He becomes the gold mine, and everyone else becomes subordinate to him.”
Likewise, the kind of people involved in trucking are going to change, Lewis said. “All of a sudden the value proposition is finding opportunities in data. That’s a different person than the one who is managing truckers.”
Lewis recently wrapped up promotion for his latest book, “The Fifth Risk.” The work, which took shape after Lewis learned Trump basically canned the Obama transition team that was put in place to help No. 45 transition, paints an ominous portrait of the ensuing chaos in the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce.
“What happens if the basic functions of government aren’t being managed in an attentive way?” Lewis asked. The question takes on urgency since a basic function of the federal government is managing risk—risk of fire, disease, nuclear war—to keep Americans safe.
Lewis ticked off several examples showing how opening up government data has improved people’s lives: precision weather forecasting, and better understanding of police violence and the opioid crisis, the latter thanks to the Obama Administration making prescription drug data available “and geeks finding the patterns,” Lewis said.
“There is no more valuable trove of data than the information created by the government,” Lewis said.
The danger today lies in “narrow economic interests” interfering with the flow of that information to the public, he said.
Lewis noted that Trump tried to appoint Barry Myers, the chief of weather forecasting giant AccuWeather, to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that includes the National Weather Service. Myers’ brother, who founded AccuWeather, has long advocated shutting the NWS. (Barry Myers’ nomination has stalled in the Senate).
Likewise, fossil fuel interests are “gumming up” government energy and environment data.
“I fear it’s the ‘Moneyball’ moment,” Lewis said. “We have come to understand that data has magical properties. But if small people let loose on it, it creates incredible inefficiencies.”
Lewis and Fuller engaged in some back and forth about how big data is changing the trucking industry. Automation and the ELD mandate are generating their own treasure trove of information. They are also creating winners and losers.
“It’s a really nice position to be in, to be an elite,” said Lewis, referring to tech innovators disrupting freight. “You’re going to make a lot of money; you’re going to be a success.”
But the new guard needs to take responsibility for inevitable worker displacement, Lewis said.
“Spend some time actively thinking about how to dull some of the pain. Take 10% of your money and brain space to think about …how to manage change in a humane way so you don’t break lives.”
There are plenty of concerns about automation displacing drivers, Fuller noted. But those concerns may fade over time. Millennials aren’t interested in trucking, he said. Plus, it’s unclear how long it will be before autonomous trucks actually hit the road.
But change is happening quickly, Fuller acknowledged. “We are in the second inning of the digital revolution,” he said. “It’s no longer about tribal knowledge and experience. It’s tribal knowledge and data.”
Lewis was intrigued by private interests circling the freight tech sector.
“What will a hedge fund manager pay you to have exclusive access to your data?” he asked Fuller of the supply/demand data found in FreightWaves’ SONAR database. “Someone will figure out the correlation of movement of trucks and the movement of stocks.”
“That’s happening now,” Fuller said. “The trucking market reveals the economy.”
So, Lewis persisted, if Fuller were willing to supply data to one exclusive hedge fund, what would he charge?
“It’s not just about money,” Fuller answered. “I grew up in this industry. I love this industry. I have diesel in my blood.”
That said, the market is “potentially worth billions,” Fuller said.