Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Wherein Henderson and Kaplan Confuse Value and Cost

Or Why We Need More Inframarginalism

Todd Henderson and Steven Kaplan commit one of the more basic economic mistakes I have encountered, one all the more embarrassing because they are Chicago lawyers and economists.

They write that the private equity industry should not be judged based on its low returns net of fees because “[w]hile this is the appropriate metric for the decision about whether an individual should invest, what matters for society is how much wealth they create above the next-best alternative.” If you don’t net out the fees, they argue, then private equity shows large returns, and those returns reflect the creation of social value.

What Henderson and Kaplan have done here, in case you missed it just now, is to argue that an industry is productive by redefining a cost—and not just any cost, but that sacredest of sacreds, the fund fee—as social value.

But if they really mean to do that, which I doubt, then they’re actually making the case that private equity earns excess—read unnecessary—profits. Profits that represent a redistribution of wealth from consumers to private equity firms.

Unfortunately, Costs Are Costs

Let’s say that you decide to build a fence, but you’re terrible at it. You nail in all the slats askew and some of them fall off on the way to market. The cost to you was $50 in materials and $30 in labor, judged by the wage in your next best alternative line of employment.

Because your fence is a disaster, however, you are only able to sell the thing for $70, resulting in a loss of $10. Economics teaches that your fence business is a waste of economic resources. You expended $80 in combined value of resources to generate a product that created only $70 of value for consumers.

But Henderson and Kaplan say no. You have created $20 in value, the difference between the price of $70 paid by consumers and your materials costs of $50, because, well, if we ignore your $30 in labor costs, then you did!

What they don’t seem to realize is that the only way you can actually make that $30 in labor costs evaporate is if you don’t actually have an opportunity cost there for your labor; no one would have paid you a dime at any alternative employment. But if that’s true, and your costs really are just $50, then you didn’t need to charge $70 for the fence in order to have an incentive to build it. You just needed to charge $50, and so your $20 in profits are pure and unnecessary appropriation of surplus.

Which means that Henderson and Kaplan are inadvertently arguing that private equity is overpaid.

The Distinction between Value and Cost

But I really don’t think that’s what Henderson and Kaplan mean to argue. I think they are just confused about the relationship between value and cost, a confusion that is, alas, all too common in debates regarding law and economics, as I outline in a recent law review article.

The distinction between value and cost turns in fact on another distinction, that between utility and value.

The fence, even a badly constructed fence, has some utility for consumers, and that utility is measured by the maximum price that consumers are willing to pay for the fence: $70. In trying to avoid netting out costs and focusing instead on gross magnitudes, Henderson and Kaplan seem to be trying to say that utility and social value are one and the same.

But that $70 doesn’t represent value for society, because it does not account for the costs—the disutility—associated with generating it. If society must give up $80 in order to make a $70 fence, then society loses. Utility and social value just aren’t the same thing, as any careful undergraduate economics student should know.

To figure out how much value a business creates, you have to compare the utility the firm generates for those who use its products with the disutility—the costs!—the firm must create in order to produce those products. That is, value is a net quantity, it’s the difference between the maximum that consumers are willing to pay for the product and the cost of producing it. So the social value of private equity isn’t measured just by the gross returns that it generates, but by the returns it brings in net of costs.

All costs.

Fund Fees Are Costs

Including fund fees.

Costs in the economic sense are all harms that must be suffered in order for production to take place. The lost fees associated with not engaging in their next best alternative mode of employment outside of the private equity industry represent a cost, a harm, incurred by private equity funds in pursuing their work of privately acquiring and running firms. The fees that private equity firms charge must therefore be high enough fully to compensate them for this harm, otherwise they would not do private equity.

Henderson and Kaplan simply cannot ignore those fees in calculating the social value of private equity. They measure the harm of opportunities foregone to engage in private equity, the very harm of not sending physicists and engineers into physics and engineering, but instead allocating them to private equity funds, that critics of private equity decry.

If private equity can’t generate a decent return after netting out those costs, then private equity is social waste.

Unless They Represent Redistribution

The only way private equity fees don’t count as costs is if they not only fully compensate private equity firms for not engaging in some other line of business, but go beyond that to provide additional compensation. In which case some portion of the private equity fee can only represent one thing: an appropriation by private equity of the social value that private equity generates.

That is, private equity fees can only be ignored in the calculation of social value, as Henderson and Kaplan argue that they should be, if they represent an appropriation, by the private equity industry, of social value, defined as the value generated by their activities in excess of costs. And because Henderson and Kaplan appear to argue that we can count all private equity fees as social value, they are arguing that all private equity fees represent pure redistribution of social value from consumers to firms.

But precisely because social value is value in excess of cost, defined as the minimum necessary to compensate for all harms, it is value that does not need to be paid to firms in order to induce them to create social value. (Okay, it is necessary to pay private equity a penny more than cost, so that doing private equity makes firms strictly better off than they would be in their next-best alternative employments. Or just a ha’penny. Or a mill. But you get my point.) So what Henderson and Kaplan are arguing, in effect, is that private equity is taking more out of markets than is necessary to induce them to do private equity.

Government could, if Henderson and Kaplan are right, therefore dictate lower private equity fund fees without reducing social value one bit. Which sounds like a great idea to me.

Inframarginalists Don’t Make This Mistake

What really seems to have gotten Henderson and Kaplan into hot water is a lack of attention to the distribution of wealth between buyers and sellers in individual markets, what Michael Guttentag once described to me in conversation as “inframarginalism,” in contrast to the “marginalism” of a microeconomics that focuses on problems of efficiency.

What matters for efficiency-oriented lawyers and economists is that all units of output for which buyers are willing to pay marginal cost actually get produced. Which means that marginalists are interested the cost-benefit analysis of the marginal unit of production.

Inframarginalists, by contrast, are interested in how the aggregate social value created over all of the other units produced by the firm—the inframarginal units—is distributed between buyers and sellers.

So social value is a bread and butter concept for inframarginalists. If they can’t define it properly—by netting costs out of willingness to pay—they can’t do their work.

And because inframarginalists know where social value begins and ends, they are unlikely to make the same mistake as Henderson and Kaplan.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Getting Big

The realization that a tight monopoly is preferable under certain circumstances to a looser arrangement in which competition is present comes hard to a Western economist. Nonetheless, the preceding argument compels recognition that a no-exit situation will be superior to a situation with some limited exit on two conditions:

(1) if exit is ineffective as a recuperation mechanism, but does succeed in draining from the firm or organization its more quality-conscious, alert, and potentially activist customer members; and

(2) if voice could be made into an effective mechanism once these customers or members are securely locked in.

There are doubtless many situations in which the first condition applies . . . .

Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States 55 (1970).
Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Philoeconomica

Economic Plotting

The assumption that people behave rationally does a lot of work in economics, but perhaps its most important function is to allow economists to assume that mutually beneficial deals always get done. If a seller places a value of a $5 on a good, and a buyer a value of $10, the assumption goes, the seller and buyer will agree on a price somewhere between $5 and $10, and trade will take place, simply because the exchange is mutually beneficial.

Economists and their detractors have spent at least half a century tearing apart the assumption that good deals always get done, first through the lens of transaction costs, and later through behavioral economics. Transaction costs dealt only a glancing blow to the assumption, however, because additional costs don’t really undermine it. One can certainly accept that some deals do not get done because the cost of negotiating them–the legal fees, the time required to induce the other party to accept a particular share of the benefits generated by the deal, and so on–are too high, without giving up on the notion that good deals, defined to be those that are mutually beneficial after transaction costs are taken into account, still always do get done.

Behavioral economics has turned out to be harder to dismiss because it suggests that neither party to a transaction may actually want to execute mutually beneficial trades. If the seller doesn’t place the right value on his good, thinking it is worth $20 to him when instead it is worth $5, and the buyer thinks the good is worth $5 to him when instead it is worth $10, then the two will not be able to agree on a price, and so a mutually beneficial trade will not take place. But objections based on behavioral economics are not what interest me about the assumption that good deals always get done.

What is really interesting about the struggle over whether good deals get done is that economics has always needed the fact that some good deals do not get done to create the tension that gives economic inquiry its meaning. An economics in which good deals always get done is an utterly uninteresting, unrealistic, and indeed solipsistic undertaking. And economics has always understood that. Long before transaction cost economics and behavioral economics, economists were careful to build into their models discrete loci of irrationality in order to give the models meaning. Without these areas of irrationality, the models would lack what a creative writing teacher would tell you is the essential element of any story: conflict.

But if a novelist were to try to introduce tension into a plot this way, by asking the main character to treat similarly situated supporting characters differently for arbitrary and unexplained reasons, the novel would be panned.

Consider, for example, as doctrinaire and orthodox a model as the general equilibrium model of Arrow and Debreu. If these men had really taken the assumption that all good deals get done seriously, they would have started with a bunch of households and firms, written down their utility and production functions, and then: bam! The model would have been done. For the assumption that all good deals get done would then have ensured that all trades that, according to the utility functions and production functions they had written down, are mutually beneficial, would then immediately be carried out.

To give the story the conflict it needs to be of interest, Arrow and Debreu added another assumption: that prices are uniform in all markets. (This assumption does not of course originate with them, but their model represents a sort of apotheosis of orthodox economics, making it useful to frame the discussion around it.) Uniform pricing creates tension because when prices are uniform a seller can make more money by intentionally refusing to sell to certain buyers, even when those sales would be mutually beneficial. This is the classic problem of the inefficiency of the uniformly-pricing monopolist.

Consider a seller who places $5 of value on a good and has two prospective buyers, one who places $100 of value on the good and the other who places $10 of value on the good. Without the uniform pricing restriction, the seller would always sell to both buyers, because whatever profits he happened to generate from his sale to the first buyer he could always increase by selling to the second buyer as well.

That changes with uniform pricing, because then the price the seller charges the first buyer must be the same as the price the seller charges the second buyer. If the seller is able to negotiate a price of $95 with the first buyer (a price the first buyer will, under the all-good-deals-get-done assumption, accept because he places a value of $100 on the good, and so would enjoy a net gain of $5 from the deal), then the seller will not sell at all to the second buyer, who is only willing to pay up to $10 for the good and therefore won’t buy at a price of $95. So a deal with the second buyer becomes impossible, even though, if a lower price could be charged to the second buyer, a deal would be mutually beneficial. If the seller and the second buyer could agree on a price of $7, for example, the seller would earn an additional $2 of profit.

But that price is impossible under uniform pricing, because to charge the second buyer $7 would require that the seller charge the first buyer $7 as well, eliminating $83 of profit from the deal with the first buyer relative to the $90 earned at a price of $95, in exchange for a paltry gain of only $2 in profit on the second deal. The seller could still ensure that all good deals get done, by charging that $7 price, or any price between $5 and $10, but it is not in the interest of the seller to do that.

Now the Arrow and Debreu model has the opportunity to become interesting, by giving the conditions under which all mutually beneficial deals will still get done, in spite of the uniform pricing restriction and therefore in spite of the failure of the assumption that all good deals get done as a general matter. In particular, the Arrow and Debreu model makes clear that perfect competition, or some other mechanism that leads to competitive prices, is required for all good deals to get done when prices are uniform. Competition ensures that if one seller tries to charge $95, the $90 in profits generated thereby will induce other sellers to enter the market and steal the buyer’s business by charging a slightly lower price, and as competition intensifies that price will be bid down to the $5 of value that sellers place on the product, ensuring that the second buyer is able to purchase the product as well. All good deals get done after all. By circumscribing the assumption that good deals always get done using a restriction that is realistic–many goods are sold at uniform prices–the model poses a problem that has a certain verisimilitude–how to ensure that all good deals get done when prices are uniform–and then gives the conditions sufficient to solve the problem (e.g., competitive markets).

All economic models follow the same playbook: all economic models create tension and practical interest by limiting the general economic assumption that all good deals get done in some way (usually, but not always by assuming that prices are uniform), and then trying to show what legal rules or policy interventions might be needed to ensure that all good deals do get done anyway. (Another example is the assumption of risk aversion in insurance economics.)

What is so peculiar about this rhetorical posture of economics is that the baseline assumption is always that good deals do always get done, and the model is then built around the introduction of some discrete deviation from that assumption. The model never starts from the assumption that good deals never get done.

Which gives all economic models an internally discordant character.

Why, for example, should I assume that when the monopolist charges $95 to the first buyer, that buyer will magically trade at that price, simply because trade is mutually beneficial, but at the same time I should also accept that the seller won’t try to charge a lower price in order to be able to engage in mutually-beneficial trade with the second buyer? Yes, the seller generates more profit by charging the higher price and selling only to one buyer. But by the same token, the first buyer could enjoy a greater net gain from the transaction by insisting on paying no more than $80 for the good, as opposed to the $95 price that I am asked to assume that the buyer will accept. The buyer does better insisting on a lower price, and if the seller insists on a higher price, then the two might never reach a deal, as Robert Cooter so insightfully pointed out years ago. I am therefore asked to accept that the profit motive is not the be-all-and-end-all for the seller and the first buyer, otherwise I could not assume that the good will sell at $95, and yet I am asked to accept that the profit motive is the be-all-and-end-all for the seller in relation to the second buyer, which is why the seller won’t think twice about pricing the second buyer out of the market and missing an opportunity for mutually beneficial trade with the second buyer. Why ever would that be the case?

Of course, it is in the nature of the introduction of a deviation from the assumption that good deals always get done to have such dissonance. But that just begs the question: does it make sense to rely upon inconsistent behavioral assumptions within the same model?

Keep in mind that in order for uniform pricing to give rise to tension in the Arrow and Debreu model, the same individual seller must be willing to compromise profits for the sake of completing mutually-beneficial transactions with buyers who are willing to pay high prices–inframarginal buyers, they’re called–but not be willing to compromise profits for the sake of completing mutually-beneficial transactions with buyers who are able to pay only lower prices–marginal buyers, these are called. There seems to be no basis for assuming that sellers are socially oriented with respect to inframarginal buyers but rapaciously-profit-driven with respect to marginal buyers, other than the rhetorical need of model builders to introduce tension into the stories they are telling about economic activity.

But if a novelist were to try to introduce tension into a plot this way, by asking the main character to treat similarly situated supporting characters differently for arbitrary and unexplained reasons, the novel would be panned. The trouble for economists is that if they start adding content to the personalities of economic actors, they end up falling down the behavioral economics rabbit hole. There are too many different personality types from which to select , and the mathematics required to build models in any case becomes intractable. But if economists stick with the basic assumption that all good deals get done, then they paint a Panglossian portrait of economic activity that leaves them unable to identify economic problems or solve them. The result is an economic theory built on arbitrary and self-contradictory assumptions about when deals get done.

A more tenable theoretical approach would be to accept that good deals don’t always get done, all the time, in all circumstances. That means that even in competitive markets, sellers will fail to sell to buyers at the market price. That also means that in monopoly markets, sellers may fail to sell to inframarginal buyers at the monopoly price. Laying off absolute assumptions regarding whether deals always get done should also release economics from going to the opposite extreme: assuming that when good deals do not always get done good deals must therefore never get done. Which means that we should not be surprised to come upon monopolists that charge competitive prices.

Jettisoning absolute assumptions about whether good deals get done would prevent economics from making grand claims, such as the claim of the Arrow and Debreu model that competitive markets are always efficient. But it would not make economic theory useless. Economic theory could still tell us plenty about potentials: such as the amount of gain that would be created were policymakers to encourage buyers and sellers to strive to make mutually beneficial deals whenever possible. (Guido Calabresi makes a similar point when he argues that economics should focus less on how to expand the production possibilities curve and more on how to get the economy to that curve.) It would also help explain economic institutions that economics has so far been unable to penetrate.

Like advertising. The classic economic explanation for advertising is that it provides consumers with useful product information, something that is almost impossible to believe in the information age, if it ever was credible. But in a world in which good deals don’t always get done, there is another potential economic justification for advertising: that it seeks to overcome whatever cognitive or bargaining failures otherwise prevent good deals from getting done. In a world in which mutually beneficial transactions don’t always happen, because consumers are irrational, one would expect to find sellers spending large amounts of money trying to cajole buyers into buying, even in situations in which the deals on offer are good for buyers and so in theory they should embrace them without needing to be persuaded to do so. (That would go some ways toward undermining my own argument here that persuasive advertising must be bad for consumers, because absent advertising rational consumers always purchase the products that are best for them.)

There’s nothing wrong with the use of simplifying assumptions in economics, or in thought of any kind. But the use of inconsistent assumptions about behavior in the same model–often in relation to the same economic actors in the model–is a different story.

And all of economic theory is based upon doing just that.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Fairly Balanced

Ben Smith must be congratulated for writing one of the few accounts in the Times of the battle between Big News and Big Tech even to acknowledge that there are two players in this fight, and that both are pursuing their own private interests, not necessarily the public interest.

Smith gets it right when he observes that: “The battle between [tech] platforms and publishers is . . . an old-fashioned political brawl between powerful industries.” Contrast that to “To Take Down Big Tech, They First Need to Reinvent the Law,” the headline of a story that appeared in the Times last summer, and you see why there is cause to celebrate this tick back in the direction of balanced journalism.

Of course, there’s still a long way for the Times to go before it stops using its bully pulpit to advance the industry’s own narrow pecuniary interests, and starts giving its readers a complete picture of what’s at stake in the battle between the media industry and Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Smith follows a popular playbook in the press’s attempts to drum up political support for smashing its tech rivals: lionizing those who help them. No doubt this is the first time that Australian competition regulator Rod Sims has been called a “pugnacious 69-year-old” defending the public against “railroads, ports, and phone companies.”

And no doubt American regulators get the message: take the media’s side and the media will talk you up too.

But Smith really does deserve kudos for trying to be balanced. After all, he comes out and says it: “politicians remain eager to please the press that covers them.”

And: “[T]he power of the press, even nowadays, makes it a formidable political force. Rupert Murdoch’s bare-knuckled News Corp . . . has long led the fight to claw back revenue from the tech giants, and hostility to Google bleeds through the pages of The Times of London and Fox News’s airwaves.”

Of course, the same hostility “fairly bleeds” through the pages of the The New York Times as well. But it would be asking too much for the Times itself to acknowledge that.

I do wish though that Smith would drop a link when he goes on to observe that “much of the American media rejects the idea that it is crusading in its pages to support its publishers’ business agenda.” Last I checked, no one of any prominence had even called out the media for the brazen, self-interested, savaging of big tech that has been running above the fold in newspapers across the country for several years now.

Much less have I read a rejection of such criticism authored by any editorial page anywhere. The press is still a long way away from coming clean to its readers about this issue. All the more reason to thank Smith for finally acknowledging that there is a conflict of interest.

You also have to admire this bit of very journalistic commentary-through-juxtaposition in Smith’s piece: “Facebook, after taking a huge public beating for its role amplifying misinformation . . . has moved to give publishers what they want: money, mostly . . . . writing checks in the seven figures to publishers.” You’d have to be a very dull reader indeed not to see “shakedown” blinking here in red, all caps.

But I haven’t said a word yet about the actual subject matter of Smith’s piece.

It’s this: the media industry has been arguing that Google and Facebook should pay newspapers for the links to news stories that Google provides on its search engine and that Facebook users spend endless hours sharing and discussing on Facebook. And the industry has made some headway in convincing government regulators in Australia and France to mandate such payments.

But is there a good argument for making Google and Facebook pay? Although there have been attempts to spin the problem of compensation into a copyright question — is a snippet of text from a news article included in a Google search result subject to copyright by newspapers? — the basic argument is that Google and Facebook would be a lot less valuable to their users if there were no journalism out on the internet for Google to help users find and for Facebook to help users share.

It follows that newspapers are contributing value to Google and Facebook, and should therefore receive compensation for that value.

The trouble with this argument is that there is no general rule that anyone who receives value from someone else should pay compensation for it. Imagine if you had to pay every pretty face you encountered on the street for the pleasure you take in a glance. There’s no doubt that Google and Facebook would be a lot less useful if there were no world for Google to reproduce in search results or for Facebook users to discuss on Facebook. That doesn’t mean that Google and Facebook should be made to pay all of their revenues out to the whole world in exchange for the value the whole world contributes to Google and Facebook’s websites.

The rule that policymakers actually do follow is to try wherever possible to ensure that those who produce value are paid enough to cover their costs of producing that value. That’s not at all the same as requiring full compensation for all the value producers confer on others.

That is, the basic rule on when to recognize a right to payment–otherwise known as a property right–is that producers of value should have enough of a right to payment to cover their costs. Because that is enough to ensure that they have the resources necessary to continue to produce the valuable things that they make. But beyond that, no one has, or should have, a right to payment simply in virtue of having conferred value on others.

Otherwise, no one could get any enjoyment out of the works of others! If a firm creates $10 of value for you, you would then be required to pay $10 of value back to the firm, for a net gain of zero. Clearly, a rule that value conferred must give rise to compensation simply because value has been conferred is unworkable.

The newspaper industry may be wrong to argue that value conferred gives rise to a right to payment. But the industry does, however, have a good case that at present it is not receiving even enough compensation to pay its costs of production, which suggests at least that it should have a right to more compensation from someone. Local newspapers across the country are shuttering. And the big papers that remain have had to sacrifice care and balance in their reporting in order to attract readers and protect their bottom lines. While the industry still takes in enough revenue to produce news, it no longer takes in enough to produce news of optimal quality.

But it is far from obvious that Google and Facebook should be the institutions to pay the costs of better journalism. True, those two companies now earn the advertising revenues that once sustained the media industry. But that’s because Google and Facebook distribute advertising better than do newspapers, not because Google and Facebook have used monopoly power to strike down more-innovative newspaper rivals.

And anyway the vulnerability of the newspaper industry to competition from Google and Facebook–two companies that don’t, actually, produce any news of their own–points to a deeper problem that can’t be solved by forcing these firms to subsidize the newspaper industry: that the market in which the media industry generates its revenues isn’t actually the market for news.

It’s the market for advertising.

That has always been a huge problem for newspapers, because a newspaper’s core mission is to tell the truth, whereas advertising’s core mission is to manipulate consumers into buying products they would not buy otherwise, and the more so in the information age. It makes no sense to fund an industry devoted to arming the public against manipulation–political and otherwise–through the distribution of commercial attempts to manipulate the public.

Which is why addressing the current jeopardy of journalism by tying newspapers back into advertising revenue streams, generated now through the medium of Google and Facebook, would represent a lost opportunity–to wean the newspaper industry off of dirty money.

What governments should be doing to save journalism is to set up direct government subsidies for newspapers, the way many Western European countries, and Britain, have long subsidized television news through a dedicated tax.

Detractors of this approach warn that government support could compromise journalistic independence. But here’s the thing: if Congress rides to the industry’s rescue by passing legislation advocated by the News Media Alliance that would allow the industry to negotiate compensation from Google and Facebook, that too would be a government subsidy. Few are under any illusions about that fact, not least the journalists who are currently busy rewarding friendly politicians with positive news coverage. A hostile President, or Congress, won’t think twice about demanding good press in exchange for support for such legislation. Indeed, that’s exactly what politicians who are backing the legislation are already getting in exchange.

If we’re getting government-subsidized media either way, we should at least get it without the advertising, and the additional layer of conflicts with commercial interests that entails.

Of course when, as Smith reports in a different piece, “[t]he most heated debate in places where . . . nonprofit news executives gather . . . is whether it’s ever safe or ethical to take government funding,” not whether it’s safe or ethical to take money from corporate interests in exchange for running corporate propaganda, there seems to be little hope for this approach.

Smith writes that the war between Big News and Big Tech is not just about private interests but also about “economic principle.” He’s right that the newspaper industry has tried to cast itself as the nation’s last line of defense against monopolization of the economy by the tech giants. But this craven and profoundly disingenuous appeal to the public interest was belied from the start by the industry’s advocacy of legislation that would allow newspapers to cartelize in violation of the antitrust laws in order to negotiate payments from the tech giants.

Demanding a cut of a monopolist’s profits is not the modus operandi of an industry committed to competitive markets. A News Corp. executive’s quip to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s capitulation to modest payments–“what took you so long?”–says it all.

Of course, newspapers have also pressed for breakup of the tech giants, which is more like what one would expect from genuine antimonopoly advocates. But that, like all the bad press newspapers have heaped on Big Tech over the past few years, has just been about maintaining a bargaining position, the stick required to scare Google and Facebook into opening their wallets.

Once Big Tech does cut in the newspapers, don’t hold your breath waiting for the newspaper industry to continue the crusade for greater competition in America.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

More on the Warren Platform Fallacy

I have argued elsewhere that Elizabeth Warren’s proposed rule that firms not be allowed to compete on their own platforms makes no sense because a platform is just a production input, and all firms must own at least some of their inputs in order to exist. Does your company own its own office computers? Then it competes on its own platform.

But even when a company doesn’t compete on its own platform, the company will often have exactly the same incentive to favor some platform users over others that Warren seems to want to eliminate through her proposed rule.

Consider a shopping mall. The owner of the mall will not typically own any of the stores that lease space in the mall. So the mall owner doesn’t compete on its own platform. (At least not on the mall platform, but certainly on others. The mall owner doubtless owns a few computers.)

But even so, the mall owner does still have an incentive to favor some of its lessees over others, just as the owner would have an incentive to favor its own stores over those of competitors if the owner were to integrate downstream into retail and compete on its own platform. Suppose, for example, that the mall owner has a history of being able to negotiate more favorable lease terms from one restaurant in the mall than from another. The mall owner might then have an incentive not to renew the lease of the other restaurant, in order to make way for expansion of the first.

The lesson here is that whether a platform owner competes on its own platform or not, the owner will have a financial interest in all of the firms that do compete on the owner’s platform (because they all must pay the owner for access), and that interest is unlikely to be equal across all competitors on the platform. Indeed, a platform owner’s financial interest in a particularly profitable client is no different in effect than a platform owner’s financial interest in a business that the owner owns.

If we are not troubled by the fact that a platform owner that does not compete on its own platform will regularly use its power to pick winners–which is just was a mall owner does when it refuses to renew the lease of one shop, but continues that of another–then we should not be troubled by the fact that a platform owner that does compete on its own platform will sometimes favor its own businesses over those of competitors.

It seems fairly clear that what really bothers Warren is not that as a general matter platforms have an incentive to pick winners, whether themselves or others, on their own platforms, but rather that some specific platforms, like Amazon, may not be wielding that power wisely, or perhaps have so much power that government oversight of their decisionmaking is appropriate.

But the solution to that problem is not to gin up a broad general principle, like the one that no firm should be able to compete on its own platform, and then let that principle loose to wreak havoc across the economy. The solution is to empower a regulatory agency to supervise the platform in question, and decide, in light of the specifics of that particular business, whether intervention to supervise the platform’s choices is warranted.

That’s what the FCC did forever with respect to AT&T, back when AT&T was the nation’s only telecommunications platform. And that’s what can be done with Amazon, or other tech giants, to address concerns about possible arbitrary use of platform power.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

When the Food Section Gets Bigness, but the Business Section Doesn’t

It’s a good thing that The New York Times’ Food department hasn’t gotten the small-is-beautiful memo.

On the same day that the paper ran another flawed installment in its crusade against bigness, this time targeting Google for bringing competition to wireless-speaker-maker Sonos, the Times’ food section ran a paean to behemoths of the restaurant business–chains like IHOP and Applebee’s–that highlights many of the reasons why size is often a good thing, both for workers and consumers.

Sonos

Let’s start with the Times’s wrongheaded defense of Sonos.

As the paper did in an earlier defense of cloud-computing startup Elastic, the Times here continues to confuse harm to competitors with harm to competition. Google, the paper suggests, is competing unfairly with Sonos, by “flooding the market with cheap speakers that [Google] subsidize[s] because [the speakers] are not merely conduits for music, like Sonos’s devices, but rather another way to sell goods, show ads and collect data.”

The Times is talking about Home, Google’s answer to Amazon’s Echo, which includes a high-definition speaker that plays music, but also provides access to Assistant, Google’s AI-powered virtual assistant, which allows users to run internet searches, buy products, order food, and do much more by conversing with the speaker system.

The Times weeps that Sonos can’t turn a profit selling its speakers–which only play music–for less than $200, whereas Google sells Home for $50. The implication is that Google is engaged in predatory pricing–sales of products below their cost of production–for purposes of driving competitors from the market. That’s always possible in an abstract sense, and would be an antitrust violation if some other criteria were also met.

But there’s an obvious alternative explanation staring the Times in the face, one that doesn’t involve anticompetitive conduct: that Google isn’t in the market to sell speakers, Google is in the market to sell virtual assistants that also happen to play music.

And when you count up all the different ways Google is able to generate revenue from its product, including commissions Google earns on goods purchased through Home, revenues Google generates from selling ad-targeting services using the data generated by Home, and, of course the $50 purchase price of a Home unit itself, those revenues probably cover Google’s costs, including the cost of making the speakers that go into Home.

We don’t say that a hotel that offers guests free breakfast is engaged in predatory pricing designed to drive the local Starbucks out of business, even though a breakfast price of $0 is definitely below the cost of making the breakfast. Because the hotel is not selling breakfasts. The hotel is selling a package, and the hotel includes the cost of the breakfast in the price the hotel charges for the room. If the local Starbucks wants to compete, then either Howard Schultz needs to get into the hospitality business, or Starbucks needs to offer better coffee than the hotel. (Have you ever skipped out on a free breakfast to go somewhere better? I have.)

The same goes for Sonos. To beat Google, Sonos can try to field its own virtual assistant. Admittedly unlikely, but not a reason to condemn Google, for reasons to be discussed in a moment. Or Sonos can build better speakers than the ones Google bundles with Home, speakers that are enough better to make music lovers willing to choose them over, or in addition to, Home.

The Times makes much of the fact that Google may have used information Google collected from its partnership with Sonos to copy Sonos’s speakers. But as I have emphasized in relation to other reporting by the Times, copying is good for competition, not bad, and is certainly no antitrust violation. If Google copies Sonos’s speakers, making Google’s own as good as Sonos’s, that will have the competitive result of preventing Sonos from leveraging the superiority of its products to charge monopoly prices for them.

Of course, we want innovators to reap some rewards for innovating, which is why the patent laws prevent copying for a limited period of time. Sonos is suing Google for patent infringement, and if Google has infringed, then the court will award Sonos lost profits, as it should. But such patent litigation is about enabling firms to preserve the legislatively-sanctioned monopoly that is a patent on a desirable product. Patent litigation is not about preserving competition.

The Times also makes much of the fact that Sonos’s CEO confessed to being frightened about suing Google, because Google might respond by terminating a partnership with Sonos that allows Sonos owners to use their Sonos speakers, in lieu of Home, to communicate with Google’s Assistant.

But that’s just business. If Sonos postponed suing Google for patent infringement because Sonos wanted to continue to be able to have access to consumers wishing to buy virtual assistants, rather than just speakers, then Sonos was effectively licensing its speaker patents to Google at a price equal to the extra profits that Sonos was generating from the virtual assistant business. If Sonos is asserting its patents now, that means that Sonos thinks it can make more from court-ordered licensing than from the informal exchange of access to its technologies for access to Google’s Assistant.

Standing behind the Times’s article is the unspoken assumption that without the ability to offer access to virtual assistants through its speakers, Sonos is doomed, regardless how good its speakers may be, because consumers don’t care enough about great speakers to be willing to buy them in lieu of, or in addition to, speakers bundled with a virtual assistant, such as Google Home. That may be true, and sad for Sonos, but the ultimate cause must be that Sonos is simply less technically savvy than Google.

Google invested in the search and AI it needed to produce a virtual assistant. Sonos didn’t. True, Sonos may have pioneered wireless speaker technology that Google was not able to match without licensing that technology (informally so far, perhaps formally, under court order, in future) from Sonos. But Sonos could have taken the same tack against Google, reverse-engineering Google’s search algorithms and Assistant AI to create its own virtual assistant. If Sonos wasn’t able to do that, because it would have required too much time and money, then that’s evidence that what Google has achieved in search and AI is much more of a technological advance than are Sonos’s speakers.

Which takes us back to the basic point that to the extent that Sonos is failing to compete effectively against Google it’s because Google is doing a better job than Sonos at giving consumers what they want, not because Google is restraining competition. Once again, the Times has mistaken a textbook case of effective competition for an example of monopoly.

It’s also worth noting that Google has not actually yet retaliated by cutting Sonos off from access to Assistant, no doubt because Google recognizes that Sonos is better at making speakers than is Google, and Google can build its virtual assistant market share by reaching consumers who care about getting great speakers through Sonos.

That, too, is how markets are supposed to work. If Google can make its product better by combining it with rival technology, Google will do that. The fact that Sonos might not be able to survive without Google but Google can survive without Sonos means that Google can drive a hard bargain with Sonos and absorb most of the gains from trade. But Google can’t drive such a hard bargain as to make Sonos unwilling to go on, because then Google will lose the customers it can only get through Sonos.

That means that Sonos will not turn into the next tech giant. But with 1,500 employees and a billion dollars in annual sales (which the Times rather humorously tries to downplay as “a nice little business”), Sonos is doing just fine, even with the short end of the stick. We don’t all get to be the next tech fairy tale. (And if Google does pull the plug on its partnership with Sonos, the company can always compete to supply its speaker technology to Google for incorporation into Home. Indeed, Sonos’s patent suit may be a prelude to a transition into that new business model.)

The Times’ piece on Sonos is also a sobering reminder of the extent to which the paper’s business pages have become a mouthpiece for writers’ self-interested war on Google, Facebook, and Amazon, three companies that writers see as having tanked their earnings in recent years, as I have argued in depth elsewhere.

It’s not just the rhetoric that belongs more comfortably in a polemic than a news feature (Sonos is “under the thumb of Big Tech,” according to the Times). It’s also the sourcing.

The Times tells us that “congressional staff members have discussed [Sonos CEO Patrick Spence’s] testifying to the House antitrust subcommittee soon about his company’s issues with them,” but fails to mention that those hearings have been convened by a Congressman who is simultaneously sponsoring legislation pushed by the News Media Alliance, an industry trade group, that would give newspapers an exemption from the antitrust laws. The Times also quotes an employee of the Open Markets Institute describing Sonos’s fear of Google as “real,” without revealing that Open Markets is run by a journalist with ties to an organization that advocates on behalf of writers. More on both connections here.

But do you think that the Times would care to ask an actual antitrust law scholar whether Google’s conduct is anticompetitive? Nuh-uh. The article couldn’t have been written more critically of Google if Open Markets, or the House antitrust subcommittee, had authored the article itself and issued it as a press release.

IHOP

Thank goodness neither Google, Facebook, nor Amazon is in the restaurant business. Because in that case it would be hard to imagine the Times publishing Priya Krishna’s recent love letter to massive chain restaurants, “Current Job: Award-Winning Chef. Education: University of IHOP.”

According to Krishna’s piece in the Times:

Chain restaurants are often accused of a sterile uniformity and a lack of attention to quality ingredients, nutrition and the environment. But for anyone trying to enter the restaurant business, they have particular attractions: formalized training, efficient operations, predictable schedules and corporate policies that claim to discourage the kind of abuses that have come to light in the #MeToo era. The pay is sometimes better than at independent restaurants, and the Affordable Care Act requires companies with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance.

The article highlights several “acclaimed chefs [at independent restaurants] who prize the lessons they learned . . . in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain restaurants,” from the influential chef who eats at Waffle House to Jacques Pepin, who spent ten years working at Howard Johnson’s.

Chain restaurants provide workplaces that are, it turns out, less heirarchical than independent restaurants. Because egalitarianism is more efficient. At Applebee’s, for example, there isn’t “a strict heirarchy . . . because the kitchen [isn’t] centered on a chef, as in many independent restaurants. ‘There is this understanding that every person is important to making the restaurant run smoothly . . . Nobody thought the dishwasher was a lower status than them.'”

According to the article, “[s]everal chefs point to rigorous customer-service standards of the chains where they worked. ‘It was pretty much that the customer is always right,'” said one chef, who observed to the Times that “[i]t’s a level of hospitality he doesn’t always see in fine-dining restaurants.”

Another chef reported having had to “make sacrifices: lower pay, or forgoing pay while training” when she moved to working at independent restaurants.

She also had to put up with abuse. The article quotes her as recalling that when it took her too long to run food to a table at an independent restaurant, “‘the chef threw a potato and it hit me in the head. . . . That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in a chain restaurants [sic] because of corporate structure. You tend to be treated more fairly.'”

Shortly after reading this article, I went to a small family-run butcher’s shop to get a thinly-sliced cut of meat that my wife needed for a dish she was preparing. The slicing machine was in a back room into which a small internal window had been cut. I could just make out through the glare that the butcher was handling the meat with his bare hands.

I didn’t complain, but I did make my next stop a Kroger’s, the largest grocery store chain in the world. Economics teaches that if this firm were a monopoly, it should have lower quality standards than firms on the competitive fringe, like the family-owned butcher shop I had just left. I went to the meat section and asked for the same cut. The slicing machines were all directly behind the counter, in full view of customers. And the first thing the butcher did was to put on some gloves. True, he wasn’t as friendly as the folks in the family store. But when I got home, I gave only the cuts from Kroger’s to my wife. Big is not always bad.

Small businesses are a good thing, in my view, but only when they are actually better than big businesses. Thousands of independent restaurants survive, particularly in the luxury space, despite treating their labor less well than do the chains, because they provide a shot at top-chef fame for employees and a unique dining experience for customers that chains haven’t yet been able to match. The success of independent coffee shops in resisting Starbucks by taking coffee connoisseurship to another level is also a great example.

But when a smaller firm fields a product that isn’t better than what its rival has to offer, when a firm tries to sell speakers to consumers who would rather buy speakers-plus-virtual-assistants, the solution is not to try to use the antitrust laws to shelter the smaller firm.

The solution is to let the company up its game, or clear out.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Cost Discrimination

One hears constantly about the power of technology to enable the consumer-harmful practice of price discrimination, which is the charging, to each consumer of a given product, of a price equal to the maximum that the consumer is willing to pay for that product. But one hears very little about the power of technology to enable the consumer-beneficial practice of cost discrimination, which is the foisting upon each firm of a price equal to the minimum that firm is willing to accept in exchange for selling a given product.

That’s not because the technology isn’t there. In fact, because big business invested in supply chain automation long before the tech giants made possible the snooping needed to identify consumer willingness to pay, the technology needed for cost discrimination is more developed than the technology needed for price discrimination. The reason we don’t hear about cost discrimination is that the technology needed to implement it is in the hands of firms, rather than the consumers who would benefit from cost discrimination.

This state of affairs isn’t surprising, since firms are few relative to consumers, and therefore more likely to have the pooled resources and capacity for unified action needed to invest in and implement a discrimination scheme. Yes, consumers have review websites, and price aggregators, but that’s a far cry from the centralized acquisition and analysis of data, and the ability to bargain as a unit based upon it, that firms enjoy.

One way for consumers to implement cost discrimination would be by organizing themselves into data-savvy cooperatives for purposes of negotiating prices with firms. Another would be for startups to step in as middlemen, taking a cut from consumers in exchange for engaging in data-based bargaining on their behalf.

But another solution is for the government to create an administrative agency with the power to regulate consumer prices. It turns out that there is ample precedent for government price regulators to dictate cost-discriminatory prices.

Here, for example, is an account of the Federal Power Commission doing just that for wellhead natural gas rates in 1965:

Pricing designed to encourage supply could also create “economic rents” (profits above a normal return) for gas producers with old, inexpensive reserves. Neither the producers’ brief for fair field prices nor the staff’s preference for rates based on average historical costs seemed acceptable or sufficient. It was the young economist Alfred Kahn, serving as an expert witness, who suggested a two-tied pricing structure: separate prices for old gas and new gas. Here, from the commission’s perspective, was an ideal political, and perhaps economic, solution. “The two-price system,” wrote the commission, “thus holds out a reward to encourage producers to engage in further exploration and development while preventing excess and unnecessary revenues from the sale of gar developed at a period when there was no special exploratory activity directed to gas discovery.”

Richard H.K. Vietor, Contrived Competition: Regulation and Deregulation in America 113-14 (1994).

The old gas here corresponds to inframarginal units of production and the new gas corresponds to marginal units of production. Economists were once acutely aware of the problem that even under perfect competition the inframarginal units can enjoy a windfall at the competitive price, so long as the cost to their owners of producing those units happens to be below the cost of the marginal units, which determine the competitive price.

David Ricardo famously explained all of English aristocratic wealth in these terms. The aristocrats take the best land by force, he observed, and cultivation of that land is relatively inexpensive, because it is the best land. The rest take land that is more expensive to cultivate. Because the competitive price for agricultural goods must be high enough to pay the higher cost of cultivating the poorer-quality, hence marginal, land, the price must then be above the cost to the aristocracy of cultivating the best land, leaving the aristocracy with great profits.

Just so, the FPC worried that the producers of the old gas, who had come upon the gas only as an accident as part of explorations for oil, and therefore had incurred a gas exploration cost of zero, would enjoy a windfall if prices were set to cover the costs of bringing new gas from the ground through dedicated and costly explorations. So the FPC approved prices that discriminated against the old gas producers based on their lower exploration costs.

Consumers don’t know enough about the costs incurred by the firms that sell to them to insist on low prices when buying from firms with low costs. Which is why I suspect that government price regulation will be the only way for consumers eventually to enjoy some of the pricing-based fruits of the information age.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

It’s about Price, not Competition

One thing we are going to encounter a lot as the anti-big-tech crusade gets under way is the confusion of pricing problems with competition problems. Consider the attack on Apple’s promotion of its own apps on its App Store. This looks like a competition problem: Apple is using its proprietary App Store infrastructure unfairly to promote its own products over those of rivals. Get a court applying the antitrust laws to order Apple to stop doing that, and, it appears, the problem is solved.

Only it’s not solved, because the heart of the problem is not Apple’s creation of an unlevel playing field in app competition. The heart of the problem is that Apple owns the App Store itself.

And for that problem, there is no competitive solution. As Chicago School scholars pointed out long ago, if a company has a monopoly on upstream infrastructure, the company can use that monopoly to extract all of the profits from downstream businesses that rely on the infrastructure, by charging high fees for access.

So long as Apple retains the power to set the fees that it charges software developers for selling apps through the app store, Apple will be able to suck all the value out of those downstream businesses. Forcing Apple to let those businesses compete with Apple’s own apps on a level playing field will not solve the problem because app developers will still need to pay Apple a fee for access that Apple has discretion to set.

Indeed, it is a mistake to think that Apple’s promotion of its own apps on the app store reflects anticompetitive intent. Because Apple could extract all of the profits from competing developers through fees, even without selling any apps of its own, Apple’s reasons for selling its own apps in the App store, and indeed for promoting them over rival apps, can only have other purposes. Most likely, for a firm that has repeatedly demonstrated the desirability to consumers of tight integration of product components, Apple sells its own apps, and promotes them preferentially, because Apple believes that its own apps are actually better, and that when consumers search for new apps, consumers want to know if Apple has a relevant offering. (I know I do.)

What should trouble us about the App Store is not that Apple manages competition on that platform–the company has every reason to do that with a view to making consumers happy–but rather that Apple’s control of the platform allows the company to extract all of the gains created by the platform for itself through fees, leaving relatively little for other app developers, or for consumers themselves.

The only way to solve that problem using competition would be to lessen Apple’s control over the App Store itself. But doing that would destroy the closed app ecosystem that has differentiated the iPhone positively in the minds of consumers from the mayhem and unreliability of Android phones. Letting iPhone owners install apps from anywhere is a recipe for trouble.

In the App Store, as in most tech platforms, we have an efficient market structure. But a monopolistic one. That means that complaints about fairness ultimately must amount to complaints about price, not competition. The solution can therefore only be price regulation, not antitrust.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization World

The Lord Grand Secretary on Regulated Monopoly

The present plan for unifying the salt and iron monopoly is not alone that profit may accrue to the state, but that in the future the fundamental of agriculture may be established and the non-essential repressed, cliques dispersed, extravagance prohibited, and plurality of offices stopped. In ancient times the famous mountains and great marshes were not given as fiefs to be the monopolized profit of inferiors, because the profit of the mountains and the sea and the produce of the broad marshes are the stored up wealth of the Empire and by rights ought to belong to the privy coffers of the Crown; but Your Majesty has unselfishly assigned them to the State Treasurer to assist and succor the people. Ne’er-do-wells and upstarts desiring to appropriate the produce of the mountains and the seas as their own rich inheritance, exploit the common people. Therefore many are those who advise to put a stop to these practices.

Iron implements and soldiers’ weapons are important in the service of the Empire and should not be made the gainful business of everybody. Formerly the great families, aggressive and powerful, obtained control of the profit of the mountains and sea, mined iron at Shih-ku and smelted it, and manufactured salt. One family would collect a host of over a thousand men, mostly exiles who had gone far from their native hamlets, abandoning the tombs of their ancestors. Attaching themselves to a great house and collecting in the midst of mountain fastnesses and barren marshes, they made wickedness and counterfeiting their business, seeking to build up the power of their clique. Their readiness to do evil was also great. Now since the road of recommending capable men has been opened wide, by careful selection of the supervising officers, restoring peace to the people does not wait on the abolition of the salt and iron monopoly.

Esson M. Gale, Discourses on Salt and Iron : A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China, Chapters I-XIX: Translated from the Chinese of Huan K’uan with Introduction and Notes 34-35 (1931).
Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

Amazon’s Problem Is Too Much Competition, Not Too Little

Amazon has come under assault in recent weeks for failing to keep “thousands of banned, unsafe, or mislabeled” products sold by third parties off of its site. The New York Times, which has been acting as a mouthpiece for the Authors Guild in its crusade against Amazon, has focused on the sale of knock-off books. But The Wall Street Journal has shown that the problem extends across multiple product categories, and concludes that “Amazon has ceded control of its site.”

The great irony here is that this is proof that Amazon is being too open to competition, not, as Elizabeth Warren, the Open Markets Institute, and the Times have been arguing, too closed to it.

Unlike, say, Apple, which designs virtually every component of its phones, Amazon chose early on to platformize its business. When it created a useful cloud service to support its ecommerce website, Amazon opened the platform, called Amazon Web Services, to the market, turning it into a successful business in its own right. Amazon is doing the same thing with package delivery, allowing anyone with a car and an app to deliver packages for the company. And of course Amazon platformized its own ecommerce website, allowing third party sellers to list and sell products through Amazon.com.

Of course, Amazon could have taken a more traditional route. It could have kept its cloud services to itself. It could have continued to contract out its package delivery business to a single vendor, like UPS. And it could have remained the only retailer on its own ecommerce website. If it had, it is hard to see how Amazon would have come in for criticism from the big tech breakup crowd. Just as nary a peep has been heard about the fact that Apple insists, for example, on designing its own iPhone CPUs.

But Amazon instead did what competition advocates are supposed to want: the company threw open virtually every component of its business to competition. As a result, however, it has been attacked by Elizabeth Warren and others for failing to go even further, and to stop using its own platforms entirely. Under their approach, it is not enough, for example, to allow others to use Amazon Web Services. Amazon must stop using those services itself, otherwise in operating them there is a danger that Amazon will favor its own downstream businesses. Amazon might, for example, tank Walmart’s cloud access in order to get competitive advantage in retail. Similarly, Amazon should stop retailing products for its own account on Amazon.com, argues this group, because Amazon can alter the website to give its own products competitive advantage (by, for example, displaying them more prominently in search results).

So it is bitterly ironic to find Amazon now coming under assault for failing to exercise more control over the third party sellers who use its ecommerce platform.

The lesson here is two-fold. First, competition is no panacea. As policymakers learned in the mid-19th century, when economic liberalism first came on the scene, excessive competition means fakery, fraud, low quality, and boom and bust cycles that sow economic instability.

Second, antitrust and competition policy are not progressive projects. Progressives seek regulated environments. The big firm dictating standards and stamping out the chaos that is competition across all levels of its supply chain is itself a regulated environment. If a firm does not regulate the way progressives want, the solution for progressives is not to rip the firm apart as a petulant child would rip apart a disappointing toy, but to change the way that the firm behaves. Calling upon Amazon to do more to control what books third party sellers can sell through the company’s sites is a demand for less competition. If that sounds progressive, it is.

One more thing: The Times’s attack on Amazon for selling knock-off books highlights the political opportunism of writers–understood as an interest group–in recent antitrust debates. For at the same time that writers have wrapped themselves in the small-is-beautiful flag, attacking Amazon for destroying main street retail, they have seemed not to think twice about then turning around and attacking Amazon for failing to cast off from its website the small independent publishers of knock-offs that are competing directly, and successfully, with writers. At the end of the day, writers’ fight against Amazon is about protecting writers, not about promoting competition.