Categories
Regulation

The Airplane Seat as Liberal Dilemma

People are fighting on airplanes because seats are too small.

The seats are not too small because airlines are forcing passengers to fly on small seats.

They are too small because most passengers do not insist on larger seats—they are willing to fly without them—but at the same time most passengers find the way they are packed into airplanes intolerable.

What gives?

There can be two explanations. The first is that passengers are in denial about their own preferences. They say they hate being packed in, but they still fly packed in, which means they can’t really hate it that much.

The second is that people don’t do a good job of protecting their own dignity. They would never, ever, let a guy come up to them on the street and rub their forearm and thigh for two hours. But it turns out that’s just because they don’t get anything out of the bargain. When that visit to grandma is at stake, by contrast, they acquiesce. People make deals with the devil all the time. They indenture themselves. They abase, and grovel, and beg, and they do it all for things, like getting home for the holidays.

The question is, then: should we respect them when they don’t respect themselves?

The airline seat size question gets to the heart of consumer sovereigntist market ideology.

What could possibly be wrong about letting consumers decide for themselves what they want out of air travel?

That was the question that destroyed the Civil Aeronautics Board, the federal agency that once ran the American airline industry, dictating the number of airlines in the market, the prices that airlines could charge, and, indirectly, the quality of service that they could provide. Before the Carter Administration killed the CAB, it was piano bars all the way up.

In the small seat you have your answer to the question.

The mob voted, overwhelmingly, for cheap at any cost, including to their own dignity.

In a world in which the only value is the democratic value, in which all that matters is what the people want, you are stuck here. You must leave the airlines to torture their passengers; they accept abuse.

If instead you believe in your heart that government should do something about it, that there should be a federally-mandated larger minimum seat size, then you must accept that you are not, in fact a democrat. Not really.

Passengers have voted, already. They prefer cheap. And they have voted far, far more directly than they will have if some elected representative, who ran on a dozen other issues not involving airlines, happens to vote in their name for a larger minimum. Whatever minimum is imposed will drive up the price of a seat, and whether passengers pay the higher prices or not (I think they will), four decades of consumer voting in deregulated airline markets says that they do not actually prefer to pay it.

If you want to impose a minimum seat size, you must accept that you worship at a different altar from that of democracy. Perhaps you worship at the altar of human dignity—of the human form divine. But you must accept what that makes you: a paternalist, a scold, a schoolmarm.

Do not tell me that you think we need minimum seat sizes to forestall violence, that the skies have become a battleground and that is unsafe. For anyone who has suffered through two hours in a packed plane knows just what primeval brain centers are thereby stimulated. But they fly anyway, and when they do, they always go for the cheapest tickets! They accept the risk.

One way out of this cul-de-sac is to say that there is not, in fact, any tradeoff between price and seat size: passengers want bigger seats at the same prices (who wouldn’t?) and airlines could give them to passengers, but they don’t because they have monopoly power.

This helps because it means that passengers aren’t choosing smaller seats—smaller seats are being forced on them.

It follows immediately that if someone is going to do some forcing, it might as well be the government, which can act as medium, divine what consumers would want (larger seats), and dictate them.

While there is almost certainly some power there, seat size hasn’t fallen by half since deregulation, whereas prices have. That’s hard to square with a narrative of oppression.

And anyway, even a monopolist can’t make a passenger accept a smaller seat if the passenger won’t accept a smaller seat; the problem here is that consumer demand is extraordinarily inelastic in price—inelastic unto indignity.

In other words, the demand curve, of a self-respecting public, for today’s super small economy class airplane seats should look like this:

Self-respecting consumers should have perfectly elastic demand at a price equal to zero for very small airplane seats. That would prevent airlines from turning a profit on these seats, forcing airlines to offer bigger economy class seats.

Instead, it looks like this:

Consumers actually have relatively inelastic demand for very small economy class seats (that is, their demand line is relatively steep). To the extent that airlines have monopoly power, it is the inelasticity of consumer demand for these seats that allows airlines to use their power to charge high prices for these seats and thereby to generate monopoly profits on them. The inelasticity of consumer demand here is an embarrassing measure of consumers’ tolerance for indignity.

It is sometimes said that flying was better under regulation because, by setting fares, the CAB forced airlines to compete on quality. But that absolves the passenger of too much. It would be better to say that in setting fares, the CAB prevented consumers from cheerfully trading away their dignity for a discount.

Passengers want lower fares; airlines need to pack in more seats to provide them (whether that need is driven by a need to earn a monopoly profit or not); and airlines oblige.

Should the airlines not offer passengers this devil’s bargain? We have told them: serve you.

And they do.

In the old days, prices were higher, fewer people flew, and flying was dignified.

That was not a democratic world.

But it was better.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

The Executive Order on Promoting Competition That Isn’t

President Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy does a great job of targeting a range of business practices across the economy that harm workers and consumers.

But the order—and the fact sheet accompanying it—also highlight how much wishful thinking is currently going into the contemporary progressive romance with competition as an economic cure-all.

The fact sheet declares that economists have found a link between competition and inequality, even though whether a link exists remains the most important open question in antitrust economics today and the subject of much ongoing debate. And despite the competition rhetoric, most of the order is actually about consumer protection or price regulation by other means, not competition.

Wishful Thinking about Competition and Inequality

Anyone who has been following the unresolved debate over the existence of a link between competition and inequality is going to be surprised to learn from President Biden’s fact sheet that “[e]conomists find that as competition declines . . . income [and] wealth inequality widen.”

The surprised might include Thomas Piketty, the dean of the contemporary economic study of wealth inequality, who has observed that the fundamental cause of inequality “has nothing to do with market imperfections and will not disappear as markets become freer and more competitive.”

But it might also be news to the authors cited by the fact sheet itself.

Follow the first of the quoted links and you get to a paper that connects the decline in labor’s share of GDP (a proxy for inequality) to rising markups (firms charging higher prices relative to their costs), but not to a decline in competition.

The author is careful not to link rising markups to a decline in competition because increases in markups have two potential causes, not one: monopoly power and scarcity power—as I have highlighted in a recent paper.

That is, firms can obtain the power to jack up prices by excluding competitors and achieving monopoly power, or they can do it by making better products than everyone else (or the same products at lower cost), in which case even the price prevailing in a perfectly competitive market will represent a markup over cost.

The great open question of contemporary antitrust economics is whether the evidence of an increase in markups in recent years is evidence of monopoly markups or scarcity markups. As Amit Zac has pointed out to me, this is the essence of the disagreement between the work of De Loecker et al. (monopoly markups) on the one hand and the work of Autor et al. (scarcity markups) on the other.

The point is: this is an unresolved question. Economists haven’t “found” a connection between declining competition and contemporary increases in inequality. They haven’t even found a connection between declining competition and contemporary increases in markups. They’re still looking.

But you wouldn’t know that from the fact sheet.

Follow the second of those links and the support is equally weak. The title of the cited article, “Inequality: A Hidden Cost of Market Power,” would no doubt appeal to a fact sheet writer fishing Google for quick cites. But the paper itself could not be more timid about its conclusions, telling readers that it does no more than to “illustrate[] a mechanism by which market power can contribute to unequal economic outcomes” and warning that “[a]lternative models and assumptions may yield different results.”

The authors have good reason to be timid, because the paper’s attempt to distinguish between monopoly markups and scarcity markups extends no further than this: “we attempt to compare actual mark-ups with the lowest sector specific mark-ups observed across countries, in order to estimate an unexplained or excess mark-up.”

So: find the lowest markups in an industry, assume they are scarcity markups, and attribute any markups you find that exceed them to monopoly.

Not exactly convincing, as the authors themselves seem to telegraph—which is why the character of the higher markups we are observing today very much remains an open question.

Highlighting Antimonopolism’s Intellectual Deficit

The last revolution in antitrust policy happened in the 1970s, and however one might feel about the path it beat toward less antitrust enforcement, there is one thing one must grant: it carried the day as an intellectual matter.

You can’t read the book of papers produced by the epochal Airlie House conference and not get the impression that the Chicago Schoolers really got the best of the old antitrust establishment on the plane of ideas. I once asked Mike Scherer, who carried the banner for the old pro-enforcement establishment more than anyone at that conference, why he comes across as so timid in the dialogues reproduced in that book.

His answer: Chicago had convinced him, too.

The current inflection point in antitrust has not been built on anything like that level of intellectual consensus. I have argued elsewhere that this is because the current movement didn’t need to win the academy to achieve liftoff, as Chicago did. The current movement got its thrust instead from a highly sympathetic press, which has a competitive interest in unleashing a reinvigorated antitrust on its nemeses, the Tech Giants.

It is a symptom of contemporary antimonopolism’s intellectual deficit that our new, self-consciously reality-based administration can go to war against monopoly only by passing off economic conjecture as economic fact.

Did Golden-Age Antitrust Save Consumers “Billions”?

Before moving on from the order’s wishful thinking, I can’t help but also mention the fact sheet’s claim that mid-20th-century antitrust “saved consumers billions in today’s dollars and helped unleash decades of sustained, inclusive economic growth.”

Was mid-20th-century antitrust enforcer Thurman Arnold responsible for America’s 2% annual growth rate from the 1950s to the 1970s?

The press release doesn’t cite any economic study taking that position—because there is none. But there are plenty that think those twenty years of 2% growth had something to do with the nation’s return to the peacetime production possibilities frontier after nearly two decades of depression and war.

And did mid-20th century antitrust really save consumers “billions?” You might be forgiven for thinking that link leads to a recent economic study. Instead, it is to a set of figures, released by Thurman Arnold himself, that are cited by legal historian Spencer Weber Waller as possible exaggerations. For example, Waller: “[Arnold’s] case against the milk industry in Chicago supposedly produced $10,000,000 a year in consumer savings” (emphasis mine).

All the figures cited by Waller do probably add up to billions in today’s dollars. But Waller cited them as evidence that Arnold knew how to use hyperbole to win political support for his antitrust campaigns.

Not that the Biden Administration would be doing the same thing.

Competition as Price Regulation by Other Means

But what about the order itself? Here’s where things really get interesting. For despite the rhetoric little of it is actually about competition: it is, amazingly, largely about price regulation and consumer protection instead.

Why? Because the competition business and the inequality business are two very different things; and no matter how hard you tell yourself you are doing competition policy, if you’re trying to equalize wealth, you’re going to end up doing something else.

To see why the order is mostly about price regulation, consider that competition really has two virtues, one more important than the other. The smaller virtue is that competition can reduce prices. The greater virtue is that competition promotes innovation, which is the principal driver of economic growth and benefits to workers and consumers alike.

The reason competition’s effect on prices is a lesser virtue is that competition is wasteful. It means duplication of management and often diseconomies of scale. As I have argued at length elsewhere, if you want to get price down it’s far less expensive simply to order lower prices than to try to jerryrig markets into producing them through unregulated competition.

Antitrust gets this, and so it does not actually prohibit the charging of high prices. Antitrust is much more interested in prohibiting conduct aimed at excluding competitors from markets, because this keeps out the sort of innovative challengers that are responsible for the link between competition and innovation.

The striking thing about Biden’s order is that it is mostly aimed at promoting the first kind of competition—competition meant to lower prices—rather than the second.

Which makes it price regulation by other means. Let’s consider some of the initiatives contained in the order.

Canadian Drugs

The order calls for lowering prescription drug prices by importing drugs from Canada. The thing is: the drugs imported from Canada will be the same as drugs sold in America, only cheaper, which means that the only competition this will create will be between the same products sold at different prices on different sides of the border.

Promoting competition between iterations of the same product produced by a single producer isn’t going to promote innovation. It’s just price regulation by other means.

And wasteful means at that. There’s a reason why Canada has lower drug prices than the U.S., and it’s not because there’s more competition in Canada—a lot of Canadian drugs come from America in the first place. It’s because Canada regulates drug prices directly.

So why can’t we just do that, too, instead of sending American drugs north to be price regulated so that we can bring them back down south at lower prices?

Because, I guess, that wouldn’t sound like a competition policy solution, and progressives today are convinced that competition cures all.

Generic Drugs

The order also simultaneously calls for more antitrust enforcement against “pay-for-delay” drug patent settlements and “more support for generic and biosimilar drugs.”

As in the case of drugs from Canada, competition from generic drugs doesn’t promote innovation. Generics are, by definition, copies of preexisting drugs; generic drug companies don’t invent new drugs, they just strive to bring old ones to market at low prices. So generic competition is just price regulation by other means, and particularly futile and inefficient means at that.

For branded drug companies use pay-for-delay settlements to undermine generic competition, and enforcers have wasted untold hours litigating to stop them, to only modest effect. Plus, forty years after Congress embraced generic competition with the Hatch-Waxman Act, we still have a drug price problem.

That makes an order telling the agencies to stop pay-for-delay and to promote generic competition at the same time more than a little odd. It is like telling a fireman to pump harder and stop more leaks. It might be time to find a different hose.

If Congress wants to get drug prices down, the easiest way to do it would be to follow the Canadians and, you know, order drug prices down, rather than trying to manage the Herculean task of creating and maintaining a competitive generic drug market. The Biden Administration should call for that.

But competition cures all.

The Right to Repair

The order also calls for protecting the right of buyers to repair a host of items from cell phones to tractors.

Now, one can imagine that competition between repair shops might lead to innovation. But it will be innovation in repairs, which is not going to do much to raise living standards. The innovation that matters is not in repairs but in the design of the products being repaired.

Opening products up to third-party repairs isn’t really about competition at all, therefore, but about price regulation by other means.

And not regulation of the price of repairs, but rather of the price of the product to be repaired. The Biden Administration probably believes that making products reparable will drive down the all-in price that buyers pay for the products, because buyers will be able to avoid paying high repair fees to manufacturers, or will be able to go for a longer period before having to replace the item with a new one.

But if manufacturers are able to extract extra revenues from their buyers by charging them for repairs today, what’s to stop them from simply raising their up-front prices to compensate for lower revenues on repairs tomorrow?

If the Biden Administration thinks cell phones and tractors are too expensive, a better way to actually reduce the amount people pay for these products would be to order manufacturers to charge lower all-in prices for them.

But competition cures all.

Small Business Procurement

The fact sheet says that the order will “[i]ncrease opportunities for small businesses by directing all federal agencies to promote greater competition through their procurement and spending decisions.”

But “competition” here means the opposite of what we normally mean. It means that the firm offering the best products at the lowest prices shouldn’t get the contract; the smallest firm should get it instead, even if it offers shoddy products at high prices.

This is regulation of the price paid by government for goods and services by other, deeply inefficient means.

Here’s a better way to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to small businesses that can’t make it in the market: just write their owners checks to stay home. That way the (presumably) poor get their money without the federal government having buy anything but the best.

But competition—or its semblance—cures all.

Protecting Third-Party Sellers on Amazon

The order also directs the FTC to create rules for “internet marketplaces” and the fact sheet suggests that the rules should prevent Amazon from copying the products of third-party sellers.

As the use of generic competition to tame drug prices suggests, the sort of competition that comes from copying is primarily about getting prices down, rather than innovation. If Amazon wanted to beat its third-party sellers by innovating, it wouldn’t create close matches of their products, but rather something new. By selling an identical product, Amazon instead places all the competitive pressure on price.

So we can understand rules preventing Amazon from copying as attempts to drive the price of goods sold on Amazon’s ecommerce platform up, presumably to redistribute wealth from consumers to third-party sellers. Such rules are, in other words, price regulation by other means.

Because the rules would drive prices up, they are the least consumer-friendly initiative described in the fact sheet (unless one expects Amazon to respond by competing more with its third-party sellers based on innovation).

But precisely because the rules seek to drive prices up rather than down—to squelch duplicative and wasteful competition between Amazon and third-party sellers rather than to promote it—they are also the order’s least inefficient example of price regulation by other means.

But they represent price regulation by other means all the same.

Non-Competes

According to the fact sheet, the order “encourages the FTC to ban or limit non-compete agreements.”

Non-compete agreements in high-skilled jobs are associated with higher wages, suggesting that at the high end they help firms invest in their employees, and that investment, in leading to new skills and abilities, counts as a kind of innovation in human resources.

But the fact sheet is interested in the application of non-competes at the low end: to “tens of millions of [presumably ordinary] Americans—including those working in construction and retail . . . .” Here, the evidence suggests that non-competes don’t induce firms to invest more in their employees; they just prevent employees from using outside options to bid up their pay.

A ban on non-competes for ordinary Americans would therefore not have any effect on innovation in worker training, but it would raise wages, making it price regulation by other means.

If we really want to get wages up, of course, the way to do it is to order them up, through initiatives like an increase in the minimum wage. And I get that the Biden Administration indeed also wants to raise the minimum wage.

But that doesn’t make banning non-competes any less price regulation by other means.

Direct Price Regulation

To President Biden’s credit, the order also calls for plenty of direct, and therefore more efficient, price regulation. The remarkable thing is that he does this in a competition order.

The Federal Maritime Commission is to protect American exporters from “exhorbitant” shipping charges. Railroads are to “treat . . . freight companies fairly,” which means charging them lower prices for access to track. The USDA is to “stop[] chicken processors from . . . underpaying chicken farmers.” The FCC is to “limit excessive early termination fees” for internet service. And airlines are to refund fees for wifi or inflight entertainment when the systems are broken—a regulation of the all-in price of a flight.

(Ok, the reason the order doesn’t do more direct price regulation might be that the requisite statutory authority to act in other areas is lacking. But I’m not aware of any Administration calls for Congress to pass new price regulatory legislation, apart from raising the minimum wage and adopting reference pricing in drugs, which latter would apply only to Medicare.)

Consumer Protection

The amount of price regulation—of both the wasteful, competition-mediated sort and of the direct sort—in this order is rivaled only by the amount of consumer protection.

Hospital price transparency is to be fostered, surprise billing condemned. Airline baggage and cancellation fees are to be clearly disclosed. The options in the National Health Insurance Marketplace are to be standardized to facilitate comparison shopping. So too broadband prices.

The common thread to all of these initiatives is that they correct cognitive limitations of consumers that make it difficult for them to find the best, lowest price options on the market, and so leave them poorer. That’s why I class them as consumer protection initiatives, and why they are a good thing.

Consumer protection is competition-adjacent policy—competition does work better, and firms may be more likely to innovate, when consumers have good information about the products offered by competing firms. But the main focus of these initiatives is on empowering consumers to avoid paying out more cash than necessary for goods and services.

Like the price regulation initiatives, it’s directed, ultimately, at the distribution of wealth, not competition. Which is why it is surprising to find so much consumer protection in a competition order.

Unions and Occupational Licensing

The focus on price regulation and consumer protection are a welcome surprise. But the dangers for progressives of confusing these things with competition policy are also on display, for competition is just as likely to be the enemy of equality as it is to be its friend, and it is very easy to lose sight of this when pursuing an equality agenda in competition terms.

Thus in a press release that is already pretty deaf to irony, this takes the cake: “the President encourages the FTC to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions [and] call[s] for Congress to . . . ensure workers have a free and fair choice to join a union . . . .”

Here’s a secret about those “unnecessary licensing restrictions”: they’re state-created unions. The only difference between them and actual unions is that they operate by restricting labor supply, and thereby driving up wages, whereas unions operate by driving wages up, and thereby restricting labor demand. If you’re against occupational licensing because it makes it hard to get a job, you should be against unions, and if you’re in favor of unions because they drive up wages, then you should be in favor of occupational licensing.

The way to minimize mistakes in fighting inequality is to focus on fighting inequality.

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that this order, despite being well-intentioned and expansive, is a sideshow to the real work of fighting inequality that the Administration has undertaken on the tax side. Given the breadth of applicability of the corporate tax—all industries are swept in at once—and the power of the corporate tax to target the proceeds of excessive pricing directly, last week’s agreement of 130 nations to a global minimum corporate tax will likely do far more to divest firms of their markups than anything in today’s order—even were it all implemented as direct price regulation.

Categories
Antitrust Regulation

“The Best Are Easily 10 Times Better Than Average,” But Can They Do Anything Else?

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is celebrating the principle that great software programmers are orders of magnitude more productive than average programmers. The implication is that sky-high salaries for these rock stars are worth it.

Now, it may very well be the case that the best programmers are orders of magnitude better than average programmers. I’ve seen a similar thing on display during examinations for gifted students: inevitably one student finishes the exam in half the time and walks out with a perfect score, while the rest of the gifted struggle on.

Just how many orders of magnitude smarter is that student, relative not just to the other gifted students in the room, but to the average student who is not in room?

But while the rock-star principle may justify the high willingness of Silicon Valley firms to pay for talent — the more value an employee brings to a firm the more the firm can afford to pay the employee and still end up ahead — that doesn’t mean that as an economic matter a firm must pay rock-star employees higher salaries.

Far from it.

Economic efficiency requires that great programmers be put to use programming, otherwise society loses the benefit of their talents. But the minimum salary that, as an economic matter, a tech firm must pay a rock-star programmer to induce the programmer to program is just a penny more than what the programmer would earn doing the programmer’s next-most productive activity.

If the programmer isn’t good at anything but programming, that number might be $15.01 — the $15 minimum wage Amazon pays its fulfillment center workers plus a penny — or even something lower, as the programmers I know would have a tough time sprinting around a warehouse all day.

A programmer might be worth $100 million as a programmer, for example, because the programmer is capable of delivering that much value to software. But to make sure this person actually delivers that value, the market does not need actually to pay the programmer $100 million, or anything near to that amount. All the market needs to pay the programmer is a penny more than what the programmer would earn by not programming.

And if rock-star programmers tend only to be rock stars at programming, as I suspect is the case, that number might be pretty small, indeed, on the order of what average programmers make — if not $15 an hour, which is a bit of an exaggeration — because the rock-star programmer is likely to be average at programming-adjacent pursuits.

If the most the programmer would make teaching math, playing competitive chess, or just programming for non-tech companies that will never earn the profits needed to pay rock-star salaries, no matter how talented their employees, is a hundred thousand a year, then that plus a penny is all that economics requires that the programmer be paid for doing programming. Not $100 million.

So why are rock-star programmers earning the big bucks in Silicon Valley? Because tech firms compete for them, bidding up the price of their services.

Tech firms know this, of course, and once tried to put a lid on the bidding war, by entering into no-poach agreements pursuant to which they promised not to try to lure away each others’ programmers by offering them more money.

There is no reason to think that these no-poach agreements were inefficient. Unless you believe that programmers can contribute more to some tech firms than to others, in which case the bidding wars that drive rock-star compensation sky high are allocating programmers to their most productive uses. But that seems unlikely: does making Google better contribute more to America than making Amazon better?

(The agreements also could not have created any deadweight loss, because perfect price discrimination is the norm in hiring programming talent: firms negotiate compensation individually with each programmer.)

All the no-poach agreements did was to change the distribution of wealth: limiting the share of a firm’s revenues that programmers can take for themselves.

Indeed, the no-poach agreements probably contributed a bit to the deconcentration of wealth.

A dollar of revenue paid out to a smart programmer goes in full to the programmer, whereas that same dollar, if not paid to the programmer but instead paid out as profits to shareholders, is divided multiple ways between the firm’s owners. Competitive bidding for rock-star programmer salaries concentrates wealth, and the no-poach agreements spread it — admittedly to shareholders, who tend to be wealthy, but at least the dollar is spread.

The antitrust laws intervened just in time, however, to dissolve these agreements and punish Silicon Valley firms for doing their part to slow the increase in the wealth gap in America.

Today’s antitrust movement has argued that antitrust should break up the tech giants in part to prevent them from artificially depressing the wages they pay the little guy. I’ve argued that would be a mistake, because breakup could damage the companies, reducing the value they deliver to society and harming everyone. Regulating wages directly is a better idea.

But you don’t just make compensation fair by raising low wages. You also have to reduce excessive wages. One way to start is just by allowing the tech firms to conspire against their rock stars.

And once tech firms have finished conspiring against their overpaid programmers, they can start conspiring against another group of employees that is even more grossly overpaid per dollar of value added: their CEOs.

Well, that we might have to do for them.

Categories
Antitrust Regulation

Antitrust as Price Regulation by Least Efficient Means

Any company that has $100 billion in cash and marketable securities on its books, as Apple does, is charging excessive prices for its products, in the sense of prices higher than necessary to make everyone at Apple ready, willing, and able to continue to do the excellent job that they are doing.

Is that a problem? Unfortunately, yes, for any society that’s supposed to be a thing of the people. It means that Apple is bilking the public: taking more from the people for their iPhones and Macbooks than is strictly necessary to give Apple an incentive to produce iPhones and Macbooks.

You don’t need the money to reward investors. Otherwise you would have paid the money out already.

You don’t need the money to build more factories. Otherwise you would have built the factories already.

You don’t need the money to pay Tim Cook. Otherwise you would have upped his compensation already.

And with an AA+ credit rating, you don’t need the money for an emergency either, since it would cost you almost nothing to borrow cash in a pinch.

You just don’t need those billions, which is why they are what economists call “rents:” earnings in excess of what would be necessary to make the company, and all those who contribute to its success, ready, willing, and able to carry on.

Should government do something about these rents?

Yes. But not with the antitrust laws. Because Apple’s rents are not monopoly rents. Those are the excessive returns that come from making your products stand out by trashing your competitors’ products, rather than improving your own. Antitrust prohibits that sort of behavior.

But does anyone think Apple achieved the ability to charge $1,200 for an iPhone by making Samsung products worse?

Of course not.

Which is why there is no antitrust case against Apple.

Instead, Apple’s rents are Schumpeterian: excessive returns that come from making your products stand out by improving them, rather than by trashing the products of competitors. Antitrust does not prohibit such conduct.

Nor should it, because antitrust is a slayer, breaking up the firms that run afoul of its rules, saddling them with behavioral injunctions, and taxing them with trebled damages.

Those remedies make sense when the target is a firm that has gotten ahead by trashing competitors. That sort of firm doesn’t have a better product to offer, so smashing it is no great loss to society.

That’s not true for firms like Apple that have gotten ahead by being better. Smash Apple and you might well get Apple’s prices down. But you might also end up with poorer-quality products.

Why is it that Samsung keeps churning out gimmicky phones that are just a bit too ahead of their time to work properly, whereas, iteration after iteration, Apple phones continue to please?

Who knows?

By the same token, who knows whether Apple divided two ways, three ways or four ways will still have the same old magic? Organizations are mysterious things and we should break them only when they are already broken.

That doesn’t mean that something shouldn’t be done about Apple’s prices. As is so often the case, the right approach is the most direct: tell Apple to lower them.

There’s nothing novel about doing that. It’s the way America often has dealt with high-tech firms that get carried away with their own success. It happened with the landline telephone: the states regulated telephone rates for a century, and many retain the statutory authority to do so today. No vast cultural leap would be required to regulate the prices of iPhones or other Apple products.

Regulating prices runs much less of a risk of killing the golden goose, because it’s a scalpel to antitrust’s hammer, ordering prices down without smashing the firms that charge them.

But are prices really all that Apple’s antitrust adversaries care about? I think so.

The antitrust complaint brought by Fortnite-videogame-maker Epic is admirably transparent on this score, inveighing against what it calls Apple’s “30% tax” on paid App Store apps.

True, Epic spends a lot of time arguing that Apple should stop vetting the apps that can be installed on iPhones and should also stop requiring apps to accept payments via Apple’s own systems.

But it’s hard to believe Epic really cares whether consumers can run any app they want on the iPhone, or whether consumers can make in-app purchases with Paypal instead of Apple Pay.

The real reason Epic targets app vetting and payment systems lockdown is more likely because these two Apple policies prevent Epic from doing an end run around Apple’s 30% fee by connecting directly with users.

So to use antitrust to attack Apple’s prices, Epic ends up trying to thrust a stake through the streamlined, curated environment that iPhone users love. Needless to say, we know what a platform on which you can install anything and pay in any manner looks like: it’s called the PC, that bug-ridden, bloatware-filled, hackable free-for-all from which Apple users have been running screaming for decades now.

The beauty of price regulation is that you don’t need to redesign products to get what you want. Under price regulation, Apple would be able to continue to vet apps and manage payments, and thereby maintain the experience its customers love. All the company would need to do is lower its prices.

Epic isn’t the only organization out to exploit the antitrust laws for the sake of a bit of price regulation by least efficient means. Today’s Neo Brandeisians seem to share this goal.

That is the substance of an extraordinary piece by two affiliates of the Open Markets Institute that calls for using antitrust to smash big firms, but allowing small firms to form price-fixing cartels. The idea is to redistribute wealth by reducing the prices big firms can charge and increasing the prices that the little guy can charge.

That sounds great. But why not just regulate prices directly instead of smashing the country’s patrimony to get there?

Indeed, I’m mystified by the contempt in which this supposedly-radical movement seems to hold price regulation. The movement is all for returning to antitrust’s New Deal heyday. But it has nary a word to spare for price regulation, which was a much bigger part of the New Deal and the mid-century economic settlement that followed it, during which fully 25% of the American economy by GDP was price regulated.

One wonders whether the Neo Brandeisians share the Chicago School’s old concerns about “capture.” Something tells me they might.

Nevermind that we learned long ago that the notion that administrative agencies are captured by those they regulate is too simple by half.

And no one has been able to explain to me why the judges who apply the antitrust laws are any less susceptible to capture than are government price regulators.

But I do know that most Americans don’t seem to know that their gas, electricity, and insurance rates are regulated by government agencies, which says a lot about whether price regulation is the supreme evil that antitrusters of all stripes make it out to be.

The Neo Brandeisians’ mania for competition is really just run-of-the-mill American anti-statism, with a bit of progressive polish. Consider another example of intemperate fervor for competition, one that differs from the Neo Brandeisians’ campaign against big tech only in lacking that campaign’s radical pretensions: The Hatch-Waxman Act.

Rather than follow the rest of the world in regulating prescription drug prices directly, the United States has chosen to use competition from generic drugs to drive down drug prices after patents expire. The Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984 was meant to kickstart the plan by streamlining the generic drug approval process.

It’s important to understand how ridiculous using competition to reduce off-patent drug prices really is. Far and away the greatest virtue of competition is that it leads to innovation: firms must make better products or lose out to competitors.

But when it comes to generic drugs, competition cannot lead to innovation, because generic drugs are by definition copies of old drugs!

If a generic drug company were to innovate in order to get ahead of its competitors, its product would need to go through full-blown clinical trials in order to receive FDA approval and would also likely receive patent protection, instantaneously removing it from the competitive generic drug market and driving up its price. So the innovation rationale for competition just doesn’t exist in the context of generics.

But we decided to promote competition anyway, purely for the purpose of reducing off-patent drug prices.

It kind of worked.

Prices for many off-patent drugs fell. But not for all off-patent drugs. As scandals involving Daraprim (of pharma bro fame) and the Epipen show (the latter in the device context), it turned out that competition does not always come to the rescue once patents expire and regulatory hurdles are lowered.

More importantly, the cost of maintaining the system turned out to be immense. Firms responded by finding ways to prevent their drugs from going off-patent, leading to interminable patent and antitrust litigation. Just google “reverse payment patent settlements”–one of the mechanisms used by drug makers to undermine competition–and behold the flood of ink spilt on this avoidable disaster.

Worse, we have learned in recent years that generic drug quality is actually pretty terrible, even dangerous: competition is killing the golden goose.

Not, in this case, because Hatch-Waxman led to the break-up of big firms, but because when competition is just about getting prices down, firms will skimp on production costs. Ruinously low prices are, incidentally, supposed to be another of the great problems with price regulation–that regulators will dictate prices that are too low to cover costs–but it turns out that competition is at least as good at undershooting.

So what we could have gotten from a rate regulator in four little words–“lower your damn prices”–Hatch-Waxman accomplished in a patchwork way, at the cost of interminable litigation and sketchy pills.

Which leads me to ask: can Congress please do something about Apple’s $100 billion cash pile? How about putting aside $25 billion (just to make sure Apple has a nice cushion against shocks), and then rebating the other $75 billion to everyone who has ever bought an Apple product, pro rata? You can be sure Apple knows who they are.

And while Congress is at it, they can take a look at Microsoft and Alphabet, too.

For $100 billion is not actually the largest hoard in Silicon Valley.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Antitrust’s Robocall Paradox

Today’s antitrust movement loves to point to the breakup of AT&T as an example of what antitrust enforcers can do when they put their minds to it. The only problem is that the breakup of AT&T was a disaster, and The Wall Street Journal has kindly provided a new example of that today: robocalls.

The breakup of AT&T was a politically-motivated hit, a Nixon-originated project that became the only monopolization case carried through to a conclusion by a Reagan Justice Department that otherwise wanted nothing else to do with antitrust. The target was widely recognized as the standard bearer of progressive managerialism and a leader in progressive labor practices. (Remind you of some other firms that have found themselves in the cross-hairs of an otherwise do-nothing Antitrust Division today?)

The country has little to show for the breakup forty years later. It didn’t eliminate the fundamental bottleneck associated with telephony: the massive last-mile infrastructure required to get calls into consumers’ handsets. That infrastructure is today mostly owned by just three firms, the new AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, because it exhibits great economies of scale.

While the breakup did bring down long-distance rates, that’s a bug, not a feature. The only reason the old AT&T charged high long-distance rates was because the company was engaged in progressive redistribution of wealth, scalping businesses and well-off long-distance powerusers to the end of providing dirt-cheap local phone access and “universal service” to the masses.

Any economist who knows his Ramsey prices will tell you that’s not the most profitable way to set your rates, because long-distance calling is a luxury, but basic phone access is a necessity (911, anyone?). To get the most profit out of the public, you want to charge high prices for the necessity–because people will pay those prices whatever they may be–and low prices for the luxury. The trouble with that from the perspective of distributive justice is that it’s a regressive rate structure: charging the masses high prices and elites low prices.

Which is just what happened after the breakup of Ma Bell.

The court and later Congress forced the Baby Bells that owned the last-mile infrastructure to connect long-distance carriers’ calls, enabling massive entry into the long-distance market and driving down long-distance rates. But consumers don’t just pay for long distance, they also must pay for basic call connection that allows long-distance calls to reach consumers’ handsets.

The price of that went up, for everyone, not just long-distance callers, because the last mile remained a bottleneck, an infrastructure so expensive that few firms can survive in the market. Which is why the Baby Bells, which controlled that infrastructure, never went away.

Liberated from a dominating headquarters weaned on a New Deal politics that demanded the sacrifice of profits in favor of progressive pricing, the Baby Bells now charged whatever they wanted. At last they could enjoy whatever cream they might be able to skim from a public that needs phone service and has nowhere to go. The fact that they dominated regional markets, but not long-distance, gave them the political cover that hulking monopoly Ma Bell never had.

Free to grow fat, they matured into the tri-opoly we have today, one that has distinguished itself in its adherence to the maxim that the greatest reward of monopoly is a quiet life by supplying America with slower mobile internet service than almost any country in the developed world.

But at least we got competition in long distance, right? Now anyone with $10,000 in working capital and a closet to store some routers can be a long-distance provider. Isn’t that a win for local self-reliance?

More like a win for fraud and robocallers, according to the Journal, in a story about the “dozens of little-known carriers that serve as key conduits in America’s telecom system,” connecting robocalls that “in total bilked U.S. consumers out of at least $38 million in 2019.”

The Journal treads lightly here–after all it’s got as much to gain as any newspaper from the current antitrust campaign against the tech giants that have out-competed the paper for advertising revenue in recent years–but it’s hard to disguise the culprit:

These small carriers took hold in the decades following the 1984 breakup of AT&T’s phone system monopoly, which was designed to lower the costs of long-distance calls. They mushroomed during the introduction of internet-based calling services in the 2000s.

The emergence of these small phone companies was in many ways a positive development for consumers who now pay less for long-distance calls. The downside is that the system wasn’t designed to discern between legitimate and illegitimate calls, which are sometimes mixed together as they are passed along. U.S. regulators generally didn’t require these carriers to block calls and in some cases forbade them from doing so as a way of limiting anticompetitive behavior. Some telecommunications experts say that opened the door for smaller carriers to hustle business from robocallers, or simply turn a blind eye to suspect traffic.

Ryan Tracy & Sarah Krause, Where Robocalls Hide: the House Next Door, Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2020.

Would there have been robocalls if we still had Ma Bell? Unlikely for a company that was so obsessed with control over its network that it famously stamped “BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY – NOT FOR SALE” on every handset in America.

(I do have to admit, however, that another communications monopoly still with us today provides something of a counterexample. The largest category of mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service is advertising.)

Categories
Regulation

Ruskin on Regulation and Fuller on Choice

Government and co-operation are in all things the Laws of Life; Anarchy and competition the Laws of Death.

John Ruskin, Unto this Last, and Other Writings 202 (Clive Wilmer, ed. Penguin Classics 2005) (1862).

Anarchy and competition are Nature.

Government and cooperation are Civilization.

One can make out the difference in the data, which describes rather nicely why the former is Death (see the part of the plot up to -2000) and the latter is Life (see the part of the plot starting from -2000, when civilization started to take off).

Source: The Longest-Run Shape of the Global Economy: PRELIMINARY AND INCOMPLETE: The Honest Broker for the Week of June 14, 2014, Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Weblog of Brad Delong, June 8, 2014.

Ruskin also makes of regulation an axiom. He writes:

The word “righteousness” properly refers to the justice of rule, or right, as distinguished from “equity” which refers to the justice of balance. More broadly, Righteousness is King’s justice; and Equity Judge’s justice; the King guiding or ruling all, the Judge dividing or discerning between opposites (therefore, the double question, “Man, who made me a ruler . . . or a divider . . . over you?”) Thus with respect to the Justice of Choice (selection, the feebler and passive justice), we have from lego, -lex, legal, loi, and loyal; and with respect to the Justice of Rule (direction, the stronger and active justice), we have from rego, -rex, regal, roi, and royal.

John Ruskin, Unto this Last, and Other Writings 191 (Clive Wilmer, ed. Penguin Classics 2005) (1862) (emphasis mine).

To which one might append: regulation.

Thus there are two kinds of governance, that which strives only to prevent discrimination, but which otherwise is laissez faire. It is ultimately juridical in nature, directed at fairness. And then there is regulation, governance as guidance.

The implication is that good government must both equalize and guide. It must not only ensure that each member of a particular fare class has an equal chance of getting the middle seat (lex), but also command that the seat be clean, and wide, and pleasantly lit (rex).

Little wonder that a nation founded by lawyers in revolt against a king would have no concept of regulation and a burning enthusiasm for law. (That’s true across the political spectrum: the urge to “break ’em up” is bipartisan.)

The more so in light of some very bad Twentieth Century run-ins with guidance.

And yet a governance without rex does seem highly problematic, even impossible. For we do always need guidance. Here is a remarkable passage, from Lon Fuller, of all people:

When the idea of freedom from choice is introduced into a philosophic discussion it tends to carry with it overtones of morbidity, escape and totalitarianism. Yet when we encounter it in everyday life we do not view it that way; often it is welcome indeed. There is surely nothing morbid or escapist about the sense of freedom and release that a lawyer experiences when he finds a good secretary capable of taking over the hundred small decisions or choices that have to be made in managing an office and in handling routine correspondence.

There is, in fact, nothing more appalling than the thought of having to choose everything. Anyone who has read an exposition of philosophic anarchism knows what a sense of oppression comes from thinking of society’s being so organized (or unorganized) that nothing is decided in advance for the individual, so that he has to carve his own way through life without the guidance of institutions, or traditions, or legal compulsions. For the man who has to choose everything the burden of choice becomes so unbearable that choice itself loses its meaning.

The apparent contradiction between freedom to choose and freedom from choice is removed when we observe that of the two the first is primary and original, while the second is derivative and dependent for its significance on the first. Freedom from choice is meaningless if choice itself does not exist. If we feel free when we are relieved from choice, it is because we can then exercise choice in a field of our preference where we consider it important that we should decide things for ourselves.

The problem of freedom, then, is the problem of allocating choice.

Lon L. Fuller, Some Reflections on Legal and Economic Freedoms–A Review of Robert L. Hale’s Freedom through Law, 54 Colum. L. Rev. 70, 72 (1954).

The allocator, of course, is the regulator. And so there is no question whether to have rex, anymore than it is possible for each of us to choose which of a thousand components should be included in our iPhones. The inescapable question is: how to ensure that the guidance is wise?

Confucius’s reply has always sounded pretty good to me:

道 之以德、齊之以禮、有恥且格。

Confucius, Analects bk. 2 ch. 3.
Categories
Miscellany Monopolization Regulation

Damages as Personalized Pricing in Favor of Wrongdoers

All courts do all day in civil cases in which the remedy is money damages is to engage in personalized pricing in favor of consumers. The plaintiff is the producer, the defendant is the consumer. And the damages amount is the price charged to the defendant for whatever it is that the defendant has taken from the plaintiff in violation of law, whether dignity, reputation, an arm or a leg.

When private enterprise personalizes prices, it chooses the highest possible prices: price equal to the maximum that the consumer is willing to pay. That is, firms strive to engage in perfect price discrimination.

Courts do the opposite. They personalize the prices of legal wrongs to be the lowest possible prices consistent with compensating victims: price equal to the cost to the plaintiff of the violation of law, and not a penny more. That is, courts strive to engage in what I have called perfect cost discrimination.

That’s weird, when you think about it.

All lawbreaking amounts to a forced sale. The defendant who shoots off the plaintiff’s arm forces the plaintiff to sell his arm to the defendant, or at least to sell the defendant the service of having an arm shot off, and whatever attendant satisfaction that provides the defendant, whether in the form of a feeling of security, the pleasures of power and domination, revenge, or what have you.

The law, in prohibiting battery, recognizes in the plaintiff a right to payment for the service. And if the transaction were not forced, and the plaintiff were to have any amount of market power, which we would expect to exist in spades with respect to the subject of many prohibitions–very few people are willing voluntarily to part with their arms, for example–then the plaintiff would almost surely charge a price for the arm above the bare minimum necessary to compensate the plaintiff for the harm. That is, if the exchange were voluntary, the price would in many cases be much in excess of cost, and indeed much closer to the maximum that the defendant would be willing to pay. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose that the defendant forces the transaction precisely because the defendant hopes to avoid being charged a price equal to the maximum the defendant is willing to pay.

So you would expect the law to provide the plaintiff with something closer to the bargain that the plaintiff would have struck voluntarily with the defendant. That at least would ensure that the defendant enjoys no gain from breaking the law and forcing a transaction.

But the law doesn’t see it that way.

The “rightful position” principle in remedies teaches that courts should measure damages in order to put the plaintiff in the position that the plaintiff would have occupied if the defendant had not engaged in the bad act. That causes courts to set the lowest possible price for breaking the law, rather than a price that approximates the voluntary price. For the position that the plaintiff would have occupied without the bad act is assumed to be the one in which no transaction takes place at all and the harm of the transaction has therefore not been inflicted. So damages under this measure just equal the amount necessary to compensate for harm. That is, the cost of the transaction to the plaintiff.

Law and economics scholars have made much of this cost-based baseline, arguing that it leads to optimal deterrence. The idea is that it forces the bad actor to internalize the costs of his actions. And so he will only act to break the law if the gains to him exceed the costs, which is to say, only if cost-benefit analysis shows that the action is efficient.

But that ignores something rather important about optimally-deterrent pricing: there isn’t just one optimal price. So long as the price the defendant pays for the forced sale is personalized, which it must be in a legal system in which judges award damages on a case-by-case basis, any price between cost and the maximum the defendant is willing to pay for the harm is optimally deterring.

Only a price above the maximum that the defendant is willing to pay–as opposed to cost–prevents the defendant from forcing the sale when the benefit exceeds the cost. So only such an extraordinarily high price is non-optimal. The maximum the defendant would be willing to pay is a measure of the benefit to the defendant. So only a price above that maximum drives the defendant away. There isn’t one optimally deterring price, but a range, that from cost all the way up to the maximum the defendant is willing to pay.

Where the courts set the price of illicit conduct within that range matters, because price determines the distribution of wealth between the plaintiff and the defendant, the victim and the injurer. By setting the price equal to cost, courts today achieve the perverse outcome of allowing the injurer to retain all of the gains associated with the forced transaction.

To fully appreciate this perversion, imagine that you decide voluntarily to sell your house. You could sell it at cost, including a reasonable return on investment. But that would be disappointing. What you’d like to do is sell it at the highest price anyone is willing to pay for it. If you do, then you extract all of the value created by the transfer. The buyer obviously places a higher value on the house than you do, otherwise he wouldn’t buy and you wouldn’t sell, and because you charge the highest price the buyer is willing to pay, you cause the buyer to pay out all of that excess value over to you.

By contrast, if you sell at a price equal to cost, including a reasonable return on investment, you don’t extract any of the excess value buyers place on the house. What you paid plus a reasonable return is the value you place on the house, the reasonableness of the return being enough to make you sell at that price. So when you sell at that price, the buyer pays you your valuation, and not a penny more.

Selling at a price equal to cost, including a reasonable return on investment, doesn’t therefore enrich you at all. It just lets you break even in a sense: you give up your house in exchange for a price equal to the value you place on the house.

But now suppose that you decide not to sell the house. You don’t like the price the buyer is offering. You believe the buyer is willing to pay more and you want to hold out until he does. And the buyer responds by bursting in your door one morning, holding a gun to your head, and telling you to clear out permanently, which of course you do, before filing a lawsuit. Now the buyer has forced a sale, and the law of trespass allows the court to dictate to the buyer the price that he must pay for your house.

Under current rules on the measurement of damages, the court would award you cost plus a reasonable return on investment, and not a penny more! The buyer could walk away with all of the gains from trade.

(Let’s put aside the fact that almost any court would issue an injunction here allowing you to repossess your house. Perhaps you’re emotionally scarred and don’t want to live there anymore, so all you demand is money damages. And let’s suppose also that your lawyer commits malpractice and fails to request punitives or damages for emotional distress.)

Which means that current damages rules turn over the entirety of the surplus generated by a violation of law to the wrongdoer! They embody the policy that the wealth generated by illegal transactions should be allocated to the scofflaw.

Which, again, is weird.

Now, you might object that courts award damages equal only to costs because the maximum that the wrongdoer would be willing to pay for the privilege of breaking the law is a thing difficult to calculate.

But so too are costs.

For costs are themselves maxima that someone would be willing to pay. The cost of an injury is the maximum that the victim would be willing to pay to avoid the injury. The cost of your house is what you paid for it plus a reasonable return on investment only because that is the maximum that you would be willing to pay to avoid having it destroyed or taken from you. More than that and you could buy a better house. And there is a subjectively element in that cost calculation: the reasonableness of the return is subjective. Current rules in theory should force courts to take that subjective element into account in awarding you compensation for harm equal to cost. And if courts can do that, they should be able to answer the question what the maximum that the wrongdoer would be willing to pay might be, including any subjective element thereof. (Indeed, courts should already do this in restitution cases, of which more below.)

You might also object that the maximum that the wrongdoer would be willing to pay is always less than the cost to the victim, because otherwise the wrongdoer would just be able to enter into a voluntary transaction with the victim to inflict the harm.

But I don’t think that’s right, at least if we want to maintain the fiction of rational decisionmaking that is all of the fun of law and economics and which itself underpins the whole theory of optimal deterrence I wish to complicate here.

The wrongdoer knows that undertaking the bad act will result in liability, and so when the wrongdoer acts, he does so knowing that he will pay a price. If the price is too high, which it will be if he inflicts a harm for which he would not be willing to pay, then he will not act. The courts therefore never can extract damages from wrongdoers in amounts above those which wrongdoers are willing to pay. If they do, wrongdoers simply will not act.

The economic problem for the courts is precisely to find the price that is high enough to ensure that the wrongdoer will not act unless he values the harm more than the victim, but not so high as to prevent the wrongdoer from acting when he does value the harm more than the victim. The trouble is that under current damages rules the courts always choose the lowest possible price.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the law is entirely deaf to the problem of gains from trade. One can almost always bring an unjust enrichment action and obtain the remedy of restitution, which does provide the plaintiff with the gains from trade.

But here’s the thing: restitution is an alternative remedy. Either you get restitution, or you get damages, but you don’t get both.

So a plaintiff can receive compensation for the costs to the plaintiff of illegal activity, or the gains enjoyed by the defendant, but not both. Whether the plaintiff opts for one or the other, therefore, the plaintiff will never receive a price for what he gives up equal to the maximum that the defendant is willing to pay, because the maximum that the defendant is willing to pay must equal both the cost to the plaintiff–the value the plaintiff placed on the harm–and the gains to the defendant of inflicting the harm, the excess over plaintiff’s valuation that makes the rational defendant willing to break the law in the first place.

Do punitive damages pick up the slack? It’s true that the pleasure a wrongdoer derives from inflicting harm is in itself probably sufficient to convert an intentional tort into one of malice, and that in turn can lead to punitive damages. But the doctrine of punitive damages suffers from terrible incoherence; we know that it is meant to punish, but does that mean to take some of the ill-gotten gains, or all of them, or to take more than those gains? Unless we are very lucky, punitive damages will either leave some gains with the wrongdoer or charge the wrongdoer a price in excess of willingness to pay, preventing the wrongdoer from engaging in efficient conduct.

Only a reconceptualization of the “rightful position” principle to require that courts measure damages by the maximum the defendant is willing to pay, rather than the cost to the plaintiff, would ensure that defendants do not enjoy gains from the illicit trade that is every offense under the law.

In closing, a word on the relevance of personalized pricing. Why does it matter here that, in engaging in case by case adjudication, judges effectively personalize the price of offenses?

It matters because personalized pricing is efficient whether the price charged is equal to cost or to the maximum the buyer is willing to pay. When prices can’t be personalized, and price is therefore one-size-fits-all for an entire market of buyers and sellers, then there is likely only one price that does not price some buyers or sellers willing to engage in mutually beneficial trades out of the market. That’s the price equal to marginal cost, the competitive price. And that price distributes the gains from trade between all buyers and sellers in the market in a single unique way. Try to change that distribution, by raising or lowering the price, and efficiency suffers: some buyers or sellers will be priced out of the market.

With personalized pricing, however, the court can vary the price charged to one buyer-seller pair–the defendant and plaintiff before the court–without changing the price charged to other pairs, so regardless the price the court chooses in one case, buyers and sellers won’t be priced out of the market in other cases. So the case-by-case character of adjudication opens up a world of distributive options with respect to the market for illegal activity that would not exist if the courts were to engage in one-size-fits-all damages calculations.

It’s a world that the law has failed so far fully to recognize and exploit.

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 in 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 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.