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 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.

Categories
Civilization Regulation

Read It in the Sands

Anyone still skeptical about the usefulness of regulation as a general matter ought to consider the contrast between archaeology and treasure hunting. By which I mean, the triumphs of Twentieth Century state-sponsored archaeology and the failure of the preceding millennia of free-market treasure hunting.

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
Regulation

An Economic Philosophy

Better not to have at all than to conserve. There is in waste an infinite utility. And in scarcity an infinite disutility. There is in declining block rate electric utility pricing, in the all-you-can-eat buffet, in the inclusion of lump-sum gas and electric charges in apartment rental payments, in airlines with a chronic 50% load factor, and in the unlimited voice and data plan a nobility that only civilization can achieve. Just as a well-engineered car should allow us complete freedom of choice regarding how fast to drive, regardless the pressures on the engine under the hood, until it melts, so too should a well-regulated economy offer us complete freedom regarding how much to consume, regardless the demands placed on the markets under the hood, until they run dry. The job of an economy is not just to manage scarcity, but to create the illusion of having conquered it.

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
Annals of American Decline Antitrust Despair Regulation World

Why Progressives Once Fought Tariffs as They Fought Monopolies

The Nineteenth Century understood very well that tariffs have the same effect on consumers as do monopolies. Tariffs prevent foreign competitors from undercutting the prices of domestic companies, because the foreign competitors must now pay the tariffs, and that in turn allows domestic companies to raise prices. It is for this reason that in the Nineteenth Century the same Progressive movement that sought to prevent monopoly pricing, either through antitrust or rate regulation, also sought to replace tariffs with income taxation as the source for government revenue. And succeeded.

But what millions of Americans understood in the late Nineteenth Century is greeted as a bizarre and surprising result today.

Compare:

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines has had an odd effect . . . . It is hardly surprising that the tariffs drove up the price of foreign washers. Perhaps more unexpectedly, they also prompted American manufacturers to raise their prices.
Companies that largely sell imported washers, like Samsung and LG, raised prices to compensate for the tariff costs they had to pay. But domestic manufacturers, like Whirlpool, increased prices, too, largely because they could. There aren’t a lot of upstart domestic producers of laundry equipment that could undercut Whirlpool on price if the company decided to capture more profits by raising prices at the same time its competitors were forced to do so.

Jim Tankersley, Trump’s Washing Machine Tariffs Stung Consumers While Lifting Corporate Profits, N.Y. Times, April 21, 2019.

With:

Beginning as early as the 1860s, the Democratic Party challenged Republican power with a biting critique of the central element of the consumption-tax system — the tariff. . . . The Democratic Party developed a general attack on special privilege, monopoly power, and public corruption — one that harkened back to the ideals of the American Revolution and the early republic. Most important, the Democrats described the tariff as the primary engine of a Republican program of subsidizing giant corporations. In 1882, in his first public political statement, the young Woodrow Wilson declared that the tariffs had “Monopoly for a father.” . . . . In the face of these problems, millions of Americans . . . regarded the progressive income tax at the federal level as the next-best alternative . . . .

W. Elliot Brownlee, Federal Taxation in America: A History 77, 79 (3d ed. 2016).
To battles won that were then fought anew,
Our bodies hastened while our minds withdrew.
Categories
Miscellany Regulation

The Streets Should Be Free. Let’s Decongest While Keeping Them That Way.

In her column on congestion pricing, Emily Badger exhibits the unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of the price system that lamentably characterizes so much work by progressives today. She argues that because driving has a cost, drivers should be asked to pay that cost through congestion pricing, and she suggests that our current system, in which driving in the city is free, was the uneconomic product of lobbying by the car industry. Hence the title of her column: The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain.

In fact, the elimination of bridge and road tolls that took place alongside the popularization of the automobile sat on a sound economic foundation: when the marginal cost of adding another driver to the roads is low, you should encourage as many drivers to use the roads as possible. Charging a price for access discourages use, and therefore unnecessarily limits the number of drivers on the roads.

Accordingly, argued Columbia economist Harold Hotelling in 1938, the proper way to pay for the cost of building and maintaining bridges and roads is to make people pay for them regardless how much they use them — because that way the price won’t limit use — and the only way to do that is to pay for roads and bridges through taxes, rather than by charging tolls. Of course, traffic was not a thing unknown to economists in the early 20th century. But they thought cities would eliminate congestion by building more and bigger roads — expanding supply to meet demand — not by rationing supply, and the efficient way to do that was again by paying for bigger roads through taxes and granting drivers access to them for free. The car industry may have helped the process of de-tolling along, but it was sound economics.

For the time. What everyone missed was that there are more costs to roads than just those of their creation and maintenance: they also destroy the climate, by enabling energy-inefficient driving, as opposed to energy-efficient public transportation. And it turned out that roads simply could not be built big enough to eliminate congestion. So it was not efficient to maximize the number of drivers after all, and the marginal cost of allowing an additional driver onto the roads was therefore not always near zero.

That has led Badger, and the climate movement more generally, to the conclusion that we should have been charging a price for access to roads all along. But that does not follow at all. As Badger points out, congestion and climate concerns make driving a scarce resource, meaning that no matter how high the price charged for access to the resource, more cannot be brought online. So the price system here isn’t needed to stimulate supply; the only work it would do is to winnow down demand to match the fixed level of supply of the resource. That in turn makes price here no more than a rationing mechanism.

And not a necessary one at that. For there are an infinity of ways to ration scarce resources. By birth year. By height. By how early you wake up in the morning. Etc. Price rations based on wealth, and that’s why progressives interested in solving the congestion problem should reject price as the means to that end.

Badger seems unaware that there are alternatives to the price system when it comes to rationing. She observes that:

If we had that problem with other kinds of infrastructure or commodities, we’d charge people more for them. If airline tickets were particularly in demand, their prices would go up. If there were a run on avocados, grocers wouldn’t respond by keeping them as cheap as possible.

All true, but those are all markets in which the goods in fixed supply are sold by private enterprise. Of course private enterprise will use price to ration access, because rationing with price is profitable. But roads and bridges are owned by governments, and governments both have goals other that profit maximization — such as ensuring that everyone has access to basic infrastructure, regardless of wealth — and other ways than price of raising revenue — such as through the tax system. Why is the behavior of markets in the face of shortage a good model for the way governments should behave in the face of shortage?

Moreover, in all the markets Badger mentions, higher prices are capable of calling forth greater supply. When airline prices rise, new airlines enter the market. When avocado prices rise, Mexico sends more avocados. But we aren’t trying to encourage private firms to flood the market with other ways to drive to work. We just want to limit use. We don’t need price for that.

In the information age, non-price approaches to rationing are easier to implement than ever before. I’ve argued that New York should just create an app to grant access to roads during busy periods, routing users to public transportation when congestion is bad. But that doesn’t have to be the only way. A little imagination and attention to technological alternatives could certainly reveal more.

But what we don’t need is unquestioning acceptance of the neoliberal playbook as the solution to our climate problems, or the sacrifice of our values — like the civic value of equal access to public space — that the playbook requires.

To her credit, Badger does seem concerned about the classism of charging for access to the city. But the solution she suggests, subsidized rates for the poor, just can’t work. Any subsidy that truly puts the poor on an equal footing with the rich will defeat the purpose of congestion pricing, by failing to price drivers out of the market. The utilities that subsidize rates to the poor, to which Badger points as a model, don’t use their rates to ration access, as congestion pricing would do, but rather use their rates to cover the fixed costs of maintaining the utilities, so the utilities don’t mind if the subsidy increases demand. Congestion pricing advocates often suggest that the class consequences of congestion pricing can be solved with an administrative tweak; but these tweaks work only to salve guilty consciences.