Archives For cartels

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

William & Mary’s Alan Meese has posted a terrific tribute to Robert Bork, who passed away this week.  Most of the major obituaries, Alan observes, have largely ignored the key role
Bork played in rationalizing antitrust, a body of law that veered sharply off course in the middle of the last century.  Indeed, Bork began his 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, by comparing the then-prevailing antitrust regime to the sheriff of a frontier town:  “He did not sift the evidence, distinguish between suspects, and solve crimes, but merely walked the main street and every so often pistol-whipped a few people.”  Bork went on to explain how antitrust, if focused on consumer welfare (which equated with allocative efficiency), could be reconceived in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Bork’s book and his earlier writings on which it was based.  Chastened by Bork’s observations, the Supreme Court began correcting its antitrust mistakes in the mid-1970s.  The trend began with the 1977 Sylvania decision, which overruled a precedent making it per se illegal for manufacturers to restrict the territories in which their dealers could operate.  (Manufacturers seeking to enhance sales of their brand may wish to give dealers exclusive sales territories to protect them against “free-riding” on their demand-enhancing customer services; pre-Sylvania precedent made it hard for manufacturers to do this.)  Sylvania was followed by:

  • Professional Engineers (1978), which helpfully clarified that antitrust’s theretofore unwieldy “Rule of Reason” must be focused exclusively on competition;
  • Broadcast Music, Inc. (1979), which held that competitors’ price-tampering arrangements that reduce costs and enhance output may be legal;
  • NCAA (1984), which recognized that trade restraints among competitors may be necessary to create new products and services and thereby made it easier for competitors to enter into output-enhancing joint ventures;
  • Khan (1997), which abolished the ludicrous per se rule against maximum resale price maintenance;
  • Trinko (2004), which recognized that some monopoly pricing may aid consumers in the long run (by enhancing the incentive to innovate) and narrowly circumscribed the situations in which a firm has a duty to assist its rivals; and
  • Leegin (2007), which overruled a 96 year-old precedent declaring minimum resale price maintenance–a practice with numerous potential procompetitive benefits–to be per se illegal.

Bork’s fingerprints are all over these decisions.  Alan’s terrific post discusses several of them and provides further detail on Bork’s influence.

And while you’re checking out Alan’s Bork tribute, take a look at his recent post discussing my musings on the AALS hiring cartel.  Alan observes that AALS’s collusive tendencies reach beyond the lateral hiring context.  Who’d have guessed?

Michael McCann (Vermont, CNNSI) has a very interesting column on developments in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA.   O’Bannon is challenging the NCAA’s licensing of the names, images and likenesses of former Division I college athletes for commercial purposes without compensation or consent.  McCann discusses the implications of O’Bannon’s motion to expand the class to include current players:

The prospect of O’Bannon v. NCAA radically reshaping college sports is real. If O’Bannon ultimately prevails, “student-athletes” and “amateurism” would take on new meanings in the context of D-I sports. While college athletes would still not obtain compensation for their labor, they would be compensated for the licensing of their identity. If O’Bannon instead extracts a favorable settlement from the NCAA, these athletes would likely be compensated as well.

Still, it’s early in the litigation process and, besides, the NCAA has a good record in court. The NCAA is sure to raise concerns about the new world of D-I college sports as envisioned by O’Bannon. For one, how a fund for current student-athletes is distributed and how former student-athletes are compensated will spark questions. Should star players get more? Would Title IX be implicated if male student-athletes receive more licensing revenue because they might generate more revenue than female student-athletes? Also expect some colleges and universities to bemoan that they cannot afford to contribute to player trusts unless they eliminate most of their teams and give pay cuts to coaches and staff. Along those lines, schools with large endowments or those with high revenue-generating teams may only become “richer” in a college sports world where certain schools have the financial wherewithal to compensate student-athletes while others do not.

Go read the whole thing.

 

 

In light of Barclays and other recent events, The Economist focuses on increasing corporate fines in response to price-fixing violations.

That some firms behave badly is nothing new, but the response of the authorities has changed recently. Take cartels. Internationally, fines rose by a factor of one thousand between the 1990s and 2000s. Data from America suggest this is not because there are more cartel cases, which have shown no upward trend since the late 1980s. Rather, the average level of fines has risen (see left-hand chart). Recent penalties have smashed records. The Barclays fine includes the largest ever levied by Britain’s financial regulator and America’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission, for instance. Even so, are fines high enough to work?

The article goes on to discuss the Becker optimal sanction framework.  It also makes some important mistakes in framing the debate.  For example, it describes the Chicago School approach has rejecting corporate or individual fines in lieu of the reputational costs antitrust violators will bear.  The article reaches an unsurprising conclusion consistent with the historical approach of U.S. antitrust and with conventional wisdom: what is needed is more increases in corporate fines.

To deter bad behaviour fines need to rise. The watchdogs are biting, but some need sharper teeth.

For reasons described in my article with Judge Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; NYU Law), Antitrust Sanctions, I’m skeptical ever-increasing corporate fines are the appropriate prescription for improving deterrence of hard core cartel activity.   Competition Policy International (who published the original article) interviews Judge Ginsburg and I here.  We discuss existing evidence on the effectiveness of criminal antitrust sanctions and propose adding to the mix debarment for individuals responsible for cartel activity.

Competition Policy International has published an interview with Judge Douglas Ginsburg and me following up on our 2010 article “Antitrust Sanctions.”  The interview ranges from topics such as whether the Occupy movements impact our proposal for use of debarment as an antitrust sanction in the United States to fairness concerns and global trends in antitrust penalties.  I believe one must be a subscriber to read the interview or listen to the audio.   The issue also contains an interview with Don Klawiter discussing the relationship between the evolution of executive penalties in antitrust, the Ginsburg & Wright proposal, and compliance programs.  Check it out.

Apple has filed its response to the DOJ Complaint in the e-books case.  Here is the first paragraph of the Answer:

The Government’s Complaint against Apple is fundamentally flawed as a matter of fact and law. Apple has not “conspired” with anyone, was not aware of any alleged “conspiracy” by others, and never “fixed prices.” Apple individually negotiated bilateral agreements with book publishers that allowed it to enter and compete in a new market segment – eBooks. The iBookstore offered its customers a new outstanding, innovative eBook reading experience, an expansion of categories and titles of eBooks, and competitive prices.

And the last paragraph of the Answer’s introduction:

The Supreme Court has made clear that the antitrust laws are not a vehicle for Government intervention in the economy to impose its view of the “best” competitive outcome, or the “optimal” means of competition, but rather to address anticompetitive conduct. Apple’s entry into eBook distribution is classic procompetitive conduct, and for Apple to be subject to hindsight legal attack for a business strategy well-recognized as perfectly proper sends the wrong message to the market, and will discourage competitive entry and innovation and harm consumers.

A theme that runs throughout the Answer is that the “pre-Apple” world of e-books was characterized by little or no competition and that the agency agreements were necessary for its entry, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic increase in output.  The Answer is available here.  While commentary has focused primarily upon the important question of the competitive effects of the move to the agency model, including Geoff’s post here, my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The Complaint sets forth the evidence the DOJ purports to have on this score.  But my hunch — and it is no more than that — is that this portion of the case will prove more important than any battle between economic experts on the relevant competitive effects.

From the WSJ:

Publishers argue that the agency model promotes competition by allowing more booksellers to thrive. They say Amazon had sold e-books below cost and that agency pricing saved book publishers from the fate suffered by record companies.

But the Justice Department believes it has a strong case that Apple and the five publishers colluded to raise the price of e-books, people familiar with the matter say.

Apple and the publishers deny that.

The Justice Department isn’t taking aim at agency pricing itself. The department objects to, people familiar with the case say, coordination among companies that simultaneously decided to change their pricing policies.

“We don’t pick business models—that’s not our job,” Ms. Pozen says, without mentioning the case explicitly. “But when you see collusive behavior at the highest levels of companies, you know something’s wrong. And you’ve got to do something about it.”

For related posts, see here.  The case increasingly appears to focus on whether the DOJ can prove coordination among rivals with respect to the shift to the agency model and e-book prices.

From a pure antitrust perspective, the real story behind the DOJ’s Apple e-book investigation is the Division’s deep commitment to the view that Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) clauses are anticompetitive (see also here), no doubt spurred on at least in part by Chief Economist Fiona Scott-Morton’s interesting work on the topic.

Of course, there are other important stories here (see Matt Yglesias’ excellent post), like “how much should a digital book cost?” And as Yglesias writes, whether “the Justice Department’s notion that we should fear a book publishers’ cartel is borderline absurd, on par with worrying about price-fixing in the horse-and-buggy market.”

I can’t help but notice another angle here.  For those not familiar, the current dispute over e-books emerges over a shift in business models from a traditional one in which publishers sold at wholesale prices to bookstores who would, in turn, set the prices they desired — sometimes below the book’s cover price — and sell to consumers at retail.  Much of the dispute arises out of the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers with respect to the profit-maximizing price.  The WSJ describes the recent iteration of the conflict:

To build its early lead in e-books, Amazon Inc. AMZN +0.19% sold many new best sellers at $9.99 to encourage consumers to buy its Kindle electronic readers. But publishers deeply disliked the strategy, fearing consumers would grow accustomed to inexpensive e-books and limit publishers’ ability to sell pricier titles.

Apple’s proposed solution was a move to what is described as an “agency model,” in which Apple takes a 30% share of the revenues and the publisher sets the price — readers may recognize that this essentially amounts to resale price maintenance — an oft-discussed topic at TOTM.  The move to the agency-RPM model also entailed the introduction of an MFN clause stipulating that publishers could not sell to rivals at a lower price.

Whether Apple facilitated a collusive agreement among publishers or whether this industry-wide move to the agency-model is an efficient and consumer-welfare enhancing method of solving the incentive conflict between publishers and retailers remains to be seen.  What is somewhat new in this dispute about book distribution is the technology involved; but the underlying economics of vertical incentive conflict between publishers and retailers is not!

Many economists are aware Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics textbook was apparently the first commodity sold in the United States under an RPM agreement!  (HT: William Breit)  The practice apparently has deeper roots in Germany.  The RPM experiment was thought up by (later to become Sir) Frederick Macmillan.  Perhaps this will sound familiar:

In 1890 Frederick Macmillan of the Macmillan Company was casting about for a book with which to conduct an experiment in resale price maintenance.  For years it had been the practice in Great Britain for the bookselllers to give their customers discounts off the list prices; i.e. price cutting had become the general practice.  In March, 1890, Mr. Macmilan had written to The Bookseller suggesting a change from the current discount system and had inserted a form to be filled out by the dealers.

Experimentation with business models to align the incentives of publishers and sellers is nothing new; it is only wonderful coincidence that the examples involve a seminal economics text published as the Sherman Act was enacted.  Nonetheless, an interesting historical parallel and one that suggests caution in interpreting the relevant facts without understanding the pervasive nature of incentive conflicts within this particular product line between publishers and sellers.  One does not want to discourage experimentation with business models aimed at solving those incentive conflicts.  What remains to be seen is whether and why the move to the new arrangement was executed through express coordination rather than unilateral action.

Last week I posted about the regulatory barriers facing an ice cream shop in San Francisco.  A student passes along a story that hits a bit closer to home: the sale of beer right here in Arlington County.  Apparently, the owner of the Westover Beer Garden has had enough:

It’s been a contentious couple of weeks for the Westover Market and Beer Garden. Upon receiving a warning from Arlington County, it suddenly declared the beer garden would shut down until April 1. Today, the saga continues as management has decided to re-open the beer gardenagainst the County’s wishes.

Owner Devin Hicks said he’s tried working with the county on the matter but his efforts have not been successful. Now he’s going to do what he believes Westover Market is entitled to do by law — operate a year-round patio area.

Arlington County has a website devoted the Westover Beer Garden and its regulation thereof.  The heart of the dispute appears to be whether a parking requirement imposed by the county is optional or mandatory.

On the page, it states that establishments with outdoor patios must have ample parking for the number of people being served, but that parking requirement is reduced if the establishment is near a Metro stop. The County allows establishments to get around the parking rule by becoming “seasonal” and closing for three or more months each year.

Because the Westover beer garden isn’t deemed as having enough parking, it’s supposed to be seasonal. However, Hicks points out the rule is technically a “guideline” and not an actual “ordinance.” He believes the county has been enforcing a measure that was never officially put in the books.

The County’s web page for Westover Market links to another County page, titled “Guidelines for Outdoor Cafes.” On that document it states: “Unless otherwise required by the County Board, outdoor cafes shall be exempt from any parking requirement.” It goes on to say: “There is no explicit requirement in the Zoning Ordinance that requires them to be temporary or seasonal.”

Of his long-running trouble with the county, Hicks said relations have improved over the past year or so, but he believes he’s currently being unfairly targeted with the enforcement of the seasonal rule.

“We’re just going to go ahead and do what’s legally right,” Hicks said. “There’s nothing in the rules that says it has to be seasonal.”

As I mentioned in the post on the bay area ice cream shop, I suspect the pernicious economic effects of local barriers to entry, rather than those at the state or federal level, are much larger than generally presumed.

The NCAA recently denied Todd O’Brien’s appeal to make use of the Grad Student Transfer Exception — which would allow O’Brien, who graduated St. Joseph’s with a degree in economics, to continue playing basketball while pursuing a graduate degree in Public Administration at University of Alabama-Birmingham.  St. Joe’s, apparently at the behest of a college basketball coach who appears to have has lost sight the purpose of college athletics, refused to allow O’Brien the exemption.  Its permission is required (and has apparently never been withheld in these circumstances).

O’Brien tells his story in a recent column at CNN-Sports Illustrated:

My name is Todd O’Brien. I’m 22 years old. In 2007, I became the first person from Garden Spot High (located in Lancaster County in New Holland, Pa.) to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. I attended Bucknell University from 2007 to 2008, where I made the Patriot League All-Rookie team. After the season, I decided the school and its basketball program weren’t the right fit for me. I wanted to follow the footsteps of my uncle Bruce Frank, a former Penn player, and play in the Big 5. I transferred and was given a full scholarship to play basketball at St. Joe’s for coach Phil Martelli. After sitting out in 2008-2009, I earned the starting center spot for the 2009-2010 season. Though our team struggled, I was able to start 28 games and led the team in rebounding. I also was the recipient of the team’s Academic Achievement award for my work in the classroom.

Entering the next season, I had aspirations of keeping my starting role, increasing my productivity on the court, and most importantly — winning more games. Off the court my goal was to continue getting good grades and to position myself to earn my degree studying Economics.

Things didn’t work out that way for O’Brien as the team struggled and St. Joe’s Coach Martelli opted to play younger players.  O’Brien increased his focus on academics, including graduate school options:
As the season went on things did not improve much, but on a brighter note I entered my last semester as an undergrad. On top of my regular classes, I had picked up an independent study internship at the Delaware County Municipal Building, where the focus of my study was on local economics.Though I still needed to pass three summer courses to officially earn my degree, I was allowed to walk in graduation that May. At the urging of my parents, my Economics advisor and other family friends, I began looking at graduate programs for the fall semester.

O’Brien ultimately decided he would take the summer courses, graduate early, and find a suitable graduate program.  Here is where things get ugly, according to O’Brien’s account:
I met with Coach Martelli to inform him that I would not be returning. I had hoped he would be understanding; just a few weeks before, we had stood next to each other at graduation as my parents snapped photo. Unfortunately, he did not take it well. After calling me a few choice words, he informed me that he would make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate. He also said that he was going to sue me. When he asked if I still planned on leaving, I was at a loss for words. He calmed down a bit and said we should think this over then meet again in a few days. I left his office angry and worried he would make me drop the classes.
A few days later I again met with Coach Martelli. This time I stopped by athletic director Don DiJulia’s office beforehand to inform him of my decision. I told him I would be applying to grad schools elsewhere. He was very nice and understanding. He wished me the best of luck and said to keep in touch. Relieved that Mr. DiJulia had taken the news well, I went to Coach Martelli’s office. I told him that my mind had not changed, and that I planned on enrolling in grad school elsewhere. I recall his words vividly: “Regardless of what the rule is I’ll never release you. If you’re not playing basketball at St. Joe’s next year, you won’t be playing anywhere.”
St. Joe’s never agreed to sign the release.  O’Brien appealed to the NCAA.  Here is his account:

With no movement on Saint Joseph’s end, my faith was left in the hands of a five-member NCAA committee. I pleaded my case, stating how St Joe’s was acting in a vindictive manner and how the NCAA must protect its student-athletes. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about how much it would hurt to lose my final season of college basketball, not just for me but for my parents, sisters and all of my relatives who take pride in watching me play. To work so hard for something, waking up at 6 a.m. to run miles on a track, spending countless hours spent in the gym shooting, and to have it all taken away because a head coach felt disrespected that I left in order to further pursue academics? It’s just not right.

Later that day the NCAA contacted UAB to inform the school that my waiver had been denied. The rules state that I needed my release from St. Joe’s, and I didn’t have it. I am the first person to be denied this waiver based on a school’s refusal. I was crestfallen. The NCAA has done a lot for me in life — I’ve gotten a free education, I’ve traveled the country playing basketball, and for all of this I am thankful. But in this instance I think they really dropped the ball. To deny a grad student eligibility to play based on the bitter opinion of a coach? You can’t be afraid to set precedent if it means doing the right thing.

My lawyer continues to plead to St Joe’s to release me, but the school no longer will discuss the issue. When my parents try to contact Coach Martelli, Don Dijulia, or President Smithson, they hide behind their legal counsel. When we try to contact the legal counsel, they hide behind the NCAA. A simple e-mail from any one of them saying they no longer object to me playing would have me suited up in uniform tomorrow, yet they refuse.

So here I am, several states away from home, practicing with the team every day, working hard on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom. I keep the faith that one day (soon, I hope) somebody from St. Joe’s will step up and do the right thing, so if that day comes I’ll be ready. I just finished my first semester of grad classes, and I enjoy it a lot. When somebody asked if I would be leaving to try to play overseas now that I’ve been denied the ability to play here, I said no. I said it before and I’m sticking to it — I’m here to get a graduate degree.

Whenever I get frustrated about the situation, I think back to something my mother told me on the phone one day. “This isn’t the end of basketball. Basketball ends when you want it to, whether that’s next year, in five years, or in 50 years. You control your relationship with the game, and nobody, not St. Joe’s, not the NCAA, can take that away from you.”

But right now, they sure are trying to.

If O’Brien’s account is even close to accurate, St. Joe’s — and especially Coach Martelli — should be ashamed of themselves.  As should the NCAA. The latter is nothing new.  But Coach Martelli and St. Joe’s has the opportunity to correct this — and they should.
Good luck to O’Brien.