Archives For barriers to entry

Earlier this month New Jersey became the most recent (but likely not the last) state to ban direct sales of automobiles. Although the rule nominally applies more broadly, it is directly aimed at keeping Tesla Motors (or at least its business model) out of New Jersey. Automobile dealers have offered several arguments why the rule is in the public interest, but a little basic economics reveals that these arguments are meritless.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics sent an open letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, urging reconsideration of the regulation and explaining why the rule is unjustified — except as rent-seeking protectionism by independent auto dealers.

The letter, which was principally written by University of Michigan law professor, Dan Crane, and based in large part on his blog posts here at Truth on the Market (see here and here), was signed by more than 70 economists and law professors.

As the letter notes:

The Motor Vehicle Commission’s regulation was aimed specifically at stopping one company, Tesla Motors, from directly distributing its electric cars. But the regulation would apply equally to any other innovative manufacturer trying to bring a new automobile to market, as well. There is no justification on any rational economic or public policy grounds for such a restraint of commerce. Rather, the upshot of the regulation is to reduce competition in New Jersey’s automobile market for the benefit of its auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers. It is protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple.

The letter explains at length the economics of retail distribution and the misguided, anti-consumer logic of the regulation.

The letter concludes:

In sum, we have not heard a single argument for a direct distribution ban that makes any sense. To the contrary, these arguments simply bolster our belief that the regulations in question are motivated by economic protectionism that favors dealers at the expense of consumers and innovative technologies. It is discouraging to see this ban being used to block a company that is bringing dynamic and environmentally friendly products to market. We strongly encourage you to repeal it, by new legislation if necessary.

Among the letter’s signatories are some of the country’s most prominent legal scholars and economists from across the political spectrum.

Read the letter here:

Open Letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the Direct Automobile Distribution Ban

Who’s Flying The Plane?

Michael Sykuta —  12 November 2012

It’s an appropriate question, both figuratively and literally. Today’s news headlines are now warning of a looming pilot shortage. A combination of new qualification standards for new pilots and a large percentage of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 is creating the prospect of having too few pilots for the US airline industry.

But it still begs the question of “Why?” According to the WSJ article linked above, the new regulations require newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience. What’s striking about that number is that it is six times the current requirement, significantly increasing the cost (and time) of training to be a pilot.

Why such a huge increase in training requirements? I don’t fly as often as some of my colleagues, but do fly often enough to be concerned that the person in the front of the plane knows what they’re doing. I appreciate the public safety concerns that must have been at the forefront of the regulatory debate. But the facts don’t support an argument that public safety is endangered by the current level of experience pilots are required to attain. Quite the contrary, the past decade has been among the safest ever for airline passengers. In fact, the WSJ reports that:

Congress’s 2010 vote to require 1,500 hours of experience in August 2013 came in the wake of several regional-airline accidents, although none had been due to pilots having fewer than 1,500 hours.

Indeed, to the extent human error has been involved in airline accidents and near misses over the past decade, federally employed air traffic controllers, not privately employed pilots, have been more to blame.

The coincidence of such a staggering increase in training requirements for new pilots and the impending mandatory retirement of a large percentage of current pilots suggests that perhaps other forces were at work behind the scenes when Congress passed the rules in 2010. Legislative proposals are often written by special interests just waiting in the wings (no pun intended) for an opportune moment. Given the downsizing and cost-reduction focus of the US airline industry over the past many years, no group has been more disadvantaged and no group stands more to gain from the new rules than current pilots and the pilots unions.

And so the question, as we face this looming shortage of newly qualified pilots: Who’s flying the plane?

 

Free Uber

Josh Wright —  6 September 2012

From the NY Times:

Uber, a company based in San Francisco, is introducing a smartphone app to New York that allows available taxi drivers and cab-seeking riders to find one another. The company said the service would begin operating on Wednesday in 105 cabs — a bit less than 1 percent of the city’s more than 13,000 yellow cabs. Uber added that it hoped to recruit 100 new drivers each week.

But the program may have a significant problem: Taxi officials say that Uber’s service may not be legal since city rules do not allow for prearranged rides in yellow taxis. They also forbid cabbies from using electronic devices while driving and prohibit any unjustified refusal of fares. (Under Uber’s policy, once a driver accepts a ride through the app, no other passenger can be picked up.)

So, who else might be interested in fighting the rise of Uber and similar services?

The influx of apps appears to have created a moment of unity among yellow-taxi, livery and black-car operators, all of whom have raised concerns about the apps’ legality. Some industry officials said the commission was not acting forcefully enough; the result, said Avik Kabessa, the chief executive of Carmel Car and Limousine Service and a member of the board of the Livery Roundtable, a group representing livery drivers, is a New York City version of “the Wild West.”  An analysis conducted by the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents yellow-taxi operators, identified what it deemed to be 11 potential violations of taxi guidelines in Uber’s model. These included charging a tip automatically, not allowing for cash payments and turning away passengers while being on duty.

Uber and similar services face similar threats in other cities, including here in DC, where Uber faced the “Uber Amendments” which would require Uber to charge five times the price of a cab!  At least the DC Commission was incredibly clear about the role of the regulation: to suppress competition and harm consumers:

Explanation and Rationale
· This section would clarify how sedan services operate.

· Sedans would be required to charge a minimum fare of 5 times the drop rate for taxicabs.

· Sedans would be required to charge time and distance rates that are greater as those for taxicabs.

· These requirements would ensure that sedan service is a premium class of service with a substantially higher cost that does not directly compete with or undercut taxicab service.

Here is Uber’s response to the DC Council:

The Council’s intention is to prevent Uber from being a viable alternative to taxis by enacting a price floor to set Uber’s minimum fare at today’s rates and no less than 5 times a taxi’s minimum fare. Consequently they are handicapping a reliable, high quality transportation alternative so that Uber cannot offer a high quality service at the best possible price. It was hard for us to believe that an elected body would choose to keep prices of a transportation service artificially high – but the goal is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significantexperience in influencing local politicians. They want to make sure there is no viable alternative to a taxi in Washington DC, and so on Tuesday (tomorrow!), the DC City Council is going to formalize that principle into law.

There appears to be subsequent history, including a temporary shelving of the Amendment with the potential to bring it back on its own in the future.  Councilwoman and George Washington Law Prof Mary Cheh is a force behind the Uber Amendment and complained that a settlement could not be reached with Uber that would shed the requirement of having prices 5 times higher, but retain a price differential in the name of shielding taxi cabs from competition (emphasis my own):

Establishing a minimum fare is important to distinguish premium sedan service from traditional taxicab service and to prevent sedans from directly competing with or undercuting taxicabs.  Taxi companies want minimum fares that are much higher than what I am proposing in my amendment.  However, I believe that simply preserving the status quo is appropriate and reasonable.

I am deeply disappointed that Uber has decided that it no longer supports this amendment that we negotiated in good faith.  The taxi industry is one that has been regulated for a very long time.  If Uber wishes to operate taxis, then it is free to do so, but it should then be subject to the same regulations and requirements of taxis.

As I frequently point out on the blog, local barriers to entry cause substantially greater dissipation of consumer surplus than is conventionally acknowledged (e.g., here, here, and here).

HT: Hal Singer.

Food trucks must remain at least 200 feet away from restaurants under the new Chicago regulation (HT: Reason).  It also appears food trucks must carry a GPS that will allow detection of violations (parking within 200 feet of a restaurant — apparently, any restaurant) which carry a fine of up to $2,000.  Protection of restaurants is the obvious and apparently express rationale for the restraint imposed upon food trucks:

“We see no health or safety justification behind the 200-foot rule, and the city has never offered one,” says Kregor. “The only explanation for the rule is the restaurants’ demand for protectionism and the city government’s deference to those demands.”  That’s no exaggeration. Even supporters of the new regulations freely admit they’re designed to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants.  “We want food trucks to make money, but we don’t want to hurt brick-and-mortar restaurants,” says Alderman Walter Burnett.

Chicago’s Institute for Justice has more.

I continue to think, as I’ve mentioned here previously, the consumer welfare losses associated with local and city barriers to entry are greatly underestimated.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is being justly criticized for his rather silly idea of banning sales of sugar drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces in various public venues.  Most of the critics focus on the paternalism (updated to be now called  nannyism) of this ban.  However,  aside from being paternalistic, it is also useless.  As Jon Klick and Eric Helland have shown, there is no scientific basis for thinking that limiting consumption of sugared drinks will have any effect on obesity.

But on another front Mayor Bloomberg is on the right side.  One of the less pleasant aspects of New York is the difficulty of getting a cab — especially during the evening rush hour.  Cab drivers all change shifts at about 5 PM, so when demand is greatest there are no cabs.  They are all in Queens changing drivers.  This is because of the inefficient pricing structure imposed on cabs.  But in addition the number of cabs (medallions) is severely limited.  There are 13,237 licensed cabs in New York. In the 1930s, before the medallion system was created, there were as many as 30,000. If there were more cabs, the problem of access would be at least be alleviated.

Enter Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to increase the number of cabs in two ways.  One prong is to authorize “livery ” cabs to answer street hails in boroughs other than Manhattan.  The second prong is to create 2000 new yellow cab medallions in Manhattan.  Unfortunately, as a result of a suit brought by the taxi industry, a Supreme Court judge has just stopped this plan. The city may appeal, in part because it was depending on the revenue from the sale of the new licenses.

Why is the Mayor taking a strong pro-market position with respect to taxis but an anti market position with respect to soft drinks (and other aspects of food, such as salt content)?  Mayor Bloomberg is a very smart man, but he seems to lack a coherent theory of markets.  As a result, his actions sometimes facilitate the functioning of markets and sometimes hinder them, depending on his intuition about what will improve consumer welfare.  It would be better if he were always right, but being half right is better than some politicians.

I’ve posted to SSRN an article written for the Antitrust Law Journal symposium on the Neo-Chicago School of Antitrust.  The article is entitled “Abandoning Chicago’s Antitrust Obsession: The Case for Evidence-Based Antitrust,” and focuses upon what I believe to be a central obstacle to the continued evolution of sensible antitrust rules in the courts and agencies: the dramatic proliferation of economic theories which could be used to explain antitrust-relevant business conduct. That proliferation has given rise to a need for a commitment to develop sensible criteria for selecting among these theories; a commitment not present in modern antitrust institutions.  I refer to this as the “model selection problem,” describe how reliance upon shorthand labels and descriptions of the various “Chicago Schools” have distracted from the development of solutions to this problem, and raise a number of promising approaches to embedding a more serious commitment to empirical testing within modern antitrust.

Here is the abstract.

The antitrust community retains something of an inconsistent attitude towards evidence-based antitrust.  Commentators, judges, and scholars remain supportive of evidence-based antitrust, even vocally so; nevertheless, antitrust scholarship and policy discourse continues to press forward advocating the use of one theory over another as applied in a specific case, or one school over another with respect to the class of models that should inform the structure of antitrust’s rules and presumptions, without tethering those questions to an empirical benchmark.  This is a fundamental challenge facing modern antitrust institutions, one that I call the “model selection problem.”  The three goals of this article are to describe the model selection problem, to demonstrate that the intense focus upon so-called schools within the antitrust community has exacerbated the problem, and to offer a modest proposal to help solve the model selection problem.  This proposal has two major components: abandonment of terms like “Chicago School,” “Neo-Chicago School,” and “Post-Chicago School,” and replacement of those terms with a commitment to testing economic theories with economic knowledge and empirical data to support those theories with the best predictive power.  I call this approach “evidence-based antitrust.”  I conclude by discussing several promising approaches to embedding an appreciation for empirical testing more deeply within antitrust institutions.

I would refer interested readers to the work of my colleagues Tim Muris and Bruce Kobayashi (also prepared for the Antitrust L.J. symposium) Chicago, Post-Chicago, and Beyond: Time to Let Go of the 20th Century, which also focuses upon similar themes.

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.