On Debating Imaginary Felds

Gus Hurwitz —  18 September 2013

Harold Feld, in response to a recent Washington Post interview with AEI’s Jeff Eisenach about AEI’s new Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, accused “neo-conservative economists (or, as [Feld] might generalize, the ‘Right’)” of having “stopped listening to people who disagree with them. As a result, they keep saying the same thing over and over again.”

(Full disclosure: The Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy includes TechPolicyDaily.com, to which I am a contributor.)

Perhaps to the surprise of many, I’m going to agree with Feld. But in so doing, I’m going to expand upon his point: The problem with anti-economics social activists (or, as we might generalize, the ‘Left’)[*] is that they have stopped listening to people who disagree with them. As a result, they keep saying the same thing over and over again.

I don’t mean this to be snarky. Rather, it is a very real problem throughout modern political discourse, and one that we participants in telecom and media debates frequently contribute to. One of the reasons that I love – and sometimes hate – researching and teaching in this area is that fundamental tensions between government and market regulation lie at its core. These tensions present challenging and engaging questions, making work in this field exciting, but are sometimes intractable and often evoke passion instead of analysis, making work in this field seem Sisyphean.

One of these tensions is how to secure for consumers those things which the market does not (appear to) do a good job of providing. For instance, those of us on both the left and right are almost universally agreed that universal service is a desirable goal. The question – for both sides – is how to provide it. Feld reminds us that “real world economics is painfully complicated.” I would respond to him that “real world regulation is painfully complicated.”

I would point at Feld, while jumping up and down shouting “J’accuse! Nirvana Fallacy!” – but I’m certain that Feld is aware of this fallacy, just as I hope he’s aware that those of us who have spent much of our lives studying economics are bitterly aware that economics and markets are complicated things. Indeed, I think those of us who study economics are even more aware of this than is Feld – it is, after all, one of our mantras that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” This mantra is particularly apt in telecommunications, where one of the most consistent and important lessons of the past century has been that the market tends to outperform regulation.

This isn’t because the market is perfect; it’s because regulation is less perfect. Geoff recently posted a salient excerpt from Tom Hazlett’s 1997 Reason interview of Ronald Coase, in which Coase recounted that “When I was editor of The Journal of Law and Economics, we published a whole series of studies of regulation and its effects. Almost all the studies – perhaps all the studies – suggested that the results of regulation had been bad, that the prices were higher, that the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been.”

I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat over individual points that Feld makes. But I will look at one as an example: his citation to The Market for Lemons. This is a classic paper, in which Akerlof shows that information asymmetries can cause rational markets to unravel. But does it, as Feld says, show “market failure in the presence of robust competition?” That is a hotly debated point in the economics literature. One view – the dominant view, I believe – is that it does not. See, e.g., the EconLib discussion (“Akerlof did not conclude that the lemon problem necessarily implies a role for government”). Rather, the market has responded through the formation of firms that service and certify used cars, document car maintenance, repairs and accidents, warranty cars, and suffer reputational harms for selling lemons. Of course, folks argue, and have long argued, both sides. As Feld says, economics is painfully complicated – it’s a shame he draws a simple and reductionist conclusion from one of the seminal articles is modern economics, and a further shame he uses that conclusion to buttress his policy position. J’accuse!

I hope that this is in no way taken as an attack on Feld – and I wish his piece was less of an attack on Jeff. Fundamentally, he raises a very important point, that there is a real disconnect between the arguments used by the “left” and “right” and how those arguments are understood by the other. Indeed, some of my current work is exploring this very disconnect and how it affects telecom debates. I’m really quite thankful to Feld for highlighting his concern that at least one side is blind to the views of the other – I hope that he’ll be receptive to the idea that his side is subject to the same criticism.

[*] I do want to respond specifically to what I think is an important confusion in Feld piece, which motivated my admittedly snarky labelling of the “left.” I think that he means “neoclassical economics,” not “neo-conservative economics” (which he goes on to dub “Neocon economics”). Neoconservativism is a political and intellectual movement, focused primarily on US foreign policy – it is rarely thought of as a particular branch of economics. To the extent that it does hold to a view of economics, it is actually somewhat skeptical of free markets, especially of lack of moral grounding and propensity to forgo traditional values in favor of short-run, hedonistic, gains.