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Chances are, if you have heard of the Jones Act, you probably think it needs to be repealed. That is, at least, the consensus in the economics profession. However, this consensus seems to be driven by an application of the sort of rules of thumb that one picks up from economics courses, rather than an application of economic theory.

For those who are unaware, the Jones Act requires that any shipping between two U.S. ports is carried by a U.S.-built ship with a crew of U.S. citizens that is U.S.-owned and flies the U.S. flag. When those who have memorized some of the rules of thumb in the field of economics hear that description, they immediately think “this is protectionism and protectionism is bad.” It therefore seems obvious that the Jones Act must be bad. After all, based on this description, it seems like it is designed to protect U.S. shipbuilders, U.S. crews, and U.S.-flagged ships from foreign competition.

Critics seize on this narrative. They point to the higher cost of Jones Act ships in comparison to those ships that fly foreign flags and argue that the current law has costs that are astronomical. Based on that type of criticism, the Jones Act seems so obviously costly that one might wonder how it is possible to defend the law in any way.

I reject this criticism. I do not reject this over some minor quibble with the numbers. In true Hendricksonian fashion, I reject this criticism because it gets the underlying economic theory wrong.

Let’s start by thinking about some critical issues in Coasean terms. During peacetime, the U.S. Navy does not need maintain the sort of capacity that it would have during a time of war. It would not be cost-effective to do so. However, the Navy would like to expand its capacity rapidly in the event of a war or other national emergency. To do so, the country needs shipbuilding capacity. Building ships and training crews to operate those ships, however, takes time. This might be time that the Navy does not have. At the very least, this could leave the United States at a significant disadvantage.

Of course, there are ships and crews available in the form of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Thus, there are gains from trade to be had. The government could pay the Merchant Marine to provide sealift during times of war and other national emergencies. However, this compensation scheme is complicated. For example, if the government waits until a war or a national emergency, this could create a holdup problem. Knowing that the government needs the Merchant Marine immediately, the holdup problem could result in the government paying well-above-market prices to obtain these services. On the other hand, the government could simply requisition the ships and draft the crews into service whenever there is a war or national emergency. Knowing that this is a possibility, the Merchant Marine would tend to underinvest in both physical and human capital.

Given these problems, the solution is to agree to terms ahead of time. The Merchant Marine agrees to provide their services to the government during times of war and other national emergencies in exchange for compensation. The way to structure that compensation in order to avoid holdup problems and underinvestment is to provide this compensation in the form of peacetime subsidies.

Thus, the government provides peacetime subsidies in exchange for the services of the Merchant Marine during wartime. This is a straightforward Coasean bargain.

Now, let’s think about the Jones Act. The Jones Act ships are implicitly subsidized because ships that do not meet the law’s criteria are not allowed to engage in port-to-port shipping in the United States. The requirement that these ships need to be U.S.-owned and fly the U.S. flag gives the government the legal authority to call these ships into service. The requirement that the ships are built in the United States is designed to ensure that the ships meet the needs of the U.S. military and to subsidize shipbuilding in the United States. The requirement to use U.S. crews is designed to provide an incentive for the accumulation of the necessary human capital. Since the law restricts ships with these characteristics for port-to-port shipping within the United States, it provides the firms rents to compensate them for their service during wartime and national emergencies.

Critics, of course, are likely to argue that I have a “just so” theory of the Jones Act. In other words, they might argue that I have simply structured an economic narrative around a set of existing facts. Those critics would be wrong for the following reasons.

First, the Jones Act is not some standalone law when it comes to maritime policy. There is a long history in the United States of trying to determine the optimal way to subsidize the maritime industry. Second, if this type of policy is just a protectionist giveaway, then it should be confined to the maritime industry. However, this isn’t true. The United States has a long history of subsidizing transportation that is crucial for use in the military. This includes subsidies for horse-breeding and the airline industry. Finally, critics would have to explain why wasteful maritime policies have been quickly overturned, while the Jones Act continues to survive.

The critics also dramatically overstate the costs of the Jones Act. This is partly because they do not understand the particularities of the law. For example, to estimate the costs, critics often compare the cost of the Jones Act ships to ships that fly a foreign flag and use foreign crews. The argument here is that the repeal of the Jones Act would result in these foreign-flagged ships with foreign crews taking over U.S. port-to-port shipping.

There are two problems with this argument. One, cabotage restrictions do not originate with the Jones Act. Rather, the law clarifies and closes loopholes in previous laws. Second, the use of foreign crews would be a violation of U.S. immigration law. Furthermore, this type of shipping would still be subject to other U.S. laws to which these foreign-flagged ships are not subject today. Given that the overwhelming majority of the cost differential is explained by differences in labor costs, it therefore seems hard to understand from where, exactly, the cost savings of repeal would actually come.

None of this is to say that the Jones Act is the first-best policy or that the law is sufficient to accomplish the military’s goals. In fact, the one thing that critics and advocates of the law seem to agree on is that the law is not sufficient to accomplish the intended goals. My own work implies a need for direct subsidies (or lower tax rates) on the capital used by the maritime industry. However, the critics need to be honest and admit that, even if the law were repealed, the cost savings are nowhere near what they claim. In addition, this wouldn’t be the end of maritime subsidies (in fact, other subsidies already exist). Instead, the Jones Act would likely be replaced by some other form of subsidy to the maritime industry.

Many defense-based arguments of subsidies are dubious. However, in the case of maritime policy, the Coasean bargain is clear.

Economist Josh Hendrickson asserts that the Jones Act is properly understood as a Coasean bargain. In this view, the law serves as a subsidy to the U.S. maritime industry through its restriction of waterborne domestic commerce to vessels that are constructed in U.S. shipyards, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed. Such protectionism, it is argued, provides the government with ready access to these assets, rather than taking precious time to build them up during times of conflict.

We are skeptical of this characterization.

Although there is an implicit bargain behind the Jones Act, its relationship to the work of Ronald Coase is unclear. Coase is best known for his theorem on the use of bargains and exchanges to reduce negative externalities. But the negative externality is that the Jones Act attempts to address is not apparent. While it may be more efficient or effective than the government building up its own shipbuilding, vessels, and crew in times of war, that’s rather different than addressing an externality. The Jones Act may reflect an implied exchange between the domestic maritime industry and government, but there does not appear to be anything particularly Coasean about it.

Rather, close scrutiny reveals this arrangement between government and industry to be a textbook example of policy failure and rent-seeking run amok. The Jones Act is not a bargain, but a rip-off, with costs and benefits completely out of balance.

The Jones Act and National Defense

For all of the talk of the Jones Act’s critical role in national security, its contributions underwhelm. Ships offer a case in point. In times of conflict, the U.S. military’s primary sources of transport are not Jones Act vessels but government-owned ships in the Military Sealift Command and Ready Reserve Force fleets. These are further supplemented by the 60 non-Jones Act U.S.-flag commercial ships enrolled in the Maritime Security Program, a subsidy arrangement by which ships are provided $5 million per year in exchange for the government’s right to use them in time of need.

In contrast, Jones Act ships are used only sparingly. That’s understandable, as removing these vessels from domestic trade would leave a void in the country’s transportation needs not easily filled.

The law’s contributions to domestic shipbuilding are similarly meager. if not outright counterproductive. A mere two to three large, oceangoing commercial ships are delivered by U.S. shipyards per year. That’s not per shipyard, but all U.S. shipyards combined.

Given the vastly uncompetitive state of domestic shipbuilding—a predictable consequence of handing the industry a captive domestic market via the Jones Act’s U.S.-built requirement—there is a little appetite for what these shipyards produce. As Hendrickson himself points out, the domestic build provision serves to “discourage shipbuilders from innovating and otherwise pursuing cost-saving production methods since American shipbuilders do not face international competition.” We could not agree more.

What keeps U.S. shipyards active and available to meet the military’s needs is not work for the Jones Act commercial fleet but rather government orders. A 2015 Maritime Administration report found that such business accounts for 70 percent of revenue for the shipbuilding and repair industry. A 2019 American Enterprise Institute study concluded that, among U.S. shipbuilders that construct both commercial and military ships, Jones Act vessels accounted for less than 5 percent of all shipbuilding orders.

If the Jones Act makes any contributions of note at all, it is mariners. Of those needed to crew surge sealift ships during times of war, the Jones Act fleet is estimated to account for 29 percent. But here the Jones Act also acts as a double-edged sword. By increasing the cost of ships to four to five times the world price, the law’s U.S.-built requirement results in a smaller fleet with fewer mariners employed than would otherwise be the case. That’s particularly noteworthy given government calculations that there is a deficit of roughly 1,800 mariners to crew its fleet in the event of a sustained sealift operation.

Beyond its ruinous impact on the competitiveness of domestic shipbuilding, the Jones Act has had other deleterious consequences for national security. The increased cost of waterborne transport, or its outright impossibility in the case of liquefied natural gas and propane, results in reduced self-reliance for critical energy supplies. This is a sufficiently significant issue that members of the National Security Council unsuccessfully sought a long-term Jones Act waiver in 2019. The law also means fewer redundancies and less flexibility in the country’s transportation system when responding to crises, both natural and manmade. Waivers of the Jones Act can be issued, but this highly politicized process eats up precious days when time is of the essence. All of these factors merit consideration in the overall national security calculus.

To review, the Jones Act’s opaque and implicit subsidy—doled out via protectionism—results in anemic and uncompetitive shipbuilding, few ships available in time of war, and fewer mariners than would otherwise be the case without its U.S.-built requirement. And it has other consequences for national security that are not only underwhelming but plainly negative. Little wonder that Hendrickson concedes it is unclear whether U.S. maritime policy—of which the Jones Act plays a foundational role—achieves its national security goals.

The toll exacted in exchange for the Jones Act’s limited benefits, meanwhile, is considerable. According to a 2019 OECD study, the law’s repeal would increase domestic value added by $19-$64 billion. Incredibly, that estimate may actually understate matters. Not included in this estimate are related costs such as environmental degradation, increased congestion and highway maintenance, and retaliation from U.S. trade partners during free-trade agreement negotiations due to U.S. unwillingness to liberalize the Jones Act.

Against such critiques, Hendrickson posits that substantial cost savings are illusory due to immigration and other U.S. laws. But how big a barrier such laws would pose is unclear. It’s worth considering, for example, that cruise ships with foreign crews are able to visit multiple U.S. ports so long as a foreign port is also included on the voyage. The granting of Jones Act waivers, meanwhile, has enabled foreign ships to transport cargo between U.S. ports in the past despite U.S. immigration laws.

Would Chinese-flagged and crewed barges be able to engage in purely domestic trade on the Mississippi River absent the Jones Act? Almost certainly not. But it seems perfectly plausible that foreign ships already sailing between U.S. ports as part of international voyages—a frequent occurrence—could engage in cabotage movements without hiring U.S. crews. Take, for example, APL’s Eagle Express X route that stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Dutch Harbor as well as Asian ports. Without the Jones Act, it’s reasonable to believe that ships operating on this route could transport goods from Los Angeles to Honolulu before continuing on to foreign destinations.

But if the Jones Act fails to meet U.S. national security benefits while imposing substantial costs, how to explain its continued survival? Hendrickson avers that the law’s longevity reflects its utility. We believe, however, that the answer lies in the application of public choice theory. Simply put, the law’s costs are both opaque and dispersed across the vast expanse of the U.S. economy while its benefits are highly concentrated. The law’s de facto subsidy is also vastly oversupplied, given that the vast majority of vessels under its protection are smaller craft such as tugboats and barges with trivial value to the country’s sealift capability. This has spawned a lobby aggressively dedicated to the Jones Act’s preservation. Washington, D.C. is home to numerous industry groups and labor organizations that regard the law’s maintenance as critical, but not a single one that views its repeal as a top priority.

It’s instructive in this regard that all four senators from Alaska and Hawaii are strong Jones Act supporters despite their states being disproportionately burdened by the law. This seeming oddity is explained by these states also being disproportionately home to maritime interest groups that support the law. In contrast, Jones Act critics Sen. Mike Lee and the late Sen. John McCain both hailed from land-locked states home to few maritime interest groups.

Disagreements, but also Common Ground

For all of our differences with Hendrickson, however, there is substantial common ground. We are in shared agreement that the Jones Act is suboptimal policy, that its ability to achieve its goals is unclear, and that its U.S.-built requirement is particularly ripe for removal. Where our differences lie is mostly in the scale of gains to be realized from the law’s reform or repeal. As such, there is no reason to maintain the failed status quo. The Jones Act should be repealed and replaced with targeted, transparent, and explicit subsidies to meet the country’s sealift needs. Both the country’s economy and national security would be rewarded—richly so, in our opinion—from such policy change.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Tim Brennan, (Professor, Economics & Public Policy, University of Maryland; former FCC; former FTC).]

Thinking about how to think about the coronavirus situation I keep coming back to three economic ideas that seem distinct but end up being related. First, a back of the envelope calculation suggests shutting down the economy for a while to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This leads to my second point, that political viability, if not simple fairness, dictates that the winners compensate the losers. The extent of both of these forces my main point, to understand why we can’t just “get the prices right” and let the market take care of it. Insisting that the market works in this situation could undercut the very strong arguments for why we should defer to markets in the vast majority of circumstances.

Is taking action worth it?

The first question is whether shutting down the economy to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is a good bet. Being an economist, I turn to benefit-cost analysis (BCA). All I can offer here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, which may be an insult to envelopes. (This paper has a more serious calculation with qualitatively similar findings.) With all caveats recognized, the willingness to pay of an average person in the US to social distancing and closure policies, WTP, is

        WTP = X% times Y% times VSL,

where X% is the fraction of the population that might be seriously affected, Y% is the reduction in the likelihood of death for this population from these policies, and VSL is the “value of statistical life” used in BCA calculations, in the ballpark of $9.5M.

For X%, take the percentage of the population over 65 (a demographic including me). This is around 16%. I’m not an epidemiologist, so for Y%, the reduced likelihood of death (either from reduced transmission or reduced hospital overload), I can only speculate. Say it’s 1%, which naively seems pretty small. Even with that, the average willingness to pay would be

        WTP = 16% times 1% times $9.5M = $15,200.

Multiply that by a US population of roughly 330M gives a total national WTP of just over $5 trillion, or about 23% of GDP. Using conventional measures, this looks like a good trade in an aggregate benefit-cost sense, even leaving out willingness to pay to reduce the likelihood of feeling sick and the benefits to those younger than 65. Of course, among the caveats is not just whether to impose distancing and closures, but how long to have them (number of weeks), how severe they should be (gathering size limits, coverage of commercial establishments), and where they should be imposed (closing schools, colleges).  

Actual, not just hypothetical, compensation

The justification for using BCA is that the winners could compensate the losers. In the coronavirus setting, the equity considerations are profound. Especially when I remember that GDP is not a measure of consumer surplus, I ask myself how many months of the disruption (and not just lost wages) from unemployment should low-income waiters, cab drivers, hotel cleaners, and the like bear to reduce my over-65 likelihood of dying. 

Consequently, an important component of this policy to respect equity and quite possibly obtaining public acceptance is that the losers be compensated. In that respect, the justification for packages such as the proposal working (as I write) through Congress is not stimulus—after all, it’s  harder to spend money these days—as much as compensating those who’ve lost jobs as a result of this policy. Stimulus can come when the economy is ready to be jump-started.

Markets don’t always work, perhaps like now 

This brings me to a final point—why is this a public policy matter? My answer to almost any policy question is the glib “just get the prices right and the market will take care of it.” That doesn’t seem all that popular now. Part of that is the politics of fairness: Should the wealthy get the ventilators? Should hoarding of hand sanitizer be rewarded? But much of it may be a useful reminder that markets do not work seamlessly and instantaneously, and may not be the best allocation mechanism in critical times.

That markets are not always best should be a familiar theme to TOTM readers. The cost of using markets is the centerpiece for Ronald Coase’s 1937 Nature of the Firm and 1960 Problem of Social Cost justification for allocation through the courts. Many of us, including me on TOTM, have invoked these arguments to argue against public interventions in the structure of firms, particularly antitrust actions regarding vertical integration. Another common theme is that the common law tends toward efficiency because of the market-like evolutionary processes in property, tort, and contract case law.

This perspective is a useful reminder that the benefits of markets should always be “compared to what?” In one familiar case, the benefits of markets are clear when compared to the snail’s pace, limited information, and political manipulability of administrative price setting. But when one is talking about national emergencies and the inelastic demands, distributional consequences, and the lack of time for the price mechanism to work its wonders, one can understand and justify the use of the plethora of mandates currently imposed or contemplated. 

The common law also appears not to be a good alternative. One can imagine the litigation nightmare if everyone who got the virus attempted to identify and sue some defendant for damages. A similar nightmare awaits if courts were tasked with determning how the risk of a pandemic would have been allocated were contracts ideal.

Much of this may be belaboring the obvious. My concern is that if those of us who appreciate the virtues of markets exaggerate their applicability, those skeptical of markets may use this episode to say that markets inherently fail and more of the economy should be publicly administered. Better to rely on facts rather than ideology, and to regard the current situation as the awful but justifiable exception that proves the general rule.

[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

There’s always a reason to block a merger:

  • If a firm is too big, it will be because it is “a merger for monopoly”;
  • If the firms aren’t that big, it will be for “coordinated effects”;
  • If a firm is small, then it will be because it will “eliminate a maverick”.

It’s a version of Ronald Coase’s complaint about antitrust, as related by William Landes:

Ronald said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down, they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same, they said it was tacit collusion.

Of all the reasons to block a merger, the maverick notion is the weakest, and it’s well past time to ditch it.

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines define a “maverick” as “a firm that plays a disruptive role in the market to the benefit of customers.” According to the Guidelines, this includes firms:

  1. With a new technology or business model that threatens to disrupt market conditions;
  2. With an incentive to take the lead in price cutting or other competitive conduct or to resist increases in industry prices;
  3. That resist otherwise prevailing industry norms to cooperate on price setting or other terms of competition; and/or
  4. With an ability and incentive to expand production rapidly using available capacity to “discipline prices.”

There appears to be no formal model of maverick behavior that does not rely on some a priori assumption that the firm is a maverick.

For example, John Kwoka’s 1989 model assumes the maverick firm has different beliefs about how competing firms would react if the maverick varies its output or price. Louis Kaplow and Carl Shapiro developed a simple model in which the firm with the smallest market share may play the role of a maverick. They note, however, that this raises the question—in a model in which every firm faces the same cost and demand conditions—why would there be any variation in market shares? The common solution, according to Kaplow and Shapiro, is cost asymmetries among firms. If that is the case, then “maverick” activity is merely a function of cost, rather than some uniquely maverick-like behavior.

The idea of the maverick firm requires that the firm play a critical role in the market. The maverick must be the firm that outflanks coordinated action or acts as a bulwark against unilateral action. By this loosey goosey definition of maverick, a single firm can make the difference between success or failure of anticompetitive behavior by its competitors. Thus, the ability and incentive to expand production rapidly is a necessary condition for a firm to be considered a maverick. For example, Kaplow and Shapiro explain:

Of particular note is the temptation of one relatively small firm to decline to participate in the collusive arrangement or secretly to cut prices to serve, say, 4% rather than 2% of the market. As long as price cuts by a small firm are less likely to be accurately observed or inferred by the other firms than are price cuts by larger firms, the presence of small firms that are capable of expanding significantly is especially disruptive to effective collusion.

A “maverick” firm’s ability to “discipline prices” depends crucially on its ability to expand output in the face of increased demand for its products. Similarly, the other non-maverick firms can be “disciplined” by the maverick only in the face of a credible threat of (1) a noticeable drop in market share that (2) leads to lower profits.

The government’s complaint in AT&T/T-Mobile’s 2011 proposed merger alleges:

Relying on its disruptive pricing plans, its improved high-speed HSPA+ network, and a variety of other initiatives, T-Mobile aimed to grow its nationwide share to 17 percent within the next several years, and to substantially increase its presence in the enterprise and government market. AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile would eliminate the important price, quality, product variety, and innovation competition that an independent T-Mobile brings to the marketplace.

At the time of the proposed merger, T-Mobile accounted for 11% of U.S. wireless subscribers. At the end of 2016, its market share had hit 17%. About half of the increase can be attributed to its 2012 merger with MetroPCS. Over the same period, Verizon’s market share increased from 33% to 35% and AT&T market share remained stable at 32%. It appears that T-Mobile’s so-called maverick behavior did more to disrupt the market shares of smaller competitors Sprint and Leap (which was acquired by AT&T). Thus, it is not clear, ex post, that T-Mobile posed any threat to AT&T or Verizon’s market shares.

Geoffrey Manne raised some questions about the government’s maverick theory which also highlights a fundamental problem with the willy nilly way in which firms are given the maverick label:

. . . it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price—there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price. I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.

While T-Mobile had a reputation for lower mobile prices, in 2011, the firm was lagging behind Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T in the rollout of 4G technology. In other words, T-Mobile was offering an inferior product at a lower price. That’s not a maverick, that’s product differentiation with hedonic pricing.

More recently, in his opposition to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge asserts that both firms are mavericks and their combination would cause their maverick magic to disappear:

Sprint, also, can be seen as a maverick. It has offered “unlimited” plans and simplified its rate plans, for instance, driving the rest of the industry forward to more consumer-friendly options. As Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure stated, “Sprint and T-Mobile have similar DNA and have eliminated confusing rate plans, converging into one rate plan: Unlimited.” Whether both or just one of the companies can be seen as a “maverick” today, in either case the newly combined company would simply have the same structural incentives as the larger carriers both Sprint and T-Mobile today work so hard to differentiate themselves from.

Kimmelman provides no mechanism by which the magic would go missing, but instead offers a version of an adversity-builds-character argument:

Allowing T-Mobile to grow to approximately the same size as AT&T, rather than forcing it to fight for customers, will eliminate the combined company’s need to disrupt the market and create an incentive to maintain the existing market structure.

For 30 years, the notion of the maverick firm has been a concept in search of a model. If the concept cannot be modeled decades after being introduced, maybe the maverick can’t be modeled.

What’s left are ad hoc assertions mixed with speculative projections in hopes that some sympathetic judge can be swayed. However, some judges seem to be more skeptical than sympathetic, as in H&R Block/TaxACT :

The parties have spilled substantial ink debating TaxACT’s maverick status. The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a “maverick” — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis. The government even put forward as supposed evidence a TaxACT promotional press release in which the company described itself as a “maverick.” This type of evidence amounts to little more than a game of semantic gotcha. Here, the record is clear that while TaxACT has been an aggressive and innovative competitor in the market, as defendants admit, TaxACT is not unique in this role. Other competitors, including HRB and Intuit, have also been aggressive and innovative in forcing companies in the DDIY market to respond to new product offerings to the benefit of consumers.

It’s time to send the maverick out of town and into the sunset.

 

“Edinburgh, Great Britain – July 7, 2010: Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh in front of St. Giles Cathedral at Parliament Square.”

The interplay among political philosophy, competition, and competition law remains, with some notable exceptions, understudied in the literature. Indeed, while examinations of the intersection between economics and competition law have taught us much, relatively little has been said about the value frameworks within which different visions of competition and competition law operate.

As Ronald Coase reminds us, questions of economics and political philosophy are interrelated, so that “problems of welfare economics must ultimately dissolve into a study of aesthetics and morals.” When we talk about economics, we talk about political philosophy, and vice versa. Every political philosophy reproduces economic prescriptions that reflect its core tenets. And every economic arrangement, in turn, evokes the normative values that undergird it. This is as true for socialism and fascism as it is for liberalism and neoliberalism.

Many economists have understood this. Milton Friedman, for instance, who spent most of his career studying social welfare, not ethics, admitted in Free to Choose that he was ultimately concerned with the preservation of a value: the liberty of the individual. Similarly, the avowed purpose of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty was to maximize the state of human freedom, with coercion—i.e., the opposite of freedom—described as evil. James Buchanan fought to preserve political philosophy within the economic discipline, particularly worrying that:

Political economy was becoming unmoored from the types of philosophic and institutional analysis which were previously central to the field. In its flight from reality, Buchanan feared economics was in danger of abandoning social-philosophic issues for exclusively technical questions.

— John Kroencke, “Three Essays in the History of Economics”

Against this background, I propose to look at competition and competition law from a perspective that explicitly recognizes this connection. The goal is not to substitute, but rather to complement, our comparatively broad understanding of competition economics with a better grasp of the deeper normative implications of regulating competition in a certain way. If we agree with Robert Bork that antitrust is a subcategory of ideology that reflects and reacts upon deeper tensions in our society, the exercise might also be relevant beyond the relatively narrow confines of antitrust scholarship (which, on the other hand, seem to be getting wider and wider).

The Classical Liberal Revolution and the Unshackling of Competition

Mercantilism

When Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, heavy economic regulation of the market through laws, by-laws, tariffs, and special privileges was the norm. Restrictions on imports were seen as protecting national wealth by preventing money from flowing out of the country—a policy premised on the conflation of money with wealth. A morass of legally backed and enforceable monopoly rights, granted either by royal decree or government-sanctioned by-laws, marred competition. Guilds reigned over tradesmen by restricting entry into the professions and segregating markets along narrow geographic lines. At every turn, economic activity was shot through with rules, restrictions, and regulations.

The Revolution in Political Economy

Classical liberals like Smith departed from the then-dominant mercantilist paradigm by arguing that nations prospered through trade and competition, and not protectionism and monopoly privileges. He demonstrated that both the seller and the buyer benefited from trade; and theorized the market as an automatic mechanism that allocated resources efficiently through the spontaneous, self-interested interaction of individuals.

Undergirding this position was the notion of the natural order, which Smith carried over from his own Theory of Moral Sentiments and which elaborated on arguments previously espoused by the French physiocrats (a neologism meaning “the rule of nature”), such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, François Quesnay, and Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. The basic premise was that there existed a harmonious order of things established and maintained by means of subconscious balancing of the egoism of the individual and the greatest welfare for all.

The implications of this modest insight, which clashed directly with established mercantilist orthodoxy, were tremendous. If human freedom maximized social welfare, the justification for detailed government intervention in the economy was untenable. The principles of laissez-faire (a term probably coined by Gournay, who had been Turgot’s mentor) instead prescribed that the government should adopt a “night watchman” role, tending to modest tasks such as internal and external defense, the mediation of disputes, and certain public works that were not deemed profitable for the individual.

Freeing Competition from the Mercantilist Yoke

Smith’s general attitude also carried over to competition. Following the principles described above, classical liberals believed that price and product adjustments following market interactions among tradesmen (i.e., competition) would automatically maximize social utility. As Smith argued:

In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labor, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.

This did not mean that competition occurred in a legal void. Rather, Smith’s point was that there was no need to construct a comprehensive system of competition regulation, as markets would oversee themselves so long as a basic legal and institutional framework was in place and government refrained from actively abetting monopolies. Under this view, the only necessary “competition law” would be those individual laws that made competition possible, such as private property rights, contracts, unfair competition laws, and the laws against government and guild restrictions.

Liberal Political Philosophy: Utilitarian and Deontological Perspectives on Liberty and Individuality

Of course, this sort of volte face in political economy needed to be buttressed by a robust philosophical conception of the individual and the social order. Such ontological and moral theories were articulated in, among others, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. At the heart of the liberal position was the idea that undue restrictions on human freedom and individuality were not only intrinsically despotic, but also socially wasteful, as they precluded men from enjoying the fruits of the exercise of such freedoms. For instance, infringing the freedom to trade and to compete would rob the public of cheaper goods, while restrictions on freedom of expression would arrest the development of thoughts and ideas through open debate.

It is not clear whether the material or the ethical argument for freedom came first. In other words, whether classical liberalism constituted an ex-post rationalization of a moral preference for individual liberty, or precisely the reverse. The question may be immaterial, as classical liberals generally believed that the deontological and the consequentialist cases for liberty—save in the most peripheral of cases (e.g., violence against others)—largely overlapped.

Conclusion

In sum, classical liberalism offered a holistic, integrated view of societies, markets, morals, and individuals that was revolutionary for the time. The notion of competition as a force to be unshackled—rather than actively constructed and chaperoned—flowed organically from that account and its underlying values and assumptions. These included such values as personal freedom and individualism, along with foundational metaphysical presuppositions, such as the existence of a harmonious natural order that seamlessly guided individual actions for the benefit of the whole.

Where such base values and presumptions are eroded, however, the notion of a largely spontaneous, self-sustaining competitive process loses much of its rational, ethical, and moral legitimacy. Competition thus ceases to be tenable on its “own two feet” and must either be actively engineered and protected, or abandoned altogether as a viable organizing principle. In this sense, the crisis of liberalism the West experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—which attacked the very foundations of classical liberal doctrine—can also be read as a crisis of competition.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the collectivist backlash against liberalism.

Congressman Buck’s “Third Way” report offers a compromise between the House Judiciary Committee’s majority report, which proposes sweeping new regulation of tech companies, and the status quo, which Buck argues is unfair and insufficient. But though Buck rejects many of the majority’s reports proposals, what he proposes instead would lead to virtually the same outcome via a slightly longer process. 

The most significant majority proposals that Buck rejects are the structural separation to prevent a company that runs a platform from operating on that platform “in competition with the firms dependent on its infrastructure”, and line-of-business restrictions that would confine tech companies to a small number of markets, to prevent them from preferencing their other products to the detriment of competitors.

Buck rules these out, saying that they are “regulatory in nature [and] invite unforeseen consequences and divert attention away from public interest antitrust enforcement by our antitrust agencies.” He goes on to say that “this proposal is a thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech firms.”

Instead, Buck endorses, either fully or provisionally, measures including revitalising the essential facilities doctrine, imposing data interoperability mandates on platforms, and changing antitrust law to prevent “monopoly leveraging and predatory pricing”. 

Put together, though, these would amount to the same thing that the Democratic majority report proposes: a world where platforms are basically just conduits, regulated to be neutral and open, and where the companies that run them require a regulator’s go-ahead for important decisions — a process that would be just as influenced lobbying and political considerations, and insulated from market price signals, as any other regulator’s decisions are.

Revitalizing the essential facilities doctrine

Buck describes proposals to “revitalize the essential facilities doctrine” as “common ground” that warrant further consideration. This would mean that platforms deemed to be “essential facilities” would be required to offer access to their platform to third parties at a “reasonable” price, except in exceptional circumstances. The presumption would be that these platforms were anticompetitively foreclosing third party developers and merchants by either denying them access to their platforms or by charging them “too high” prices. 

This would require the kind of regulatory oversight that Buck says he wants to avoid. He says that “conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules.” But there’s no way to avoid this when the “facility” — and hence its pricing and access rules — changes as frequently as any digital platform does. In practice, digital platforms would have to justify their pricing rules and decisions about exclusion of third parties to courts or a regulator as often as they make those decisions.

If Apple’s App Store were deemed an essential facility such that it is presumed to be foreclosing third party developers any time it rejected their submissions, it would have to submit to regulatory scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of its commercial decisions on, literally, a daily basis.

That would likely require price controls to prevent platforms from using pricing to de facto exclude third parties they did not want to deal with. Adjudication of “fair” pricing by courts is unlikely to be a sustainable solution. Justice Breyer, in Town of Concord v. Boston Edison Co., considered this to be outside the courts’ purview:

[H]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’ Is it the price charged by other suppliers of the primary product? None exist. Is it the price that competition ‘would have set’ were the primary level not monopolized? How can the court determine this price without examining costs and demands, indeed without acting like a rate-setting regulatory agency, the rate-setting proceedings of which often last for several years? Further, how is the court to decide the proper size of the price ‘gap?’ Must it be large enough for all independent competing firms to make a ‘living profit,’ no matter how inefficient they may be? . . . And how should the court respond when costs or demands change over time, as they inevitably will?

In practice, infrastructure treated as an essential facility is usually subject to pricing control by a regulator. This has its own difficulties. The UK’s energy and water infrastructure is an example. In determining optimal access pricing, regulators must determine the price that weighs competing needs to maximise short-term output, incentivise investment by the infrastructure owner, incentivise innovation and entry by competitors (e.g., local energy grids) and, of course, avoid “excessive” pricing. 

This is a near-impossible task, and the process is often drawn out and subject to challenges even in markets where the infrastructure is relatively simple. It is even less likely that these considerations would be objectively tractable in digital markets.

Treating a service as an essential facility is based on the premise that, absent mandated access, it is impossible to compete with it. But mandating access does not, on its own, prevent it from extracting monopoly rents from consumers; it just means that other companies selling inputs can have their share of the rents. 

So you may end up with two different sets of price controls: on the consumer side, to determine how much monopoly rent can be extracted from consumers, and on the access side, to determine how the monopoly rents are divided.

The UK’s energy market has both, for example. In the case of something like an electricity network, where it may simply not be physically or economically feasible to construct a second, competing network, this might be the least-bad course of action. In such circumstances, consumer-side price regulation might make sense. 

But if a service could, in fact, be competed with by others, treating it as an essential facility may be affirmatively harmful to competition and consumers if it diverts investment and time away from that potential competitor by allowing other companies to acquire some of the incumbent’s rents themselves.

The HJC report assumes that Apple is a monopolist, because, among people who own iPhones, the App Store is the only way to install third-party software. Treating the App Store as an essential facility may mean a ban on Apple charging “excessive prices” to companies like Spotify or Epic that would like to use it, or on Apple blocking them for offering users alternative in-app ways of buying their services.

If it were impossible for users to switch from iPhones, or for app developers to earn revenue through other mechanisms, this logic might be sound. But it would still not change the fact that the App Store platform was able to charge users monopoly prices; it would just mean that Epic and Spotify could capture some of those monopoly rents for themselves. Nice for them, but not for consumers. And since both companies have already grown to be pretty big and profitable with the constraints they object to in place, it seems difficult to argue that they cannot compete with these in place and sounds more like they’d just like a bigger share of the pie.

And, in fact, it is possible to switch away from the iPhone to Android. I have personally switched back and forth several times over the past few years, for example. And so have many others — despite what some claim, it’s really not that hard, especially now that most important data is stored on cloud-based services, and both companies offer an app to switch from the other. Apple also does not act like a monopolist — its Bionic chips are vastly better than any competitor’s and it continues to invest in and develop them.

So in practice, users switching from iPhone to Android if Epic’s games and Spotify’s music are not available constrains Apple, to some extent. If Apple did drive those services permanently off their platform, it would make Android relatively more attractive, and some users would move away — Apple would bear some of the costs of its ecosystem becoming worse. 

Assuming away this kind of competition, as Buck and the majority report do, is implausible. Not only that, but Buck and the majority believe that competition in this market is impossible — no policy or antitrust action could change things, and all that’s left is to regulate the market like it’s an electricity grid. 

And it means that platforms could often face situations where they could not expect to make themselves profitable after building their markets, since they could not control the supply side in order to earn revenues. That would make it harder to build platforms, and weaken competition, especially competition faced by incumbents.

Mandating interoperability

Interoperability mandates, which Buck supports, require platforms to make their products open and interoperable with third party software. If Twitter were required to be interoperable, for example, it would have to provide a mechanism (probably a set of open APIs) by which third party software could tweet and read its feeds, upload photos, send and receive DMs, and so on. 

Obviously, what interoperability actually involves differs from service to service, and involves decisions about design that are specific to each service. These variations are relevant because they mean interoperability requires discretionary regulation, including about product design, and can’t just be covered by a simple piece of legislation or a court order. 

To give an example: interoperability means a heightened security risk, perhaps from people unwittingly authorising a bad actor to access their private messages. How much is it appropriate to warn users about this, and how tight should your security controls be? It is probably excessive to require that users provide a sworn affidavit with witnesses, and even some written warnings about the risks may be so over the top as to scare off virtually any interested user. But some level of warning and user authentication is appropriate. So how much? 

Similarly, a company that has been required to offer its customers’ data through an API, but doesn’t really want to, can make life miserable for third party services that want to use it. Changing the API without warning, or letting its service drop or slow down, can break other services, and few users will be likely to want to use a third-party service that is unreliable. But some outages are inevitable, and some changes to the API and service are desirable. How do you decide how much?

These are not abstract examples. Open Banking in the UK, which requires interoperability of personal and small business current accounts, is the most developed example of interoperability in the world. It has been cited by former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, among others, as a model for interoperability in tech. It has faced all of these questions: one bank, for instance, required that customers pass through twelve warning screens to approve a third party app to access their banking details.

To address problems like this, Open Banking has needed an “implementation entity” to design many of its most important elements. This is a de facto regulator, and it has taken years of difficult design decisions to arrive at Open Banking’s current form. 

Having helped write the UK’s industry review into Open Banking, I am cautiously optimistic about what it might be able to do for banking in Britain, not least because that market is already heavily regulated and lacking in competition. But it has been a huge undertaking, and has related to a relatively narrow set of data (its core is just two different things — the ability to read an account’s balance and transaction history, and the ability to initiate payments) in a sector that is not known for rapidly changing technology. Here, the costs of regulation may be outweighed by the benefits.

I am deeply sceptical that the same would be the case in most digital markets, where products do change rapidly, where new entrants frequently attempt to enter the market (and often succeed), where the security trade-offs are even more difficult to adjudicate, and where the economics are less straightforward, given that many services are provided at least in part because of the access to customer data they provide. 

Even if I am wrong, it is unavoidable that interoperability in digital markets would require an equivalent body to make and implement decisions when trade-offs are involved. This, again, would require a regulator like the UK’s implementation entity, and one that was enormous, given the number and diversity of services that it would have to oversee. And it would likely have to make important and difficult design decisions to which there is no clear answer. 

Banning self-preferencing

Buck’s Third Way would also ban digital platforms from self-preferencing. This typically involves an incumbent that can provide a good more cheaply than its third-party competitors — whether it’s through use of data that those third parties do not have access to, reputational advantages that mean customers will be more likely to use their products, or through scale efficiencies that allow it to provide goods to a larger customer base for a cheaper price. 

Although many people criticise self-preferencing as being unfair on competitors, “self-preferencing” is an inherent part of almost every business. When a company employs its own in-house accountants, cleaners or lawyers, instead of contracting out for them, it is engaged in internal self-preferencing. Any firm that is vertically integrated to any extent, instead of contracting externally for every single ancillary service other than the one it sells in the market, is self-preferencing. Coase’s theory of the firm is all about why this kind of behaviour happens, instead of every worker contracting on the open market for everything they do. His answer is that transaction costs make it cheaper to bring certain business relationships in-house than to contract externally for them. Virtually everyone agrees that this is desirable to some extent.

Nor does it somehow become a problem when the self-preferencing takes place on the consumer product side. Any firm that offers any bundle of products — like a smartphone that can run only the manufacturer’s operating system — is engaged in self-preferencing, because users cannot construct their own bundle with that company’s hardware and another’s operating system. But the efficiency benefits often outweigh the lack of choice.

Self-preferencing in digital platforms occurs, for example, when Google includes relevant Shopping or Maps results at the top of its general Search results, or when Amazon gives its own store-brand products (like the AmazonBasics range) a prominent place in the results listing.

There are good reasons to think that both of these are good for competition and consumer welfare. Google making Shopping results easily visible makes it a stronger competitor to Amazon, and including Maps results when you search for a restaurant just makes it more convenient to get the information you’re looking for.

Amazon sells its own private label products partially because doing so is profitable (even when undercutting rivals), partially to fill holes in product lines (like clothing, where 11% of listings were Amazon private label as of November 2018), and partially because it increases users’ likelihood to use Amazon if they expect to find a reliable product from a brand they trust. According to Amazon, they account for less than 1% of its annual retail sales, in contrast to the 19% of revenues ($54 billion) Amazon makes from third party seller services, which includes Marketplace commissions. Any analysis that ignores that Amazon has to balance those sources of revenue, and so has to tread carefully, is deficient. 

With “commodity” products (like, say, batteries and USB cables), where multiple sellers are offering very similar or identical versions of the same thing, private label competition works well for both Amazon and consumers. By Amazon’s own rules it can enter this market using aggregated data, but this doesn’t give it a significant advantage, because that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers

Amazon does profit from sales of these products, of course. And other merchants suffer by having to cut their prices to compete. That’s precisely what competition involves — competition is incompatible with a quiet life for businesses. But consumers benefit, and the biggest benefit to Amazon is that it assures its potential customers that when they visit they will be able to find a product that is cheap and reliable, so they keep coming back.

It is even hard to argue that in aggregate this practice is damaging to third-party sellers: many, like Anker, have built successful businesses on Amazon despite private-label competition precisely because the value of the platform increases for all parties as user trust and confidence in it does.

In these cases and in others, platforms act to solve market failures on the markets they host, as Andrei Hagiu has argued. To maximize profits, digital platforms need to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third-party merchants to sell their goods and being attractive to consumers by offering low prices. The latter will frequently clash with the former — and that’s the difficulty of managing a platform. 

To mistake this pro-competitive behaviour with an absence of competition is misguided. But that is a key conclusion of Buck’s Third Way: that the damage to competitors makes this behaviour harmful overall, and that it should be curtailed with “non-discrimination” rules. 

Treating below-cost selling as “predatory pricing”

Buck’s report equates below-cost selling with predatory pricing (“predatory pricing, also known as below-cost selling”). This is mistaken. Predatory pricing refers to a particular scenario where your price cut is temporary and designed to drive a competitor out of business, so that you can raise prices later and recoup your losses. 

It is easy to see that this does not describe the vast majority of below-cost selling. Buck’s formulation would describe all of the following as “predatory pricing”:

  • A restaurants that gives away ketchup for free;
  • An online retailer that offers free shipping and returns;
  • A grocery store that sells tins of beans for 3p a can. (This really happened when I was a child.)

The rationale for offering below-cost prices differs in each of these cases. Sometimes it’s a marketing ploy — Tesco sells those beans to get some free media, and to entice people into their stores, hoping they’ll decide to do the rest of their weekly shop there at the same time. Sometimes it’s about reducing frictions — the marginal cost of ketchup is so low that it’s simpler to just give it away. Sometimes it’s about reducing the fixed costs of transactions so more take place — allowing customers who buy your products to return them easily may mean more are willing to buy them overall, because there’s less risk for them if they don’t like what they buy. 

Obviously, none of these is “predatory”: none is done in the expectation that the below-cost selling will drive those businesses’ competitors out of business, allowing them to make monopoly profits later.

True predatory pricing is theoretically possible, but very difficult. As David Henderson describes, to successfully engage in predatory pricing means taking enormous and rising losses that grow for the “predatory” firm as customers switch to it from its competitor. And once the rival firm has exited the market, if the predatory firm raises prices above average cost (i.e., to recoup its losses), there is no guarantee that a new competitor will not enter the market selling at the previously competitive price. And the competing firm can either shut down temporarily or, in some cases, just buy up the “predatory” firm’s discounted goods to resell later. It is debatable whether the canonical predatory pricing case, Standard Oil, is itself even an example of that behaviour.

Offering a product below cost in a multi-sided market (like a digital platform) can be a way of building a customer base in order to incentivise entry on the other side of the market. When network effects exist, so additional users make the service more valuable to existing users, it can be worthwhile to subsidise the initial users until the service reaches a certain size. 

Uber subsidising drivers and riders in a new city is an example of this — riders want enough drivers on the road that they know they’ll be picked up fairly quickly if they order one, and drivers want enough riders that they know they’ll be able to earn a decent night’s fares if they use the app. This requires a certain volume of users on both sides — to get there, it can be in everyone’s interest for the platform to subsidise one or both sides of the market to reach that critical mass.

The slightly longer road to regulation

That is another reason for below-cost pricing: someone other than the user may be part-paying for a product, to build a market they hope to profit from later. Platforms must adjust pricing and their offerings to each side of their market to manage supply and demand. Epic, for example, is trying to build a desktop computer game store to rival the largest incumbent, Steam. To win over customers, it has been giving away games for free to users, who can own them on that store forever. 

That is clearly pro-competitive — Epic is hoping to get users over the habit of using Steam for all their games, in the hope that they will recoup the costs of doing so later in increased sales. And it is good for consumers to get free stuff. This kind of behaviour is very common. As well as Uber and Epic, smaller platforms do it too. 

Buck’s proposals would make this kind of behaviour much more difficult, and permitted only if a regulator or court allows it, instead of if the market can bear it. On both sides of the coin, Buck’s proposals would prevent platforms from the behaviour that allows them to grow in the first place — enticing suppliers and consumers and subsidising either side until critical mass has been reached that allows the platform to exist by itself, and the platform owner to recoup its investments. Fundamentally, both Buck and the majority take the existence of platforms as a given, ignoring the incentives to create new ones and compete with incumbents. 

In doing so, they give up on competition altogether. As described, Buck’s provisions would necessitate ongoing rule-making, including price controls, to work. It is unlikely that a court could do this, since the relevant costs would change too often for one-shot rule-making of the kind a court could do. To be effective at all, Buck’s proposals would require an extensive, active regulator, just as the majority report’s would. 

Buck nominally argues against this sort of outcome — “Conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules” — but it is probably unavoidable, given the changes he proposes. And because the rule changes he proposes would apply to the whole economy, not just tech, his proposals may, perversely, end up being even more extensive and interventionist than the majority’s.

Other than this, the differences in practice between Buck’s proposals and the Democrats’ proposals would be trivial. At best, Buck’s Third Way is just a longer route to the same destination.

Zoom, one of Silicon Valley’s lesser-known unicorns, has just gone public. At the time of writing, its shares are trading at about $65.70, placing the company’s value at $16.84 billion. There are good reasons for this success. According to its Form S-1, Zoom’s revenue rose from about $60 million in 2017 to a projected $330 million in 2019, and the company has already surpassed break-even . This growth was notably fueled by a thriving community of users who collectively spend approximately 5 billion minutes per month in Zoom meetings.

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects. For instance, the value of Skype to one user depends – at least to some extent – on the number of other people that might be willing to use the network. In these settings, it is often said that positive feedback loops may cause the market to tip in favor of a single firm that is then left with an unassailable market position. Although Zoom still faces significant competitive challenges, it has nonetheless established a strong position in a market previously dominated by powerful incumbents who could theoretically count on network effects to stymie its growth.

Further complicating matters, Zoom chose to compete head-on with these incumbents. It did not create a new market or a highly differentiated product. Zoom’s Form S-1 is quite revealing. The company cites the quality of its product as its most important competitive strength. Similarly, when listing the main benefits of its platform, Zoom emphasizes that its software is “easy to use”, “easy to deploy and manage”, “reliable”, etc. In its own words, Zoom has thus gained a foothold by offering an existing service that works better than that of its competitors.

And yet, this is precisely the type of story that a literal reading of the network effects literature would suggest is impossible, or at least highly unlikely. For instance, the foundational papers on network effects often cite the example of the DVORAK keyboard (David, 1985; and Farrell & Saloner, 1985). These early scholars argued that, despite it being the superior standard, the DVORAK layout failed to gain traction because of the network effects protecting the QWERTY standard. In other words, consumers failed to adopt the superior DVORAK layout because they were unable to coordinate on their preferred option. It must be noted, however, that the conventional telling of this story was forcefully criticized by Liebowitz & Margolis in their classic 1995 article, The Fable of the Keys.

Despite Liebowitz & Margolis’ critique, the dominance of the underlying network effects story persists in many respects. And in that respect, the emergence of Zoom is something of a cautionary tale. As influential as it may be, the network effects literature has tended to overlook a number of factors that may mitigate, or even eliminate, the likelihood of problematic outcomes. Zoom is yet another illustration that policymakers should be careful when they make normative inferences from positive economics.

A Coasian perspective

It is now widely accepted that multi-homing and the absence of switching costs can significantly curtail the potentially undesirable outcomes that are sometimes associated with network effects. But other possibilities are often overlooked. For instance, almost none of the foundational network effects papers pay any notice to the application of the Coase theorem (though it has been well-recognized in the two-sided markets literature).

Take a purported market failure that is commonly associated with network effects: an installed base of users prevents the market from switching towards a new standard, even if it is superior (this is broadly referred to as “excess inertia,” while the opposite scenario is referred to as “excess momentum”). DVORAK’s failure is often cited as an example.

Astute readers will quickly recognize that this externality problem is not fundamentally different from those discussed in Ronald Coase’s masterpiece, “The Problem of Social Cost,” or Steven Cheung’s “The Fable of the Bees” (to which Liebowitz & Margolis paid homage in their article’s title). In the case at hand, there are at least two sets of externalities at play. First, early adopters of the new technology impose a negative externality on the old network’s installed base (by reducing its network effects), and a positive externality on other early adopters (by growing the new network). Conversely, installed base users impose a negative externality on early adopters and a positive externality on other remaining users.

Describing these situations (with a haughty confidence reminiscent of Paul Samuelson and Arthur Cecil Pigou), Joseph Farrell and Garth Saloner conclude that:

In general, he or she [i.e. the user exerting these externalities] does not appropriately take this into account.

Similarly, Michael Katz and Carl Shapiro assert that:

In terms of the Coase theorem, it is very difficult to design a contract where, say, the (potential) future users of HDTV agree to subsidize today’s buyers of television sets to stop buying NTSC sets and start buying HDTV sets, thereby stimulating the supply of HDTV programming.

And yet it is far from clear that consumers and firms can never come up with solutions that mitigate these problems. As Daniel Spulber has suggested, referral programs offer a case in point. These programs usually allow early adopters to receive rewards in exchange for bringing new users to a network. One salient feature of these programs is that they do not simply charge a lower price to early adopters; instead, in order to obtain a referral fee, there must be some agreement between the early adopter and the user who is referred to the platform. This leaves ample room for the reallocation of rewards. Users might, for instance, choose to split the referral fee. Alternatively, the early adopter might invest time to familiarize the switching user with the new platform, hoping to earn money when the user jumps ship. Both of these arrangements may reduce switching costs and mitigate externalities.

Danial Spulber also argues that users may coordinate spontaneously. For instance, social groups often decide upon the medium they will use to communicate. Families might choose to stay on the same mobile phone network. And larger groups (such as an incoming class of students) may agree upon a social network to share necessary information, etc. In these contexts, there is at least some room to pressure peers into adopting a new platform.

Finally, firms and other forms of governance may also play a significant role. For instance, employees are routinely required to use a series of networked goods. Common examples include office suites, email clients, social media platforms (such as Slack), or video communications applications (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.). In doing so, firms presumably act as islands of top-down decision-making and impose those products that maximize the collective preferences of employers and employees. Similarly, a single firm choosing to join a network (notably by adopting a standard) may generate enough momentum for a network to gain critical mass. Apple’s decisions to adopt USB-C connectors on its laptops and to ditch headphone jacks on its iPhones both spring to mind. Likewise, it has been suggested that distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings may facilitate the creation of new networks. The intuition is that so-called “utility tokens” may incentivize early adopters to join a platform, despite initially weak network effects, because they expect these tokens to increase in value as the network expands.

A combination of these arrangements might explain how Zoom managed to grow so rapidly, despite the presence of powerful incumbents. In its own words:

Our rapid adoption is driven by a virtuous cycle of positive user experiences. Individuals typically begin using our platform when a colleague or associate invites them to a Zoom meeting. When attendees experience our platform and realize the benefits, they often become paying customers to unlock additional functionality.

All of this is not to say that network effects will always be internalized through private arrangements, but rather that it is equally wrong to assume that transaction costs systematically prevent efficient coordination among users.

Misguided regulatory responses

Over the past couple of months, several antitrust authorities around the globe have released reports concerning competition in digital markets (UK, EU, Australia), or held hearings on this topic (US). A recurring theme throughout their published reports is that network effects almost inevitably weaken competition in digital markets.

For instance, the report commissioned by the European Commission mentions that:

Because of very strong network externalities (especially in multi-sided platforms), incumbency advantage is important and strict scrutiny is appropriate. We believe that any practice aimed at protecting the investment of a dominant platform should be minimal and well targeted.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission concludes that:

There are considerable barriers to entry and expansion for search platforms and social media platforms that reinforce and entrench Google and Facebook’s market power. These include barriers arising from same-side and cross-side network effects, branding, consumer inertia and switching costs, economies of scale and sunk costs.

Finally, a panel of experts in the United Kingdom found that:

Today, network effects and returns to scale of data appear to be even more entrenched and the market seems to have stabilised quickly compared to the much larger degree of churn in the early days of the World Wide Web.

To address these issues, these reports suggest far-reaching policy changes. These include shifting the burden of proof in competition cases from authorities to defendants, establishing specialized units to oversee digital markets, and imposing special obligations upon digital platforms.

The story of Zoom’s emergence and the important insights that can be derived from the Coase theorem both suggest that these fears may be somewhat overblown.

Rivals do indeed find ways to overthrow entrenched incumbents with some regularity, even when these incumbents are shielded by network effects. Of course, critics may retort that this is not enough, that competition may sometimes arrive too late (excess inertia, i.e., “ a socially excessive reluctance to switch to a superior new standard”) or too fast (excess momentum, i.e., “the inefficient adoption of a new technology”), and that the problem is not just one of network effects, but also one of economies of scale, information asymmetry, etc. But this comes dangerously close to the Nirvana fallacy. To begin, it assumes that regulators are able to reliably navigate markets toward these optimal outcomes — which is questionable, at best. Moreover, the regulatory cost of imposing perfect competition in every digital market (even if it were possible) may well outweigh the benefits that this achieves. Mandating far-reaching policy changes in order to address sporadic and heterogeneous problems is thus unlikely to be the best solution.

Instead, the optimal policy notably depends on whether, in a given case, users and firms can coordinate their decisions without intervention in order to avoid problematic outcomes. A case-by-case approach thus seems by far the best solution.

And competition authorities need look no further than their own decisional practice. The European Commission’s decision in the Facebook/Whatsapp merger offers a good example (this was before Margrethe Vestager’s appointment at DG Competition). In its decision, the Commission concluded that the fast-moving nature of the social network industry, widespread multi-homing, and the fact that neither Facebook nor Whatsapp controlled any essential infrastructure, prevented network effects from acting as a barrier to entry. Regardless of its ultimate position, this seems like a vastly superior approach to competition issues in digital markets. The Commission adopted a similar reasoning in the Microsoft/Skype merger. Unfortunately, the Commission seems to have departed from this measured attitude in more recent decisions. In the Google Search case, for example, the Commission assumes that the mere existence of network effects necessarily increases barriers to entry:

The existence of positive feedback effects on both sides of the two-sided platform formed by general search services and online search advertising creates an additional barrier to entry.

A better way forward

Although the positive economics of network effects are generally correct and most definitely useful, some of the normative implications that have been derived from them are deeply flawed. Too often, policymakers and commentators conclude that these potential externalities inevitably lead to stagnant markets where competition is unable to flourish. But this does not have to be the case. The emergence of Zoom shows that superior products may prosper despite the presence of strong incumbents and network effects.

Basing antitrust policies on sweeping presumptions about digital competition – such as the idea that network effects are rampant or the suggestion that online platforms necessarily imply “extreme returns to scale” – is thus likely to do more harm than good. Instead, Antitrust authorities should take a leaf out of Ronald Coase’s book, and avoid blackboard economics in favor of a more granular approach.

In the face of an unprecedented surge of demand for bandwidth as Americans responded to COVID-19, the nation’s Internet infrastructure delivered for urban and rural users alike. In fact, since the crisis began in March, there has been no appreciable degradation in either the quality or availability of service. That success story is as much about the network’s robust technical capabilities as it is about the competitive environment that made the enormous private infrastructure investments to build the network possible.

Yet, in spite of that success, calls to blind ISP pricing models to the bandwidth demands of users by preventing firms from employing “usage-based billing” (UBB) have again resurfaced. Today those demands are arriving in two waves: first, in the context of a petition by Charter Communications to employ the practice as the conditions of its merger with Time Warner Cable become ripe for review; and second in the form of complaints about ISPs re-imposing UBB following an end to the voluntary temporary halting of the practice during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic — a move that was an expansion by ISPs of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge championed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In particular, critics believe they have found clear evidence to support their repeated claims that UBB isn’t necessary for network management purposes as (they assert) ISPs have long claimed.  Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch, for example, recently asserted that:

caps are completely unnecessary, existing only as a way to squeeze more money from subscribers. Data caps just don’t matter any more…. Think about it: If the internet provider can even temporarily lift the data caps, then there is definitively enough capacity for the network to be used without those caps. If there’s enough capacity, then why did the caps exist in the first place? Answer: Because they make money.

The thing is, though, ISPs did not claim that UBB was about the day-to-day “manage[ment of] network loads.” Indeed, the network management strawman has taken on a life of its own. It turns out that if you follow the thread of articles in an attempt to substantiate the claim (for instance: here, to here, to here, to here), it is just a long line of critics citing to each other’s criticisms of this purported claim by ISPs. But never do they cite to the ISPs themselves making this assertion — only to instances where ISPs offer completely different explanations, coupled with the critics’ claims that such examples show only that ISPs are now changing their tune. In reality, the imposition of usage-based billing is, and has always been, a basic business decision — as it is for every other company that uses it (which is to say: virtually all companies).

What’s UBB really about?

For critics, however, UBB is never just a “basic business decision.” Rather, the only conceivable explanations for UBB are network management and extraction of money. There is no room in this conception of the practice for perfectly straightforward pricing decisions that offer pricing that differs by customers’ usage of the services. Nor does this viewpoint recognize the importance of these pricing practices for long-term network cultivation in the form of investment in increasing capacity to meet the increased demands generated by users.

But to disregard these actual reasons for the use of UBB is to ignore what is economically self-evident.

In simple terms, UBB allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby enabling them to recover more costs from these users and to keep prices lower for everyone else. In effect, UBB ensures that the few heaviest users subsidize the vast majority of other users, rather than the other way around.

A flat-rate pricing mandate wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery. In such a world an ISP couldn’t simply offer a lower price to lighter users for a basic tier and rely on higher revenues from the heaviest users to cover the costs of network investment. Instead, it would have to finance its ability to improve its network to meet the needs of the most demanding users out of higher prices charged to all users, including the least demanding users that make up the vast majority of users on networks today (for example, according to Comcast, 95 percent of its  subscribers use less than 1.2 TB of data monthly).

On this basis, UBB is a sensible (and equitable, as some ISPs note) way to share the cost of building, maintaining, and upgrading the nation’s networks that simultaneously allows ISPs to react to demand changes in the market while enabling consumers to purchase a tier of service commensurate with their level of use. Indeed, charging customers based on the quality and/or amount of a product they use is a benign, even progressive, practice that insulates the majority of consumers from the obligation to cross-subsidize the most demanding customers.

Objections to the use of UBB fall generally into two categories. One stems from the sort of baseline policy misapprehension that it is needed to manage the network, but that fallacy is dispelled above. The other is borne of a simple lack of familiarity with the practice.

Consider that, in the context of Internet services, broadband customers are accustomed to the notion that access to greater data speed is more costly than the alternative, but are underexposed to the related notion of charging based upon broadband data consumption. Below, we’ll discuss the prevalence of UBB across sectors, how it works in the context of broadband Internet service, and the ultimate benefit associated with allowing for a diversity of pricing models among ISPs.

Usage-based pricing in other sectors

To nobody’s surprise, usage-based pricing is common across all sectors of the economy. Anything you buy by the unit, or by weight, is subject to “usage-based pricing.” Thus, this is how we buy apples from the grocery store and gasoline for our cars.

Usage-based pricing need not always be so linear, either. In the tech sector, for instance, when you hop in a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft, you’re charged a base fare, plus a rate that varies according to the distance of your trip. By the same token, cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box operate under a “freemium” model in which a basic amount of storage and services is offered for free, while access to higher storage tiers and enhanced services costs increasingly more. In each case the customer is effectively responsible (at least in part) for supporting the service to the extent of her use of its infrastructure.

Even in sectors in which virtually all consumers are obligated to purchase products and where regulatory scrutiny is profound — as is the case with utilities and insurance — non-linear and usage-based pricing are still common. That’s because customers who use more electricity or who drive their vehicles more use a larger fraction of shared infrastructure, whether physical conduits or a risk-sharing platform. The regulators of these sectors recognize that tremendous public good is associated with the persistence of utility and insurance products, and that fairly apportioning the costs of their operations requires differentiating between customers on the basis of their use. In point of fact (as we’ve known at least since Ronald Coase pointed it out in 1946), the most efficient and most equitable pricing structure for such products is a two-part tariff incorporating both a fixed, base rate, as well as a variable charge based on usage.  

Pricing models that don’t account for the extent of customer use are vanishingly rare. “All-inclusive” experiences like Club Med or the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet are the exception and not the rule when it comes to consumer goods. And it is well-understood that such examples adopt effectively regressive pricing — charging everyone a high enough price to ensure that they earn sufficient return from the vast majority of light eaters to offset the occasional losses from the gorgers. For most eaters, in other words, a buffet lunch tends to cost more and deliver less than a menu-based lunch. 

All of which is to say that the typical ISP pricing model — in which charges are based on a generous, and historically growing, basic tier coupled with an additional charge that increases with data use that exceeds the basic allotment — is utterly unremarkable. Rather, the mandatory imposition of uniform or flat-fee pricing would be an aberration.

Aligning network costs with usage

Throughout its history, Internet usage has increased constantly and often dramatically. This ever-growing need has necessitated investment in US broadband infrastructure running into the tens of billions annually. Faced with the need for this investment, UBB is a tool that helps to equitably align network costs with different customers’ usage levels in a way that promotes both access and resilience.

As President Obama’s first FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, put it:

Our work has also demonstrated the importance of business innovation to promote network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing.

Importantly, it is the marginal impact of the highest-usage customers that drives a great deal of those network investment costs. In the case of one ISP, a mere 5 percent of residential users make up over 20 percent of its network usage. Necessarily then, in the absence of UBB and given the constant need for capacity expansion, uniform pricing would typically act to disadvantage low-volume customers and benefit high-volume customers.

Even Tom Wheeler — President Obama’s second FCC Chairman and the architect of utility-style regulation of ISPs — recognized this fact and chose to reject proposals to ban UBB in the 2015 Open Internet Order, explaining that:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks. (emphasis added)

When it comes to expanding Internet connectivity, the policy ramifications of uniform pricing are regressive. As such, they run counter to the stated goals of policymakers across the political spectrum insofar as they deter low-volume users — presumably, precisely the marginal users who may be disinclined to subscribe in the first place —  from subscribing by saddling them with higher prices than they would face with capacity pricing. Closing the digital divide means supporting the development of a network that is at once sustainable and equitable on the basis of its scope and use. Mandated uniform pricing accomplishes neither.

Of similarly profound importance is the need to ensure that Internet infrastructure is ready for demand shocks, as we saw with the COVID-19 crisis. Linking pricing to usage gives ISPs the incentive and wherewithal to build and maintain high-capacity networks to cater to the ever-growing expectations of high-volume users, while also encouraging the adoption of network efficiencies geared towards conserving capacity (e.g., caching, downloading at off-peak hours rather than streaming during peak periods).

Contrary to the claims of some that the success of ISPs’ networks during the COVID-19 crisis shows that UBB is unnecessary and extractive, the recent increases in network usage (which may well persist beyond the eventual end of the crisis) demonstrate the benefits of nonlinear pricing models like UBB. Indeed, the consistent efforts to build out the network to serve high-usage customers, funded in part by UBB, redounds not only to the advantage of abnormal users in regular times, but also to the advantage of regular users in abnormal times.

The need for greater capacity along with capacity-conserving efficiencies has been underscored by the scale of the demand shock among high-load users resulting from COVID-19. According to OpenVault, a data use tracking service, the number of “power users” and “extreme power users” utilizing 1TB/month or more and 2TB/month or more jumped 138 percent and 215 percent respectively. Meaning that now, in total, power users represent 10 percent of subscribers across the network, while extreme power users comprise 1.2 percent of subscribers.

Pricing plans predicated on load volume necessarily evolve along with network capacity, but at this moment the application of UBB for monthly loads above 1TB ensures that ISPs maintain an incentive to cater to power users and extreme power users alike. In doing so, ISPs are also ensuring that all users are protected when the Internet’s next abnormal — but, sadly, predictable — event arrives.

At the same time, UBB also helps to facilitate the sort of customer-side network efficiencies that may emerge as especially important during times of abnormally elevated demand. Customers’ usage need not be indifferent to the value of the data they use, and usage-based pricing helps to ensure that data usage aligns not only with costs but also with the data’s value to consumers. In this way the behavior of both ISPs and customers will better reflect the objective realities of the nations’ networks and their limits.

The case for pricing freedom

Finally, it must be noted that ISPs are not all alike, and that the market sustains a range of pricing models across ISPs according to what suits their particular business models, network characteristics, load capacity, and user types (among other things). Consider that even ISPs that utilize UBB almost always offer unlimited data products, while some ISPs choose to adopt uniform pricing to differentiate their offerings. In fact, at least one ISP has moved to uniform billing in light of COVID-19 to provide their customers with “certainty” about their bills.

The mistake isn’t in any given ISP electing a uniform billing structure or a usage-based billing structure; rather it is in proscribing the use of a single pricing structure for all ISPs. Claims that such price controls are necessary because consumers are harmed by UBB ignore its prevalence across the economy, its salutary effect on network access and resilience, and the manner in which it promotes affordability and a sensible allocation of cost recovery across consumers.

Moreover, network costs and traffic demand patterns are dynamic, and the availability of UBB — among other pricing schemes — also allows ISPs to tailor their offerings to those changing conditions in a manner that differentiates them from their competitors. In doing so, those offerings are optimized to be attractive in the moment, while still facilitating network maintenance and expansion in the future.

Where economically viable, more choice is always preferable. The notion that consumers will somehow be harmed if they get to choose Internet services based not only on speed, but also load, is a specious product of the confused and the unfamiliar. The sooner the stigma around UBB is overcome, the better-off the majority of US broadband customers will be.

Hardly a day goes by without news of further competition-related intervention in the digital economy. The past couple of weeks alone have seen the European Commission announce various investigations into Apple’s App Store (here and here), as well as reaffirming its desire to regulate so-called “gatekeeper” platforms. Not to mention the CMA issuing its final report regarding online platforms and digital advertising.

While the limits of these initiatives have already been thoroughly dissected (e.g. here, here, here), a fundamental question seems to have eluded discussions: What are authorities trying to achieve here?

At first sight, the answer might appear to be extremely simple. Authorities want to “bring more competition” to digital markets. Furthermore, they believe that this competition will not arise spontaneously because of the underlying characteristics of digital markets (network effects, economies of scale, tipping, etc). But while it may have some intuitive appeal, this answer misses the forest for the trees.

Let us take a step back. Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

To draw a parallel with evolution, in the late 18th century, botanists discovered an orchid with an unusually long spur (above). This made its nectar incredibly hard to reach for insects. Rational observers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that this plant made no sense, that its design was suboptimal. And yet, decades later, Darwin conjectured that the plant could be explained by a (yet to be discovered) species of moth with a proboscis that was long enough to reach the orchid’s nectar. Decades after his death, the discovery of the xanthopan moth proved him right.

Returning to the digital economy, we thus need to ask why the platform business models that authorities desire are not the ones that emerge organically. Unfortunately, this complex question is mostly overlooked by policymakers and commentators alike.

Competition law on a spectrum

To understand the above point, let me start with an assumption: the digital platforms that have been subject to recent competition cases and investigations can all be classified along two (overlapping) dimensions: the extent to which they are open (or closed) to “rivals” and the extent to which their assets are propertized (as opposed to them being shared). This distinction borrows heavily from Jonathan Barnett’s work on the topic. I believe that by applying such a classification, we would obtain a graph that looks something like this:

While these classifications are certainly not airtight, this would be my reasoning:

In the top-left quadrant, Apple and Microsoft, both operate closed platforms that are highly propertized (Apple’s platform is likely even more closed than Microsoft’s Windows ever was). Both firms notably control who is allowed on their platform and how they can interact with users. Apple notably vets the apps that are available on its App Store and influences how payments can take place. Microsoft famously restricted OEMs freedom to distribute Windows PCs as they saw fit (notably by “imposing” certain default apps and, arguably, limiting the compatibility of Microsoft systems with servers running other OSs). 

In the top right quadrant, the business models of Amazon and Qualcomm are much more “open”, yet they remain highly propertized. Almost anyone is free to implement Qualcomm’s IP – so long as they conclude a license agreement to do so. Likewise, there are very few limits on the goods that can be sold on Amazon’s platform, but Amazon does, almost by definition, exert a significant control on the way in which the platform is monetized. Retailers can notably pay Amazon for product placement, fulfilment services, etc. 

Finally, Google Search and Android sit in the bottom left corner. Both of these services are weakly propertized. The Android source code is shared freely via an open source license, and Google’s apps can be preloaded by OEMs free of charge. The only limit is that Google partially closes its platform, notably by requiring that its own apps (if they are pre-installed) receive favorable placement. Likewise, Google’s search engine is only partially “open”. While any website can be listed on the search engine, Google selects a number of specialized results that are presented more prominently than organic search results (weather information, maps, etc). There is also some amount of propertization, namely that Google sells the best “real estate” via ad placement. 

Enforcement

Readers might ask what is the point of this classification? The answer is that in each of the above cases, competition intervention attempted (or is attempting) to move firms/platforms towards more openness and less propertization – the opposite of their original design.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation, both sought/seek to bring more openness and less propetization to these respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and open up its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness). The same applies to Apple. Available information suggests that the Commission is seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as ensuring that it cannot exclude rival mobile payment solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and US authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property. The European Amazon investigation centers on the way in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and ultimately the distribution of revenue between them and Amazon). In both of these cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which these firms propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the Google cases, in the EU, sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals. And the Android decision notably sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing investigations in the US.

What is striking about these decisions/investigations is that authorities are pushing back against the distinguishing features of the platforms they are investigating. Closed -or relatively closed- platforms are being opened-up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

The empty quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be very few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems – both in the mobile and desktop segments. For the most part, these have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, again they have not been met with success. The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay despite the latter being more open and less propertized – Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the way they sell their goods. This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile internet industry, few if any of these have taken off (5G and WiFi are the best examples of this trend). That pattern is repeated in other highly-standardized industries, like digital video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format. 

This is not to say there haven’t been any successful ventures in this space – the internet, blockchain and Wikipedia all spring to mind – or that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of open and shared platforms. And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase and Blockchain, or Android and Linux).

An evolutionary explanation?

The preceding paragraphs have posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities are trying to to bring about are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. This begs the question: why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success at consumers’ end of the market? 

I can see at least three potential explanations:

  1. Closed/propertized platforms have systematically -and perhaps anticompetitively- thwarted their open/shared rivals;
  2. Shared platforms have failed to emerge because they are much harder to monetize (and there is thus less incentive to invest in them);
  3. Consumers have opted for closed systems precisely because they are closed.

I will not go into details over the merits of the first conjecture. Current antitrust debates have endlessly rehashed this proposition. However, it is worth mentioning that many of today’s dominant platforms overcame open/shared rivals well before they achieved their current size (Unix is older than Windows, Linux is older than iOs, eBay and Amazon are basically the same age, etc). It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was down to anticompetitive behavior.

Much more interesting is the fact that options (2) and (3) are almost systematically overlooked – especially by antitrust authorities. And yet, if true, both of them would strongly cut against current efforts to regulate digital platforms and ramp-up antitrust enforcement against them. 

For a start, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highly propertized platforms are generally easier to monetize than shared ones (2). For example, open-source platforms often rely on complementarities for monetization, but this tends to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding. If this is true, then there is a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platforms’ ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should at the very least reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design (3)

For instance, it is striking that the European Commission has a long track record of seeking to open-up digital platforms (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept on using the very business model that the Commission reprimanded. Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones, Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices, Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default. But this has not deterred consumers. A sizable share of them notably opted for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). 

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities are anything but unmitigated successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unprecedented flop – it sold a paltry 1,787 copies. Likewise, the internet browser ballot box imposed by the Commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the Commission’s decision. 

There are many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them. Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform. 

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Furthermore, forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire. 

To conclude, consumers and firms appear to gravitate towards both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the Commission and many other competition authorities favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. This post certainly does not purport to answer the complex question of “the origin of platforms”, but it does suggest that what some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said this best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they fail to understand. The digital economy might just be the latest in this unfortunate trend.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist E. Tammy Kim recently called for Seattle and other pricey, high-tech hubs to impose a special tax on Microsoft and other large employers of high-paid workers. Efficiency demands such a tax, she says, because those companies are imposing a negative externality: By driving up demand for housing, they are causing rents and home prices to rise, which adversely affects city residents.

Arguing that her proposal is “akin to a pollution tax,” Ms. Kim writes:

A half-century ago, it seemed inconceivable that factories, smelters or power plants should have to account for the toxins they released into the air.  But we have since accepted the idea that businesses should have to pay the public for the negative externalities they cause.

It is true that negative externalities—costs imposed on people who are “external” to the process creating those costs (as when a factory belches rancid smoke on its neighbors)—are often taxed. One justification for such a tax is fairness: It seems inequitable that one party would impose costs on another; justice may demand that the victimizer pay. The justification cited by the economist who first proposed such taxes, though, was something different. In his 1920 opus, The Economics of Welfare, British economist A.C. Pigou proposed taxing behavior involving negative externalities in order to achieve efficiency—an increase in overall social welfare.   

With respect to the proposed tax on Microsoft and other high-tech employers, the fairness argument seems a stretch, and the efficiency argument outright fails. Let’s consider each.

To achieve fairness by forcing a victimizer to pay for imposing costs on a victim, one must determine who is the victimizer. Ms. Kim’s view is that Microsoft and its high-paid employees are victimizing (imposing costs on) incumbent renters and lower-paid homebuyers. But is that so clear?

Microsoft’s desire to employ high-skilled workers, and those employees’ desire to live near their work, conflicts with incumbent renters’ desire for low rent and lower paid homebuyers’ desire for cheaper home prices. If Microsoft got its way, incumbent renters and lower paid homebuyers would be worse off.

But incumbent renters’ and lower-paid homebuyers’ insistence on low rents and home prices conflicts with the desires of Microsoft, the high-skilled workers it would like to hire, and local homeowners. If incumbent renters and lower paid homebuyers got their way and prevented Microsoft from employing high-wage workers, Microsoft, its potential employees, and local homeowners would be worse off. Who is the victim here?

As Nobel laureate Ronald Coase famously observed, in most cases involving negative externalities, there is a reciprocal harm: Each party is a victim of the other party’s demands and a victimizer with respect to its own. When both parties are victimizing each other, it’s hard to “do justice” by taxing “the” victimizer.

A desire to achieve efficiency provides a sounder basis for many so-called Pigouvian taxes. With respect to Ms. Kim’s proposed tax, however, the efficiency justification fails. To see why that is so, first consider how it is that Pigouvian taxes may enhance social welfare.

When a business engages in some productive activity, it uses resources (labor, materials, etc.) to produce some sort of valuable output (e.g., a good or service). In determining what level of productive activity to engage in (e.g., how many hours to run the factory, etc.), it compares its cost of engaging in one more unit of activity to the added benefit (revenue) it will receive from doing so. If its so-called “marginal cost” from the additional activity is less than or equal to the “marginal benefit” it will receive, it will engage in the activity; otherwise, it won’t.  

When the business is bearing all the costs and benefits of its actions, this outcome is efficient. The cost of the inputs used in production are determined by the value they could generate in alternative uses. (For example, if a flidget producer could create $4 of value from an ounce of tin, a widget-maker would have to bid at least $4 to win that tin from the flidget-maker.) If a business finds that continued production generates additional revenue (reflective of consumers’ subjective valuation of the business’s additional product) in excess of its added cost (reflective of the value its inputs could create if deployed toward their next-best use), then making more moves productive resources to their highest and best uses, enhancing social welfare. This outcome is “allocatively efficient,” meaning that productive resources have been allocated in a manner that wrings the greatest possible value from them.

Allocative efficiency may not result, though, if the producer is able to foist some of its costs onto others.  Suppose that it costs a producer $4.50 to make an additional widget that he could sell for $5.00. He’d make the widget. But what if producing the widget created pollution that imposed $1 of cost on the producer’s neighbors? In that case, it could be inefficient to produce the widget; the total marginal cost of doing so, $5.50, might well exceed the marginal benefit produced, which could be as low as $5.00. Negative externalities, then, may result in an allocative inefficiency—i.e., a use of resources that produces less total value than some alternative use.

Pigou’s idea was to use taxes to prevent such inefficiencies. If the government were to charge the producer a tax equal to the cost his activity imposed on others ($1 in the above example), then he would capture all the marginal benefit and bear all the marginal cost of his activity. He would thus be motivated to continue his activity only to the point at which its total marginal benefit equaled its total marginal cost. The point of a Pigouvian tax, then, is to achieve allocative efficiency—i.e., to channel productive resources toward their highest and best ends.

When it comes to the negative externality Ms. Kim has identified—an increase in housing prices occasioned by high-tech companies’ hiring of skilled workers—the efficiency case for a Pigouvian tax crumbles. That is because the external cost at issue here is a “pecuniary” externality, a special sort of externality that does not generate inefficiency.

A pecuniary externality is one where the adverse third-party effect consists of an increase in market prices. If that’s the case, the allocative inefficiency that may justify Pigouvian taxes does not exist. There’s no inefficiency from the mere fact that buyers pay more.  Their loss is perfectly offset by a gain to sellers, and—here’s the crucial part—the higher prices channel productive resources toward, not away from, their highest and best ends. High rent levels, for example, signal to real estate developers that more resources should be devoted to creating living spaces within the city. That’s allocatively efficient.

Now, it may well be the case that government policies thwart developers from responding to those salutary price signals. The cities that Ms. Kim says should impose a tax on high-tech employers—Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, New York, and Boulder—have some of the nation’s most restrictive real estate development rules. But that’s a government failure, not a market failure.

In the end, Ms. Kim’s pollution tax analogy fails. The efficiency case for a Pigouvian tax to remedy negative externalities does not apply when, as here, the externality at issue is pecuniary.

For more on pecuniary versus “technological” (non-pecuniary) externalities and appropriate responses thereto, check out Chapter 4 of my recent book, How to Regulate: A Guide for Policymakers.

Interrogations concerning the role that economic theory should play in policy decisions are nothing new. Milton Friedman famously drew a distinction between “positive” and “normative” economics, notably arguing that theoretical models were valuable, despite their unrealistic assumptions. Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu’s highly theoretical work on General Equilibrium Theory is widely acknowledged as one of the most important achievements of modern economics.

But for all their intellectual value and academic merit, the use of models to inform policy decisions is not uncontroversial. There is indeed a long and unfortunate history of influential economic models turning out to be poor depictions (and predictors) of real-world outcomes.

This raises a key question: should policymakers use economic models to inform their decisions and, if so, how? This post uses the economics of externalities to illustrate both the virtues and pitfalls of economic modeling. Throughout economic history, externalities have routinely been cited to support claims of market failure and calls for government intervention. However, as explained below, these fears have frequently failed to withstand empirical scrutiny.

Today, similar models are touted to support government intervention in digital industries. Externalities are notably said to prevent consumers from switching between platforms, allegedly leading to unassailable barriers to entry and deficient venture-capital investment. Unfortunately, as explained below, the models that underpin these fears are highly abstracted and far removed from underlying market realities.

Ultimately, this post argues that, while models provide a powerful way of thinking about the world, naïvely transposing them to real-world settings is misguided. This is not to say that models are useless—quite the contrary. Indeed, “falsified” models can shed powerful light on economic behavior that would otherwise prove hard to understand.

Bees

Fears surrounding economic externalities are as old as modern economics. For example, in the 1950s, economists routinely cited bee pollination as a source of externalities and, ultimately, market failure.

The basic argument was straightforward: Bees and orchards provide each other with positive externalities. Bees cross-pollinate flowers and orchards contain vast amounts of nectar upon which bees feed, thus improving honey yields. Accordingly, several famous economists argued that there was a market failure; bees fly where they please and farmers cannot prevent bees from feeding on their blossoming flowers—allegedly causing underinvestment in both. This led James Meade to conclude:

[T]he apple-farmer provides to the beekeeper some of his factors free of charge. The apple-farmer is paid less than the value of his marginal social net product, and the beekeeper receives more than the value of his marginal social net product.

A finding echoed by Francis Bator:

If, then, apple producers are unable to protect their equity in apple-nectar and markets do not impute to apple blossoms their correct shadow value, profit-maximizing decisions will fail correctly to allocate resources at the margin. There will be failure “by enforcement.” This is what I would call an ownership externality. It is essentially Meade’s “unpaid factor” case.

It took more than 20 years and painstaking research by Steven Cheung to conclusively debunk these assertions. So how did economic agents overcome this “insurmountable” market failure?

The answer, it turns out, was extremely simple. While bees do fly where they please, the relative placement of beehives and orchards has a tremendous impact on both fruit and honey yields. This is partly because bees have a very limited mean foraging range (roughly 2-3km). This left economic agents with ample scope to prevent free-riding.

Using these natural sources of excludability, they built a web of complex agreements that internalize the symbiotic virtues of beehives and fruit orchards. To cite Steven Cheung’s research

Pollination contracts usually include stipulations regarding the number and strength of the colonies, the rental fee per hive, the time of delivery and removal of hives, the protection of bees from pesticide sprays, and the strategic placing of hives. Apiary lease contracts differ from pollination contracts in two essential aspects. One is, predictably, that the amount of apiary rent seldom depends on the number of colonies, since the farmer is interested only in obtaining the rent per apiary offered by the highest bidder. Second, the amount of apiary rent is not necessarily fixed. Paid mostly in honey, it may vary according to either the current honey yield or the honey yield of the preceding year.

But what of neighboring orchards? Wouldn’t these entail a more complex externality (i.e., could one orchard free-ride on agreements concluded between other orchards and neighboring apiaries)? Apparently not:

Acknowledging the complication, beekeepers and farmers are quick to point out that a social rule, or custom of the orchards, takes the place of explicit contracting: during the pollination period the owner of an orchard either keeps bees himself or hires as many hives per area as are employed in neighboring orchards of the same type. One failing to comply would be rated as a “bad neighbor,” it is said, and could expect a number of inconveniences imposed on him by other orchard owners. This customary matching of hive densities involves the exchange of gifts of the same kind, which apparently entails lower transaction costs than would be incurred under explicit contracting, where farmers would have to negotiate and make money payments to one another for the bee spillover.

In short, not only did the bee/orchard externality model fail, but it failed to account for extremely obvious counter-evidence. Even a rapid flip through the Yellow Pages (or, today, a search on Google) would have revealed a vibrant market for bee pollination. In short, the bee externalities, at least as presented in economic textbooks, were merely an economic “fable.” Unfortunately, they would not be the last.

The Lighthouse

Lighthouses provide another cautionary tale. Indeed, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, John Stuart Mill, and Paul Samuelson all cited the externalities involved in the provision of lighthouse services as a source of market failure.

Here, too, the problem was allegedly straightforward. A lighthouse cannot prevent ships from free-riding on its services when they sail by it (i.e., it is mostly impossible to determine whether a ship has paid fees and to turn off the lighthouse if that is not the case). Hence there can be no efficient market for light dues (lighthouses were seen as a “public good”). As Paul Samuelson famously put it:

Take our earlier case of a lighthouse to warn against rocks. Its beam helps everyone in sight. A businessman could not build it for a profit, since he cannot claim a price from each user. This certainly is the kind of activity that governments would naturally undertake.

He added that:

[E]ven if the operators were able—say, by radar reconnaissance—to claim a toll from every nearby user, that fact would not necessarily make it socially optimal for this service to be provided like a private good at a market-determined individual price. Why not? Because it costs society zero extra cost to let one extra ship use the service; hence any ships discouraged from those waters by the requirement to pay a positive price will represent a social economic loss—even if the price charged to all is no more than enough to pay the long-run expenses of the lighthouse.

More than a century after it was first mentioned in economics textbooks, Ronald Coase finally laid the lighthouse myth to rest—rebutting Samuelson’s second claim in the process.

What piece of evidence had eluded economists for all those years? As Coase observed, contemporary economists had somehow overlooked the fact that large parts of the British lighthouse system were privately operated, and had been for centuries:

[T]he right to operate a lighthouse and to levy tolls was granted to individuals by Acts of Parliament. The tolls were collected at the ports by agents (who might act for several lighthouses), who might be private individuals but were commonly customs officials. The toll varied with the lighthouse and ships paid a toll, varying with the size of the vessel, for each lighthouse passed. It was normally a rate per ton (say 1/4d or 1/2d) for each voyage. Later, books were published setting out the lighthouses passed on different voyages and the charges that would be made.

In other words, lighthouses used a simple physical feature to create “excludability” and prevent free-riding. The main reason ships require lighthouses is to avoid hitting rocks when they make their way to a port. By tying port fees and light dues, lighthouse owners—aided by mild government-enforced property rights—could easily earn a return on their investments, thus disproving the lighthouse free-riding myth.

Ultimately, this meant that a large share of the British lighthouse system was privately operated throughout the 19th century, and this share would presumably have been more pronounced if government-run “Trinity House” lighthouses had not crowded out private investment:

The position in 1820 was that there were 24 lighthouses operated by Trinity House and 22 by private individuals or organizations. But many of the Trinity House lighthouses had not been built originally by them but had been acquired by purchase or as the result of the expiration of a lease.

Of course, this system was not perfect. Some ships (notably foreign ones that did not dock in the United Kingdom) might free-ride on this arrangement. It also entailed some level of market power. The ability to charge light dues meant that prices were higher than the “socially optimal” baseline of zero (the marginal cost of providing light is close to zero). Though it is worth noting that tying port fees and light dues might also have decreased double marginalization, to the benefit of sailors.

Samuelson was particularly weary of this market power that went hand in hand with the private provision of public goods, including lighthouses:

Being able to limit a public good’s consumption does not make it a true-blue private good. For what, after all, are the true marginal costs of having one extra family tune in on the program? They are literally zero. Why then prevent any family which would receive positive pleasure from tuning in on the program from doing so?

However, as Coase explained, light fees represented only a tiny fraction of a ship’s costs. In practice, they were thus unlikely to affect market output meaningfully:

[W]hat is the gain which Samuelson sees as coming from this change in the way in which the lighthouse service is financed? It is that some ships which are now discouraged from making a voyage to Britain because of the light dues would in future do so. As it happens, the form of the toll and the exemptions mean that for most ships the number of voyages will not be affected by the fact that light dues are paid. There may be some ships somewhere which are laid up or broken up because of the light dues, but the number cannot be great, if indeed there are any ships in this category.

Samuelson’s critique also falls prey to the Nirvana Fallacy pointed out by Harold Demsetz: markets might not be perfect, but neither is government intervention. Market power and imperfect appropriability are the two (paradoxical) pitfalls of the first; “white elephants,” underinvestment, and lack of competition (and the information it generates) tend to stem from the latter.

Which of these solutions is superior, in each case, is an empirical question that early economists had simply failed to consider—assuming instead that market failure was systematic in markets that present prima facie externalities. In other words, models were taken as gospel without any circumspection about their relevance to real-world settings.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Externalities were also said to undermine the efficient use of “common pool resources,” such grazing lands, common irrigation systems, and fisheries—resources where one agent’s use diminishes that of others, and where exclusion is either difficult or impossible.

The most famous formulation of this problem is Garret Hardin’s highly influential (over 47,000 cites) “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin cited the example of multiple herdsmen occupying the same grazing ground:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

In more technical terms, each economic agent purportedly exerts an unpriced negative externality on the others, thus leading to the premature depletion of common pool resources. Hardin extended this reasoning to other problems, such as pollution and allegations of global overpopulation.

Although Hardin hardly documented any real-world occurrences of this so-called tragedy, his policy prescriptions were unequivocal:

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

As with many other theoretical externalities, empirical scrutiny revealed that these fears were greatly overblown. In her Nobel-winning work, Elinor Ostrom showed that economic agents often found ways to mitigate these potential externalities markedly. For example, mountain villages often implement rules and norms that limit the use of grazing grounds and wooded areas. Likewise, landowners across the world often set up “irrigation communities” that prevent agents from overusing water.

Along similar lines, Julian Morris and I conjecture that informal arrangements and reputational effects might mitigate opportunistic behavior in the standard essential patent industry.

These bottom-up solutions are certainly not perfect. Many common institutions fail—for example, Elinor Ostrom documents several problematic fisheries, groundwater basins and forests, although it is worth noting that government intervention was sometimes behind these failures. To cite but one example:

Several scholars have documented what occurred when the Government of Nepal passed the “Private Forest Nationalization Act” […]. Whereas the law was officially proclaimed to “protect, manage and conserve the forest for the benefit of the entire country”, it actually disrupted previously established communal control over the local forests. Messerschmidt (1986, p.458) reports what happened immediately after the law came into effect:

Nepalese villagers began freeriding — systematically overexploiting their forest resources on a large scale.

In any case, the question is not so much whether private institutions fail, but whether they do so more often than government intervention. be it regulation or property rights. In short, the “tragedy of the commons” is ultimately an empirical question: what works better in each case, government intervention, propertization, or emergent rules and norms?

More broadly, the key lesson is that it is wrong to blindly apply models while ignoring real-world outcomes. As Elinor Ostrom herself put it:

The intellectual trap in relying entirely on models to provide the foundation for policy analysis is that scholars then presume that they are omniscient observers able to comprehend the essentials of how complex, dynamic systems work by creating stylized descriptions of some aspects of those systems.

Dvorak Keyboards

In 1985, Paul David published an influential paper arguing that market failures undermined competition between the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts. This version of history then became a dominant narrative in the field of network economics, including works by Joseph Farrell & Garth Saloner, and Jean Tirole.

The basic claim was that QWERTY users’ reluctance to switch toward the putatively superior Dvorak layout exerted a negative externality on the rest of the ecosystem (and a positive externality on other QWERTY users), thus preventing the adoption of a more efficient standard. As Paul David put it:

Although the initial lead acquired by QWERTY through its association with the Remington was quantitatively very slender, when magnified by expectations it may well have been quite sufficient to guarantee that the industry eventually would lock in to a de facto QWERTY standard. […]

Competition in the absence of perfect futures markets drove the industry prematurely into standardization on the wrong system — where decentralized decision making subsequently has sufficed to hold it.

Unfortunately, many of the above papers paid little to no attention to actual market conditions in the typewriter and keyboard layout industries. Years later, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis undertook a detailed analysis of the keyboard layout market. They almost entirely rejected any notion that QWERTY prevailed despite it being the inferior standard:

Yet there are many aspects of the QWERTY-versus-Dvorak fable that do not survive scrutiny. First, the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect. Second, studies in the ergonomics literature find no significant advantage for Dvorak that can be deemed scientifically reliable. Third, the competition among producers of typewriters, out of which the standard emerged, was far more vigorous than is commonly reported. Fourth, there were far more typing contests than just the single Cincinnati contest. These contests provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of alternative keyboard arrangements. That QWERTY survived significant challenges early in the history of typewriting demonstrates that it is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined.

In short, there was little to no evidence supporting the view that QWERTY inefficiently prevailed because of network effects. The falsification of this narrative also weakens broader claims that network effects systematically lead to either excess momentum or excess inertia in standardization. Indeed, it is tempting to characterize all network industries with heavily skewed market shares as resulting from market failure. Yet the QWERTY/Dvorak story suggests that such a conclusion would be premature.

Killzones, Zoom, and TikTok

If you are still reading at this point, you might think that contemporary scholars would know better than to base calls for policy intervention on theoretical externalities. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, a recent paper by Sai Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales conjectures that the interplay between mergers and network externalities discourages the adoption of superior independent platforms:

If techies expect two platforms to merge, they will be reluctant to pay the switching costs and adopt the new platform early on, unless the new platform significantly outperforms the incumbent one. After all, they know that if the entering platform’s technology is a net improvement over the existing technology, it will be adopted by the incumbent after merger, with new features melded with old features so that the techies’ adjustment costs are minimized. Thus, the prospect of a merger will dissuade many techies from trying the new technology.

Although this key behavioral assumption drives the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support the contention that it occurs in real-world settings. Admittedly, the paper does present evidence of reduced venture capital investments after mergers involving large tech firms. But even on their own terms, this data simply does not support the authors’ behavioral assumption.

And this is no isolated example. Over the past couple of years, several scholars have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries. A common theme is that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in, thus raising barriers to entry for potential rivals (here, here, here).

But there are also countless counterexamples, where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.

Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I have written previously:

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.

Along similar lines, Geoffrey Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples. These include: The demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; MySpace’s rapid decline; etc. In all these cases, outcomes do not match the predictions of theoretical models.

More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and its powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.

While these developments certainly do not disprove network effects theory, they eviscerate the common belief in antitrust circles that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. As in the previous examples, the question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.

In Conclusion

My argument is not that models are without value. To the contrary, framing problems in economic terms—and simplifying them in ways that make them cognizable—enables scholars and policymakers to better understand where market failures might arise, and how these problems can be anticipated and solved by private actors. In other words, models alone cannot tell us that markets will fail, but they can direct inquiries and help us to understand why firms behave the way they do, and why markets (including digital ones) are organized in a given way.

In that respect, both the theoretical and empirical research cited throughout this post offer valuable insights for today’s policymakers.

For a start, as Ronald Coase famously argued in what is perhaps his most famous work, externalities (and market failure more generally) are a function of transaction costs. When these are low (relative to the value of a good), market failures are unlikely. This is perhaps clearest in the “Fable of the Bees” example. Given bees’ short foraging range, there were ultimately few real-world obstacles to writing contracts that internalized the mutual benefits of bees and orchards.

Perhaps more importantly, economic research sheds light on behavior that might otherwise be seen as anticompetitive. The rules and norms that bind farming/beekeeping communities, as well as users of common pool resources, could easily be analyzed as a cartel by naïve antitrust authorities. Yet externality theory suggests they play a key role in preventing market failure.

Along similar lines, mergers and acquisitions (as well as vertical integration, more generally) can reduce opportunism and other externalities that might otherwise undermine collaboration between firms (here, here and here). And much of the same is true for certain types of unilateral behavior. Tying video games to consoles (and pricing the console below cost) can help entrants overcome network externalities that might otherwise shield incumbents. Likewise, Google tying its proprietary apps to the open source Android operating system arguably enabled it to earn a return on its investments, thus overcoming the externality problem that plagues open source software.

All of this raises a tantalizing prospect that deserves far more attention than it is currently given in policy circles: authorities around the world are seeking to regulate the tech space. Draft legislation has notably been tabled in the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom. These draft bills would all make it harder for large tech firms to implement various economic hierarchies, including mergers and certain contractual arrangements.

This is highly paradoxical. If digital markets are indeed plagued by network externalities and high transaction costs, as critics allege, then preventing firms from adopting complex hierarchies—which have traditionally been seen as a way to solve externalities—is just as likely to exacerbate problems. In other words, like the economists of old cited above, today’s policymakers appear to be focusing too heavily on simple models that predict market failure, and far too little on the mechanisms that firms have put in place to thrive within this complex environment.

The bigger picture is that far more circumspection is required when using theoretical models in real-world policy settings. Indeed, as Harold Demsetz famously put it, the purpose of normative economics is not so much to identify market failures, but to help policymakers determine which of several alternative institutions will deliver the best outcomes for consumers:

This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements. In practice, those who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce that the real is inefficient. Users of the comparative institution approach attempt to assess which alternative real institutional arrangement seems best able to cope with the economic problem […].