Archives For business

Free Uber

Josh Wright —  6 September 2012

From the NY Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Uber’s response to the DC Council:

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

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

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

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

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

HT: Hal Singer.

Our greatly lamented colleague Lary Ribstein was a movie buff. Some time ago he wrote an encyclopedic article on business in the movies, “Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood’s View of
Business.”  At the time of his death, he and I were in discussions about publishing this article in the journal I edit, Managerial and Decison Economics.  After his tragic death, I contacted his widow, Ann, and received permission to publish the article.  It is now published in the June issue of MDE.  (If your library does not subscribe to MDE, the article is still available on SSRN.)  Anyone with any interest in the movies and their perception of business must read this article. Given the volume of Larry’s scholarship, it is amazing that he had time to see as many movies as he discusses in this article.

Richard Epstein replies to Judge Posner’s Apple v. Motorola opinion and follow-up article in The Atlantic.

The anti-patent sentiment has just been fueled by a remarkable opinion by Judge Richard Posner, my long-time colleague at the University of Chicago, sitting as a trial judge in the major case, Apple v. Motorola. The high-profile case concerns five patents—four by Apple and one by Motorola—that are involved in mobile phone technology, and it has drawn more than its fair share of attention. Judge Posner took the extraordinary step of dismissing the claims of both sides with prejudice—meaning, the case cannot be filed again elsewhere—on the grounds that neither side could make good on its argument for either damages or injunctions.

Thus, when the dust settled, there was no reason at all to have a trial on whether either side had infringed the patents of the other. In a subsequent piece written for The Atlantic, grandly entitled “Why There are Too Many Patents in America,” Posner delivered a general critique of the patent system, discussing the broader issues involved in his judicial decision.

There is much of interest, as always, in Epstein’s column.  But the closing section on damages and injunctions is where the action is:

What is so striking about Posner’s relentless dissection of the imprecision in these claims was that he could apply it with equal conviction in any patent software dispute. The estimates of damages under the law are not confined to a single standard, but often involve an uncertain choice between reasonable royalties for licensing the patent and actual damages that were incurred because the patents were not licensed. The injunctive relief is (or at least should be) awarded precisely because it is so difficult to figure out what those damages really ought to be.

But Posner said that he would not allow an injunction if the best that the plaintiffs could garner was $1 in nominal damages. That surely seems over the top, because if there is infringement, the one number that is manifestly wrong is $1. A more sensible approach here, therefore, is to mix and marry the two remedies, so that the injunction does not pull the past product off the market, but awards some damages for past losses, while giving the infringer some period of time—say three to six months—to invent around the patent for future output. This then sets the stage for a negotiated license if that is cheaper.

By putting the remedial cart before the liability horse, we have the odd situation that no one can find out anything about the strength of the patent or the potential range of damages. If that is done on a common basis, then we will have knocked out the entire patent system for software, without having the slightest idea of the relative strength of the Apple and Motorola contentions.

The Posner decision looks doubly worrisome against the backdrop of his ominous Atlantic column, which shows his ill-concealed disdain for a complex industry with which he has had no direct engagement. It is an odd way to make patent policy. Right now, a similar Apple-Samsung dispute is before Judge Lucy Koh, which will involve a real trial. The Posner opinion is already on the fast track to appeal before the Federal Circuit, which will give us more information as to whether these submarine assaults on the patent system will take hold. Let us hope that Posner’s mysterious patent adventurism dies a quick and deserved death.

Do go read the whole thing.  For interested readers, here is Posner’s Atlantic column.

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

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

Chicago’s Institute for Justice has more.

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

Here.

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

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

And the last paragraph of the Answer’s introduction:

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

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

Hating Capitalism

Paul H. Rubin —  13 May 2012

One topic that has long interested me is the source of dislike or hatred of capitalism; my Southern Economics Journal article “Folk Economics” (ungated version)  dealt in part with this topic. Today’s New York Times has an op-ed, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths” by William Deresiewicz, who has taught English at Yale and Columbia, that both illustrates and explains this hatred.  What is interesting about this column is that it is entirely about the character and behavior of “the rich” including entrepreneurs.  The job creating function of business is briefly mentioned but most of the article focuses on “fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury.”

What is nowhere mentioned is anything to do with the goods and services produced by business.  This is a common attitude of critics of capitalism.  In many cases, capitalists may suffer the same personality defects as the rest of us.  And, as Mr. Deresiewicz points out, scientists, artists and scholars may also be hard working and smart.  But capitalism does not reward moral worth or hard work.  Capitalism rewards providing stuff  that other people are willing to pay for.  While is is easy to point out the stupidity of the critique (Mr. Deresiewicz has written and seems proud of his book, published by a capitalist publisher and available from various capitalist booksellers) that is not my point.  Rather, this column is interesting in that it is a pristine example of a totally irrelevant critique of capitalism, written by what is a smart person.  He does cite Adam Smith, but seems to misunderstand the basic functioning of markets.  Markets reward what one does, not what one is.

The pending wireless spectrum deal between Verizon Wireless and a group of cable companies (the SpectrumCo deal, for short) continues to attract opprobrium from self-proclaimed consumer advocates and policy scolds.  In the latest salvo, Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld (and other critics of the deal) aren’t happy that Verizon seems to be working to appease the regulators by selling off some of its spectrum in an effort to secure approval for its deal.  Critics are surely correct that appeasement is what’s going on here—but why this merits their derision is unclear.

For starters, whatever the objections to the “divestiture,” the net effect is that Verizon will hold less spectrum than it would under the original terms of the deal and its competitors will hold more.  That this is precisely what Public Knowledge and other critics claim to want couldn’t be more clear—and thus neither is the hypocrisy of their criticism.

Note that “divestiture” is Feld’s term, and I think it’s apt, although he uses it derisively.  His derision seems to stem from his belief that it is a travesty that such a move could dare be undertaken by a party acting on its own instead of under direct diktat from the FCC (with Public Knowledge advising, of course).  Such a view—that condemns the private transfer of spectrum into the very hands Public Knowledge would most like to see holding it for the sake of securing approval for a deal that simultaneously improves Verizon’s spectrum position because it is better for the public to suffer (by Public Knowledge’s own standard) than for Verizon to benefit—seems to betray the organization’s decidedly non-public-interested motives.

But Feld amasses some more specific criticisms.  Each falls flat.

For starters, Feld claims that the spectrum licenses Verizon proposes to sell off (Lower (A and B block) 700 MHz band licenses) would just end up in AT&T’s hands—and that doesn’t further the scolds’ preferred vision of Utopia in which smaller providers end up with the spectrum (apparently “small” now includes T-Mobile and Sprint, presumably because they are fair-weather allies in this fight).  And why will the spectrum inevitably end up in AT&T’s hands?  Writes Feld:

AT&T just has too many advantages to reasonably expect someone else to get the licenses. For starters, AT&T has deeper pockets and can get more financing on better terms. But even more importantly, AT&T has a network plan based on the Lower 700 MHz A &B Block licenses it acquired in auction 2008 (and from Qualcomm more recently). It has towers, contracts for handsets, and everything else that would let it plug in Verizon’s licenses. Other providers would need to incur these expenses over and above the cost of winning the auction in the first place.

Allow me to summarize:  AT&T will win the licenses because it can make the most efficient, effective and timely use of the spectrum.  The horror!

Feld has in one paragraph seemingly undermined his whole case.  If approval of the deal turns on its effect on the public interest, stifling the deal in an explicit (and Quixotic) effort to ensure that the spectrum ends up in the hands of providers less capable of deploying it would seem manifestly to harm, not help, consumers.

And don’t forget that, whatever his preferred vision of the world, the most immediate effect of stopping the SpectrumCo deal will be that all of the spectrum that would have been transferred to—and deployed by—Verizon in the deal will instead remain in the hands of the cable companies where it now sits idly, helping no one relieve the spectrum crunch.

But let’s unpack the claims further.  First, a few factual matters.  AT&T holds no 700 MHz block A spectrum.  It bought block B spectrum in the 2008 auction and acquired spectrum in blocks D and E from Qualcomm.

Second, the claim that this spectrum is essentially worthless, especially  to any carrier except AT&T, is betrayed by reality.  First, despite the claimed interference problems from TV broadcasters for A block spectrum, carriers are in fact deploying on the A block and have obtained devices to facilitate doing so effectively.

Meanwhile, Verizon had already announced in November of last year that it planned to transfer 12 MHz of A block spectrum in Chicago to Leap (note for those keeping score at home: Leap is notAT&T) in exchange for other spectrum around the country, and Cox recently announced that it is selling its own A and B block 700 MHz licenses (yes, eight B block licenses would go to AT&T, but four A block licenses would go to US Cellular).

Pretty clearly these A and B block 700 MHz licenses have value, and not just to AT&T.

Feld does actually realize that his preferred course of action is harmful.  According to Feld, even though the transfer would increase spectrum holdings by companies that aren’t AT&T or Verizon, the fact that it might also facilitate the SpectrumCo deal and thus increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings is reason enough to object.  For Feld and other critics of the deal the concern is over concentrationin spectrum holdings, and thus Verizon’s proposed divestiture is insufficient because the net effect of the deal, even with the divestiture, would be to increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings.  Feld writes:

Verizon takes a giant leap forward in its spectrum holding and overall spectrum efficiency, whereas the competitors improve only marginally in absolute terms. Yes, compared to their current level of spectrum constraint, it would improve the ability of competitors [to compete] . . . [b]ut in absolute terms . . . the difference is so marginal it is not helpful.

Verizon has already said that they have no plans (assuming they get the AWS spectrum) to actually use the Lower MHz 700 A & B licenses, so selling those off does not reduce Verizon’s lead in the spectrum gap. So if we care about the spectrum gap, we need to take into account that this divestiture still does not alleviate the overall problem of spectrum concentration, even if it does improve spectrum efficiency.

But Feld is using a fantasy denominator to establish his concentration ratio.  The divestiture only increases concentration when compared to a hypothetical world in which self-proclaimed protectors of the public interest get to distribute spectrum according to their idealized notions of a preferred market structure.  But the relevant baseline for assessing the divestiture, even on Feld’s own concentration-centric terms, is the distribution of licenses under the deal without the divestiture—against which the divestiture manifestly reduces concentration, even if only “marginally.”

Moreover, critics commit the same inappropriate fantasizing when criticizing the SpectrumCo deal itself.  Again, even if Feld’s imaginary world would be preferable to the post-deal world (more on which below), that imaginary world simply isn’t on the table.  What is on the table if the deal falls through is the status quo—that is, the world in which Verizon is stuck with spectrum it is willing to sell and foreclosed from access to spectrum it wants to buy; US Cellular, AT&T and other carriers are left without access to Verizon’s lower-block 700 MHz spectrum; and the cable companies are saddled with spectrum they won’t use.

Perhaps, compared to this world, the deal does increase concentration.  More importantly, compared to this world the deal increases spectrum deployment.  Significantly.  But never mind:  The benefits of actual and immediate deployment of spectrum can never match up in the scolds’ minds to the speculative and theoretical harms from increased concentration, especially when judged against a hypothetical world that does not and will not ever exist.

But what is most appalling about critics’ efforts to withhold valuable spectrum from consumers for the sake of avoiding increased concentration is the reality that increased concentration doesn’t actually cause any harm.

In fact, it is simply inappropriate to assess the likely competitive effects of this or any other transaction in this industry by assessing concentration based on spectrum holdings.  Of key importance here is the reality that spectrum alone—though essential to effective competitiveness—is not enough to amass customers, let alone confer market power.  In this regard it is well worth noting that the very spectrum holdings at issue in the SpectrumCo deal, although significant in size, produce precisely zero market share for their current owners.

Even the FCC recognizes the weakness of reliance upon market structure as an indicator of market competitiveness in its most recent Wireless Competition Report, where the agency notes that highly concentrated markets may nevertheless be intensely competitive.

And the DOJ, in assessing “Economic Issues in Broadband Competition,” has likewise concluded both that these markets are likely to be concentrated and that such concentration does not raisecompetitive concerns.  In large-scale networks “with differentiated products subject to large economies of scale (relative to the size of the market), the Department does not expect to see a large number of suppliers.”  Rather, the DOJ cautions against “striving for broadband markets that look like textbook markets of perfect competition, with many price-taking firms.  That market structure is unsuitable for the provision of broadband services.”

Although commonly trotted out as a conclusion in support of monopolization, the fact that a market may be concentrated is simply not a reliable indicator of anticompetitive effect, and naked reliance on such conclusions is inconsistent with modern understandings of markets and competition.

As it happens, there is detailed evidence in the Fifteenth Wireless Competition Report on actual competitive dynamics; market share analysis is unlikely to provide any additional insight.  And the available evidence suggests that the tide toward concentration has resulted in considerable benefits and certainly doesn’t warrant a presumption of harm in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary specific to this license transfer.  Instead, there is considerable evidence of rapidly falling prices, quality expansion, capital investment, and a host of other characteristics inconsistent with a monopoly assumption that might otherwise be erroneously inferred from a structural analysis like that employed by Feld and other critics.

In fact, as economists Gerald Faulhaber, Robert Hahn & Hal Singer point out, a simple plotting of cellular prices against market concentration shows a strong inverse relationship inconsistent with an inference of monopoly power from market shares:

Today’s wireless market is an arguably concentrated but remarkably competitive market.  Concentration of resources in the hands of the largest wireless providers has not slowed the growth of the market; rather the central problem is one of spectrum scarcity.  According to the Fifteenth Report, “mobile broadband growth is likely to outpace the ability of technology and network improvements to keep up by an estimated factor of three, leading to a spectrum deficit that is likely to approach 300 megahertz within the next five years.”

Feld and his friends can fret about the phantom problem of concentration all they like—it doesn’t change the reality that the real problem is the lack of available spectrum to meet consumer demand.  It’s bad enough that they are doing whatever they can to stop the SpectrumCo deal itself which would ensure that spectrum moves from the cable companies, where it sits unused, to Verizon, where it would be speedily deployed.  But when they contort themselves to criticize even the re-allocation of spectrum under the so-called divestiture, which would directly address the very issue they hold so dear, it is clear that these “protectors of consumer rights” are not really protecting consumers at all.

[Cross-posted at Forbes]

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin and my former George Mason colleague and Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith are in the WSJ today discussing the economic wisdom and constitutionality of ObamaCare.  From the WSJ:

The Obama administration defends the mandate on the ground that a person’s decision to not buy health insurance affects commerce by materially increasing the costs of others’ health insurance. The government adds that health care is unique and therefore can be regulated constitutionally in ways other markets cannot.

In reality, the mandate has almost nothing to do with cost-shifting. The targeted population—the young, healthy and not poor who choose to forgo coverage—has a minimal role in the $43 billion of uncompensated health-care costs. In 2008, for example (the latest figures available), the Department of Health and Human Service’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey showed that the uncompensated care of the mandate’s targeted population was no more than $12.8 billion—a tiny one-half of 1% of the nation’s $2.4 trillion in overall health-care costs. The insurance mandate cannot reasonably be justified on the ground that it remedies costs imposed on the system by the voluntarily uninsured.

The government’s other defense is that the health-care market does not exhibit textbook competition. No market does. The economic features relied upon by the government—externalities, imperfect information, geographically distinct markets, etc.—are characteristic of many markets.  The presence of externalities and other market imperfections does not justify a departure from the normal rules of the constitutional road. Health care is typically consumed locally, and health-insurance markets themselves primarily operate within the states. The administration’s attempt to fashion a singular, universal solution is not necessary to deal with the variegated issues arising in these markets. States have taken the lead in past reform efforts. They should be an integral part of improving the functioning of health-care and health-insurance markets.

Holtz-Eakin and Smith conclude:

Without the individual mandate, ObamaCare imposes total net costs of $360 billion on health-insurance companies from 2012 through 2021. With the mandate, the law would provide a net $6 billion benefit—i.e., revenues in excess of costs—over that same time period. In other words, the benefits of the individual mandate to health-insurance companies, along with their additional revenues provided by ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, are projected to balance, nearly perfectly, the costs that the law’s various regulatory mandates impose on insurers.

The individual mandate and Medicaid expansions appear to many to be unconstitutional. They are certainly bad economic policy. When they go, the entire law must fall. The administration built an intricate, balanced policy on a flawed economic foundation. It is up to the Supreme Court to pull it down.

Go read the whole thing.

An interesting story in the WSJ Online today about American International Group (AIG)’s use of a standard tax write-off and the political firestorm it is creating…all because the Washington establishment thought it could hide behind semantics during the bailout era.

The benefits at issue were accrued by AIG as it amassed record losses amid the financial crisis; the U.S. tax code allows businesses to “carry forward” such net operating losses to offset future tax obligations, in effect saving on future tax bills. But those carry-forwards can vanish if a company is taken over or sold, an exception that prevents healthy companies from avoiding taxes by buying firms with significant losses.

The criticism from the former members of the congressional panel stems from a series of Treasury determinations beginning in late 2008 that said the federal government’s bailout of AIG, General Motors Co. and other firms didn’t constitute a sale.

The US government acquired as much as 90% ownership in AIG during the bailout era. Under most any definition, such a shift would be considered a change in corporate control. However, because the Treasury Dept. wanted to maintain the illusion that government was not taking over large swaths of the US economy, it pronounced that these bailouts were not what any student of financial markets understood them to be: an exchange of equity control and strings on management for access to cash. In short, a sale of control.

Now the Treasury Department’s ruling is coming back to bite. Under the US tax code, AIG and its investors have a legal right to carry forward losses from the financial crisis to offset taxable earnings now. But now legal-scholar-turned-bureaucrat-turned-politician Elizabeth Warren, and others, want to change the rules after the fact. Warren is calling on Congress to “end this special tax break”. I’m not sure what exactly is so “special” about this tax break, since it applies to any business, not just those bailed out by the Feds. So is Warren suggesting all businesses should be prohibited from carrying forward losses? Or only businesses whose losses the Federal government wasn’t willing to tolerate in the first place? After all, if the Treasury had let nature take its course, AIG (and many other bailout recipients who are now wondering about their own ability to carry forward losses) would have been bought–albeit likely in pieces–and this whole issue would be moot.

What’s really interesting about this whole argument is that Treasury still holds 70%–a controlling interest–of AIG’s stock. AIG reported their beneficial tax breaks weeks ago. Presumably Treasury is paying attention to their investments and knew about that decision, possibly even before it was publicly released. So why didn’t they exercise their controlling interest and stop management from electing to use the carry forward? More importantly, Treasury is the “owner” that stands to gain the most from this tax benefit. So what exactly is Ms. Warren and others complaining about?

Either way, this is a mess of Treasury’s own making with its semantic gamesmanship on whether the bailout should be named for the government take-over that it was. Seems like we have a bit of non-buyer’s remorse.

Last week’s business news highlighted two tremendous subsidy programs. In one case, the company received no direct payment for product development. None of its suppliers received targeted subsidies to produce parts. But consumers were subsidized to encourage them to buy the product.

In the other case, the company received direct payments to underwrite the cost of product development, one of the company’s suppliers received an even larger subsidy to create critical components, and consumers were given subsidies to encourage them to buy the product.

One of those products is among the best selling products in the world. The other just halted production. The successful one was subsidized through private market transactions. The other was subsidized by the US government using taxpayer dollars.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I refer to the Apple iPhone and the Chevy Volt, respectively.

The irony of these twin tales is that they highlight the problems of subsidies in general, but particularly when the subsidy is used as a tool for the government to pick winners and losers in the market (i.e., industrial policy).

In the case of the iPhone, cellular phone companies subsidize the phone in the hope of being able to recoup those costs in the price of the service contracts that are bundled with the subsidized phones. Basically, the subsidy really amounts to nothing more than a marketing expense for the cell phone companies to expand their market share of (particularly data) service contracts. Cell phone carriers recognize that consumers value the features of the phone and are willing to take a loss on the phone to get the consumers locked into a service contract. The subsidy creates value all the way around, since the cellular companies would not offer the subsidy if they did not believe they could more than recoup the cost on the service contracts.

In the case of the Volt, the government had no concern for being able to break even. The motive was to unlevel the playing field by giving GM an (unfair?) advantage in developing an electric vehicle, whether compared to other electric vehicle manufacturers or to traditional combustion engines and recent hybrids. (Actually, according to the WSJ report, the Feds also subsidized Fisker Automotive’s Nina plug-in, which is also no longer in active production.) The problem is, consumers don’t want the product—even at the whoppingly-low, subsidized price of $40,000 per car. GM sold barely half of its originally target of 15,000 cars in 2011. The company has built up so much excess inventory that it shut down production and laid off 1,300 workers for a couple months, with the hope that consumers will eventually buy up the excess.

This doesn’t mean that private market “subsidies” are necessarily good either. As the WSJ reported, Apple is facing an uphill battle. As the market for contract cell service begins to get saturated, Apple finds itself unable to effectively compete in the non-contract market because it doesn’t have affordably-priced phones for that segment and cellular companies cannot (or simply will not) subsidize the iPhone if they can’t recoup the cost. Some investment fund managers have even grown leery of Apple because they see a rough road ahead as Apple tries to expand into LDC’s where non-contract phone plans dominate and consumers cannot afford the pricy iPhone.

As the WSJ headline indicates, subsidies provide a crutch for producers. In every case, over-reliance on the crutch will inhibit long-term growth and economic viability. The difference between privately-provided crutches and government-provided crutches is that the private sector market has a much stronger incentive to make sure the patient has a realistically good prognosis to begin with, rather than Washington’s knack for picking losers.