Archives For economics

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many have already noted her impact on the law as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, her importance as a role model for women, and her civility. Indeed, a key piece of her legacy is that she was a jurist in the classic sense of the word: she believed in using coherent legal reasoning to reach a result. And that meant Justice Ginsburg’s decisions sometimes cut against partisan political expectations. 

This is clearly demonstrated in our little corner of the law: RBG frequently voted in the majority on antitrust cases in a manner that—to populist leftwing observers—would be surprising. Moreover, she authored an important case on price discrimination that likewise cuts against the expectation of populist antitrust critics and demonstrates her nuanced jurisprudence.

RBG’s record on the Court shows a respect for the evolving nature of antitrust law

In the absence of written opinions of her own, it is difficult to discern what was actually in Justice Ginsburg’s mind as she encountered antitrust issues. But, her voting record represents at least a willingness to approach antitrust in an apolitical manner. 

Over the last several decades, Justice Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court majority in many cases dealing with a wide variety of antitrust issues, including the duty to deal doctrine, vertical restraints, joint ventures, and mergers. In many of these cases, RBG aligned herself with judgments of the type that the antitrust populists criticize.

The following are major consumer welfare standard cases that helped shape the current state of antitrust law in which she joined the majority or issued a concurrence: 

  • Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) (unanimous opinion heightening the standard for finding a duty to deal)
  • Pacific Bell Tel. Co v. linkLine Commc’ns, Inc.,  555 U.S. 438 (2009) (Justice Ginsburg joined the concurrence finding there was no “price squeeze” but suggesting the predatory pricing claim should be remanded)
  • Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons Hardwood Lumber Co., Inc., 549 U.S. 312 (2007) (unanimous opinion finding predatory buying claims are still subject to the dangerous probability of recoupment test from Brooke Group)
  • Apple, Inc. v. Robert Pepper, 139 S.Ct. 1514 (2019) (part of majority written by Justice Kavanaugh finding that iPhone owners were direct purchasers under Illinois Brick that may sue Apple for alleged monopolization)
  • State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3 (1997) (unanimous opinion overturning per se treatment of vertical maximum price fixing under Albrecht and applying rule of reason standard)
  • Texaco Inc. v. Dagher, 547 U.S. 1 (2006) (unanimous opinion finding it is not per se illegal under §1 of the Sherman Act for a lawful, economically integrated joint venture to set the prices at which it sells its products)
  • Illinois Tool Works Inc. v. Independent Ink, Inc., 547 U.S. 28 (2006) (unanimous opinion finding a patent does not necessarily confer market power upon the patentee, in all cases involving a tying arrangement, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant has market power in the tying product)
  • U.S. v. Baker Hughes, Inc., 908 F. 2d 981 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (unanimous opinion written by then-Judge Clarence Thomas while both were on the D.C. Circuit of Appeals finding against the government’s argument that the defendant in a Section 7 merger challenge can rebut a prima facie case only by a clear showing that entry into the market by competitors would be quick and effective)

Even where she joined the dissent in antitrust cases, she did so within the ambit of the consumer welfare standard. Thus, while she was part of the dissent in cases like Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877 (2007), Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ohio v. American Express Co., 138 S.Ct. 2274 (2018), she still left a legacy of supporting modern antitrust jurisprudence. In those cases, RBG simply  had a different vision for how best to optimize consumer welfare. 

Justice Ginsburg’s Volvo Opinion

The 2006 decision Volvo Trucks North America, Inc. v. Reeder-Simco GMC, Inc. was one of the few antitrust decisions authored by RBG and shows her appreciation for the consumer welfare standard. In particular, Justice Ginsburg affirmed the notion that antitrust law is designed to protect competition not competitors—a lesson that, as of late, needs to be refreshed. 

Volvo, a 7-2 decision, dealt with the Robinson-Patman Act’s prohibition on price discimination. Reeder-Simco, a retail car dealer that sold Volvos, alleged that Volvo Inc. was violating the Robinson-Patman Act by selling cars to them at different prices than to other Volvo dealers.

The Robinson-Patman Act is frequently cited by antitrust populists as a way to return antitrust law to its former glory. A main argument of Lina Khan’s Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox was that the Chicago School had distorted the law on vertical restraints generally, and price discrimination in particular. One source of this distortion in Khan’s opinion has been the Supreme Court’s mishandling of the Robinson-Patman Act.

Yet, in Volvo we see Justice Ginsburg wrestling with the Robinson-Patman Act in a way to give effect to the law as written, which may run counter to some of the contemporary populist impulse to revise the Court’s interpretation of antitrust laws. Justice Ginsburg, citing Brown & Williamson, first noted that: 

Mindful of the purposes of the Act and of the antitrust laws generally, we have explained that Robinson-Patman does not “ban all price differences charged to different purchasers of commodities of like grade and quality.”

Instead, the Robinson-Patman Act was aimed at a particular class of harms that Congress believed existed when large chain-stores were able to exert something like monopsony buying power. Moreover, Justice Ginsburg noted, the Act “proscribes ‘price discrimination only to the extent that it threatens to injure competition’[.]”

Under the Act, plaintiffs needed to demonstrate evidence of Volvo Inc. systematically treating plaintiffs as “disfavored” purchasers as against another set of “favored” purchasers. Instead, all plaintiffs could produce was anecdotal and inconsistent evidence of Volvo Inc. disfavoring them. Thus, the plaintiffs— and theoretically other similarly situated Volvo dealers— were in fact harmed in a sense by Volvo Inc. Yet, Justice Ginsburg was unwilling to rewrite the Act on Congress’s behalf to incorporate new harms later discovered (a fact which would not earn her accolades in populist circles these days). 

Instead, Justice Ginsburg wrote that:

Interbrand competition, our opinions affirm, is the “primary concern of antitrust law.”… The Robinson-Patman Act signals no large departure from that main concern. Even if the Act’s text could be construed in the manner urged by [plaintiffs], we would resist interpretation geared more to the protection of existing competitors than to the stimulation of competition. In the case before us, there is no evidence that any favored purchaser possesses market power, the allegedly favored purchasers are dealers with little resemblance to large independent department stores or chain operations, and the supplier’s selective price discounting fosters competition among suppliers of different brands… By declining to extend Robinson-Patman’s governance to such cases, we continue to construe the Act “consistently with broader policies of the antitrust laws.” Brooke Group, 509 U.S., at 220… (cautioning against Robinson-Patman constructions that “extend beyond the prohibitions of the Act and, in doing so, help give rise to a price uniformity and rigidity in open conflict with the purposes of other antitrust legislation”).

Thus, interested in the soundness of her jurisprudence in the face of a well-developed body of antitrust law, Justice Ginsburg chose to continue to develop that body of law rather than engage in judicial policymaking in favor of a sympathetic plaintiff. 

It must surely be tempting for a justice on the Court to adopt less principled approaches to the law in any given case, and it is equally as impressive that Justice Ginsburg consistently stuck to her principles. We can only hope her successor takes note of Justice Ginsburg’s example.

During last week’s antitrust hearing, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) provided a sound bite that served as a salvo: “In the 19th century we had the robber barons, in the 21st century we get the cyber barons.” But with sound bites, much like bumper stickers, there’s no room for nuance or scrutiny.

The news media has extensively covered the “questioning” of the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon (collectively “Big Tech”). Of course, most of this questioning was actually political posturing with little regard for the actual answers or antitrust law. But just like with the so-called robber barons, the story of Big Tech is much more interesting and complex. 

The myth of the robber barons: Market entrepreneurs vs. political entrepreneurs

The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901 (1934) by Matthew Josephson, was written in the midst of America’s Great Depression. Josephson, a Marxist with sympathies for the Soviet Union, made the case that the 19th century titans of industry were made rich on the backs of the poor during the industrial revolution. This idea that the rich are wealthy due to their robbing of the rest of us is an idea that has long outlived Josephson and Marx down to the present day, as exemplified by the writings of Matt Stoller and the politics of the House Judiciary Committee.

In his Myth of the Robber Barons, Burton Folsom, Jr. makes the case that much of the received wisdom on the great 19th century businessmen is wrong. He distinguishes between the market entrepreneurs, which generated wealth by selling newer, better, or less expensive products on the free market without any government subsidies, and the political entrepreneurs, who became rich primarily by influencing the government to subsidize their businesses, or enacting legislation or regulation that harms their competitors. 

Folsom narrates the stories of market entrepreneurs, like Thomas Gibbons & Cornelius Vanderbilt (steamships), James Hill (railroads), the Scranton brothers (iron rails), Andrew Carnegie & Charles Schwab (steel), and John D. Rockefeller (oil), who created immense value for consumers by drastically reducing the prices of the goods and services their companies provided. Yes, these men got rich. But the value society received was arguably even greater. Wealth was created because market exchange is a positive-sum game.

On the other hand, the political entrepreneurs, like Robert Fulton & Edward Collins (steamships), and Leland Stanford & Henry Villard (railroads), drained societal resources by using taxpayer money to create inefficient monopolies. Because they were not subject to the same market discipline due to their favored position, cutting costs and prices were less important to them than the market entrepreneurs. Their wealth was at the expense of the rest of society, because political exchange is a zero-sum game.

Big Tech makes society better off

Today’s titans of industry, i.e. Big Tech, have created enormous value for society. This is almost impossible to deny, though some try. From zero-priced search on Google, to the convenience and price of products on Amazon, to the nominally free social network(s) of Facebook, to the plethora of options in Apple’s App Store, consumers have greatly benefited from Big Tech. Consumers flock to use Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple for a reason: they believe they are getting a great deal. 

By and large, the techlash comes from “intellectuals” who think they know better than consumers acting in the marketplace about what is good for them. And as noted by Alec Stapp, Americans in opinion polls consistently put a great deal of trust in Big Tech, at least compared to government institutions:

One of the basic building blocks of economics is that both parties benefit from voluntary exchanges ex ante, or else they would not be willing to engage in it. The fact that consumers use Big Tech to the extent they do is overwhelming evidence of their value. Obfuscations like “market power” mislead more than they inform. In the absence of governmental barriers to entry, consumers voluntarily choosing Big Tech does not mean they have power, it means they provide great service.

Big Tech companies are run by entrepreneurs who must ultimately answer to consumers. In a market economy, profits are a signal that entrepreneurs have successfully brought value to society. But they are also a signal to potential competitors. If Big Tech companies don’t continue to serve the interests of their consumers, they risk losing them to competitors.

Big Tech’s CEOs seem to get this. For instance, Jeff Bezos’ written testimony emphasized the importance of continual innovation at Amazon as a reason for its success:

Since our founding, we have strived to maintain a “Day One” mentality at the company. By that I mean approaching everything we do with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One. Even though Amazon is a large company, I have always believed that if we commit ourselves to maintaining a Day One mentality as a critical part of our DNA, we can have both the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. 

In my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the best way to achieve and maintain Day One vitality. Why? Because customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf. As a result, by focusing obsessively on customers, we are internally driven to improve our services, add benefits and features, invent new products, lower prices, and speed up shipping times—before we have to. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it. And I could give you many such examples. Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.

The economics of multi-sided platforms: How Big Tech does it

Economically speaking, Big Tech companies are (mostly) multi-sided platforms. Multi-sided platforms differ from regular firms in that they have to serve two or more of these distinct types of consumers to generate demand from any of them.

Economist David Evans, who has done as much as any to help us understand multi-sided platforms, has identified three different types:

  1. Market-Makers enable members of distinct groups to transact with each other. Each member of a group values the service more highly if there are more members of the other group, thereby increasing the likelihood of a match and reducing the time it takes to find an acceptable match. (Amazon and Apple’s App Store)
  2. Audience-Makers match advertisers to audiences. Advertisers value a service more if there are more members of an audience who will react positively to their messages; audiences value a service more if there is more useful “content” provided by audience-makers. (Google, especially through YouTube, and Facebook, especially through Instagram)
  3. Demand-Coordinators make goods and services that generate indirect network effects across two or more groups. These platforms do not strictly sell “transactions” like a market maker or “messages” like an audience-maker; they are a residual category much like irregular verbs – numerous, heterogeneous, and important. Software platforms such as Windows and the Palm OS, payment systems such as credit cards, and mobile telephones are demand coordinators. (Android, iOS)

In order to bring value, Big Tech has to consider consumers on all sides of the platform they operate. Sometimes, this means consumers on one side of the platform subsidize the other. 

For instance, Google doesn’t charge its users to use its search engine, YouTube, or Gmail. Instead, companies pay Google to advertise to their users. Similarly, Facebook doesn’t charge the users of its social network, advertisers on the other side of the platform subsidize them. 

As their competitors and critics love to point out, there are some complications in that some platforms also compete in the markets they create. For instance, Apple does place its own apps inits App Store, and Amazon does engage in some first-party sales on its platform. But generally speaking, both Apple and Amazon act as matchmakers for exchanges between users and third parties.

The difficulty for multi-sided platforms is that they need to balance the interests of each part of the platform in a way that maximizes its value. 

For Google and Facebook, they need to balance the interests of users and advertisers. In the case of each, this means a free service for users that is subsidized by the advertisers. But the advertisers gain a lot of value by tailoring ads based upon search history, browsing history, and likes and shares. For Apple and Amazon they need to create platforms which are valuable for buyers and sellers, and balance how much first-party competition they want to have before they lose the benefits of third-party sales.

There are no easy answers to creating a search engine, a video service, a social network, an App store, or an online marketplace. Everything from moderation practices, to pricing on each side of the platform, to the degree of competition from the platform operators themselves needs to be balanced right or these platforms would lose participants on one side of the platform or the other to competitors. 

Conclusion

Representative Raskin’s “cyber barons” were raked through the mud by Congress. But much like the falsely identified robber barons of the 19th century who were truly market entrepreneurs, the Big Tech companies of today are wrongfully maligned.

No one is forcing consumers to use these platforms. The incredible benefits they have brought to society through market processes shows they are not robbing anyone. Instead, they are constantly innovating and attempting to strike a balance between consumers on each side of their platform. 

The myth of the cyber barons need not live on any longer than last week’s farcical antitrust hearing.

This guest post is by Corbin K. Barthold, Senior Litigation Counsel at Washington Legal Foundation.

A boy throws a brick through a bakeshop window. He flees and is never identified. The townspeople gather around the broken glass. “Well,” one of them says to the furious baker, “at least this will generate some business for the windowmaker!”

A reasonable statement? Not really. Although it is indeed a good day for the windowmaker, the money for the new window comes from the baker. Perhaps the baker was planning to use that money to buy a new suit. Now, instead of owning a window and a suit, he owns only a window. The windowmaker’s gain, meanwhile, is simply the tailor’s loss.

This parable of the broken window was conceived by Frédéric Bastiat, a nineteenth-century French economist. He wanted to alert the reader to the importance of opportunity costs—in his words, “that which is not seen.” Time and money spent on one activity cannot be spent on another.

Today Bastiat might tell the parable of the harassed technology company. A tech firm creates a revolutionary new product or service and grows very large. Rivals, lawyers, activists, and politicians call for an antitrust probe. Eventually they get their way. Millions of documents are produced, dozens of depositions are taken, and several hearings are held. In the end no concrete action is taken. “Well,” the critics say, “at least other companies could grow while the firm was sidetracked by the investigation!”

Consider the antitrust case against Microsoft twenty years ago. The case ultimately settled, and Microsoft agreed merely to modify minor aspects of how it sold its products. “It’s worth wondering,” writes Brian McCullough, a generally astute historian of the internet, “how much the flowering of the dot-com era was enabled by the fact that the most dominant, rapacious player in the industry was distracted while the new era was taking shape.” “It’s easy to see,” McCullough says, “that the antitrust trial hobbled Microsoft strategically, and maybe even creatively.”

Should we really be glad that an antitrust dispute “distracted” and “hobbled” Microsoft? What would a focused and unfettered Microsoft have achieved? Maybe nothing; incumbents often grow complacent. Then again, Microsoft might have developed a great search engine or social-media platform. Or it might have invented something that, thanks to the lawsuit, remains absent to this day. What Microsoft would have created in the early 2000s, had it not had to fight the government, is that which is not seen.

But doesn’t obstructing the most successful companies create “room” for new competitors? David Cicilline, the chairman of the House’s antitrust subcommittee, argues that “just pursuing the [Microsoft] enforcement action itself” made “space for an enormous amount of additional innovation and competition.” He contends that the large tech firms seek to buy promising startups before they become full-grown threats, and that such purchases must be blocked.

It’s easy stuff to say. It’s not at all clear that it’s true or that it makes sense. Hindsight bias is rampant. In 2012, for example, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, a purchase that is now cited as a quintessential “killer acquisition.” At the time of the sale, however, Instagram had 27 million users and $0 in revenue. Today it has around a billion users, it is estimated to generate $7 billion in revenue each quarter, and it is worth perhaps $100 billion. It is presumptuous to declare that Instagram, which had only 13 employees in 2012, could have achieved this success on its own.

If distraction is an end in itself, last week’s Big Tech hearing before Cicilline and his subcommittee was a smashing success. Presumably Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg would like to spend the balance of their time developing the next big innovations and staying ahead of smart, capable, ruthless competitors, starting with each other and including foreign firms such as ByteDance and Huawei. Last week they had to put their aspirations aside to prepare for and attend five hours of political theater.

The most common form of exchange at the hearing ran as follows. A representative asks a slanted question. The witness begins to articulate a response. The representative cuts the witness off. The representative gives a prepared speech about how the witness’s answer proved her point.

Lucy Kay McBath, a first-term congresswoman from Georgia, began one such drill with the claim that Facebook’s privacy policy from 2004, when Zuckerberg was 20 and Facebook had under a million users, applies in perpetuity. “We do not and will not use cookies to collect private information from any users,” it said. Has Facebook broken its “promise,” McBath asked, not to use cookies to collect private information? No, Zuckerberg explained (letting the question’s shaky premise slide), Facebook uses only standard log-in cookies.

“So once again, you do not use cookies? Yes or no?” McBath interjected. Having now asked a completely different question, and gotten a response resembling what she wanted—“Yes, we use cookies [on log-in features]”—McBath could launch into her canned condemnation. “The bottom line here,” she said, reading from her page, “is that you broke a commitment to your users. And who can say whether you may or may not do that again in the future?” The representative pressed on with her performance, not noticing or not caring that the person she was pretending to engage with had upset her script.

Many of the antitrust subcommittee’s queries had nothing to do with antitrust. One representative fixated on Amazon’s ties with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another seemed to want Facebook to interrogate job applicants about their political beliefs. A third asked Zuckerberg to answer for the conduct of Twitter. One representative demanded that social-media posts about unproven Covid-19 treatments be left up, another that they be taken down. Most of the questions that were at least vaguely on topic, meanwhile, were exceedingly weak. The representatives often mistook emails showing that tech CEOs play to win, that they seek to outcompete challengers and rivals, for evidence of anticompetitive harm to consumers. And the panel was often treated like a customer-service hotline. This app developer ran into a difficulty; what say you, Mr. Cook? That third-party seller has a gripe; why won’t you listen to her, Mr. Bezos?

In his opening remarks, Bezos cited a survey that ranked Amazon one of the country’s most trusted institutions. No surprise there. In many places one could have ordered a grocery delivery from Amazon as the hearing started and had the goods put away before it ended. Was Bezos taking a muted dig at Congress? He had every right to—it is one of America’s least trusted institutions. Pichai, for his part, noted that many users would be willing to pay thousands of dollars a year for Google’s free products. Is Congress providing people that kind of value?

The advance of technology will never be an unalloyed blessing. There are legitimate concerns, for instance, about how social-media platforms affect public discourse. “Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell observe. Social media exploits these tendencies, they contend, by rewarding those who trade in the glib put-down, the smug pronouncement, the theatrical smear. Speakers become “cruel and shallow”; “nuance and truth” become “casualties in [a] competition to gain the approval of [an] audience.”

Three things are true at once. First, Haidt and Rose-Stockwell have a point. Second, their point goes only so far. Social media does not force people to behave badly. Assuming otherwise lets individual humans off too easy. Indeed, it deprives them of agency. If you think it is within your power to display grace, love, and transcendence, you owe it to others to think it is within their power as well.

Third, if you really want to see adults act like children, watch a high-profile congressional hearing. A hearing for Attorney General William Barr, held the day before the Big Tech hearing and attended by many of the same representatives, was a classic of the format.

The tech hearing was not as shambolic as the Barr hearing. And the representatives act like sanctimonious halfwits in part to concoct the sick burns that attract clicks on the very platforms built, facilitated, and delivered by the tech companies. For these and other obvious reasons, no one should feel sorry for the four men who spent a Wednesday afternoon serving as props for demagogues. But that doesn’t mean the charade was a productive use of time. There is always that which is not seen.

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.

The great Dr. Thomas Sowell

One of the great scholars of law & economics turns 90 years old today. In his long and distinguished career, Thomas Sowell has written over 40 books and countless opinion columns. He has been a professor of economics and a long-time Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received a National Humanities Medal in 2002 for a lifetime of scholarship, which has only continued since then. His ability to look at issues with an international perspective, using the analytical tools of economics to better understand institutions, is an inspiration to us at the International Center for Law & Economics.

Here, almost as a blog post festschrift as a long-time reader of his works, I want to briefly write about how Sowell’s voluminous writings on visions, law, race, and economics could be the basis for a positive agenda to achieve a greater measure of racial justice in the United States.

The Importance of Visions

One of the most important aspects of Sowell’s work is his ability to distill wide-ranging issues into debates involving different mental models, or a “Conflict of Visions.” He calls one vision the “tragic” or “constrained” vision, which sees all humans as inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and fundamentally self-interested even at their best. The other vision is the “utopian” or “unconstrained” vision, which sees human limitations as artifacts of social arrangements and cultures, and that there are some capable by virtue of superior knowledge and morality that can redesign society to create a better world. 

An implication of the constrained vision is that the difference in knowledge and virtue between the best and the worst in society is actually quite small. As a result, no one person or group of people can be trusted with redesigning institutions which have spontaneously evolved. The best we can hope for is institutions that reasonably deter bad conduct and allow people the freedom to solve their own problems. 

An important implication of the unconstrained vision, on the other hand,  is that there are some who because of superior enlightenment, which Sowell calls the “Vision of the Anointed,” can redesign institutions to fundamentally change human nature, which is seen as malleable. Institutions are far more often seen as the result of deliberate human design and choice, and that failures to change them to be more just or equal is a result of immorality or lack of will.

The importance of visions to how we view things like justice and institutions makes all the difference. In the constrained view, institutions like language, culture, and even much of the law result from the “spontaneous ordering” that is the result of human action but not of human design. Limited government, markets, and tradition are all important in helping individuals coordinate action. Markets work because self-interested individuals benefit when they serve others. There are no solutions to difficult societal problems, including racism, only trade-offs. 

But in the unconstrained view, limits on government power are seen as impediments to public-spirited experts creating a better society. Markets, traditions, and cultures are to be redesigned from the top down by those who are forward-looking, relying on their articulated reason. There is a belief that solutions could be imposed if only there is sufficient political will and the right people in charge. When it comes to an issue like racism, those who are sufficiently “woke” should be in charge of redesigning institutions to provide for a solution to things like systemic racism.

For Sowell, what he calls “traditional justice” is achieved by processes that hold people accountable for harms to others. Its focus is on flesh-and-blood human beings, not abstractions like all men or blacks versus whites. Differences in outcomes are not just or unjust, by this point of view, what is important is that the processes are just. These processes should focus on institutional incentives of participants. Reforms should be careful not to upset important incentive structures which have evolved over time as the best way for limited human beings to coordinate behavior.

The “Quest for Cosmic Justice,” on the other hand, flows from the unconstrained vision. Cosmic justice sees disparities between abstract groups, like whites and blacks, as unjust and in need of correction. If results from impartial processes like markets or law result in disparities, those with an unconstrained vision often see those processes as themselves racist. The conclusion is that the law should intervene to create better outcomes. This presumes considerable knowledge and morality on behalf of those who are in charge of the interventions. 

For Sowell, a large part of his research project has been showing that those with the unconstrained vision often harm those they are proclaiming the intention to help in their quest for cosmic justice. 

A Constrained Vision of Racial Justice

Sowell has written quite a lot on race, culture, intellectuals, economics, and public policy. One of the main thrusts of his argument about race is that attempts at cosmic justice often harm living flesh-and-blood individuals in the name of intertemporal abstractions like “social justice” for black Americans. Sowell nowhere denies that racism is an important component of understanding the history of black Americans. But his constant challenge is that racism can’t be the only variable which explains disparities. Sowell points to the importance of culture and education in building human capital to be successful in market economies. Without taking those other variables into account, there is no way to determine the extent that racism is the cause of disparities. 

This has important implications for achieving racial justice today. When it comes to policies pursued in the name of racial justice, Sowell has argued that many programs often harm not only members of disfavored groups, but the members of the favored groups.

For instance, Sowell has argued that affirmative action actually harms not only flesh-and-blood white and Asian-Americans who are passed over, but also harms those African-Americans who are “mismatched” in their educational endeavors and end up failing or dropping out of schools when they could have been much better served by attending schools where they would have been very successful. Another example Sowell often points to is minimum wage legislation, which is often justified in the name of helping the downtrodden, but has the effect of harming low-skilled workers by increasing unemployment, most especially young African-American males. 

Any attempts at achieving racial justice, in terms of correcting historical injustices, must take into account how changes in processes could actually end up hurting flesh-and-blood human beings, especially when those harmed are black Americans. 

A Positive Agenda for Policy Reform

In Sowell’s constrained vision, a large part of the equation for African-American improvement is going to be cultural change. However, white Americans should not think that this means they have no responsibility in working towards racial justice. A positive agenda must take into consideration real harms experienced by African-Americans due to government action (and inaction). Thus, traditional justice demands institutional reforms, and in some cases, recompense.

The policy part of this equation outlined below is motivated by traditional justice concerns that hold people accountable under the rule of law for violations of constitutional rights and promotes institutional reforms to more properly align incentives. 

What follows below are policy proposals aimed at achieving a greater degree of racial justice for black Americans, but fundamentally informed by the constrained vision and traditional justice concerns outlined by Sowell. Most of these proposals are not on issues Sowell has written a lot on. In fact, some proposals may actually not be something he would support, but are—in my opinion—consistent with the constrained vision and traditional justice.

Reparations for Historical Rights Violations

Sowell once wrote this in regards to reparations for black Americans:

Nevertheless, it remains painfully clear that those people who were torn from their homes in Africa in centuries past and forcibly brought across the Atlantic in chains suffered not only horribly, but unjustly. Were they and their captors still alive, the reparations and retribution owed would be staggering. Time and death, however, cheat us of such opportunities for justice, however galling that may be. We can, of course, create new injustices among our flesh-and-blood contemporaries for the sake of symbolic expiation, so that the son or daughter of a black doctor or executive can get into an elite college ahead of the son or daughter of a white factory worker or farmer, but only believers in the vision of cosmic justice are likely to take moral solace from that. We can only make our choices among alternatives actually available, and rectifying the past is not one of those options.

In other words, if the victims and perpetrators of injustice are no longer alive, it is not just to hold entire members of respective races accountable for crimes which they did not commit. However, this would presumably leave open the possibility of applying traditional justice concepts in those cases where death has not cheated us.

For instance, there are still black Americans alive who suffered from Jim Crow, as well as children and family members of those lynched. While it is too little, too late, it seems consistent with traditional justice to still seek out and prosecute criminally perpetrators who committed heinous acts but a few generations ago against still living victims. This is not unprecedented. Old Nazis are still prosecuted for crimes against Jews. A similar thing could be done in the United States.

Similarly, civil rights lawsuits for the damages caused by Jim Crow could be another way to recompense those who were harmed. Alternatively, it could be done by legislation. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed under President Reagan and gave living Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II some limited reparations. A similar system could be set up for living victims of Jim Crow. 

Statutes of limitations may need to be changed to facilitate these criminal prosecutions and civil rights lawsuits, but it is quite clearly consistent with the idea of holding flesh-and-blood persons accountable for their unlawful actions.

Holding flesh-and-blood perpetrators accountable for rights violations should not be confused with the cosmic justice idea—that Sowell consistently decries—that says intertemporal abstractions can be held accountable for crimes. In other words, this is not holding “whites” accountable for all historical injustices to “blacks.” This is specifically giving redress to victims and deterring future bad conduct.  

End Qualified Immunity

Another way to promote racial justice consistent with the constrained vision is to end one of the Warren Court’s egregious examples of judicial activism: qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is nowhere mentioned in the statute for civil rights, 42 USC § 1983. As Sowell argues in his writings, judges in the constrained vision are supposed to declare what the law is, not what they believe it should be, unlike those in the unconstrained vision who—according to Sowell— believe they have the right to amend the laws through judicial edict. The introduction of qualified immunity into the law by the activist Warren Court should be overturned.

Currently, qualified immunity effectively subsidizes police brutality, to the detriment of all Americans, but disproportionately affecting black Americans. The law & economics case against qualified immunity is pretty straightforward: 

In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.

However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity… courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it… This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.

Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity… The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use. 

Those with a constrained vision focus on processes and incentives. In this case, it is police officers who have insufficient incentives to take reasonable care when they receive qualified immunity for their conduct.

End the Drug War

While not something he has written a lot on, Sowell has argued for the decriminalization of drugs, comparing the War on Drugs to the earlier attempts at Prohibition of alcohol. This is consistent with the constrained vision, which cares about the institutional incentives created by law. 

Interestingly, work by Michelle Alexander in the second chapter of The New Jim Crow is largely consistent with Sowell’s point of view. There she argued the institutional incentives of police departments were systematically changed when the drug war was ramped up. 

Alexander asks a question which is right in line with the constrained vision:

[I]t is fair to wonder why the police would choose to arrest such an astonishing percentage of the American public for minor drug crimes. The fact that police are legally allowed to engage in a wholesale roundup of nonviolent drug offenders does not answer the question why they would choose to do so, particularly when most police departments have far more serious crimes to prevent and solve. Why would police prioritize drug-law enforcement? Drug use and abuse is nothing new; in fact, it was on the decline, not on the rise, when the War on Drugs began.

Alexander locates the impetus for ramping up the drug war in federal subsidies:

In 1988, at the behest of the Reagan administration, Congress revised the program that provides federal aid to law enforcement, renaming it the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program after a New York City police officer who was shot to death while guarding the home of a drug-case witness. The Byrne program was designed to encourage every federal grant recipient to help fight the War on Drugs. Millions of dollars in federal aid have been offered to state and local law enforcement agencies willing to wage the war. By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations. 

On top of that, police departments were benefited by civil asset forfeiture:

As if the free military equipment, training, and cash grants were not enough, the Reagan administration provided law enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement, rather than more serious crimes: state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs—not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales. Because those who were targeted were typically poor or of moderate means, they often lacked the resources to hire an attorney or pay the considerable court costs. As a result, most people who had their cash or property seized did not challenge the government’s action, especially because the government could retaliate by filing criminal charges—baseless or not.

As Alexander notes, black Americans (and other minorities) were largely targeted in this ramped up War on Drugs, noting the drug war’s effects have been to disproportionately imprison black Americans even though drug usage and sales are relatively similar across races. Police officers have incredible discretion in determining who to investigate and bring charges against. When it comes to the drug war, this discretion is magnified because the activity is largely consensual, meaning officers can’t rely on victims to come to them to start an investigation. Alexander finds the reason the criminal justice system has targeted black Americans is because of implicit bias in police officers, prosecutors, and judges, which mirrors the bias shown in media coverage and in larger white American society. 

Anyone inspired by Sowell would need to determine whether this is because of racism or some other variable. It is important to note here that Sowell never denies that racism exists or is a real problem in American society. But he does challenge us to determine whether this alone is the cause of disparities. Here, Alexander makes a strong case that it is implicit racism that causes the disparities in enforcement of the War on Drugs. A race-neutral explanation could be as follows, even though it still suggests ending the War on Drugs: the enforcement costs against those unable to afford to challenge the system are lower. And black Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor in this country. As will be discussed below in the section on reforming indigent criminal defense, most prosecutions are initiated against defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. The result could be racially disparate even without a racist motivation. 

Regardless of whether racism is the variable that explains the disparate impact of the War on Drugs, it should be ended. This may be an area where traditional and cosmic justice concerns can be united in an effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Reform Indigent Criminal Defense

A related aspect of how the criminal justice system has created a real barrier for far too many black Americans is the often poor quality of indigent criminal defense. Indigent defense is a large part of criminal defense in this country since a very high number of criminal prosecutions are initiated against those who are often too poor to afford a lawyer (roughly 80%). Since black Americans are disproportionately represented among the indigent and those in the criminal justice system, it should be no surprise that black Americans are disproportionately represented by public defenders in this country.

According to the constrained vision, it is important to look at the institutional incentives of public defenders. Considering the extremely high societal costs of false convictions, it is important to get these incentives right.

David Friedman and Stephen Schulhofer’s seminal article exploring the law & economics of indigent criminal defense highlighted the conflict of interest inherent in government choosing who represents criminal defendants when the government is in charge of prosecuting. They analyzed each of the models used in the United States for indigent defense from an economic point of view and found each wanting. On top of that, there is also a calculation problem inherent in government-run public defender’s offices whereby defendants may be systematically deprived of viable defense strategies because of a lack of price signals. 

An interesting alternative proposed by Friedman and Schulhofer is a voucher system. This is similar to the voucher system Sowell has often touted for education. The idea would be that indigent criminal defendants get to pick the lawyer of their choosing that is part of the voucher program. The government would subsidize the provision of indigent defense, in this model, but would not actually pick the lawyer or run the public defender organization. Incentives would be more closely aligned between the defendant and counsel. 

Conclusion

While much more could be said consistent with the constrained vision that could help flesh-and-blood black Americans, including abolishing occupational licensing, ending wage controls, promoting school choice, and ending counterproductive welfare policies, this is enough for now. Racial justice demands holding rights violators accountable and making victims whole. Racial justice also means reforming institutions to make sure incentives are right to deter conduct which harms black Americans. However, the growing desire to do something to promote racial justice in this country should not fall into the trap of cosmic justice thinking, which often ends up hurting flesh-and-blood people of all races in the present in the name of intertemporal abstractions. 

Happy 90th birthday to one of the greatest law & economics scholars ever, Dr. Thomas Sowell. 

Yet another sad story was caught on camera this week showing a group of police officers killing an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd. While the officers were fired from the police department, there is still much uncertainty about what will happen next to hold those officers accountable as a legal matter. 

A well-functioning legal system should protect the constitutional rights of American citizens to be free of unreasonable force from police officers, while also allowing police officers the ability to do their jobs safely and well. In theory, civil rights lawsuits are supposed to strike that balance.

In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.

However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity started as a mechanism to protect officers from suit when they acted in “good faith.” Over time, though, the doctrine has evolved away from a subjective test based upon the actor’s good faith to an objective test based upon notice in judicial precedent. As a result, courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it. In the words of the Supreme Court, qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” 

This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.

Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity. On top of that, the regular practice of governments is to indemnify officers even when there is a settlement or a judgment. The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use. 

Economics 101 makes a clear prediction: When unreasonable uses of force are not held accountable, you get more unreasonable uses of force. Unfortunately, the news continues to illustrate the accuracy of this prediction.

The goal of US antitrust law is to ensure that competition continues to produce positive results for consumers and the economy in general. We published a letter co-signed by twenty three of the U.S.’s leading economists, legal scholars and practitioners, including one winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (full list of signatories here), to exactly that effect urging the House Judiciary Committee on the State of Antitrust Law to reject calls for radical upheaval of antitrust law that would, among other things, undermine the independence and neutrality of US antitrust law. 

A critical part of maintaining independence and neutrality in the administration of antitrust is ensuring that it is insulated from politics. Unfortunately, this view is under attack from all sides. The President sees widespread misconduct among US tech firms that he believes are controlled by the “radical left” and is, apparently, happy to use whatever tools are at hand to chasten them. 

Meanwhile, Senator Klobuchar has claimed, without any real evidence, that the mooted Uber/Grubhub merger is simply about monopolisation of the market, and not, for example, related to the huge changes that businesses like this are facing because of the Covid shutdown.

Both of these statements challenge the principle that the rule of law depends on being politically neutral, including in antitrust. 

Our letter, contrary to the claims made by President Trump, Sen. Klobuchar and some of the claims made to the Committee, asserts that the evidence and economic theory is clear: existing antitrust law is doing a good job of promoting competition and consumer welfare in digital markets and the economy more broadly, and concludes that the Committee should focus on reforms that improve antitrust at the margin, not changes that throw out decades of practice and precedent.

The letter argues that:

  1. The American economy—including the digital sector—is competitive, innovative, and serves consumers well, contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the public debate. 
  2. Structural changes in the economy have resulted from increased competition, and increases in national concentration have generally happened because competition at the local level has intensified and local concentration has fallen.
  3. Lax antitrust enforcement has not allowed systematic increases in market power, and the evidence simply does not support out the idea that antitrust enforcement has weakened in recent decades.
  4. Existing antitrust law is adequate for protecting competition in the modern economy, and built up through years of careful case-by-case scrutiny. Calls to throw out decades of precedent to achieve an antitrust “Year Zero” would throw away a huge body of learning and deliberation.
  5. History teaches that discarding the modern approach to antitrust would harm consumers, and return to a situation where per se rules prohibited the use of economic analysis and fact-based defences of business practices.
  6. Common sense reforms should be pursued to improve antitrust enforcement, and the reforms proposed in the letter could help to improve competition and consumer outcomes in the United States without overturning the whole system.

The reforms suggested include measures to increase transparency of the DoJ and FTC, greater scope for antitrust challenges against state-sponsored monopolies, stronger penalties for criminal cartel conduct, and more agency resources being made available to protect workers from anti-competitive wage-fixing agreements between businesses. These are suggestions for the House Committee to consider and are not supported by all the letter’s signatories.

Some of the arguments in the letter are set out in greater detail in the ICLE’s own submission to the Committee, which goes into detail about the nature of competition in modern digital markets and in traditional markets that have been changed because of the adoption of digital technologies. 

The full letter is here.

In the wake of the launch of Facebook’s content oversight board, Republican Senator Josh Hawley and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, among others, have taken to Twitter to levy criticisms at the firm and, in the process, demonstrate just how far the Right has strayed from its first principles around free speech and private property. For his part, Commissioner Carr’s thread makes the case that the members of the board are highly partisan and mostly left-wing and can’t be trusted with the responsibility of oversight. While Senator Hawley took the approach that the Board’s very existence is just further evidence of the need to break Facebook up. 

Both Hawley and Carr have been lauded in rightwing circles, but in reality their positions contradict conservative notions of the free speech and private property protections given by the First Amendment.  

This blog post serves as a sequel to a post I wrote last year here at TOTM explaining how There’s nothing “conservative” about Trump’s views on free speech and the regulation of social media. As I wrote there:

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Commissioner Carr’s complaint and Senator Hawley’s antitrust approach of breaking up Facebook has much more in common with the views traditionally held by left-wing Democrats on the need for the government to regulate private actors in order to promote speech interests. Originalists and law & economics scholars, on the other hand, have consistently taken the opposite point of view that the First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech interests, including protecting the right to editorial discretion. While there is clearly a conflict of visions in First Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative (and, in my view, correct) point of view should not be jettisoned by Republicans to achieve short-term political gains.

The First Amendment restricts government action, not private action

The First Amendment, by its very text, only applies to government action: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This applies to the “State[s]” through the Fourteenth Amendment. There is extreme difficulty in finding any textual hook to say the First Amendment protects against private action, like that of Facebook. 

Originalists have consistently agreed. Most recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, Justice Kavanaugh—on behalf of the conservative bloc and the Court—wrote:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

This was true at the adoption of the First Amendment and remains true today in a high-tech world. Federal district courts have consistently dismissed First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook on the grounds there is no state action. 

For instance, in Nyawba v. Facebook, the plaintiff initiated a civil rights lawsuit against Facebook for restricting his use of the platform. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, noting 

Because the First Amendment governs only governmental restrictions on speech, Nyabwa has not stated a cause of action against FaceBook… Like his free speech claims, Nyabwa’s claims for violation of his right of association and violation of his due process rights are claims that may be vindicated against governmental actors pursuant to § 1983, but not a private entity such as FaceBook.

Similarly, in Young v. Facebook, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected a claim that Facebook violated the First Amendment by deactivating the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The court declined to subject Facebook to the First Amendment analysis, stating that “because Young has not alleged any action under color of state law, she fails to state a claim under § 1983.”

The First Amendment restricts antitrust actions against Facebook, not Facebook’s editorial discretion over its platform

Far from restricting Facebook, the First Amendment actually restricts government actions aimed at platforms like Facebook when they engage in editorial discretion by moderating content. If an antitrust plaintiff was to act on the impulse to “break up” Facebook because of alleged political bias in its editorial discretion, the lawsuit would be running headlong into the First Amendment’s protections.

There is no basis for concluding online platforms do not have editorial discretion under the law. In fact, the position of Facebook here is very similar to the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, in which the Supreme Court considered a state law giving candidates for public office a right to reply in newspapers to editorials written about them. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute, finding it furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court, despite noting the level of concentration in the newspaper industry, nonetheless reversed. The Court explicitly found the newspaper had a First Amendment right to editorial discretion:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Online platforms have the same First Amendment protections for editorial discretion. For instance, in both Search King v. Google and Langdon v. Google, two different federal district courts ruled Google’s search results are subject to First Amendment protections, both citing Tornillo

In Zhang v. Baidu.com, another district court went so far as to grant a Chinese search engine the right to editorial discretion in limiting access to democracy movements in China. The court found that the search engine “inevitably make[s] editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information.” Much like the search engine in Zhang, Facebook is clearly making editorial judgments about what information shows up in newsfeed and where to display it. 

None of this changes because the generally applicable law is antitrust rather than some other form of regulation. For instance, in Tornillo, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish the case from an earlier antitrust case against newspapers, Associated Press v. United States, which found that there was no broad exemption from antitrust under the First Amendment.

The Court foresaw the problems relating to government-enforced access as early as its decision in Associated Press v. United States, supra. There it carefully contrasted the private “compulsion to print” called for by the Association’s bylaws with the provisions of the District Court decree against appellants which “does not compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their `reason’ tells them should not be published.”

In other words, the Tornillo and Associated Press establish the government may not compel speech through regulation, including an antitrust remedy. 

Once it is conceded that there is a speech interest here, the government must justify the use of antitrust law to compel Facebook to display the speech of users in the newsfeeds of others under the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment. In other words, the use of antitrust law must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. Even taking for granted that there may be a compelling government interest in facilitating a free and open platform (which is by no means certain), it is clear that this would not be narrowly tailored action. 

First, “breaking up” Facebook is clearly overbroad as compared to the goal of promoting free speech on the platform. There is no need to break it up just because it has an Oversight Board that engages in editorial responsibilities. There are many less restrictive means, including market competition, which has greatly expanded consumer choice for communications and connections. Second, antitrust does not even really have a remedy for free speech issues complained of here, as it would require courts to engage in long-term oversight and engage in compelled speech foreclosed by Associated Press

Note that this makes good sense from a law & economics perspective. Platforms like Facebook should be free to regulate the speech on their platforms as they see fit and consumers are free to decide which platforms they wish to use based upon that information. While there are certainly network effects to social media, the plethora of options currently available with low switching costs suggests that there is no basis for antitrust action against Facebook because consumers are unable to speak. In other words, the least restrictive means test of the First Amendment is best fulfilled by market competition in this case.

If there were a basis for antitrust intervention against Facebook, either through merger review or as a standalone monopoly claim, the underlying issue would be harm to competition. While this would have implications for speech concerns (which may be incorporated into an analysis through quality-adjusted price), it is inconceivable how an antitrust remedy could be formed on speech issues consistent with the First Amendment. 

Conclusion

Despite now well-worn complaints by so-called conservatives in and out of the government about the baneful influence of Facebook and other Big Tech companies, the First Amendment forecloses government actions to violate the editorial discretion of these companies. Even if Commissioner Carr is right, this latest call for antitrust enforcement against Facebook by Senator Hawley should be rejected for principled conservative reasons.

[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 Eline Chivot, (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Data Innovation, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.).]

As the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of many stores, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar shops have been stepping up efforts to facilitate online deliveries while ensuring their workers’ safety. Without online retail, lockdown conditions would have been less tolerable, and confinement measures less sustainable. Yet a recent French court’s ruling on Amazon seems to be a justification for making life more difficult for some of these businesses and more inconvenient for people by limiting consumer choice. But in a context that calls for as much support to economic activity and consumer welfare as possible, that makes little sense. In fact, the court’s decision is symptomatic of how countries use industrial policy to treat certain companies with double standards.

On April 24, Amazon lost its appeal of a French court order requiring the platform to stop delivering “non-essential items” until it evaluates workers’ risk of coronavirus exposure in its six French warehouses. The online retailer is now facing penalties of about 100,000 euros (about $110,000) per delivery, and was given 48 hours to reduce its warehouse activities and operations. 

But the complexity of logistics would make it difficult to adjust and limit deliveries to just “essential items.” Given the novelty of the situation, there were no official, precise, and pre-determined lists in place, nor was there clarity about who gets to decide, nor was there a common understanding of what customers would consider essential services or goods. As a result, Amazon temporarily closed its six French distribution centers, and is now shipping to its French customers from its warehouses in other European countries. If France wants to apply such measure for worker safety in this time of crisis, that’s clearly its right. But the requirement should apply to all online retailers equally, not just to the American company Amazon.

The court’s decision was made on the grounds that Amazon had not implemented sufficient safety measures for its workers. The turnaround last week of trade unions (who had initiated the complaints against Amazon and called for the shutdown of its facilities) and their proposition to “gradually” resume operations speak volume. Like many other companies, Amazon had  invested in additional safety measures for its employees during the crisis, distributed masks and gloves to its workers, had taken their temperatures before their shifts, had built testing capacity, and proactively decided to prioritize the delivery of essential goods. Like many other companies, Amazon had to rapidly cope with unprecedented circumstances it wasn’t prepared to handle, while having to juggle a surge in online orders during lockdowns and make do with some governments’ unclear guidance regarding safety measures.

But France has long prioritized worker welfare over broad economic welfare—which includes worker welfare, but also consumer welfare and economic growth. Yet, in this case, that prioritization seems to only apply to Amazon. French retailers like Fnac, Cdiscount, Spartoo, and La Redoute did not face the same degree of judicial scrutiny despite similar complaints about distribution centers. Nor did they have to restrict their deliveries to “essential goods.” But in France, it seems, what is good for French geese isn’t good for U.S. ganders. In fact, the real issue appears to be the French application of industrial policy.  According to a union representative of Fnac, this is about “preventing Amazon from gaining market share over French retailers during lockdown,” so that the latter can reap the benefits. Using the crisis as an excuse to restructure the French retail sector is certainly one creative application of industrial policy.

Moreover, by applying these restrictions (either just to Amazon or across all retailers who engage in e-commerce), the French government is deepening the economic crisis. The restrictions it has imposed on Amazon are likely to accentuate the losses many French small- and medium-sized companies are already facing because of the COVID-19 crisis, while also having longer-term negative consequences for its logistics network in France. Many such firms rely on Amazon’s platform to sell, ship, and develop their business, and now have to turn to more expensive delivery services. In addition, the reduction in activity by its distribution centers could force Amazon to furlough many of its 9,300 French workers.

According to the unions, Amazon’s activity is judged “nonessential to the life of the country.” Never mind that Amazon partners with French retailers like Casino and is rescuing brands like Deliveroo during the crisis. In addition, online companies like Amazon, HelloFresh and Instacart hired more workers to manage growing demands during the crisis, while others had to furlough or layoff their staff. Beyond, French brands will need economically robust allies like Amazon to compete with Chinese state-backed giants like Alibaba that are expanding their footprint in European markets, and that have come under fire for dubious workplace practices.  

Finally, the French court’s decision is an inconvenience to the 22.2 million people in France who order via Amazon, depend on efficient home deliveries to cope with strict confinement measures, and are now being told what is essential or not. With Amazon relying on other European warehouses for deliveries and being forced to limit them to items such as IT products, health and nutrition items, food, and pet food, consumers will be faced with delayed deliveries and reduced access to product variety. The court’s decision also hurts many French merchants who use Amazon for warehousing and fulfillment, as they are effectively locked out of accessing their stock. 

Non-discrimination is, or least should be, a core principle of rule-of-law nations. It appears that, at least in this case, France does not think it should apply to non-French firms.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon employees have been using data from individual sellers to identify products to compete with with its own ‘private label’ (or own-brand) products, such as AmazonBasics, Presto!, and Pinzon.

It’s implausible that this is an antitrust problem, as some have suggested. It’s extremely common for retailers to sell their own private label products and use data on how other products in their stores have sold to help development and marketing. They account for about 14–17% of overall US retail sales, and for an estimated 19% of Walmart’s and Kroger’s sales and 29% of Costco’s sales of consumer packaged goods. 

And Amazon accounts for 39% of US e-commerce spending, and about 6% of all US retail spending. Any antitrust-based argument against Amazon doing this should also apply to Walmart, Kroger and Costco as well. In other words, the case against Amazon proves too much. Alec Stapp has a good discussion of these and related facts here.

However, it is interesting to think about the underlying incentives facing Amazon here, and in particular why Amazon’s company policy is not to use individual seller data to develop products (rogue employees violating this policy, notwithstanding). One possibility is that it is a way for Amazon to balance its competition with some third parties with protections for others that it sees as valuable to its platform overall.

Amazon does use aggregated seller data to develop and market its products. If two or more merchants are selling a product, Amazon’s employees can see how popular it is. This might seem like a trivial distinction, but it might exist for good reason. It could be because sellers of unique products actually do have the bargaining power to demand that Amazon does not use their data to compete with them, or for public relations reasons, although it’s not clear how successful that has been. 

But another possibility is that it may be a self-imposed restraint. 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 the Journal, they account for less than 1% of Amazon’s product 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, since that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers

But to the extent that Amazon competes against innovative third-party sellers (typically manufacturers doing direct sales, as opposed to pure retailers simply re-selling others’ products), there is a possibility that the prospect of having to compete with Amazon may diminish their incentive to develop new products and sell them on Amazon’s platform. 

This is the strongest argument that is made against private label offerings in general. When they involve some level of copying an innovative product, where the innovator has been collecting above-normal profits and those profits are what spur the innovation in the first place, a private label product that comes along and copies the product effectively free rides on the innovation and captures some of its return. That may get us less innovation than society—or a platform trying to host as many innovative products as possible—would like.

While the Journal conflates these two kinds of products, Amazon’s own policies may be tailored specifically to take account of the distinction, and maximise the total value of its marketplace to consumers.

This is nominally the focus of the Journal story: a car trunk organiser company with an (apparently) innovative product says that Amazon moving in to compete with its own AmazonBasics version competed away many of its sales. In this sort of situation, the free-rider problem described above might apply where future innovation is discouraged. Why bother to invent things like this if you’re just going to have your invention ripped off?

Of course, many such innovations are protected by patents. But there may be valuable innovations that are not, and even patented innovations are not perfectly protected given the costs of enforcement. But a platform like Amazon can adopt rules that fine-tune the protections offered by the legal system in an effort to increase the value of the platform for both innovators and consumers alike.

And that may be why Amazon has its rule against using individual seller data to compete: to allow creators of new products to collect more rents from their inventions, with a promise that, unless and until their product is commodified by other means (as indicated by the product being available from multiple other sellers), Amazon won’t compete against such sellers using any special insights it might have from that seller using Amazon’s Marketplace. 

This doesn’t mean Amazon refuses to compete (or refuses to allow others to compete); it has other rules that sometimes determine that boundary, as when it enters into agreements with certain brands to permit sales of the brand on the platform only by sellers authorized by the brand owner. Rather, this rule is a more limited—but perhaps no less important—one that should entice innovators to use Amazon’s platform to sell their products without concern that doing so will create a special risk that Amazon can compete away their returns using information uniquely available to it. In effect, it’s a promise that innovators won’t lose more by choosing to sell on Amazon rather than through other retail channels.. 

Like other platforms, to maximise its profits Amazon needs to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third party merchants to sell their goods, and being attractive to consumers by offering as many inexpensive, innovative, and reliable products as possible. Striking that balance is challenging, but a rule that restrains the platform from using its unique position to expropriate value from innovative sellers helps to protect the income of genuinely innovative third parties, and induces them to sell products consumers want on Amazon, while still allowing Amazon (and third-party sellers) to compete with commodity products. 

The fact that Amazon has strong competition online and offline certainly acts as an important constraint here, too: if Amazon behaved too badly, third parties might not sell on it at all, and Amazon would have none of the seller data that is allegedly so valuable to it.

But even in a world where Amazon had a huge, sticky customer base that meant it was not an option to sell elsewhere—which the Journal article somewhat improbably implies—Amazon would still need third parties to innovate and sell things on its platform. 

What the Journal story really seems to demonstrate is the sort of genuine principal-agent problem that all large businesses face: the company as a whole needs to restrain its private label section in various respects but its agents in the private label section want to break those rules to maximise their personal performance (in this case, by launching a successful new AmazonBasics product). It’s like a rogue trader at a bank who breaks the rules to make herself look good by, she hopes, getting good results.This is just one of many rules that a platform like Amazon has to preserve the value of its platform. It’s probably not the most important one. But understanding why it exists may help us to understand why simple stories of platform predation don’t add up, and help to demonstrate the mechanisms that companies like Amazon use to maximise the total value of their platform, not just one part of it.

[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 Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

In an earlier TOTM post, we argued as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the best policy would allow properly motivated firms and households to themselves balance the benefits, costs, and risks of transitioning to “business as usual.” 

Sometimes, however, well meaning government policies disrupt the balance and realign motivations.

Our post contrasted firms who determined they could remain open by undertaking mitigation efforts with those who determined they could not safely remain open. One of these latter firms was Portland-based ChefStable, which operates more than 20 restaurants and bars. Kurt Huffman, the owner of ChefStable, shut down all the company’s properties one day before the Oregon governor issued her “Stay home, stay safe” order.

An unintended consequence

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. Huffman reports his business was able to shift to carryout and delivery, which ended up being more successful than anticipated. So successful, in fact, that he needed to bring back some of the laid-off employees. That’s when he ran into one of the stimulus package’s unintended—but not unanticipated—consequences of providing federal-level payments on top of existing state-level guarantees:

We started making the calls last week, just as our furloughed employees began receiving weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation checks of $600 under the Cares Act. When we asked our employees to come back, almost all said, “No thanks.” If they return to work, they’ll have to take a pay cut.

***

But as of this week, that same employee receives $1,016 a week, or $376 more than he made as a full time employee. Why on earth would he want to come back to work?

Mr. Huffman’s not alone. NPR reports on a Kentucky coffee shop owner who faces the same difficulty keeping her employees at work:

“The very people we hired have now asked us to be laid off,” Marietta wrote in a blog post. “Not because they did not like their jobs or because they did not want to work, but because it would cost them literally hundreds of dollars per week to be employed.”

With the federal government now offering $600 a week on top of the state’s unemployment benefits, she recognized her former employees could make more money staying home than they did on the job.

Or, a fully intended consequence

The NPR piece indicates the Trump administration opted for the relatively straightforward (if not simplistic) unemployment payments as a way to get the money to unemployed workers as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, maybe the unemployment premium was not an unintended consequence. Perhaps, there was some intention.

If the purpose of the stay-at-home orders is to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the coronavirus, then it can be argued the purpose of the stimulus spending is to mitigate some of the economic costs. 

If this is the case, it can also be argued that the unemployment premium paid by the federal government was designed to encourage people to stay at home and delay returning to work. In fact, it may be more effective than a bunch of loophole laden employment regulations that would require an army of enforcers.

Mr. Huffman seems confident his employees will be ready to return to work in August, when the premium runs out. John Cochrane, however, is not so confident, writing on his blog, “Hint to Mr. Huffman: I would not bet too much that this deadline is not extended.”

With the administration’s state-by-state phased re-opening of the economy, the unemployment premium payments could be tweaked so only residents in states in Phase 1 or 2 would be eligible to receive the premium payments.

Of course, this tweak would unleash its own unintended consequences. In particular, it would encourage some states to slow walk the re-opening of their economies as a way to extract more federal money for their residents. My wild guess: The slow walking states will be the same states who have been most affected by the state and local tax deductibility provisions in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

As with all government policies, the unemployment provisions in the COVID-19 stimulus raise the age old question: If a policy generates unintended consequences that are not unanticipated, can those consequences really be unintended?