Archives For law and 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.

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 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?

[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 Miranda Perry Fleischer, (Professor Law and Co-Director of Tax Programs at the University of San Diego School of Law); and Matt Zwolinski (Professor of Philosophy, University of San Diego; founder and director, USD Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy; founder and contributor, Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog)

This week, Americans began receiving cold, hard cash from the government. Meant to cushion the economic fallout of Covid-19, the CARES Act provides households with relief payments of up to $1200 per adult and $500 per child. As we have written elsewhere, direct cash transfers are the simplest, least paternalistic, and most efficient way to protect Americans’ economic health – pandemic or not. The idea of simply giving people money has deep historical and wide ideological roots, culminating in Andrew Yang’s popularization of a universal basic income (“UBI”) during his now-suspended presidential campaign. The CARES Act relief provisions embody some of the potential benefits of a UBI, but nevertheless fail in key ways to deliver its true promise.

Provide Cash, No-Strings-Attached

Most promisingly, the relief payments are no-strings-attached. Recipients can use them as they – not the government – think best, be it for rent, food, or a laptop for a child to learn remotely. This freedom is a welcome departure from most current aid programs, which are often in-kind or restricted transfers. Kansas prohibits welfare recipients from using benefits at movie theaters and swimming pools. SNAP recipients cannot purchase “hot food” such as a ready-to-eat roasted chicken; California has a 17-page pamphlet identifying which foods users of Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”) benefits can buy (for example, white eggs but not brown). 

These restrictions arise from a distrust of beneficiaries. Yet numerous studies show that recipients of cash transfers do not waste benefits on alcohol, drugs or gambling. Instead, beneficiaries in developing countries purchase livestock, metal roofs, or healthier food. In wealthier countries, cash transfers are associated with improvements in infant health, better nutrition, higher test scores, more schooling, and lower rates of arrest for young adults – all of which suggest beneficiaries do not waste cash.

Avoid Asset Tests

A second positive of the relief payments is that they eschew asset tests, unlike many welfare programs. For example, a family can lose hundreds of dollars of SNAP benefits if their countable assets exceed $2,250. Such limits act as an implicit wealth tax and discourage lower-income individuals from saving. Indeed, some recipients report engaging in transactions like buying furniture on lay-away (which does not count) to avoid the asset limits. Lower-income individuals, for whom a car repair bill or traffic ticket can lead to financial ruin, should be encouraged to – not penalized for – saving for a rainy day.

Don’t Worry So Much about the Labor Market  

A third pro is that the direct relief payments are not tied to a showing of desert. They do not require one to work, be looking for work, or show that one is either unable to work or engaged in a substitute such as child care or school. Again, this contrasts with most current welfare programs. SNAP requires able-bodied childless adults to work or participate in training or education 80 hours a month. Supplemental Security Income requires non-elderly recipients to prove that they are blind or disabled. Nor do the relief payments require recipients to pass a drug test, or prove they have no criminal record.

As with spending restrictions, these requirements display distrust of beneficiaries. The fear is that “money for nothing” will encourage low-income individuals to leave their jobs en masse. But this fear, too, is largely overblown. Although past experiments with unconditional transfers show that total work hours drop, the bulk of this drop is from teenagers staying in school longer, new mothers delaying entrance into the workforce, and primary earners reducing their hours from say, 60 to 50 hours a week. We could also imagine UBI recipients spending time volunteering, engaging in the arts, or taking care of friends and relatives. None of these are necessarily bad things.

Don’t Limit Aid to the “Deserving”

On these three counts, the CARES Act embraces the promise of a UBI. But the CARES Act departs from key aspects of a well-designed, true UBI. Most importantly, the size of the relief payments – one-time transfers of $1200 per adult – pale in comparison to the Act’s enhanced unemployment benefits of $600/week. This mismatch underscores how deeply ingrained our country’s obsession with helping only the “deserving” poor is and how narrowly “desert” is defined. The Act’s most generous aid is limited to individuals with pre-existing connections to the formal labor market who leave under very specific conditions. Someone who cannot work because they are caring for a family member sick with COVID-19 qualifies, but not an adult child who left a job months ago to care for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s. A parent who cannot work because her child’s school was cancelled due to the pandemic qualifies, but not a parent who hasn’t worked the past couple years due to the lack of affordable child care. And because unemployment benefits not only turn on being previously employed but also rise the higher one’s past wages were, this mismatch magnifies that our safety net helps the slightly poor much more than the very poorest among us. 

Don’t Impose Bureaucratic Hurdles

The botched roll-out of the enhanced unemployment benefits illustrates another downside to targeting aid only to the “deserving”: It is far more complicated than giving aid to all who need it. Guidance for self-employed workers (newly eligible for such benefits) is still forthcoming. Individuals with more than one employer before the crisis struggle to input multiple jobs in the system, even though their benefits increase as their past wages do. Even college graduates have trouble completing the clunky forms; a friend who teaches yoga had to choose between “aqua fitness instructor” and “physical education” when listing her job. 

These frustrations are just another example of the government’s ineptitude at determining who is and is not work capable – even in good times. Often, the very people that can navigate the system to convince the government they are unable to work are actually the most work-capable. Those least capable of work, unable to navigate the system, receive nothing. And as millions of Americans spend countless hours on the phone and navigating crashing websites, they are learning what has been painfully obvious to many lower-income individuals for years – the government often puts insurmountable barriers in the way of even the “deserving poor.” These barriers – numerous office visits, lengthy forms, drug tests – are sometimes so time consuming that beneficiaries must choose between obtaining benefits to which they are legally entitled and applying for jobs or working extra hours. Lesson one from the CARES Act is that universal payments, paid to all, avoid these pitfalls. 

Don’t Means Test Up Front

The CARES Act contains three other flaws that a well-designed UBI would also fix. First, the structure of the cash transfers highlights the drawbacks of upfront means testing. In an attempt to limit aid to Americans in financial distress, the $1200 relief payments begin to phase-out at five cents on the dollar when income exceeds a certain threshold: $75,000 for childless, single individuals and $150,000 for married couples. The catch is that for most Americans, their 2019 or 2018 incomes will determine whether their relief payments phase-out – and therefore how much aid they receive now, in 2020. In a world where 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past month, looking to one or two-year old data to determine need is meaningless. Many Americans whose pre-pandemic incomes exceeded the threshold are now struggling to make mortgage payments and put food on the table, but will receive little or no direct cash aid under the CARES Act until April of 2021.

This absurdity magnifies a problem inherent in ex ante means tests. Often, one’s past financial status does not tell us much about an individual’s current needs. This is particularly true when incomes fluctuate from period to period, as is the case with many lower-income workers. Imagine a fast food worker and SNAP beneficiary whose schedule changes month to month, if not week to week. If she is lucky enough to work a lot in November, she may see her December SNAP benefits reduced. But what if her boss gives her fewer shifts in December? Both her paycheck and her SNAP benefits will be lower in December, leaving her struggling.

The solution is to send cash to all Americans, and recapture the transfer through the income tax system. Mathematically, an ex post tax is exactly the same as an ex ante phase out. Consider the CARES Act. A childless single individual with an income of $85,000 is $10,000 over the threshold, reducing her benefit by $500 and netting her $700. Giving her a check for $1200 and taxing her an additional 5% on income above $75,000 also nets her $700. As a practical matter, however, an ex post tax is more accurate because hindsight is 20-20. Lesson two from the CARES Act is that universal payments offset by taxes are superior to ex ante means-testing.

Provide Regular Payments

Third, the CARES Act provides one lump sum payment, with struggling Americans wondering whether Congress will act again. This is a missed opportunity: Studies show that families receiving SNAP benefits face challenges planning for even a month at a time. Lesson three is that guaranteed monthly or bi-weekly payments – as a true UBI would provide — would help households plan and provide some peace of mind amidst this uncertainty.

Provide Equal Payments to Children and Adults

Finally, the CARES Act provides a smaller benefit to children than adults. This is nonsensical. A single parent with two children faces greater hardship than a married couple with one child, as she has the same number of mouths to feed with fewer earners. Further, social science evidence suggests that augmenting family income has positive long-run consequences for children. Lesson four from the CARES Act – the empirical case for a UBI is strongest for families with children.

It’s Better to Be Overly, not Underly, Generous

The Act’s direct cash payments are a step in the right direction. But they demonstrate that not all cash assistance plans are created equal. Uniform and periodic payments to all – regardless of age and one’s relationship to the workforce – is the best way to protect Americans’ economic health, pandemic or not. This is not the time to be stingy or moralistic in our assistance. Better to err on the side of being overly generous now, especially when we can correct that error later through the tax system. Errors that result in withholding aid from those who need it, alas, might not be so easy to correct.

[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 Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE); Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, ICLE; Adjunct Professor of Economics, Portland State University); and Kristian Stout (Associate Director, ICLE

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way consumers shop and the way businesses sell. These shifts in behavior, designed to “flatten the curve” of infection through social distancing, are happening across many (if not all) markets. But in many cases, it’s impossible to know now whether these new habits are actually achieving the desired effect. 

Take a seemingly silly example from Oregon. The state is one of only two in the U.S. that prohibits self-serve gas. In response to COVID-19, the state fire marshall announced it would temporarily suspend its enforcement of the prohibition. Public opinion fell into two broad groups. Those who want the option to pump their own gas argue that self-serve reduces the interaction between station attendants and consumers, thereby potentially reducing the spread of coronavirus. On the other hand, those who support the prohibition on self-serve have blasted the fire marshall’s announcement, arguing that all those dirty fingers pressing keypads and all those grubby hands on fuel pumps will likely increase the spread of the virus. 

Both groups may be right, but no one yet knows the net effect. We can only speculate. This picture becomes even more complex when considering other, alternative policies. For instance, would it be more effective for the state of Oregon to curtail gas station visits by forcing the closure of stations? Probably not. Would it be more effective to reduce visits through some form of rationing? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Policymakers will certainly struggle to efficiently decide how firms and consumers should minimize the spread of COVID-19. That struggle is an extension of Hayek’s knowledge problem: policymakers don’t have adequate knowledge of alternatives, preferences, and the associated risks. 

A Hayekian approach — relying on bottom-up rather than top-down solutions to the problem — may be the most appropriate solution. Allowing firms to experiment and iteratively find solutions that work for their consumers and employees (potentially adjusting prices and wages in the process) may be the best that policymakers can do.

The case of online retail platforms

One area where these complex tradeoffs are particularly acute is that of online retail. In response to the pandemic, many firms have significantly boosted their online retail capacity. 

These initiatives have been met with a mix of enthusiasm and disapproval. On the one hand online retail enables consumers to purchase “essential” goods with a significantly reduced risk of COVID-19 contamination. It also allows “non-essential” goods to be sold, despite the closure of their brick and mortar stores. At first blush, this seems like a win-win situation for both consumers and retailers of all sizes, with large retailers ramping up their online operations and independent retailers switching to online platforms such as Amazon.

But there is a potential downside. Even contactless deliveries do present some danger, notably for warehouse workers who run the risk of being infected and subsequently passing the virus on to others. This risk is amplified by the fact that many major retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, CVS, and Albertsons, are hiring more warehouse and delivery workers to meet an increase in online orders. 

This has led some to question whether sales of “non-essential” goods (though the term is almost impossible to define) should be halted. The reasoning is that continuing to supply such goods needlessly puts lives at risk and reduces overall efforts to slow the virus.

Once again, these are incredibly complex questions. It is hard to gauge the overall risk of infection that is produced by the online retail industry’s warehousing and distribution infrastructure. In particular, it is not clear how effective social distancing policies, widely imposed within these workplaces, will be at achieving distancing and, in turn, reducing infections. 

More fundamentally, whatever this risk turns out to be, it is almost impossible to weigh it against an appropriate counterfactual. 

Online retail is not the only area where this complex tradeoff arises. An analogous reasoning could, for instance, also be applied to food delivery platforms. Ordering a meal on UberEats does carry some risk, but so does repeated trips to the grocery store. And there are legitimate concerns about the safety of food handlers working in close proximity to each other.  These considerations make it hard for policymakers to strike the appropriate balance. 

The good news: at least some COVID-related risks are being internalized

But there is also some good news. Firms, consumers and employees all have some incentive to mitigate these risks. 

Consumers want to purchase goods without getting contaminated; employees want to work in safe environments; and firms need to attract both consumers and employees, while minimizing potential liability. These (partially) aligned incentives will almost certainly cause these economic agents to take at least some steps that mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This might notably explain why many firms imposed social distancing measures well before governments started to take notice (here, here, and here). 

For example, one first-order effect of COVID-19 is that it has become more expensive for firms to hire warehouse workers. Not only have firms moved up along the supply curve (by hiring more workers), but the curve itself has likely shifted upwards reflecting the increased opportunity cost of warehouse work. Predictably, this has resulted in higher wages for workers. For example, Amazon and Walmart recently increased the wages they were paying warehouse workers, as have brick and mortar retailers, such as Kroger, who have implemented similar policies.

Along similar lines, firms and employees will predictably bargain — through various channels — over the appropriate level of protection for those workers who must continue to work in-person.

For example, some companies have found ways to reduce risk while continuing operations:

  • CNBC reports Tyson Foods is using walk-through infrared body temperature scanners to check employees’ temperatures as they enter three of the company’s meat processing plants. Other companies planning to use scanners include Goldman Sachs, UPS, Ford, and Carnival Cruise Lines.
  • Kroger’s Fred Meyer chain of supermarkets is limiting the number of customers in each of its stores to half the occupancy allowed under international building codes. Kroger will use infrared sensors and predictive analytics to monitor the new capacity limits. The company already uses the technology to estimate how many checkout lanes are needed at any given time.
  • Trader Joe’s limits occupancy in its store. Customers waiting to enter are asked to stand six feet apart using marked off Trader Joe’s logos on the sidewalk. Shopping carts are separated into groups of “sanitized” and “to be cleaned.” Each cart is thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant and wiped down with a clean cloth.

In other cases, bargaining over the right level of risk-mitigation has been pursued through more coercive channels, such as litigation and lobbying:

  • A recently filed lawsuit alleges that managers at an Illinois Walmart store failed to alert workers after several employees began showing symptoms of COVID-19. The suit claims Walmart “had a duty to exercise reasonable care in keeping the store in a safe and healthy environment and, in particular, to protect employees, customers and other individuals within the store from contracting COVID-19 when it knew or should have known that individuals at the store were at a very high risk of infection and exposure.” 
  • According to CNBC, a group of legislators, unions and Amazon employees in New York wrote a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos calling on him to enact greater protections for warehouse employees who continue to work during the coronavirus outbreak. The Financial Times reports worker protests at Amazon warehouse in the US, France, and Italy. Worker protests have been reported at a Barnes & Noble warehouse. Several McDonald’s locations have been hit with strikes.
  • In many cases, worker concerns about health and safety have been conflated with long-simmering issues of unionization, minimum wage, flexible scheduling, and paid time-off. For example, several McDonald’s strikes were reported to have been organized by “Fight for $15.”

Sometimes, there is simply no mutually-advantageous solution. And businesses are thus left with no other option than temporarily suspending their activities: 

  • For instance, McDonalds and Burger King have spontaneously closed their restaurants — including drive-thru and deliveries — in many European countries (here and here).
  • In Portland, Oregon, ChefStable a restaurant group behind some of the city’s best-known restaurants, closed all 20 of its bars and restaurants for at least four weeks. In what he called a “crisis of conscience,” owner Kurt Huffman concluded it would be impossible to maintain safe social distancing for customers and staff.

This is certainly not to say that all is perfect. Employers, employees and consumers may have very strong disagreements about what constitutes the appropriate level of risk mitigation.

Moreover, the questions of balancing worker health and safety with that of consumers become all the more complex when we recognize that consumers and businesses are operating in a dynamic environment, making sometimes fundamental changes to reduce risk at many levels of the supply chain.

Likewise, not all businesses will be able to implement measures that mitigate the risk of COVID-19. For instance, “Big Business” might be in a better position to reduce risks to its workforce than smaller businesses. 

Larger firms tend to have the resources and economies of scale to make capital investments in temperature scanners or sensors. They have larger workforces where employees can, say, shift from stocking shelves to sanitizing shopping carts. Several large employers, including Amazon, Kroger, and CVS have offered higher wages to employees who are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus. Smaller firms are less likely to have the resources to offer such wage premiums.

For example, Amazon recently announced that it would implement mandatory temperature checks, that it would provide employees with protective equipment, and that it would increase the frequency and intensity of cleaning for all its sites. And, as already mentioned above, Tyson Foods announced that they would install temperature scanners at a number of sites. It is not clear whether smaller businesses are in a position to implement similar measures. 

That’s not to say that small businesses can’t adjust. It’s just more difficult. For example, a small paint-your-own ceramics shop, Mimosa Studios, had to stop offering painting parties because of government mandated social distancing. One way it’s mitigating the loss of business is with a paint-at-home package. Customers place an order online, and the studio delivers the ceramic piece, paints, and loaner brushes. When the customer is finished painting, Mimosa picks up the piece, fires it, and delivers the finished product. The approach doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps mitigate the losses.

Conclusion

In all likelihood, we can’t actually avoid all bad outcomes. There is, of course, some risk associated with even well-resourced large businesses continuing to operate, even though some of them play a crucial role in coronavirus-related lockdowns. 

Currently, market actors are working within the broad outlines of lockdowns deemed necessary by policymakers. Given the intensely complicated risk calculation necessary to determine if any given individual truly needs an “essential” (or even a “nonessential”) good or service, the best thing that lawmakers can do for now is let properly motivated private actors continue to seek optimal outcomes together within the imposed constraints. 

So far, most individuals and the firms serving them are at least partially internalizing Covid-related risks. The right approach for lawmakers would be to watch this process and determine where it breaks down. Measures targeted to fix those breaches will almost inevitably outperform interventionist planning to determine exactly what is essential, what is nonessential, and who should be allowed to serve consumers in their time of need.

[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 Geoffrey A. Manne, (President, ICLE; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business, and Economics); and Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE)]

Back in 2012, Covidien, a large health care products company and medical device manufacturer, purchased Newport Medical Instruments, a small ventilator developer and manufacturer. (Covidien itself was subsequently purchased by Medtronic in 2015).

Eight years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has just published an article revisiting the Covidien/Newport transaction, and questioning whether it might have contributed to the current shortage of ventilators.

The article speculates that Covidien’s purchase of Newport, and the subsequent discontinuation of Newport’s “Aura” ventilator — which was then being developed by Newport under a government contract — delayed US government efforts to procure mechanical ventilators until the second half of 2020 — too late to treat the first wave of COVID-19 patients:

And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.

That failure delayed the development of an affordable ventilator by at least half a decade, depriving hospitals, states and the federal government of the ability to stock up.

* * *

Today, with the coronavirus ravaging America’s health care system, the nation’s emergency-response stockpile is still waiting on its first shipment.

The article has generated considerable interest not so much for what it suggests about government procurement policies or for its relevance to the ventilator shortages associated with the current pandemic, but rather for its purported relevance to ongoing antitrust debates and the arguments put forward by “antitrust populists” and others that merger enforcement in the US is dramatically insufficient. 

Only a single sentence in the article itself points to a possible antitrust story — and it does nothing more than report unsubstantiated speculation from unnamed “government officials” and rival companies: 

Government officials and executives at rival ventilator companies said they suspected that Covidien had acquired Newport to prevent it from building a cheaper product that would undermine Covidien’s profits from its existing ventilator business.

Nevertheless, and right on cue, various antitrust scholars quickly framed the deal as a so-called “killer acquisition” (see also here and here):

Unsurprisingly, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon. David Cicilline, the powerful chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, opined that:

And FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter quickly called for a retrospective review of the deal:

The public reporting on this acquisition raises important questions about the review of this deal. We should absolutely be looking back to figure out what happened.

These “hot takes” raise a crucial issue. The New York Times story opened the door to a welter of hasty conclusions offered to support the ongoing narrative that antitrust enforcement has failed us — in this case quite literally at the cost of human lives. But are any of these claims actually supportable?

Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the mechanical ventilator industry, as well as a more clear-eyed view of what was likely going on with the failed government contract at the heart of the story, simply do not support the “killer acquisition” story.

What is a “killer acquisition”…?

Let’s take a step back. Because monopoly profits are, by definition, higher than joint duopoly profits (all else equal), economists have long argued that incumbents may find it profitable to acquire smaller rivals in order to reduce competition and increase their profits. More specifically, incumbents may be tempted to acquire would-be entrants in order to prevent them from introducing innovations that might hurt the incumbent’s profits.

For this theory to have any purchase, however, a number of conditions must hold. Most importantly, as Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma put it in an influential paper

“killer acquisitions” can only occur when the entrepreneur’s project overlaps with the acquirer’s existing product…. [W]ithout any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur… because, without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

Moreover, the authors add that:

Successfully developing a new product draws consumer demand and profits away equally from all existing products. An acquiring incumbent is hurt more by such cannibalization when he is a monopolist (i.e., the new product draws demand away only from his own existing product) than when he already faces many other existing competitors (i.e., cannibalization losses are spread over many firms). As a result, as the number of existing competitors increases, the replacement effect decreases and the acquirer’s development decisions become more similar to those of the entrepreneur

Finally, the “killer acquisition” terminology is appropriate only when the incumbent chooses to discontinue its rival’s R&D project:

If incumbents face significant existing competition, acquired projects are not significantly more frequently discontinued than independent projects. Thus, more competition deters incumbents from acquiring and terminating the projects of potential future competitors, which leads to more competition in the future.

…And what isn’t a killer acquisition?

What is left out of this account of killer acquisitions is the age-old possibility that an acquirer purchases a rival precisely because it has superior know-how or a superior governance structure that enables it to realize greater return and more productivity than its target. In the case of a so-called killer acquisition, this means shutting down a negative ROI project and redeploying resources to other projects or other uses — including those that may not have any direct relation to the discontinued project. 

Such “synergistic” mergers are also — like allegedly “killer” mergers — likely to involve acquirers and targets in the same industry and with technological overlap between their R&D projects; it is in precisely these situations that the acquirer is likely to have better knowledge than the target’s shareholders that the target is undervalued because of poor governance rather than exogenous, environmental factors.  

In other words, whether an acquisition is harmful or not — as the epithet “killer” implies it is — depends on whether it is about reducing competition from a rival, on the one hand, or about increasing the acquirer’s competitiveness by putting resources to more productive use, on the other.

As argued below, it is highly unlikely that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport could be classified as a “killer acquisition.” There is thus nothing to suggest that the merger materially impaired competition in the mechanical ventilator market, or that it measurably affected the US’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

The market realities of the ventilator market and its implications for the “killer acquisition” story

1. The mechanical ventilator market is highly competitive

As explained above, “killer acquisitions” are less likely to occur in competitive markets. Yet the mechanical ventilator industry is extremely competitive. 

A number of reports conclude that there is significant competition in the industry. One source cites at least seven large producers. Another report cites eleven large players. And, in the words of another report:

Medical ventilators market competition is intense. 

The conclusion that the mechanical ventilator industry is highly competitive is further supported by the fact that the five largest producers combined reportedly hold only 50% of the market. In other words, available evidence suggests that none of these firms has anything close to a monopoly position. 

This intense competition, along with the small market shares of the merging firms, likely explains why the FTC declined to open an in-depth investigation into Covidien’s acquisition of Newport.

Similarly, following preliminary investigations, neither the FTC nor the European Commission saw the need for an in-depth look at the ventilator market when they reviewed Medtronic’s subsequent acquisition of Covidien (which closed in 2015). Although Medtronic did not produce any mechanical ventilators before the acquisition, authorities (particularly the European Commission) could nevertheless have analyzed that market if Covidien’s presumptive market share was particularly high. The fact that they declined to do so tends to suggest that the ventilator market was relatively unconcentrated.

2. The value of the merger was too small

A second strong reason to believe that Covidien’s purchase of Newport wasn’t a killer acquisition is the acquisition’s value of $103 million

Indeed, if it was clear that Newport was about to revolutionize the ventilator market, then Covidien would likely have been made to pay significantly more than $103 million to acquire it. 

As noted above, the crux of the “killer acquisition” theory is that incumbents can induce welfare-reducing acquisitions by offering to acquire their rivals for significantly more than the present value of their rivals’ expected profits. Because an incumbent undertaking a “killer” takeover expects to earn monopoly profits as a result of the transaction, it can offer a substantial premium and still profit from its investment. It is this basic asymmetry that drives the theory.

Indeed, as a recent article by Kevin Bryan and Erik Hovenkamp notes, an acquisition value out of line with current revenues may be an indicator of the significance of a pending acquisition in which enforcers may not actually know the value of the target’s underlying technology: 

[Where] a court may lack the expertise to [assess the commercial significance of acquired technology]…, the transaction value… may provide a reasonable proxy. Intuitively, if the startup is a relatively small company with relatively few sales to its name, then a very high acquisition price may reasonably suggest that the startup technology has significant promise.

The strategy only works, however, if the target firm’s shareholders agree that share value properly reflects only “normal” expected profits, and not that the target is poised to revolutionize its market with a uniquely low-cost or high-quality product. Relatively low acquisition prices relative to market size, therefore, tend to reflect low (or normal) expected profits, and a low perceived likelihood of radical innovations occurring.

We can apply this reasoning to Covidien’s acquisition of Newport: 

  • Precise and publicly available figures concerning the mechanical ventilator market are hard to come by. Nevertheless, one estimate finds that the global ventilator market was worth $2.715 billion in 2012. Another report suggests that the global market was worth $4.30 billion in 2018; still another that it was worth $4.58 billion in 2019.
  • As noted above, Covidien reported to the SEC that it paid $103 million to purchase Newport (a firm that produced only ventilators and apparently had no plans to branch out). 
  • For context, at the time of the acquisition Covidien had annual sales of $11.8 billion overall, and $743 million in sales of its existing “Airways and Ventilation Products.”

If the ventilator market was indeed worth billions of dollars per year, then the comparatively small $108 million paid by Covidien — small even relative to Covidien’s own share of the market — suggests that, at the time of the acquisition, it was unlikely that Newport was poised to revolutionize the market for mechanical ventilators (for instance, by successfully bringing its Aura ventilator to market). 

The New York Times article claimed that Newport’s ventilators would be sold (at least to the US government) for $3,000 — a substantial discount from the reportedly then-going rate of $10,000. If selling ventilators at this price seemed credible at the time, then Covidien — as well as Newport’s shareholders — knew that Newport was about to achieve tremendous cost savings, enabling it to offer ventilators not only to the the US government, but to purchasers around the world, at an irresistibly attractive — and profitable — price.

Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.

“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”

If achievable, Newport thus stood to earn a substantial share of the profits in a multi-billion dollar industry. 

Of course, it is necessary to apply a probability to these numbers: Newport’s ventilator was not yet on the market, and had not yet received FDA approval. Nevertheless, if the Times’ numbers seemed credible at the time, then Covidien would surely have had to offer significantly more than $108 million in order to induce Newport’s shareholders to part with their shares.

Given the low valuation, however, as well as the fact that Newport produced other ventilators — and continues to do so to this day, there is no escaping the fact that everyone involved seemed to view Newport’s Aura ventilator as nothing more than a moonshot with, at best, a low likelihood of success. 

Curically, this same reasoning explains why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the project was ultimately discontinued; recourse to a “killer acquisition” theory is hardly necessary.

3. Lessons from Covidien’s ventilator product decisions  

The killer acquisition claims are further weakened by at least four other important pieces of information: 

  1.  Covidien initially continued to develop Newport’s Aura ventilator, and continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators.
  2. There was little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators — or, at the very least, they were highly differentiated
  3. Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014
  4. The Newport purchase was part of a billion dollar series of acquisitions seemingly aimed at expanding Covidien’s in-hospital (i.e., not-portable) device portfolio

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s ventilators

For a start, while the Aura line was indeed discontinued by Covidien, the timeline is important. The acquisition of Newport by Covidien was announced in March 2012, approved by the FTC in April of the same year, and the deal was closed on May 1, 2012.

However, as the FDA’s 510(k) database makes clear, Newport submitted documents for FDA clearance of the Aura ventilator months after its acquisition by Covidien (June 29, 2012, to be precise). And the Aura received FDA 510(k) clearance on November 9, 2012 — many months after the merger.

It would have made little sense for Covidien to invest significant sums in order to obtain FDA clearance for a project that it planned to discontinue (the FDA routinely requires parties to actively cooperate with it, even after 510(k) applications are submitted). 

Moreover, if Covidien really did plan to discreetly kill off the Aura ventilator, bungling the FDA clearance procedure would have been the perfect cover under which to do so. Yet that is not what it did.

Covidien continued to develop and sell Newport’s other ventilators

Second, and just as importantly, Covidien (and subsequently Medtronic) continued to sell Newport’s other ventilators. The Newport e360 and HT70 are still sold today. Covidien also continued to improve these products: it appears to have introduced an improved version of the Newport HT70 Plus ventilator in 2013.

If eliminating its competitor’s superior ventilators was the only goal of the merger, then why didn’t Covidien also eliminate these two products from its lineup, rather than continue to improve and sell them? 

At least part of the answer, as will be seen below, is that there was almost no overlap between Covidien and Newport’s product lines.

There was little overlap between Covidien’s and Newport’s ventilators

Third — and perhaps the biggest flaw in the killer acquisition story — is that there appears to have been very little overlap between Covidien and Newport’s ventilators. 

This decreases the likelihood that the merger was a killer acquisition. When two products are highly differentiated (or not substitutes at all), sales of the first are less likely to cannibalize sales of the other. As Florian Ederer and his co-authors put it:

Importantly, without any product market overlap, the acquirer never has a strictly positive incentive to acquire the entrepreneur, neither to “Acquire to Kill” nor to “Acquire to Continue.” This is because without overlap, acquiring the project does not give the acquirer any gains resulting from reduced competition, and the two bargaining entities have exactly the same value for the project.

A quick search of the FDA’s 510(k) database reveals that Covidien has three approved lines of ventilators: the Puritan Bennett 980, 840, and 540 (apparently essentially the same as the PB560, the plans to which Medtronic recently made freely available in order to facilitate production during the current crisis). The same database shows that these ventilators differ markedly from Newport’s ventilators (particularly the Aura).

In particular, Covidien manufactured primarily traditional, invasive ICU ventilators (except for the PB540, which is potentially a substitute for the Newport HT70), while Newport made much-more-portable ventilators, suitable for home use (notably the Aura, HT50 and HT70 lines). 

Under normal circumstances, critical care and portable ventilators are not substitutes. As the WHO website explains, portable ventilators are:

[D]esigned to provide support to patients who do not require complex critical care ventilators.

A quick glance at Medtronic’s website neatly illustrates the stark differences between these two types of devices:

This is not to say that these devices do not have similar functionalities, or that they cannot become substitutes in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. However, in normal times (as was the case when Covidien acquired Newport), hospitals likely did not view these devices as substitutes.

The conclusion that Covidien and Newport’s ventilator were not substitutes finds further support in documents and statements released at the time of the merger. For instance, Covidien’s CEO explained that:

This acquisition is consistent with Covidien’s strategy to expand into adjacencies and invest in product categories where it can develop a global competitive advantage.

And that:

Newport’s products and technology complement our current portfolio of respiratory solutions and will broaden our ventilation platform for patients around the world, particularly in emerging markets.

In short, the fact that almost all of Covidien and Newport’s products were not substitutes further undermines the killer acquisition story. It also tends to vindicate the FTC’s decision to rapidly terminate its investigation of the merger.

Covidien appears to have discontinued production of its own portable ventilator in 2014

Perhaps most tellingly: It appears that Covidien discontinued production of its own competing, portable ventilator, the Puritan Bennett 560, in 2014.

The product is reported on the company’s 2011, 2012 and 2013 annual reports:

Airway and Ventilation Products — airway, ventilator, breathing systems and inhalation therapy products. Key products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 line of ventilators; the Puritan Bennett™ 520 and 560 portable ventilator….

(The PB540 was launched in 2009; the updated PB560 in 2010. The PB520 was the EU version of the device, launched in 2011).

But in 2014, the PB560 was no longer listed among the company’s ventilator products:  

Airway & Ventilation, which primarily includes sales of airway, ventilator and inhalation therapy products and breathing systems.

Key airway & ventilation products include: the Puritan Bennett™ 840 and 980 ventilators, the Newport™ e360 and HT70 ventilators….

Nor — despite its March 31 and April 1 “open sourcing” of the specifications and software necessary to enable others to produce the PB560 — did Medtronic appear to have restarted production, and the company did not mention the device in its March 18 press release announcing its own, stepped-up ventilator production plans.

Surely if Covidien had intended to capture the portable ventilator market by killing off its competition it would have continued to actually sell its own, competing device. The fact that the only portable ventilators produced by Covidien by 2014 were those it acquired in the Newport deal strongly suggests that its objective in that deal was the acquisition and deployment of Newport’s viable and profitable technologies — not the abandonment of them. This, in turn, suggests that the Aura was not a viable and profitable technology.

(Admittedly we are unable to determine conclusively that either Covidien or Medtronic stopped producing the PB520/540/560 series of ventilators. But our research seems to indicate strongly that this is indeed the case).

Putting the Newport deal in context

Finally, although not dispositive, it seems important to put the Newport purchase into context. In the same year as it purchased Newport, Covidien paid more than a billion dollars to acquire five other companies, as well — all of them primarily producing in-hospital medical devices. 

That 2012 spending spree came on the heels of a series of previous medical device company acquisitions, apparently totally some four billion dollars. Although not exclusively so, the acquisitions undertaken by Covidien seem to have been primarily targeted at operating room and in-hospital monitoring and treatment — making the putative focus on cornering the portable (home and emergency) ventilator market an extremely unlikely one. 

By the time Covidien was purchased by Medtronic the deal easily cleared antitrust review because of the lack of overlap between the company’s products, with Covidien’s focusing predominantly on in-hospital, “diagnostic, surgical, and critical care” and Medtronic’s on post-acute care.

Newport misjudged the costs associated with its Aura project; Covidien was left to pick up the pieces

So why was the Aura ventilator discontinued?

Although it is almost impossible to know what motivated Covidien’s executives, the Aura ventilator project clearly suffered from many problems. 

The Aura project was intended to meet the requirements of the US government’s BARDA program (under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). In short, the program sought to create a stockpile of next generation ventilators for emergency situations — including, notably, pandemics. The ventilator would thus have to be designed for events where

mass casualties may be expected, and when shortages of experienced health care providers with respiratory support training, and shortages of ventilators and accessory components may be expected.

The Aura ventilator would thus sit somewhere between Newport’s two other ventilators: the e360 which could be used in pediatric care (for newborns smaller than 5kg) but was not intended for home care use (or the extreme scenarios envisioned by the US government); and the more portable HT70 which could be used in home care environments, but not for newborns. 

Unfortunately, the Aura failed to achieve this goal. The FDA’s 510(k) clearance decision clearly states that the Aura was not intended for newborns:

The AURA family of ventilators is applicable for infant, pediatric and adult patients greater than or equal to 5 kg (11 lbs.).

A press release issued by Medtronic confirms that

the company was unable to secure FDA approval for use in neonatal populations — a contract requirement.

And the US Government RFP confirms that this was indeed an important requirement:

The device must be able to provide the same standard of performance as current FDA pre-market cleared portable ventilators and shall have the following additional characteristics or features: 

Flexibility to accommodate a wide patient population range from neonate to adult.

Newport also seems to have been unable to deliver the ventilator at the low price it had initially forecasted — a common problem for small companies and/or companies that undertake large R&D programs. It also struggled to complete the project within the agreed-upon deadlines. As the Medtronic press release explains:

Covidien learned that Newport’s work on the ventilator design for the Government had significant gaps between what it had promised the Government and what it could deliverboth in terms of being able to achieve the cost of production specified in the contract and product features and performance. Covidien management questioned whether Newport’s ability to complete the project as agreed to in the contract was realistic.

As Jason Crawford, an engineer and tech industry commentator, put it:

Projects fail all the time. “Supplier risk” should be a standard checkbox on anyone’s contingency planning efforts. This is even more so when you deliberately push the price down to 30% of the market rate. Newport did not even necessarily expect to be profitable on the contract.

The above is mostly Covidien’s “side” of the story, of course. But other pieces of evidence lend some credibility to these claims:

  • Newport agreed to deliver its Aura ventilator at a per unit cost of less than $3000. But, even today, this seems extremely ambitious. For instance, the WHO has estimated that portable ventilators cost between $3,300 and $13,500. If Newport could profitably sell the Aura at such a low price, then there was little reason to discontinue it (readers will recall the development of the ventilator was mostly complete when Covidien put a halt to the project).
  • Covidien/Newport is not the only firm to have struggled to offer suitable ventilators at such a low price. Philips (which took Newport’s place after the government contract fell through) also failed to achieve this low price. Rather than the $2,000 price sought in the initial RFP, Philips ultimately agreed to produce the ventilators for $3,280. But it has not yet been able to produce a single ventilator under the government contract at that price.
  • Covidien has repeatedly been forced to recall some of its other ventilators ( here, here and here) — including the Newport HT70. And rival manufacturers have also faced these types of issues (for example, here and here). 

Accordingly, Covidien may well have preferred to cut its losses on the already problem-prone Aura project, before similar issues rendered it even more costly. 

In short, while it is impossible to prove that these development issues caused Covidien to pull the plug on the Aura project, it is certainly plausible that they did. This further supports the hypothesis that Covidien’s acquisition of Newport was not a killer acquisition. 

Ending the Aura project might have been an efficient outcome

As suggested above, moreover, it is entirely possible that Covidien was better able to realize the poor prospects of Newport’s Aura project and also better organized to enable it to make the requisite decision to abandon the project.

A small company like Newport faces greater difficulties abandoning entrepreneurial projects because doing so can impair a privately held firm’s ability to raise funds for subsequent projects.

Moreover, the relatively large share of revue and reputation that Newport — worth $103 million in 2012, versus Covidien’s $11.8 billion — would have realized from fulfilling a substantial US government project could well have induced it to overestimate the project’s viability and to undertake excessive risk in the (vain) hope of bringing the project to fruition.  

While there is a tendency among antitrust scholars, enforcers, and practitioners to look for (and find…) antitrust-related rationales for mergers and other corporate conduct, it remains the case that most corporate control transactions (such as mergers) are driven by the acquiring firm’s expectation that it can manage more efficiently. As Henry G. Manne put it in his seminal article, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control (1965): 

Since, in a world of uncertainty, profitable transactions will be entered into more often by those whose information is relatively more reliable, it should not surprise us that mergers within the same industry have been a principal form of changing corporate control. Reliable information is often available to suppliers and customers as well. Thus many vertical mergers may be of the control takeover variety rather than of the “foreclosure of competitors” or scale-economies type.

Of course, the same information that renders an acquiring firm in the same line of business knowledgeable enough to operate a target more efficiently could also enable it to effect a “killer acquisition” strategy. But the important point is that a takeover by a firm with a competing product line, after which the purchased company’s product line is abandoned, is at least as consistent with a “market for corporate control” story as with a “killer acquisition” story.

Indeed, as Florian Ederer himself noted with respect to the Covidien/Newport merger, 

“Killer acquisitions” can have a nefarious image, but killing off a rival’s product was probably not the main purpose of the transaction, Ederer said. He raised the possibility that Covidien decided to kill Newport’s innovation upon realising that the development of the devices would be expensive and unlikely to result in profits.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, Covidien’s acquisition of Newport offers a cautionary tale about reckless journalism, “blackboard economics,” and government failure.

Reckless journalism because the New York Times clearly failed to do the appropriate due diligence for its story. Its journalists notably missed (or deliberately failed to mention) a number of critical pieces of information — such as the hugely important fact that most of Covidien’s and Newport’s products did not overlap, or the fact that there were numerous competitors in the highly competitive mechanical ventilator industry. 

And yet, that did not stop the authors from publishing their extremely alarming story, effectively suggesting that a small medical device merger materially contributed to the loss of many American lives.

The story also falls prey to what Ronald Coase called “blackboard economics”:

What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth. 

Numerous commentators rushed to fit the story to their preconceived narratives, failing to undertake even a rudimentary examination of the underlying market conditions before they voiced their recriminations. 

The only thing that Covidien and Newport’s merger ostensibly had in common with the killer acquisition theory was the fact that a large firm purchased a small rival, and that the one of the small firm’s products was discontinued. But this does not even begin to meet the stringent conditions that must be fulfilled for the theory to hold water. Unfortunately, critics appear to have completely ignored all contradicting evidence. 

Finally, what the New York Times piece does offer is a chilling tale of government failure.

The inception of the US government’s BARDA program dates back to 2008 — twelve years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. 

The collapse of the Aura project is no excuse for the fact that, more than six years after the Newport contract fell through, the US government still has not obtained the necessary ventilators. Questions should also be raised about the government’s decision to effectively put all of its eggs in the same basket — twice. If anything, it is thus government failure that was the real culprit. 

And yet the New York Times piece and the critics shouting “killer acquisition!” effectively give the US government’s abject failure here a free pass — all in the service of pursuing their preferred “killer story.”

[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 Ben Sperry, (Associate Director, Legal Research, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The visceral reaction to the New York Times’ recent story on Matt Colvin, the man who had 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer with nowhere to sell them, shows there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of prices and the informational function they serve in the economy. Calls to enforce laws against “price gouging” may actually prove more harmful to consumers and society than allowing prices to rise (or fall, of course) in response to market conditions. 

Nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek explained how price signals serve as information that allows for coordination in a market society:

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function… The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Economic actors don’t need a PhD in economics or even to pay attention to the news about the coronavirus to change their behavior. Higher prices for goods or services alone give important information to individuals — whether consumers, producers, distributors, or entrepreneurs — to conserve scarce resources, produce more, and look for (or invest in creating!) alternatives.

Prices are fundamental to rationing scarce resources, especially during an emergency. Allowing prices to rapidly rise has three salutary effects (as explained by Professor Michael Munger in his terrific twitter thread):

  1. Consumers ration how much they really need;
  2. Producers respond to the rising prices by ramping up supply and distributors make more available; and
  3. Entrepreneurs find new substitutes in order to innovate around bottlenecks in the supply chain. 

Despite the distaste with which the public often treats “price gouging,” officials should take care to ensure that they don’t prevent these three necessary responses from occurring. 

Rationing by consumers

During a crisis, if prices for goods that are in high demand but short supply are forced to stay at pre-crisis levels, the informational signal of a shortage isn’t given — at least by the market directly. This encourages consumers to buy more than is rationally justified under the circumstances. This stockpiling leads to shortages. 

Companies respond by rationing in various ways, like instituting shorter hours or placing limits on how much of certain high-demand goods can be bought by any one consumer. Lines (and unavailability), instead of price, become the primary cost borne by consumers trying to obtain the scarce but underpriced goods. 

If, instead, prices rise in light of the short supply and high demand, price-elastic consumers will buy less, freeing up supply for others. And, critically, price-inelastic consumers (i.e. those who most need the good) will be provided a better shot at purchase.

According to the New York Times story on Mr. Colvin, he focused on buying out the hand sanitizer in rural areas of Tennessee and Kentucky, since the major metro areas were already cleaned out. His goal was to then sell these hand sanitizers (and other high-demand goods) online at market prices. He was essentially acting as a speculator and bringing information to the market (much like an insider trader). If successful, he would be coordinating supply and demand between geographical areas by successfully arbitraging. This often occurs when emergencies are localized, like post-Katrina New Orleans or post-Irma Florida. In those cases, higher prices induced suppliers to shift goods and services from around the country to the affected areas. Similarly, here Mr. Colvin was arguably providing a beneficial service, by shifting the supply of high-demand goods from low-demand rural areas to consumers facing localized shortages. 

For those who object to Mr. Colvin’s bulk purchasing-for-resale scheme, the answer is similar to those who object to ticket resellers: the retailer should raise the price. If the Walmarts, Targets, and Dollar Trees raised prices or rationed supply like the supermarket in Denmark, Mr. Colvin would not have been able to afford nearly as much hand sanitizer. (Of course, it’s also possible — had those outlets raised prices — that Mr. Colvin would not have been able to profitably re-route the excess local supply to those in other parts of the country most in need.)

The role of “price gouging” laws and social norms

A common retort, of course, is that Colvin was able to profit from the pandemic precisely because he was able to purchase a large amount of stock at normal retail prices, even after the pandemic began. Thus, he was not a producer who happened to have a restricted amount of supply in the face of new demand, but a mere reseller who exacerbated the supply shortage problems.

But such an observation truncates the analysis and misses the crucial role that social norms against “price gouging” and state “price gouging” laws play in facilitating shortages during a crisis.

Under these laws, typically retailers may raise prices by at most 10% during a declared state of emergency. But even without such laws, brick-and-mortar businesses are tied to a location in which they are repeat players, and they may not want to take a reputational hit by raising prices during an emergency and violating the “price gouging” norm. By contrast, individual sellers, especially pseudonymous third-party sellers using online platforms, do not rely on repeat interactions to the same degree, and may be harder to track down for prosecution. 

Thus, the social norms and laws exacerbate the conditions that create the need for emergency pricing, and lead to outsized arbitrage opportunities for those willing to violate norms and the law. But, critically, this violation is only a symptom of the larger problem that social norms and laws stand in the way, in the first instance, of retailers using emergency pricing to ration scarce supplies.

Normally, third-party sales sites have much more dynamic pricing than brick and mortar outlets, which just tend to run out of underpriced goods for a period of time rather than raise prices. This explains why Mr. Colvin was able to sell hand sanitizer for prices much higher than retail on Amazon before the site suspended his ability to do so. On the other hand, in response to public criticism, Amazon, Walmart, eBay, and other platforms continue to crack down on third party “price-gouging” on their sites

But even PR-centric anti-gouging campaigns are not ultimately immune to the laws of supply and demand. Even Amazon.com, as a first party seller, ends up needing to raise prices, ostensibly as the pricing feedback mechanisms respond to cost increases up and down the supply chain. 

But without a willingness to allow retailers and producers to use the informational signal of higher prices, there will continue to be more extreme shortages as consumers rush to stockpile underpriced resources.

The desire to help the poor who cannot afford higher priced essentials is what drives the policy responses, but in reality no one benefits from shortages. Those who stockpile the in-demand goods are unlikely to be poor because doing so entails a significant upfront cost. And if they are poor, then the potential for resale at a higher price would be a benefit.

Increased production and distribution

During a crisis, it is imperative that spiking demand is met by increased production. Prices are feedback mechanisms that provide realistic estimates of demand to producers. Even if good-hearted producers forswearing the profit motive want to increase production as an act of charity, they still need to understand consumer demand in order to produce the correct amount. 

Of course, prices are not the only source of information. Producers reading the news that there is a shortage undoubtedly can ramp up their production. But even still, in order to optimize production (i.e., not just blindly increase output and hope they get it right), they need a feedback mechanism. Prices are the most efficient mechanism available for quickly translating the amount of social need (demand) for a given product to guarantee that producers do not undersupply the product  (leaving more people without than need the good), or oversupply the product (consuming more resources than necessary in a time of crisis). Prices, when allowed to adjust to actual demand, thus allow society to avoid exacerbating shortages and misallocating resources.

The opportunity to earn more profit incentivizes distributors all along the supply chain. Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers to help ship all the products which are being ordered right now. Grocers and retailers are doing their best to line the shelves with more in-demand food and supplies

Distributors rely on more than just price signals alone, obviously, such as information about how quickly goods are selling out. But even as retail prices stay low for consumers for many goods, distributors often are paying more to producers in order to keep the shelves full, as in the case of eggs. These are the relevant price signals for producers to increase production to meet demand.

For instance, hand sanitizer companies like GOJO and EO Products are ramping up production in response to known demand (so much that the price of isopropyl alcohol is jumping sharply). Farmers are trying to produce as much as is necessary to meet the increased orders (and prices) they are receiving. Even previously low-demand goods like beans are facing a boom time. These instances are likely caused by a mix of anticipatory response based on general news, as well as the slightly laggier price signals flowing through the supply chain. But, even with an “early warning” from the media, the manufacturers still need to ultimately shape their behavior with more precise information. This comes in the form of orders from retailers at increased frequencies and prices, which are both rising because of insufficient supply. In search of the most important price signal, profits, manufacturers and farmers are increasing production.

These responses to higher prices have the salutary effect of making available more of the products consumers need the most during a crisis. 

Entrepreneurs innovate around bottlenecks 

But the most interesting thing that occurs when prices rise is that entrepreneurs create new substitutes for in-demand products. For instance, distillers have started creating their own hand sanitizers

Unfortunately, however, government regulations on sales of distilled products and concerns about licensing have led distillers to give away those products rather than charge for them. Thus, beneficial as this may be, without the ability to efficiently price such products, not nearly as much will be produced as would otherwise be. The non-emergency price of zero effectively guarantees continued shortages because the demand for these free alternatives will far outstrip supply.

Another example is car companies in the US are now producing ventilators. The FDA waived regulations on the production of new ventilators after General Motors, Ford, and Tesla announced they would be willing to use idle production capacity for the production of ventilators.

As consumers demand more toilet paper, bottled water, and staple foods than can be produced quickly, entrepreneurs respond by refocusing current capabilities on these goods. Examples abound:

Without price signals, entrepreneurs would have far less incentive to shift production and distribution to the highest valued use. 

Conclusion

While stories like that of Mr. Colvin buying all of the hand sanitizer in Tennessee understandably bother people, government efforts to prevent prices from adjusting only impede the information sharing processes inherent in markets. 

If the concern is to help the poor, it would be better to pursue less distortionary public policy than arbitrarily capping prices. The US government, for instance, is currently considering a progressively tiered one-time payment to lower income individuals. 

Moves to create new and enforce existing “price-gouging” laws are likely to become more prevalent the longer shortages persist. Platforms will likely continue to receive pressure to remove “price-gougers,” as well. These policies should be resisted. Not only will these moves not prevent shortages, they will exacerbate them and push the sale of high-demand goods into grey markets where prices will likely be even higher. 

Prices are an important source of information not only for consumers, but for producers, distributors, and entrepreneurs. Short circuiting this signal will only be to the detriment of society.  

Goodhart and Bad Policy

Eric Fruits —  18 March 2020

[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).]




Wells Fargo faces billions of dollars of fines for creating millions of fraudulent savings, checking, credit, and insurance accounts on behalf of their clients without their customers’ consent. Last weekend, tens of thousands of travelers were likely exposed to coronavirus while waiting hours for screening at crowded airports. Consumers and businesses around the world pay higher energy prices as their governments impose costly programs to reduce carbon emissions.

These seemingly unrelated observations have something in common: They are all victims of some version of Goodhart’s Law.

Being a central banker, Charles Goodhart’s original statement was a bit more dense: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

The simple version of the law is: “When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.”

Economist Charles Munger puts it more succinctly: “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.”

The Wells Fargo scandal is a case study in Goodhart’s Law. It came from a corporate culture pushed by the CEO, Dick Kovacevich, that emphasized “cross-selling” products to existing customers, as related in a Vanity Fair profile.

As Kovacevich told me in a 1998 profile of him I wrote for Fortune magazine, the key question facing banks was “How do you sell money?” His answer was that financial instruments—A.T.M. cards, checking accounts, credit cards, loans—were consumer products, no different from, say, screwdrivers sold by Home Depot. In Kovacevich’s lingo, bank branches were “stores,” and bankers were “salespeople” whose job was to “cross-sell,” which meant getting “customers”—not “clients,” but “customers”—to buy as many products as possible. “It was his business model,” says a former Norwest executive. “It was a religion. It very much was the culture.”

It was underpinned by the financial reality that customers who had, say, lines of credit and savings accounts with the bank were far more profitable than those who just had checking accounts. In 1997, prior to Norwest’s merger with Wells Fargo, Kovacevich launched an initiative called “Going for Gr-Eight,” which meant getting the customer to buy eight products from the bank. The reason for eight? “It rhymes with GREAT!” he said.

The concept makes sense. It’s easier to get sales from existing customers than trying to find new customers. Also, if revenues are rising, there’s less pressure to reduce costs. 

Kovacevich came to Wells Fargo in the late 1990s by way of its merger with Norwest, where he was CEO. After the merger, he noticed that the Wells unit was dragging down the merged firm’s sales-per-customer numbers. So, Wells upped the pressure. 

One staffer reported that every morning, they’d have a conference call with their managers. Staff were supposed to to explain how they’d make their sales goal for the day. If the goal wasn’t hit at the end of the day, staff had to explain why they missed the goal and how they planned to fix it. Bonuses were offered for hitting their targets, and staffers were let go for missing their targets.

Wells Fargo had rules against “gaming” the system. Yes, it was called “gaming.” But the incentives were so strongly aligned in favor of gaming, that the rules were ignored.

Wells Fargo’s internal investigation estimated between 2011 and 2015 its employees had opened more than 1.5 million deposit accounts and more than 565,000 credit-card accounts that may not have been authorized. Customers were charged fees on the accounts, some accounts were sent to collections over unpaid fees, cars were repossessed, and homes went into foreclosure.

Some customers were charged fees on accounts they didn’t know they had, and some customers had collection agencies calling them due to unpaid fees on accounts they didn’t know existed.

Goodhart’s Law hit Wells Fargo hard. Cross-selling was the bank’s target. Once management placed pressure to hit the target, cross-selling became not just a bad target, it corrupted the entire retail side of the business.

Last Friday, my son came home from his study abroad in Spain. He landed less than eight hours before the travel ban went into effect. He was lucky–he got out of the airport less than an hour after landing. 

The next day was pandemonium. In addition to the travel ban, the U.S. imposed health screening on overseas arrivals. Over the weekend, travelers reported being forced into crowded terminals for up to eight hours to go through customs and receive screening. 

The screening process resulted in exactly the opposite of what health officials are advising, to avoid close contact and large crowds. We still don’t know if the screenings have helped reduce the spread of the coronavirus or if the forced crowding fostered the spread.

The government seemed to forget Goodhart’s Law. Public demand for enhanced screenings made screening the target. Screenings were implemented hastily without any thought of the consequences of clustering potentially infected flyers with the uninfected. Someday, we may learn that a focus on screening came at the expense of slowing the spread.

More and more we’re being told climate change presents an existential threat to our planet. We’re told the main culprit is carbon emissions from economic activity. Toward that end, governments around the world are trying to take extraordinary measures to reduce carbon emissions. 

In Oregon, the legislature has been trying for more than a decade to implement a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions in the state. A state that accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Oregon went to zero GHG emissions, the world would never know.

Legislators pushing cap-and-trade want the state to address climate change immediately. But, when the microphones are turned off, they admit their cap-and-trade program would do nothing to slow global climate change.

In yet another case of Goodhart’s Law, Oregon and other jurisdictions have made carbon emissions the target. As a consequence, if cap-and-trade were ever to become law in the state, businesses and consumers would be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars of dollars a year more in energy prices, with zero effect on global temperatures. Those dollars could be better spent on acknowledging the consequences of climate change and making investments to deal with those consequences.

The funny thing about Goodhart’s Law is that once you know about it, you see it everywhere. And, it’s not just some quirky observation. It’s a failure that can have serious consequences on our health, our livelihoods, and our economy.