Archives For political economy

Netflix’s latest net neutrality hypocrisy (yes, there have been others. See here and here, for example) involves its long-term, undisclosed throttling of its video traffic on AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireless networks, while it lobbied heavily for net neutrality rules from the FCC that would prevent just such throttling by ISPs.

It was Netflix that coined the term “strong net neutrality,” in an effort to import interconnection (the connections between ISPs and edge provider networks) into the net neutrality fold. That alone was a bastardization of what net neutrality purportedly stood for, as I previously noted:

There is a reason every iteration of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, including the latest, have explicitly not applied to backbone interconnection agreements: Interconnection over the backbone has always been open and competitive, and it simply doesn’t give rise to the kind of discrimination concerns net neutrality is meant to address.

That Netflix would prefer not to pay for delivery of its content isn’t surprising. But net neutrality regulations don’t — and shouldn’t — have anything to do with it.

But Netflix did something else with “strong net neutrality.” It tied it to consumer choice:

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge. (Emphasis added).

A focus on consumers is laudable, of course, but when the focus is on consumers there’s no reason to differentiate between ISPs (to whom net neutrality rules apply) and content providers entering into contracts with ISPs to deliver their content (to whom net neutrality rules don’t apply).

And Netflix has just showed us exactly why that’s the case.

Netflix can and does engage in management of its streams in order (presumably) to optimize consumer experience as users move between networks, devices and viewers (e.g., native apps vs Internet browser windows) with very different characteristics and limitations. That’s all well and good. But as we noted in our Policy Comments in the FCC’s Open Internet Order proceeding,

In this circumstance, particularly when the content in question is Netflix, with 30% of network traffic, both the network’s and the content provider’s transmission decisions may be determinative of network quality, as may the users’ device and application choices.

As a 2011 paper by a group of network engineers studying the network characteristics of video streaming data from Netflix and YouTube noted:

This is a concern as it means that a sudden change of application or container in a large population might have a significant impact on the network traffic. Considering the very fast changes in trends this is a real possibility, the most likely being a change from Flash to HTML5 along with an increase in the use of mobile devices…. [S]treaming videos at high resolutions can result in smoother aggregate traffic while at the same time linearly increase the aggregate data rate due to video streaming.

Again, a concern with consumers is admirable, but Netflix isn’t concerned with consumers. It’s concerned at most with consumers of Netflix, while they are consuming Netflix. But the reality is that Netflix’s content management decisions can adversely affect consumers overall, including its own subscribers when they aren’t watching Netflix.

And here’s the huge irony. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are tailor-made to guarantee that Netflix will never have any incentive to take these externalities into account in its own decisions. What’s more, they ensure that ISPs are severely hamstrung in managing their networks for the benefit of all consumers, not least because their interconnection deals with large content providers like Netflix are now being closely scrutinized.

It’s great that Netflix thinks it should manage its video delivery to optimize viewing under different network conditions. But net neutrality rules ensure that Netflix bears no cost for overwhelming the network in the process. Essentially, short of building new capacity — at great expense to all ISP subscribers, of course — ISPs can’t do much about it, either, under the rules. And, of course, the rules also make it impossible for ISPs to negotiate for financial help from Netflix (or its heaviest users) in paying for those upgrades.

On top of this, net neutrality advocates have taken aim at usage-based billing and other pricing practices that would help with the problem by enabling ISPs to charge their heaviest users more in order to alleviate the inherent subsidy by normal users that flat-rate billing entails. (Netflix itself, as one of the articles linked above discusses at length, is hypocritically inconsistent on this score).

As we also noted in our OIO Policy Comments:

The idea that consumers and competition generally are better off when content providers face no incentive to take account of congestion externalities in their pricing (or when users have no incentive to take account of their own usage) runs counter to basic economic logic and is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, contrary to such claims, usage-based pricing, congestion pricing and sponsored content, among other nonlinear pricing models, would, in many circumstances, further incentivize networks to expand capacity (not create artificial scarcity).

Some concern for consumers. Under Netflix’s approach consumers get it coming and going: Either their non-Netflix traffic is compromised for the sake of Netflix’s traffic, or they have to pay higher subscription fees to ISPs for the privilege of accommodating Netflix’s ever-expanding traffic loads (4K videos, anyone?) — whether they ever use Netflix or not.

Sometimes, apparently, Netflix throttles its own traffic in order to “help” a few consumers. (That it does so without disclosing the practice is pretty galling, especially given the enhanced transparency rules in the Open Internet Order — something Netflix also advocated for, and which also apply only to ISPs and not to content providers). But its self-aggrandizing advocacy for the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules reveals that its first priority is to screw over consumers, so long as it can shift the blame and the cost to others.

I received word today that Douglass North passed away yesterday at the age of 95 (obit here). Professor North shared the Nobel Prize in Economic with Robert Fogel in 1993 for his work in economic history on the role of institutions in shaping economic development and performance.

Doug was one of my first professors in graduate school at Washington University. Many of us in our first year crammed into Doug’s economic history class for fear that he might retire and we not get the chance to study under him. Little did we expect that he would continue teaching into his DoughNorth_color_300-doc80s. The text for our class was the pre-publication manuscript of his book, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Doug’s course offered an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional neoclassical microeconomics course for first-year PhD students. His work challenged the simplifying assumptions of the neoclassical system and shed a whole new light on understanding economic history, development and performance. I still remember that day in October 1993 when the department was abuzz with the announcement that Doug had received the Nobel Prize. It was affirming and inspiring.

As I started work on my dissertation, I had hoped to incorporate a historical component on the early development of crude oil futures trading in the 1930s so I could get Doug involved on my committee. Unfortunately, there was not enough information still available to provide any analysis (there was one news reference to a new crude futures exchange, but nothing more–and the historical records of the NY Mercantile Exchange had been lost in a fire).and I had to focus solely on the deregulatory period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember joking at one of our economic history workshops that I wasn’t sure if it counted as economic history since it happened during Doug’s lifetime.

Doug was one of the founding conspirators for the International Society for New Institutional Economics (now the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics) in 1997, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson. Although the three had strong differences of opinions concerning certain aspects of their respective theoretical approaches, they understood the generally complementary nature of their work and its importance not just for the economic profession, but for understanding how societies and organizations perform and evolve and the role institutions play in that process.

The opportunity to work around these individuals, particularly with North and Coase, strongly shaped and influenced my understanding not only of economics, but of why a broader perspective of economics is so important for understanding the world around us. That experience profoundly affected my own research interests and my teaching of economics. Some of Doug’s papers continue to play an important role in courses I teach on economic policy. Students, especially international students, continue to be inspired by his explanation of the roles of institutions, how they affect markets and societies, and the forces that lead to institutional change.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the States, Doug’s passing is a reminder of how much I have to be thankful for over my career. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to know and to work with Doug. I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to bring him to Mizzou in 2003 for our CORI Seminar series, at which he spoke on Understanding the Process of Economic Change (the title of his next book at the time). And I’m especially thankful for the influence he had on my understanding of economics and that his ideas will continue to shape economic thinking and economic policy for years to come.

As the organizer of this retrospective on Josh Wright’s tenure as FTC Commissioner, I have the (self-conferred) honor of closing out the symposium.

When Josh was confirmed I wrote that:

The FTC will benefit enormously from Josh’s expertise and his error cost approach to antitrust and consumer protection law will be a tremendous asset to the Commission — particularly as it delves further into the regulation of data and privacy. His work is rigorous, empirically grounded, and ever-mindful of the complexities of both business and regulation…. The Commissioners and staff at the FTC will surely… profit from his time there.

Whether others at the Commission have really learned from Josh is an open question, but there’s no doubt that Josh offered an enormous amount from which they could learn. As Tim Muris said, Josh “did not disappoint, having one of the most important and memorable tenures of any non-Chair” at the agency.

Within a month of his arrival at the Commission, in fact, Josh “laid down the cost-benefit-analysis gauntlet” in a little-noticed concurring statement regarding a proposed amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Rules. The technical details of the proposed rule don’t matter for these purposes, but, as Josh noted in his statement, the situation intended to be avoided by the rule had never arisen:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction.

What Josh asked for in his statement was not that the rule be scrapped, but simply that, before adopting the rule, the FTC weigh its costs and benefits.

As I noted at the time:

[I]t is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that the rules it enacts will actually be beneficial (it is a consumer protection agency, after all). The staff, presumably, did a perfectly fine job writing the rule they were asked to write. Josh’s point is simply that it isn’t clear the rule should be adopted because it isn’t clear that the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs.

As essentially everyone who has contributed to this symposium has noted, Josh was singularly focused on the rigorous application of the deceptively simple concept that the FTC should ensure that the benefits of any rule or enforcement action it adopts outweigh the costs. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

For Josh, this basic principle should permeate every aspect of the agency, and permeate the way it thinks about everything it does. Only an entirely new mindset can ensure that outcomes, from the most significant enforcement actions to the most trivial rule amendments, actually serve consumers.

While the FTC has a strong tradition of incorporating economic analysis in its antitrust decision-making, its record in using economics in other areas is decidedly mixed, as Berin points out. But even in competition policy, the Commission frequently uses economics — but it’s not clear it entirely understands economics. The approach that others have lauded Josh for is powerful, but it’s also subtle.

Inherent limitations on anyone’s knowledge about the future of technology, business and social norms caution skepticism, as regulators attempt to predict whether any given business conduct will, on net, improve or harm consumer welfare. In fact, a host of factors suggests that even the best-intentioned regulators tend toward overconfidence and the erroneous condemnation of novel conduct that benefits consumers in ways that are difficult for regulators to understand. Coase’s famous admonition in a 1972 paper has been quoted here before (frequently), but bears quoting again:

If an economist finds something – a business practice of one sort or another – that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation. And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be very large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.

Simply “knowing” economics, and knowing that it is important to antitrust enforcement, aren’t enough. Reliance on economic formulae and theoretical models alone — to say nothing of “evidence-based” analysis that doesn’t or can’t differentiate between probative and prejudicial facts — doesn’t resolve the key limitations on regulatory decisionmaking that threaten consumer welfare, particularly when it comes to the modern, innovative economy.

As Josh and I have written:

[O]ur theoretical knowledge cannot yet confidently predict the direction of the impact of additional product market competition on innovation, much less the magnitude. Additionally, the multi-dimensional nature of competition implies that the magnitude of these impacts will be important as innovation and other forms of competition will frequently be inversely correlated as they relate to consumer welfare. Thus, weighing the magnitudes of opposing effects will be essential to most policy decisions relating to innovation. Again, at this stage, economic theory does not provide a reliable basis for predicting the conditions under which welfare gains associated with greater product market competition resulting from some regulatory intervention will outweigh losses associated with reduced innovation.

* * *

In sum, the theoretical and empirical literature reveals an undeniably complex interaction between product market competition, patent rules, innovation, and consumer welfare. While these complexities are well understood, in our view, their implications for the debate about the appropriate scale and form of regulation of innovation are not.

Along the most important dimensions, while our knowledge has expanded since 1972, the problem has not disappeared — and it may only have magnified. As Tim Muris noted in 2005,

[A] visitor from Mars who reads only the mathematical IO literature could mistakenly conclude that the U.S. economy is rife with monopoly power…. [Meanwhile, Section 2’s] history has mostly been one of mistaken enforcement.

It may not sound like much, but what is needed, what Josh brought to the agency, and what turns out to be absolutely essential to getting it right, is unflagging awareness of and attention to the institutional, political and microeconomic relationships that shape regulatory institutions and regulatory outcomes.

Regulators must do their best to constantly grapple with uncertainty, problems of operationalizing useful theory, and, perhaps most important, the social losses associated with error costs. It is not (just) technicians that the FTC needs; it’s regulators imbued with the “Economic Way of Thinking.” In short, what is needed, and what Josh brought to the Commission, is humility — the belief that, as Coase also wrote, sometimes the best answer is to “do nothing at all.”

The technocratic model of regulation is inconsistent with the regulatory humility required in the face of fast-changing, unexpected — and immeasurably valuable — technological advance. As Virginia Postrel warns in The Future and Its Enemies:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation…. By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

For Josh, the first JD/Econ PhD appointed to the FTC,

economics provides a framework to organize the way I think about issues beyond analyzing the competitive effects in a particular case, including, for example, rulemaking, the various policy issues facing the Commission, and how I weigh evidence relative to the burdens of proof and production. Almost all the decisions I make as a Commissioner are made through the lens of economics and marginal analysis because that is the way I have been taught to think.

A representative example will serve to illuminate the distinction between merely using economics and evidence and understanding them — and their limitations.

In his Nielson/Arbitron dissent Josh wrote:

The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

[W]e… do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

Josh’s straightforward statement of the basis for restraint stands in marked contrast to the majority’s decision to impose antitrust-based limits on economic activity that hasn’t even yet been contemplated. Such conduct is directly at odds with a sensible, evidence-based approach to enforcement, and the economic problems with it are considerable, as Josh also notes:

[I]t is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer the[] basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Compare in this regard Josh’s words about Nielsen with Deborah Feinstein’s defense of the majority from such charges:

The Commission based its decision not on crystal-ball gazing about what might happen, but on evidence from the merging firms about what they were doing and from customers about their expectations of those development plans. From this fact-based analysis, the Commission concluded that each company could be considered a likely future entrant, and that the elimination of the future offering of one would likely result in a lessening of competition.

Instead of requiring rigorous economic analysis of the facts, couched in an acute awareness of our necessary ignorance about the future, for Feinstein the FTC fulfilled its obligation in Nielsen by considering the “facts” alone (not economic evidence, mind you, but customer statements and expressions of intent by the parties) and then, at best, casually applying to them the simplistic, outdated structural presumption – the conclusion that increased concentration would lead inexorably to anticompetitive harm. Her implicit claim is that all the Commission needed to know about the future was what the parties thought about what they were doing and what (hardy disinterested) customers thought they were doing. This shouldn’t be nearly enough.

Worst of all, Nielsen was “decided” with a consent order. As Josh wrote, strongly reflecting the essential awareness of the broader institutional environment that he brought to the Commission:

[w]here the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare.

Obviously in this regard his successful effort to get the Commission to adopt a UMC enforcement policy statement is a most welcome development.

In short, Josh is to be applauded not because he brought economics to the Commission, but because he brought the economic way of thinking. Such a thing is entirely too rare in the modern administrative state. Josh’s tenure at the FTC was relatively short, but he used every moment of it to assiduously advance his singular, and essential, mission. And, to paraphrase the last line of the movie The Right Stuff (it helps to have the rousing film score playing in the background as you read this): “for a brief moment, [Josh Wright] became the greatest [regulator] anyone had ever seen.”

I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who participated in this symposium. The contributions here will stand as a fitting and lasting tribute to Josh and his legacy at the Commission. And, of course, I’d also like to thank Josh for a tenure at the FTC very much worth honoring.

Remember when net neutrality wasn’t going to involve rate regulation and it was crazy to say that it would? Or that it wouldn’t lead to regulation of edge providers? Or that it was only about the last mile and not interconnection? Well, if the early petitions and complaints are a preview of more to come, the Open Internet Order may end up having the FCC regulating rates for interconnection and extending the reach of its privacy rules to edge providers.

On Monday, Consumer Watchdog petitioned the FCC to not only apply Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) rules originally meant for telephone companies to ISPs, but to also start a rulemaking to require edge providers to honor Do Not Track requests in order to “promote broadband deployment” under Section 706. Of course, we warned of this possibility in our joint ICLE-TechFreedom legal comments:

For instance, it is not clear why the FCC could not, through Section 706, mandate “network level” copyright enforcement schemes or the DNS blocking that was at the heart of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). . . Thus, it would appear that Section 706, as re-interpreted by the FCC, would, under the D.C. Circuit’s Verizon decision, allow the FCC sweeping power to regulate the Internet up to and including (but not beyond) the process of “communications” on end-user devices. This could include not only copyright regulation but everything from cybersecurity to privacy to technical standards. (emphasis added).

While the merits of Do Not Track are debatable, it is worth noting that privacy regulation can go too far and actually drastically change the Internet ecosystem. In fact, it is actually a plausible scenario that overregulating data collection online could lead to the greater use of paywalls to access content.  This may actually be a greater threat to Internet Openness than anything ISPs have done.

And then yesterday, the first complaint under the new Open Internet rule was brought against Time Warner Cable by a small streaming video company called Commercial Network Services. According to several news stories, CNS “plans to file a peering complaint against Time Warner Cable under the Federal Communications Commission’s new network-neutrality rules unless the company strikes a free peering deal ASAP.” In other words, CNS is asking for rate regulation for interconnectionshakespeare. Under the Open Internet Order, the FCC can rule on such complaints, but it can only rule on a case-by-case basis. Either TWC assents to free peering, or the FCC intervenes and sets the rate for them, or the FCC dismisses the complaint altogether and pushes such decisions down the road.

This was another predictable development that many critics of the Open Internet Order warned about: there was no way to really avoid rate regulation once the FCC reclassified ISPs. While the FCC could reject this complaint, it is clear that they have the ability to impose de facto rate regulation through case-by-case adjudication. Whether it is rate regulation according to Title II (which the FCC ostensibly didn’t do through forbearance) is beside the point. This will have the same practical economic effects and will be functionally indistinguishable if/when it occurs.

In sum, while neither of these actions were contemplated by the FCC (they claim), such abstract rules are going to lead to random complaints like these, and companies are going to have to use the “ask FCC permission” process to try to figure out beforehand whether they should be investing or whether they’re going to be slammed. As Geoff Manne said in Wired:

That’s right—this new regime, which credits itself with preserving “permissionless innovation,” just put a bullet in its head. It puts innovators on notice, and ensures that the FCC has the authority (if it holds up in court) to enforce its vague rule against whatever it finds objectionable.

I mean, I don’t wanna brag or nothin, but it seems to me that we critics have been right so far. The reclassification of broadband Internet service as Title II has had the (supposedly) unintended consequence of sweeping in far more (both in scope of application and rules) than was supposedly bargained for. Hopefully the FCC rejects the petition and the complaint and reverses this course before it breaks the Internet.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics released a white paper, co-authored by Executive Director Geoffrey Manne and Senior Fellow Julian Morris, entitled Dangerous Exception: The detrimental effects of including “fair use” copyright exceptions in free trade agreements.

Dangerous Exception explores the relationship between copyright, creativity and economic development in a networked global marketplace. In particular, it examines the evidence for and against mandating a U.S.-style fair use exception to copyright via free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and through “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA).

In the context of these ongoing trade negotiations, some organizations have been advocating for the inclusion of dramatically expanded copyright exceptions in place of more limited language requiring that such exceptions conform to the “three-step test” implemented by the 1994 TRIPs Agreement.

The paper argues that if broad fair use exceptions are infused into trade agreements they could increase piracy and discourage artistic creation and innovation — especially in nations without a strong legal tradition implementing such provisions.

The expansion of digital networks across borders, combined with historically weak copyright enforcement in many nations, poses a major challenge to a broadened fair use exception. The modern digital economy calls for appropriate, but limited, copyright exceptions — not their expansion.

The white paper is available here. For some of our previous work on related issues, see:

In its February 25 North Carolina Dental decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, per Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that a state regulatory board that is controlled by market participants in the industry being regulated cannot invoke “state action” antitrust immunity unless it is “actively supervised” by the state.  In so ruling, the Court struck a significant blow against protectionist rent-seeking and for economic liberty.  (As I stated in a recent Heritage Foundation legal memorandum, “[a] Supreme Court decision accepting this [active supervision] principle might help to curb special-interest favoritism conferred through state law.  At the very least, it could complicate the efforts of special interests to protect themselves from competition through regulation.”)

A North Carolina law subjects the licensing of dentistry to a North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (Board), six of whose eight members must be licensed dentists.  After dentists complained to the Board that non-dentists were charging lower prices than dentists for teeth whitening, the Board sent cease-and-desist letter to non-dentist teeth whitening providers, warning that the unlicensed practice dentistry is a crime.  This led non-dentists to cease teeth whitening services in North Carolina.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held that the Board’s actions violated Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair methods of competition, the Fourth Circuit agreed, and the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision.

In its decision, the Court rejected the claim that state action immunity, which confers immunity on the anticompetitive conduct of states acting in their sovereign capacity, applied to the Board’s actions.  The Court stressed that where a state delegates control over a market to a non-sovereign actor, immunity applies only if the state accepts political accountability by actively supervising that actor’s decisions.  The Court applied its Midcal test, which requires (1) clear state articulation and (2) active state supervision of decisions by non-sovereign actors for immunity to attach.  The Court held that entities designated as state agencies are not exempt from active supervision when they are controlled by market participants, because allowing an exemption in such circumstances would pose the risk of self-dealing that the second prong of Midcal was created to address.

Here, the Board did not contend that the state exercised any (let alone active) supervision over its anticompetitive conduct.  The Court closed by summarizing “a few constant requirements of active supervision,” namely, (1) the supervisor must review the substance of the anticompetitive decision, (2) the supervisor must have the power to veto or modify particular decisions for consistency with state policy, (3) “the mere potential for state supervision is not an adequate substitute for a decision by the State,” and (4) “the state supervisor may not itself be an active market participant.”  The Court cautioned, however, that “the adequacy of supervision otherwise will depend on all the circumstances of a case.”

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented, arguing that the Court ignored precedent that state agencies created by the state legislature (“[t]he Board is not a private or ‘nonsovereign’ entity”) are shielded by the state action doctrine.  “By straying from this simple path” and assessing instead whether individual agencies are subject to regulatory capture, the Court spawned confusion, according to the dissenters.  Midcal was inapposite, because it involved a private trade association.  The dissenters feared that the majority’s decision may require states “to change the composition of medical, dental, and other boards, but it is not clear what sort of changes are needed to satisfy the test that the Court now adopts.”  The dissenters concluded “that determining when regulatory capture has occurred is no simple task.  That answer provides a reason for relieving courts from the obligation to make such determinations at all.  It does not explain why it is appropriate for the Court to adopt the rather crude test for capture that constitutes the holding of today’s decision.”

The Court’s holding in North Carolina Dental helpfully limits the scope of the Court’s infamous Parker v. Brown decision (which shielded from federal antitrust attack a California raisin producers’ cartel overseen by a state body), without excessively interfering in sovereign state prerogatives.  State legislatures may still choose to create self-interested professional regulatory bodies – their sovereignty is not compromised.  Now, however, they will have to (1) make it clearer up front that they intend to allow those bodies to displace competition, and (2) subject those bodies to disinterested third party review.  These changes should make it far easier for competition advocates (including competition agencies) to spot and publicize welfare-inimical regulatory schemes, and weaken the incentive and ability of rent-seekers to undermine competition through state regulatory processes.  All told, the burden these new judicially-imposed constraints will impose on the states appears relatively modest, and should be far outweighed by the substantial welfare benefits they are likely to generate.

U.S. antitrust law focuses primarily on private anticompetitive restraints, leaving the most serious impediments to a vibrant competitive process – government-initiated restraints – relatively free to flourish.  Thus the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should be commended for its July 16 congressional testimony that spotlights a fast-growing and particularly pernicious species of (largely state) government restriction on competition – occupational licensing requirements.  Today such disciplines (to name just a few) as cat groomers, flower arrangers, music therapists, tree trimmers, frozen dessert retailers, eyebrow threaders, massage therapists (human and equine), and “shampoo specialists,” in addition to the traditional categories of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, are subject to professional licensure.  Indeed, since the 1950s, the coverage of such rules has risen dramatically, as the percentage of Americans requiring government authorization to do their jobs has risen from less than five percent to roughly 30 percent.

Even though some degree of licensing responds to legitimate health and safety concerns (i.e., no fly-by-night heart surgeons), much occupational regulation creates unnecessary barriers to entry into a host of jobs.  Excessive licensing confers unwarranted benefits on fortunate incumbents, while effectively barring large numbers of capable individuals from the workforce.  (For example, many individuals skilled in natural hair braiding simply cannot afford the 2,100 hours required to obtain a license in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.)  It also imposes additional economic harms, as the FTC’s testimony explains:  “[Occupational licensure] regulations may lead to higher prices, lower quality services and products, and less convenience for consumers.  In the long term, they can cause lasting damage to competition and the competitive process by rendering markets less responsive to consumer demand and by dampening incentives for innovation in products, services, and business models.”  Licensing requirements are often enacted in tandem with other occupational regulations that unjustifiably limit the scope of beneficial services particular professionals can supply – for instance, a ban on tooth cleaning by dental hygienists not acting under a dentist’s supervision that boosts dentists’ income but denies treatment to poor children who have no access to dentists.

What legal and policy tools are available to chip away at these pernicious and costly laws and regulations, which largely are the fruit of successful special interest lobbying?  The FTC’s competition advocacy program, which responds to requests from legislators and regulators to assess the economic merits of proposed laws and regulations, has focused on unwarranted regulatory restrictions in such licensed professions as real estate brokers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, dentists, dental hygienists, nurses, eye doctors, opticians, and veterinarians.  Retrospective reviews of FTC advocacy efforts suggest it may have helped achieve some notable reforms (for example, 74% of requestors, regulators, and bill sponsors surveyed responded that FTC advocacy initiatives influenced outcomes).  Nevertheless, advocacy’s reach and effectiveness inherently are limited by FTC resource constraints, by the need to obtain “invitations” to submit comments, and by the incentive and ability of licensing scheme beneficiaries to oppose regulatory and legislative reforms.

Former FTC Chairman Kovacic and James Cooper (currently at George Mason University’s Law and Economics Center) have suggested that federal and state antitrust experts could be authorized to have ex ante input into regulatory policy making.  As the authors recognize, however, several factors sharply limit the effectiveness of such an initiative.  In particular, “the political feasibility of this approach at the legislative level is slight”, federal mandates requiring ex ante reviews would raise serious federalism concerns, and resource constraints would loom large.

Antitrust law challenges to anticompetitive licensing schemes likewise offer little solace.  They are limited by the antitrust “state action” doctrine, which shields conduct undertaken pursuant to “clearly articulated” state legislative language that displaces competition – a category that generally will cover anticompetitive licensing requirements.  Even a Supreme Court decision next term (in North Carolina Dental v. FTC) that state regulatory boards dominated by self-interested market participants must be actively supervised to enjoy state action immunity would have relatively little bite.  It would not limit states from issuing simple statutory commands that create unwarranted occupational barriers, nor would it prevent states from implementing “adequate” supervisory schemes that are designed to approve anticompetitive state board rules.

What then is to be done?

Constitutional challenges to unjustifiable licensing strictures may offer the best long-term solution to curbing this regulatory epidemic.  As Clark Neily points out in Terms of Engagement, there is a venerable constitutional tradition of protecting the liberty interest to earn a living, reflected in well-reasoned late 19th and early 20th century “Lochner-era” Supreme Court opinions.  Even if Lochner is not rehabilitated, however, there are a few recent jurisprudential “straws in the wind” that support efforts to rein in “irrational” occupational licensure barriers.  Perhaps acting under divine inspiration, the Fifth Circuit in St. Joseph Abbey (2013) ruled that Louisiana statutes that required all casket manufacturers to be licensed funeral directors – laws that prevented monks from earning a living by making simple wooden caskets – served no other purpose than to protect the funeral industry, and, as such, violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.  In particular, the Fifth Circuit held that protectionism, standing alone, is not a legitimate state interest sufficient to establish a “rational basis” for a state statute, and that absent other legitimate state interests, the law must fall.  Since the Sixth and Ninth Circuits also have held that intrastate protectionism standing alone is not a legitimate purpose for rational basis review, but the Tenth Circuit has held to the contrary, the time may soon be ripe for the Supreme Court to review this issue and, hopefully, delegitimize pure economic protectionism.  Such a development would place added pressure on defenders of protectionist occupational licensing schemes.  Other possible avenues for constitutional challenges to protectionist licensing regimes (perhaps, for example, under the Dormant Commerce Clause) also merit being explored, of course.  The Institute of Justice already is performing yeoman’s work in litigating numerous cases involving unjustified licensing and other encroachments on economic liberty; perhaps their example can prove an inspiration for pro bono efforts by others.

Eliminating anticompetitive occupational licensing rules – and, more generally, vindicating economic liberties that too long have been neglected – is obviously a long-term project, and far-reaching reform will not happen in the near term.  Nevertheless, while we the currently living may in the long run be dead (pace Keynes), our posterity will be alive, and we owe it to them to pursue the vindication of economic liberties under the Constitution.

Paul H. Rubin and Joseph S. Rubin advance the provocative position that some crony capitalism may be welfare enhancing. With all due respect, I am not convinced by their defense of government-business cronyism.  “Second best correction” arguments can be made with respect to ANY inefficient government rule.  In reality, it is almost impossible to calibrate the degree of the distortion created by the initial regulation, so there is no way of stating credibly that the “counter-distortion” is on net favorable to society.  More fundamentally, such counter-distortions are the products of rent-seeking activities by firms and other interest groups, which care nothing about the net social surplus effects of the first and counter-distortion.  The problem with allowing counter-distortions is that firms that are harmed thereby (think of less politically connected companies that are hurt when a big player takes advantage of Export-Import Bank subsidies) either will suffer, or will lobby (using scarce resources) for “third-line” or “tertiary” distortions to alleviate the harmful effects of the initial counter-distortions.  Those new distortions in turn will spawn a continuing series of responses, causing additional unanticipated consequences and attendant welfare losses.

It follows that the best policy is not to defend counter-distortions, which very seldom if ever (and then only through sheer chance) appropriately offset the initial distortions.  (Since the counter-distortions will be rife with new regulatory complexities, they are bound to be costly to implement and highly likely to be destructive of social surplus.)  Rather, the best, simplest, and cleanest policy is to work to get rid of the initial distortions.  If companies complain about other policies that hurt them (generated, for instance, by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or by Food and Drug Administration regulatory delays), the answer is to reform or repeal those bad policies, not to retain inherently welfare-distortive laws such as the Ex-Im Bank authorization.  The alternative approach would devolve into a justification for a web of ever more complex and intrusive federal regulations and interest group-generated “carve-outs.”

This logic applies generally.  For example, the best solution to the welfare-reducing effect of particular Obamacare mandates is not to create a patchwork of exceptions for certain politically-favored businesses and labor groups, but, rather, to repeal counterproductive government-induced health care market distortions.  Similarly, the answer to an economically damaging tax code is not to create a patchwork of credits for politically-favored industries, but, rather, to simplify the code and apply it neutrally, thereby promoting economic growth across industry sectors.

The argument that Ex-Im Bank activities are an example of a “welfare-enhancing” counter-distortion is particularly strained, given the fact that most U.S. exporters gain no benefits from Ex-Im Bank funding, while the American taxpayer foots the bill.  Indeed, capital is diverted away from “unlucky” exporters to the politically connected few who know how to play the Washington game (well-capitalized companies that are least in need of the taxpayer’s largesse).  As stated by Doug Bandow in Forbes, “[n]o doubt, Exim financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.  Unfortunately, it is easier to see the benefits of the former than the costs of the latter.”  In short, the recitation of Ex-Im Bank’s alleged “benefits” to American exporters who are “seen” ignores the harm imposed on other “unseen” American companies and taxpayers.  (What’s more, responding to Ex-Im Bank, foreign governments are incentivized to impose their own subsidy programs to counteract the Ex-Im Bank subsidies.)  Thus, the case for retaining Ex-Im Bank is nothing more than another example of Bastiat’s “broken window” fallacy.     

In sum, the goal should be to simplify legal structures and repeal welfare-inimical laws and regulations, not try to correct them through new inherently flawed regulatory intrusions.  In my view, the only examples of rent-seeking that might yield net social benefits are those associated with regulatory reform (such as the expiration of the Ex-Im Bank authorization) or with the creation of new markets (as Gordon Brady and I have argued).

Earlier this week the New Jersey Assembly unanimously passed a bill to allow direct sales of Tesla cars in New Jersey. (H/T Marina Lao). The bill

Allows a manufacturer (“franchisor,” as defined in P.L.1985, c.361 (C.56:10-26 et seq.)) to directly buy from or sell to consumers a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) at a maximum of four locations in New Jersey.  In addition, the bill requires a manufacturer to own or operate at least one retail facility in New Jersey for the servicing of its vehicles. The manufacturer’s direct sale locations are not required to also serve as a retail service facility.

The bill amends current law to allow any ZEV manufacturer to directly or indirectly buy from and directly sell, offer to sell, or deal to a consumer a ZEV if the manufacturer was licensed by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) on or prior to January 1, 2014.  This bill provides that ZEVs may be directly sold by certain manufacturers, like Tesla Motors, and preempts any rule or regulation that restricts sales exclusively to franchised dealerships.  The provisions of the bill would not prevent a licensed franchisor from operating under an existing license issued by the MVC.

At first cut, it seems good that the legislature is responding to the lunacy of the Christie administration’s previous decision to enforce a rule prohibiting direct sales of automobiles in New Jersey. We have previously discussed that decision at length in previous posts here, here, here and here. And Thom and Mike have taken on a similar rule in their home state of Missouri here and here.

In response to New Jersey’s decision to prohibit direct sales, the International Center for Law & Economics organized an open letter to Governor Christie based in large part on Dan Crane’s writings on the topic here at TOTM and discussing the faulty economics of such a ban. The letter was signed by more than 70 law professors and economists.

But it turns out that the legislative response is nearly as bad as the underlying ban itself.

First, a quick recap.

In our letter we noted that

The Motor Vehicle Commission’s regulation was aimed specifically at stopping one company, Tesla Motors, from directly distributing its electric cars. But the regulation would apply equally to any other innovative manufacturer trying to bring a new automobile to market, as well. There is no justification on any rational economic or public policy grounds for such a restraint of commerce. Rather, the upshot of the regulation is to reduce competition in New Jersey’s automobile market for the benefit of its auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers. It is protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple.

While enforcement of the New Jersey ban was clearly aimed directly at Tesla, it has broader effects. And, of course, its underlying logic is simply indefensible, regardless of which particular manufacturer it affects. The letter explains at length the economics of retail distribution and the misguided, anti-consumer logic of the regulation, and concludes by noting that

In sum, we have not heard a single argument for a direct distribution ban that makes any sense. To the contrary, these arguments simply bolster our belief that the regulations in question are motivated by economic protectionism that favors dealers at the expense of consumers and innovative technologies. It is discouraging to see this ban being used to block a company that is bringing dynamic and environmentally friendly products to market. We strongly encourage you to repeal it, by new legislation if necessary.

Thus it seems heartening that the legislature did, indeed, take up our challenge to repeal the ban.

Except that, in doing so, the legislature managed to write a bill that reflects no understanding whatever of the underlying economic issues at stake. Instead, the legislative response appears largely to be the product of rent seeking,pure and simple, offering only a limited response to Tesla’s squeaky wheel (no pun intended) and leaving the core defects of the ban completely undisturbed.

Instead of acknowledging the underlying absurdity of the limit on direct sales, the bill keeps the ban in place and simply offers a limited exception for Tesla (or other zero emission cars). While the innovative and beneficial nature of Tesla’s cars was an additional reason to oppose banning their direct sale, the specific characteristics of the cars is a minor and ancillary reason to oppose the ban. But the New Jersey legislative response is all about the cars’ emissions characteristics, and in no way does it reflect an appreciation for the fundamental economic defects of the underlying rule.

Moreover, the bill permits direct sales at only four locations (why four? No good reason whatever — presumably it was a political compromise, never the stuff of economic reason) and requires Tesla to operate a service center for its cars in the state. In other words, the regulators are still arbitrarily dictating aspects of car manufacturers’ business organization from on high.

Even worse, however, the bill is constructed to be nothing more than a payoff for a specific firm’s lobbying efforts, thus ensuring that the next (non-zero-emission) Tesla to come along will have to undertake the same efforts to pander to the state.

Far from addressing the serious concerns with the direct sales ban, the bill just perpetuates the culture of political rent seeking such regulations create.

Perhaps it’s better than nothing. Certainly it’s better than nothing for Tesla. But overall, I’d say it’s about the worst possible sort of response, short of nothing.

On Debating Imaginary Felds

Gus Hurwitz —  18 September 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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