Archives For Coase

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

We are skeptical of this characterization.

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

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

The Jones Act and National Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disagreements, but also Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is taking action worth it?

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

        WTP = X% times Y% times VSL,

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

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

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

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

Actual, not just hypothetical, compensation

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

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

Markets don’t always work, perhaps like now 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Coasian perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, Michael Katz and Carl Shapiro assert that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misguided regulatory responses

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

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

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

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission concludes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better way forward

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

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

Not surprisingly, we’ve discussed Coase quite a bit here at Truth on the Market. Follow this link to see our collected thoughts on Coase over the years.

Probably my favorite, and certainly most frequently quoted, of Coase’s many wise words is this:

One important result of this preoccupation with the monopoly problem is that if an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or other—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 rather large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.

Of course this, a more generalized statement of the above from The Problem of Social Cost, is the essence of his work:

All solutions have costs, and there is no reason to suppose that governmental regulation is called for simply because the problem is not well handled by the market or the firm. Satisfactory views on policy can only come from a patient study of how, in practice, the market, firms and governments handle the problem of harmful effects…. It is my belief that economists, and policy-makers generally, have tended to over-estimate the advantages which come from governmental regulation. But this belief, even if justified, does not do more than suggest that government regulation should be curtailed. It does not tell us where the boundary line should be drawn. This, it seems to me, has to come from a detailed investigation of the actual results of handling the problem in different ways.


Ronald Coase on regulation

Geoffrey Manne —  2 September 2013

As Gus said, there will be much more to say, and much more said by others, on Coase’s passing. For now, I offer this excerpt from a 1997 Reason interview he gave with Tom Hazlett:

Hazlett: You said you’re not a libertarian. What do you consider your politics to be?

Coase: I really don’t know. I don’t reject any policy without considering what its results are. If someone says there’s going to be regulation, I don’t say that regulation will be bad. Let’s see. What we discover is that most regulation does produce, or has produced in recent times, a worse result. But I wouldn’t like to say that all regulation would have this effect because one can think of circumstances in which it doesn’t.

Hazlett: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be a good regulation and then an example of what you consider to be a not-so-good regulation?

Coase: This is a very interesting question because one can’t give an answer to it. 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 was not willing to accept the view that all regulation was bound to produce these results. Therefore, what was my explanation for the results we had? I argued that the most probable explanation was that the government now operates on such a massive scale that it had reached the stage of what economists call negative marginal returns. Anything additional it does, it messes up. But that doesn’t mean that if we reduce the size of government considerably, we wouldn’t find then that there were some activities it did well. Until we reduce the size of government, we won’t know what they are.

Hazlett: What’s an example of bad regulation?

Coase: I can’t remember one that’s good. Regulation of transport, regulation of agriculture– agriculture is a, zoning is z. You know, you go from a to z, they are all bad. There were so many studies, and the result was quite universal: The effects were bad.