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[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 Julian Morris, (Director of Innovation Policy, ICLE).]

Governments are beginning to lift the lockdowns they imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. That is a good thing. But simply lifting the restrictions won’t immediately take us back to normality. For that to happen requires a massive investment in mechanisms that will rebuild trust.

Prior to COVID-19, people implicitly trusted that travelling on public transit, working in an office, attending a ball game, or going to a shopping mall would not subject them to the risk of infection by a potentially deadly virus (or any other terrible eventuality). In the wake of the pandemic, this implicit trust is gone. Many people are afraid of COVID-19 and will require reassurance. While governments likely contributed significantly to the loss of trust, they are likely not in the best position to rebuild that trust. The onus is thus on businesses and civic organizations to provide reassurance and rebuild trust. This post outlines two ways businesses can contribute to this effort.

Lockdowns and the Trust Deficit

As the incidence of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in March, governments across the world imposed “lockdowns.” These curfew-like arrangements have gone well beyond the limits on public gatherings and other “social distancing” strategies deployed during previous major pandemics such as the Spanish ‘flu of 1918-19. Indeed, they are among the most far-reaching restrictions ever imposed on human activity during peacetime. Hundreds of millions of people have been cooped up at home for nearly two months, allowed out only briefly each day for exercise or to buy groceries. Millions of those now at home have also lost their main source of income.

Governments are now finally beginning to remove some of the most severe of these restrictions, allowing more businesses to operate. As they do so, businesses are trying to figure out what the post-lockdown economy is going to look like: Will employees come back to work in offices? Will customers shop in stores, eat at restaurants, visit movie theatres, and use rideshares, taxis, planes, and public transit?

Many people are fearful about the consequences of going back to work. A recent IPSOS-MORI poll for the Washington Post found that 74 percent of American adults want policymakers to, “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” while just 25 percent prefer to, “open up businesses and get the economy going again, even if that means more people would get the coronavirus.” Meanwhile, in a recent survey in the UK, the TUC union found that 40% of workers were worried about the prospects of returning to crowded workplaces.  

The loss of trust is likely in part be due to conditioning: for the past two months we have been told by all and sundry to avoid other people (except over Zoom). Governments likely contributed to this through their promotion of scary predictions that millions could die if people didn’t “stay home, stay safe.” Partly, however, it is a natural reaction to the perceived threat posed by COVID-19.

For the elderly and those with underlying conditions more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19, such anxiety is understandable. But even many people less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19 are worried. This is also not surprising: They may have heard horror stories of young, otherwise healthy people who ended up on a ventilator and either died or suffered permanent lung damage. Or perhaps they read about the mysterious effects COVID-19 can have on other organs, ranging from the intestines to the brain. Or they may have a more vulnerable person in our household and are worried about the possibility that we might infect them. Or, as I am sure is the case with many, they just don’t know—and this is their reaction to uncertainty (fueled, in part by the now-discredited predictions of doom).

Regardless of why a person fears COVID-19, the fact is that many do. And one thing common to all of them is a trust deficit. Given widespread uncertainty regarding who has the virus, how can one trust that the business one works, shops, or dines at provides a safe environment free of COVID-19? This even extends to friends and colleagues: how can one individual trust another individual they might encounter while at work or at play? And it applies also to the use of taxis and rideshares; how can riders and drivers trust one another?

It might be argued that since governments were in no small part responsible for generating the trust deficit, through their well-intentioned but probably misguided efforts to lock down the economy and constant exhortations to avoid all human contact, they should now be trying to do what they can to rebuild trust. Unfortunately, however, they may not be in a very good position to do that. While governments are quite good at scaring people (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), they are less good at providing reassurance (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), or even data. In other words, governments aren’t much good at engaging in the kinds of “costly signalling” necessary to build trust between individuals and businesses. As a result, much of the responsibility for rebuilding trust will fall on businesses and civic organizations.

Businesses can do several things that would likely reduce this trust deficit and allay the fears of employees and customers. First, they can establish, communicate, and implement clear standards for employees and customers regarding the practices to be adopted to reduce infection risk. Second, and relatedly, where employees are likely to be working in close quarters with one another or with customers or suppliers, they can adopt mechanisms to establish the COVID-19 status of those employees, suppliers and customers (somewhat along the lines of the system implemented by Taiwan in February and subsequently elaborated by Hal Singer in his post in this series here). 

The following sections briefly consider how such systems might work.

CV19 Standards

Companies that have not been locked down are already implementing processes to limit the exposure of employees to potentially infected customers, suppliers, and other employees. For example, many supermarkets require staff to use masks and/or protective screens and gloves. Some stores also require customers to wear masks, limit how many people can be in the store, and impose distancing rules. Some have even built seemingly permanent screens in front of check-out clerks and imposed seemingly permanent rules for in-store movement.  Other stores and restaurants are currently limiting service to take-out and delivery.

At present, the approaches taken by businesses vary considerably. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; indeed, it is a healthy part of a market process in which companies develop different solutions to the same problem and allow consumers to pick and choose the ones that work best for them. Consumers can be aided in this process by reading reviews and ratings provided by other consumers; that model has worked well for goods and services purchased online. As Paul Seabright has noted, these systems are designed to enable users to build trusting relationships with suppliers. Survey data suggest that consumers find such systems more trustworthy than government regulations.

But when consumers are not well placed to evaluate the most effective solution, for example because it is difficult to observe the effectiveness of the solution directly, it can be helpful for third parties to evaluate the various solutions and either rank them or set out voluntary pass-fail standards. COVID-19 is just such a case: individual consumers and employees are unlikely to be in a good position to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different processes and technologies designed to limit the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. As such, pass-fail standards developed and/or validated by credible, independent third parties are likely to be the most effective way to help rebuild trust.

Standards will vary depending on the type of establishment and activity. For some businesses, such as theatres, gyms, and mass transit systems, the standards will likely be more onerous than others. Plausibly, such establishments could reduce transmission through such things as: mandatory masks, mandatory use of antiviral hand sanitizer on entry, regular cleaning, the use of HEPA filters (which remove the droplets on which the virus is spread), and other technologies. But given the very close proximity of people in such systems, often for extended periods (half an hour or more), the risk of significant viral load being transferred from one person to another, even if wearing basic masks, remains.

For standards to be effective as a means of regaining the trust of employees, suppliers, and consumers, it is important that they are communicated effectively through marketing campaigns, likely including advertising and signage. Standards will also likely change over time as understanding of the way the virus is transmitted, technologies that can prevent transmission, and hence best practices improve. The need for such standards will also likely change over time and once the virus is no longer a major threat there should be no need for such standards. For these reasons, standards should be both voluntary and developed privately. However, governments can play a role in encouraging the adoption of such standards by legislating that organizations that are compliant with a recognized standard will not be liable if an infection occurs on their property or through the actions of their employees.

In addition to other practices designed to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some businesses have begun testing employees for the virus, to determine who is and who is not currently infected, so that infected individuals can be isolated until they are no longer infectious (employees who are required to isolate continue to receive their salary). Some businesses are also considering testing for antibodies to the virus, to determine who has had the virus and likely has some immunity. By doing such testing, businesses are probably reducing transmission both among employees and between employees and customers to a greater extent than by merely implementing technologies, hygiene and distancing rules. But the tests are not perfect and given the potential for infection outside work, it is possible that an employee who tests negative on one day could then become infected and be infective a few days later. While daily testing might be an option for some firms, it is unrealistic for most—and will not solve the trust problem for most individuals.

CV19 Status Verification

This brings us to the second major thing that business can do to reduce the trust gap: status verification. The idea here is to enable parties to ascertain one another’s current COVID-19 status without the need to resort to constant testing. One possible approach is to use a smartphone-based app that combines various pieces of information (time stamped virus tests and antibody tests, anonymized information about contacts with people who subsequently tested positive, and self-reported health-relevant data) to offer the most accurate and up-to-date status of an individual.

In principle, such a status app could be used by employers to minimize the likelihood that their staff have COVID (and to require those that may be infected to self-isolate and obtain a test). But their potential application is far wider:

·       Universities, churches, theatres, restaurants, bars, and events might utilize the status app not only for employees but also to determine who may participate and/or what forms of PPE they should utilize and/or where participants may congregate.

·       Airlines might utilize status apps to determine who might fly and where passengers should be seated.

·       Jurisdictions might utilize status apps as a means of facilitating more rapid immigration – and to enable those who most likely do not have COVID-19 to avoid most quarantine requirements.

·       Public transit systems might utilize status apps to determine who can use the system.

·       Taxis and ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, might utilize data from the status app to help match riders and drivers.

·       Personal services facilitators such as Thumbtack might utilize the app to help match service providers and customers.

·       Hotels, AirBnB and vacation rental facilitators such as vrbo might use status apps for both hosts (and their employees and contractors) and guests in order to minimize infection risk during a visit.

·       Online dating and matchmaking services such as Match and Tinder might utilize status apps to help facilitate virus-compatible matches. (While SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 is not really comparable to HIV/AIDS, it is noteworthy that sites already exist that seek to match people who are HIV positive.)

How a CV19 Status App might Work

A basic schema for a CV19 status app would be:

·       Red = Has COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested positive for virus)

·       Red-Amber = May have COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested negative for virus but either has COVID-19 related symptoms or has been in contact with someone who tested positive).

·       Amber = Is susceptible: Has not had COVID-19 and likely does not have COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested negative for COVID-19, has no COVID-19 symptoms, and has had no recent known contact with someone who tested positive).

·       Green = Has had COVID-19 and is now presumed to be immune (either tested positive for CV19 and then tested negative for CV19, or tested negative for CV19 and also tested positive for Antibodies) (See below regarding immunity concerns.)

This schema is shown in the decision tree below

There are numerous technical issues relating to the operation of an app designed to establish a person’s CV19 status that must be addressed for it to function effectively. First, it will be necessary to ensure that the person using the app is the person whose status is being asserted. It should be possible to address this by storing the information from tests, contacts with infected people, and self-reported symptoms on an immutable digital ledger and use biometric identification both to record and to share status information. (Storing the status information on a person’s phone in this way also avoids the risk of hacking that plagues centralized databases.)

Next there is the question of authenticating test data recorded by the app. Ideally, this would be done by having a trusted third party—such as a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist—verify the data. If that is not feasible—for example because the test was carried out at home—then some other mechanism will be required to ensure the data is input correctly, such as rewards for accurate self-reports and/or penalties for inaccurate self-reports. (Self-reported data could also be treated within the system as less reliable, or simply as tentative—requiring verified test data to be added within a specified period.)

Beyond these verification issues, there remain problems with the specificity and sensitivity of tests—implying a likelihood of both false positive and false negatives. Although there are now both PCR and antibody tests that achieve very high levels of accuracy, even small numbers of false negative PCR tests and false positive antibody tests would clearly create problems for the effective functioning of the status app system. To address these problems, it may be necessary to undertake secondary testing for some portion of the tests.

The more challenging problem is that of infection after tests are conducted. As noted above, this can in principle be mitigated—but not eliminated—by incorporating contact tracing and/or self-reporting of symptoms. Related to this is the possibility that having COVID-19 confers only limited immunity (as has been suggested in relation to some people who have seemingly become reinfected). This obviously poses problems for the notion of a “Green” status; if reinfection is possible, then Green clearly would not be a permanent designation and would require regular testing. The evidence remains ambiguous, with news of five US sailors who had COVID then tested negative twice subsequently having new symptoms and testing positive again; on the other hand, a recent study suggests that people who test positive after recovery do not have a live (infectious) version of the virus.

Contact tracing apps have been used successfully in several locations as part of a strategy for containing COVID-19. However, the only really successful implementations so far have been those in China, South Korea and Hong Kong, which had a mandatory component and were highly centralized. By contrast, apps that required voluntary uptake have generally been less successful.

One reason for the lack of success of voluntary contact tracing apps is heightened concern regarding privacy (for example, the app used in Hong Kong enables anyone to find the gender, age, and precise locations of every person in the city who currently has COVID-19). Of course it is worth repeating Jane Bambauer’s observation in an earlier post that “Objections to surveillance lose their moral and logical bearings when the alternatives are out-of-control disease or mass lockdowns. Compared to those, mass surveillance is the most liberty-preserving option.” But assuming imprisonment is not the only alternative, concerns over privacy are not necessarily unmoored from logic or ethics (pace Christine Wilson’s earlier post). And to address these concerns, several groups have developed privacy-protecting systems. For example, the TCN coalition developed a system that shares anonymized tokens with other nearby phones over Bluetooth Low Energy. That system has now been adopted by Google and Apple in an API that is being made available to government health authorities (but not to other private app developers).

Another reason voluntary contact tracing apps have not been successful is the lack of incentives to adopt them. The main benefit of a contact tracing app is that it notifies the user when they have been in close contact with someone who subsequently tested positive. Logically, the people most likely voluntarily to adopt a contact tracing app are those who are most risk averse. But those people would also presumably be taking strong measures to avoid contracting COVID-19, so they would be less likely to become infected. By contrast, the people most likely to become infected are those who are least risk averse. But those people are least likely to be motivated to use the contact tracing app. In other words, even if there is relatively wide uptake of the app (say, 40% of the population, as in Iceland), it is likely to miss many of the people most likely to be spreading COVID-19 and so would not actually be very useful as a means of identifying and containing clusters.

Tying the contact tracing app to a CV19 Status App potentially overcomes this incentive compatibility problem, since anyone who wants to engage in an activity that requires use of the app would automatically participate in the contact tracing system. It could thus be quite effective at identifying instances of transmission that occur during activities that require the app to be used, which would also presumably be activities that put users at higher risk.

Nonetheless, for the app to be useful as a means of identifying clusters of COVID-19, either a significant proportion of common activities would have to require use of the app (e.g. public transit, rideshares, gyms, and shopping malls) or it would have to be used by at least some proportion of those not required to use it for access to activities.  

Adding a symptom monitoring component can help in two ways. First, by offering users a way to self-assess for early symptoms of COVID-19, it encourages more people to download and use the app.  More important, symptom monitoring can help identify additional potential COVID-19 infections, both among the individuals reporting symptoms and among their contacts. Thus, the combination of test data, symptom data and contact tracing become the information determining a person’s current status in a manner that is more reliable than relying on any one datum.

It should be noted that even combining these data will not make the status app 100% accurate. Some people with COVID-19 will likely slip through as Green or Orange and others will likely inadvertently be infected as a result. But the number of such instances is likely to be small and certainly much lower than would be the case without the use of the app. Moreover, widespread use of the app should dramatically reduce the infection rate throughout the population, with benefits to all.     

Conclusions

Both CV19 standards and CV19 status verification offer potential means by which to address the trust deficit that has emerged in the context of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. A company that adopts both solutions would likely dramatically reduce the chances of their employees, suppliers and customers contracting the virus on their premises. That would also likely reduce the company’s liability, which could be rewarded by insurance providers offering discounts. Indeed, one could envisage a greater role for insurance companies in designing or certifying the standards and the status app.

However, the real benefits of these systems come not from one or a few companies adopting them but from widespread adoption, which has the potential dramatically to reduce the transmission of the virus both now and in the future (should there be a second wave). This leads to something of a paradox: Governments could mandate adoption, but such an approach may be counterproductive for two reasons. First, much knowledge is dispersed and tacit, so it is generally better to allow private actors to determine which standards to adopt (lest an inferior standard be the subject of a mandate). Second, if companies are genuinely concerned to address the trust deficit, then they will be willing to invest in standards and to limit access though status apps — both of which entail costs. By contrast, if governments mandate the use of standards and apps, they would effectively prevent firms from engaging in such costly signalling, so would undermine at least part of the effectiveness of such tools as trust-generative.

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

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

Earlier this week, merger talks between Uber and food delivery service Grubhub surfaced. House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline quickly reacted to the news:

Americans are struggling to put food on the table, and locally owned businesses are doing everything possible to keep serving people in our communities, even under great duress. Uber is a notoriously predatory company that has long denied its drivers a living wage. Its attempt to acquire Grubhub—which has a history of exploiting local restaurants through deceptive tactics and extortionate fees—marks a new low in pandemic profiteering. We cannot allow these corporations to monopolize food delivery, especially amid a crisis that is rendering American families and local restaurants more dependent than ever on these very services. This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support.

Pandemic profiteering rolls nicely off the tongue, and we’re sure to see that phrase much more over the next year or so. 

Grubhub shares jumped 29% Tuesday, the day the merger talks came to light, shown in the figure below. The Wall Street Journal reports companies are considering a deal that would value Grubhub stock at around 1.9 Uber shares, or $60-65 dollars a share, based on Thursday’s price.

But is that “pandemic profiteering?”

After Amazon announced its intended acquisition of Whole Foods, the grocer’s stock price soared by 27%. Rep. Cicilline voiced some convoluted concerns about that merger, but said nothing about profiteering at the time. Different times, different messaging.

Rep. Cicilline and others have been calling for a merger moratorium during the pandemic and used the Uber/Grubhub announcement as Exhibit A in his indictment of merger activity.

A moratorium would make things much easier for regulators. No more fighting over relevant markets, no HHI calculations, no experts debating SSNIPs or GUPPIs, no worries over consumer welfare, no failing firm defenses. Just a clear, brightline “NO!”

Even before the pandemic, it was well known that the food delivery industry was due for a shakeout. NPR reports, even as the business is growing, none of the top food-delivery apps are turning a profit, with one analyst concluding consolidation was “inevitable.” Thus, even if a moratorium slowed or stopped the Uber/Grubhub merger, at some point a merger in the industry will happen and the U.S. antitrust authorities will have to evaluate it.

First, we have to ask, “What’s the relevant market?” The government has a history of defining relevant markets so narrowly that just about any merger can be challenged. For example, for the scuttled Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger, the FTC famously narrowed the market to “premium natural and organic supermarkets.” Surely, similar mental gymnastics will be used for any merger involving food delivery services.

While food delivery has grown in popularity over the past few years, delivery represents less than 10% of U.S. food service sales. While Rep. Cicilline may be correct that families and local restaurants are “more dependent than ever” on food delivery, delivery is only a small fraction of a large market. Even a monopoly of food delivery service would not confer market power on the restaurant and food service industry.

No reasonable person would claim an Uber/Grubhub merger would increase market power in the restaurant and food service industry. But, it might convey market power in the food delivery market. Much attention is paid to the “Big Four”–DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. But, these platform delivery services are part of the larger food service delivery market, of which platforms account for about half of the industry’s revenues. Pizza accounts for the largest share of restaurant-to-consumer delivery.

This raises the big question of what is the relevant market: Is it the entire food delivery sector, or just the platform-to-consumer sector? 

Based on the information in the figure below, defining the market narrowly would place an Uber/Grubhub merger squarely in the “presumed to be likely to enhance market power” category.

  • 2016 HHI: <3,175
  • 2018 HHI: <1,474
  • 2020 HHI: <2,249 pre-merger; <4,153 post-merger

Alternatively, defining the market to encompass all food delivery would cut the platforms’ shares roughly in half and the merger would be unlikely to harm competition, based on HHI. Choosing the relevant market is, well, relevant.

The Second Measure data suggests that concentration in the platform delivery sector decreased with the entry of Uber Eats, but subsequently increased with DoorDash’s rising share–which included the acquisition of Caviar from Square.

(NB: There seems to be a significant mismatch in the delivery revenue data. Statista reports platform delivery revenues increased by about 40% from 2018 to 2020, but Second Measure indicates revenues have more than doubled.) 

Geoffrey Manne, in an earlier post points out “while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.” That may be the case here.

The figure below is a sample of platform delivery shares by city. I added data from an earlier study of 2017 shares. In all but two metro areas, Uber and Grubhub’s combined market share declined from 2017 to 2020. In Boston, the combined shares did not change and in Los Angeles, the combined shares increased by 1%.

(NB: There are some serious problems with this data, notably that it leaves out the restaurant-to-consumer sector and assumes the entire platform-to-consumer sector is comprised of only the “Big Four.”)

Platform-to-consumer delivery is a complex two-sided market in which the platforms link, and compete for, both restaurants and consumers. Platforms compete for restaurants, drivers, and consumers. Restaurants have a choice of using multiple platforms or entering into exclusive arrangements. Many drivers work for multiple platforms, and many consumers use multiple platforms. 

Fundamentally, the rise of platform-to-consumer is an evolution in vertical integration. Restaurants can choose to offer no delivery, use their own in-house delivery drivers, or use a third party delivery service. Every platform faces competition from in-house delivery, placing a limit on their ability to raise prices to restaurants and consumers.

The choice of delivery is not an either-or decision. For example, many pizza restaurants who have their own delivery drivers also use platform delivery service. Their own drivers may serve a limited geographic area, but the platforms allow the restaurant to expand its geographic reach, thereby increasing its sales. Even so, the platforms face competition from in-house delivery.

Mergers or other forms of shake out in the food delivery industry are inevitable. Mergers will raise important questions about relevant product and geographic markets as well as competition in two-sided markets. While there is a real risk of harm to restaurants, drivers, and consumers, there is also a real possibility of welfare enhancing efficiencies. These questions will never be addressed with an across-the-board merger moratorium.

[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 Kristian Stout, (Associate Director, International Center for Law & Economics]

The public policy community’s infatuation with digital privacy has grown by leaps and bounds since the enactment of GDPR and the CCPA, but COVID-19 may leave the most enduring mark on the actual direction that privacy policy takes. As the pandemic and associated lockdowns first began, there were interesting discussions cropping up about the inevitable conflict between strong privacy fundamentalism and the pragmatic steps necessary to adequately trace the spread of infection. 

Axiomatic of this controversy is the Apple/Google contact tracing system, software developed for smartphones to assist with the identification of individuals and populations that have likely been in contact with the virus. The debate sparked by the Apple/Google proposal highlights what we miss when we treat “privacy” (however defined) as an end in itself, an end that must necessarily  trump other concerns. 

The Apple/Google contact tracing efforts

Apple/Google are doing yeoman’s work attempting to produce a useful contact tracing API given the headwinds of privacy advocacy they face. Apple’s webpage describing its new contact tracing system is a testament to the extent to which strong privacy protections are central to its efforts. Indeed, those privacy protections are in the very name of the service: “Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing” program. But, vitally, the utility of the Apple/Google API is ultimately a function of its efficacy as a tracing tool, not in how well it protects privacy.

Apple/Google — despite the complaints of some states — are rolling out their Covid-19-tracking services with notable limitations. Most prominently, the APIs will not allow collection of location data, and will only function when users explicitly opt-in. This last point is important because there is evidence that opt-in requirements, by their nature, tend to reduce the flow of information in a system, and when we are considering tracing solutions to an ongoing pandemic surely less information is not optimal. Further, all of the data collected through the API will be anonymized, preventing even healthcare authorities from identifying particular infected individuals.

These restrictions prevent the tool from being as effective as it could be, but it’s not clear how Apple/Google could do any better given the political climate. For years, the Big Tech firms have been villainized by privacy advocates that accuse them of spying on kids and cavalierly disregarding consumer privacy as they treat individuals’ data as just another business input. The problem with this approach is that, in the midst of a generational crisis, our best tools are being excluded from the fight. Which begs the question: perhaps we have privacy all wrong? 

Privacy is one value among many

The U.S. constitutional order explicitly protects our privacy as against state intrusion in order to guarantee, among other things, fair process and equal access to justice. But this strong presumption against state intrusion—far from establishing a fundamental or absolute right to privacy—only accounts for part of the privacy story. 

The Constitution’s limit is a recognition of the fact that we humans are highly social creatures and that privacy is one value among many. Properly conceived, privacy protections are themselves valuable only insofar as they protect other things we value. Jane Bambauer explored some of this in an earlier post where she characterized privacy as, at best, an “instrumental right” — that is a tool used to promote other desirable social goals such as “fairness, safety, and autonomy.”

Following from Jane’s insight, privacy — as an instrumental good — is something that can have both positive and negative externalities, and needs to be enlarged or attenuated as its ability to serve instrumental ends changes in different contexts. 

According to Jane:

There is a moral imperative to ignore even express lack of consent when withholding important information that puts others in danger. Just as many states affirmatively require doctors, therapists, teachers, and other fiduciaries to report certain risks even at the expense of their client’s and ward’s privacy …  this same logic applies at scale to the collection and analysis of data during a pandemic.

Indeed, dealing with externalities is one of the most common and powerful justifications for regulation, and an extreme form of “privacy libertarianism” —in the context of a pandemic — is likely to be, on net, harmful to society.

Which brings us back to efforts of Apple/Google. Even if those firms wanted to risk the ire of  privacy absolutists, it’s not clear that they could do so without incurring tremendous regulatory risk, uncertainty and a popular backlash. As statutory matters, the CCPA and the GDPR chill experimentation in the face of potentially crippling fines. While the FTC Act’s Section 5 prohibition on “unfair or deceptive” practices is open to interpretation in manners which could result in existentially damaging outcomes. Further, some polling suggests that the public appetite for contact tracing is not particularly high – though, as is often the case, such pro-privacy poll outcomes rarely give appropriate shrift to the tradeoff required.

As a general matter, it’s important to think about the value of individual privacy, and how best to optimally protect it. But privacy does not stand above all other values in all contexts. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that, in a time of emergency, if private firms can devise more effective solutions for mitigating the crisis, they should have more latitude to experiment. Knee-jerk preferences for an amorphous “right of privacy” should not be used to block those experiments.

Much as with the Cosmic Turtle, its tradeoffs all the way down. Most of the U.S. is in lockdown, and while we vigorously protect our privacy, we risk frustrating the creation of tools that could put a light at the end of the tunnel. We are, in effect, trading liberty and economic self-determination for privacy.

Once the worst of the Covid-19 crisis has passed — hastened possibly by the use of contact tracing programs — we can debate the proper use of private data in exigent circumstances. For the immediate future, we should instead be encouraging firms like Apple/Google to experiment with better ways to control the pandemic. 

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

This post is authored by Eline Chivot, (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Data Innovation, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.).]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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 Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

[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 Will Rinehart, (Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity).]

Nellie Bowles, a longtime critic of tech, recently had a change of heart about tech, which she relayed in the New York Times:

Before the coronavirus, there was something I used to worry about. It was called screen time. Perhaps you remember it.

I thought about it. I wrote about it. A lot. I would try different digital detoxes as if they were fad diets, each working for a week or two before I’d be back on that smooth glowing glass.

Now I have thrown off the shackles of screen-time guilt. My television is on. My computer is open. My phone is unlocked, glittering. I want to be covered in screens. If I had a virtual reality headset nearby, I would strap it on.

Bowles isn’t alone. The Washington Post recently documented how social distancing has caused people to “rethink of one of the great villains of modern technology: screens.” Matthew Yglesias of Vox has been critical of tech in the past as well, but recently admitted that these tools are “making our lives much better.” Cal Newport might have called for Twitter to be shut down, but now thinks the service can be useful. These anecdotes speak to a larger trend. According to one national poll, some 88 percent of Americans now have a better appreciation for technology since this pandemic has forced them to rely upon it. 

Before COVID-19, catchy headlines like “Heavy Social Media Use Linked With Mental Health Issues In Teens” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” were met with nods and approvals. These concerns found backing in legislation like Senator Josh Hawley’s “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act” or SMART Act. The opening lines of the SMART Act make it clear the legislation would “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice, [and] to require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation.”  

Most psychologists steer clear of using the term addiction because it means a person engages in hazardous use, shows tolerance, and neglects social roles. Because social media, gaming, and cell phone use don’t meet this threshold, the profession tends to describe those who experience negative impacts as engaging in problematic use of the tech, which is only applied to a small minority. According to one estimate, for example, only half of a percent of gamers have patterns of problematic use. 

Even though tech use doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction, the term addiction finds purchase in policy discussions and media outlets because it suggests a healthier norm. Computer games have prosocial benefits, yet it is common to hear that the activity is no match for going outside to play. The same kind of argument exists with social media and phone use; face-to-face communication is preferred to tech-enabled communication. 

But the coronavirus has inverted the normal conditions. Social distancing doesn’t allow us to connect in person or play outside with friends. Faced with no other alternative, technology has been embraced. Videoconferencing is up, as is social media use. This new norm has  brought with it a needed rethink of critiques of tech. Even before this moment, however, the research on tech effects has had its problems.    

To begin, even though it has been researched extensively, screen time and social media use aren’t shown to clearly cause harm. Earlier this year, psychologists Candice Odgers and Michaeline Jensen conducted a massive literature review and summarized the research as “a mix of often conflicting small positive, negative and null associations.” The researchers also point out that studies finding a negative relationship between well-being and tech use tend to be correlational, not causational, and thus are “unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance” to parents or therapists.  

Through no fault of their own, researchers tend to focus a limited number of relationships when it comes to tech use. But professors Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski were able to sidestep these problems by getting computers to test every theoretically defensible hypothesis. In a writeup appropriately titled “Beyond Cherry-Picking,” the duo explained why this method is important to policy makers:

Although statistical significance is often used as an indicator that findings are practically significant, the paper moves beyond this surrogate to put its findings in a real-world context.  In one dataset, for example, the negative effect of wearing glasses on adolescent well-being is significantly higher than that of social media use. Yet policymakers are currently not contemplating pumping billions into interventions that aim to decrease the use of glasses.

Their academic paper throws cold water on the screen time and tech use debate. Since social media explains only 0.4% of the variation in well-being, much greater welfare gains can be made by concentrating on other policy issues. For example, regularly eating breakfast, getting enough sleep, and avoiding marijuana use play much larger roles in the well-being of adolescents. Social media is only a tiny portion of what determines well-being as the chart below helps to illustrate. 

Second, most social media research relies on self-reporting methods, which are systematically biased and often unreliable. Communication professor Michael Scharkow, for example, compared self-reports of Internet use with the computer log files, which show everything that a computer has done and when, and found that “survey data are only moderately correlated with log file data.” A quartet of psychology professors in the UK discovered that self-reported smartphone use and social media addiction scales face similar problems in that they don’t correctly capture reality. Patrick Markey, Professor and Director of the IR Laboratory at Villanova University, summarized the work, “the fear of smartphones and social media was built on a castle made of sand.”  

Expert bodies have also been changing their tune as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics took a hardline stance for years, preaching digital abstinence. But the organization has since backpedaled and now says that screens are fine in moderation. The organization now suggests that parents and children should work together to create boundaries. 

Once this pandemic is behind us, policymakers and experts should reconsider the screen time debate. We need to move from loaded terms like addiction and embrace a more realistic model of the world. The truth is that everyone’s relationship with technology is complicated. Instead of paternalistic legislation, leaders should place the onus on parents and individuals to figure out what is right for them.      

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

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

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

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

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

An unintended consequence

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Or, a fully intended consequence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provide Cash, No-Strings-Attached

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

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

Avoid Asset Tests

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

Don’t Worry So Much about the Labor Market  

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

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

Don’t Limit Aid to the “Deserving”

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

Don’t Impose Bureaucratic Hurdles

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

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

Don’t Means Test Up Front

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

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

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

Provide Regular Payments

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

Provide Equal Payments to Children and Adults

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

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

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

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

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

Observers on TOTM and elsewhere have pointed out the importance of preserving patent rights as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies pursue development of treatments for, and better vaccines against,  Covid-19. As the benefits of these treatments could reach into the trillions of dollars (see here for a casual estimate and here for a more serious one), it is hard to imagine a level of reward for successful innovations that is too high.

On the other hand, as these and other commentaries suggest if only implicitly, the high social value of a coronavirus treatment or vaccine may well lead to calls to limit the ability to profit from a patent. It is easy to imagine that a developer of a vaccine will not be able to charge the patent-protected price (note avoidance of the term “monopoly”). It almost certainly will not be able to do so if it cannot use price discrimination in order to allow those lacking the means to pay a uniform higher price to get the vaccine.

However, there is an alternative to patents that have not received much attention in the policy discussion—having the government (Treasury, NIH, CDC) offer a prize in exchange for open access to a successful vaccine or treatment. Prizes are not new; they go back at least to the early 18th century, when Britain offered a prize for improvements in clock accuracy to facilitate ocean-going navigation. Many prizes have been offered by the private sector, both for their own use—Netflix offering a prize for improvements to its movie recommendation algorithm—and to altruistically promote innovation. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 first solo transatlantic flight, and previous attempts by others, were motivated at least in part by a $25,000 prize offered by a New York hotel owner. 

In light of the net benefits of an improved vaccine, indicated perhaps by the level of spending in enacted and proposed stimulus and rescue programs, a prize of, oh, $25 billion is practically chump change. But would a prize make sense here?

I and two former colleagues at Resources for the Future, Molly Macauley and Kate Whitefoot, analyzed the use of prizes in comparison to patents and other methods to solicit and procure innovation.  This work was inspired by Molly’s interest in NASA’s use of prizes to induce innovations in space exploration equipment. On the theory side, we were interested because models of patents typically treat patents as prizes—the successful innovator gets $X in expected profit—and thus were unable to explain why one might want to choose prizes rather than patents and vice versa

When is a prize a “prize”?

The answer to this question requires being clear on what I mean by a prize. A familiar type of prize is the “best” of something, from first prize in the middle school science fair to the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not the kind of prize I’m talking about with regard to coming up with a treatment for or vaccine against Covid-19. (George Mason’s Mercatus Center is offering prizes of this sort for things like $50,000 for “best coronavirus policy writing” to $500,000 for “best effort to find a treatment rapidly”; h/t to Geoff Manne.) Rather, it is a prize for being first to achieve a specific outcome, for example, a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. 

A necessary component of such prizes is a winning condition, specified in advance. For example, the $10 million Ansari X Prize to promote commercial space travel was not awarded just for some general demonstration of feasibility that pleased a set of judges. Rather, it specifically went to the first team that could “carry three people 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface twice within two weeks.”  Contestants knew what they had to do, and there was no dispute when the winner met the criterion for getting the prize.

Prizes or patents?

The need for a winning condition highlights one of the two main criteria affecting the choice of patents or prizes: advance knowledge of the specific goal. Economy-wide, the advantage of patents over prizes is that entrepreneurial innovators are rewarded for coming up with sufficiently novel products or processes of value. Knowledge regarding what is worth innovative effort is decentralized and often tacit. On the other hand, if a funder, including the government, knows what it wants sufficiently well that it can specify a winning condition, a prize can be sensible as a way to focus innovative effort toward that desired objective.

The second criterion for choosing between patents and prizes is more subtle. Someone undertaking research effort to come up with a patent bears two risks. The first is the risk that the effort will not be successful, not just overall but in being the first to be able to file for a patent. That risk is essentially shared by those pursuing a prize, where being first involves not filing for a patent but meeting the winning condition. However, patent seekers bear another risk, which is how much the patent will be worth if they win it. Prize seekers do not bear that risk, as the prize is specified in advance. (Economic models of patent activity tend to ignore this variation.) Thus, a prize may induce more risk-averse innovators to compete for the prize.

Assuming a winning condition for a Covid-19 treatment or vaccine can be specified in advance—I leave that to the medical people—our present public health dilemma could be well suited for a prize. As observed earlier, with both net benefits and already made public spending responses in the trillions of dollars, such a prize could and should be quite large. That may be a difficult to sell politically but, as also observed earlier, the government may not be able to commit credibly to allow a patent winner to exploit the treatment or vaccine’s economic value.

Design issues, TBD

If prizes become an appealing way to encourage Covid-19 mitigation innovations, a few design issues remain on the table.

One is whether to have intermediate prizes, with their own winning conditions, to narrow down the field of contestants to those with more promising approaches. One would need some sort of winning condition for this, of course. A second is whether the innovation will be achieved more quickly by allowing contestants to combine efforts. The virtues of competition may be outweighed by being able to hedge bets rather than risk being stuck going down a blind alley.

A third is whether to go with winner-take-all or have second or third prizes. One advantage of multiple prizes is that it can mitigate some risk to innovators, at a potential cost of reducing the effort to win. However, one could imagine here that someone other than the winner might come up with a treatment or vaccine that does better than the winner but was found after the winner met the condition. This leads to a fourth policy choice—should contestants, the winner or others, retain patents, even if the winning treatment of vaccine is freely licensed, to be made available at marginal cost.

All of these choices, along with the choice of whether to offer a prize and what that prize should be, are matters of medical and pharmaceutical judgment. But economics does highlight the potential advantages of a prize and suggest that it may deserve some attention as other policy judgments are being made. 

[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 John Newman, Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law; Advisory Board Member, American Antitrust Institute; Affiliated Fellow, Thurman Arnold Project, Yale; Former Trial Attorney, DOJ Antitrust Division.)

Cooperation is the basis of productivity. The war of all against all is not a good model for any economy.

Who said it—a rose-emoji Twitter Marxist, or a card-carrying member of the laissez faire Chicago School of economics? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. Frank Easterbrook penned these words in an antitrust decision written shortly after he left the University of Chicago to become a federal judge. Easterbrook’s opinion, now a textbook staple, wholeheartedly endorsed a cooperative agreement between two business owners not to compete with each another.

But other enforcers and judges have taken a far less favorable view of cooperation—particularly when workers are the ones cooperating. A few years ago, in an increasingly rare example of interagency agreement, the DOJ and FTC teamed up to argue against a Seattle ordinance that would have permitted drivers to cooperatively bargain with Uber and Lyft. Why the hostility from enforcers? “Competition is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy,” explained Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

Should workers be able to cooperate to counter concentrated corporate power? Or is bellum omnium contra omnes truly the “lynchpin” of our industrial policy?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this question into sharper relief than ever before. Low-income workers—many of them classified as independent contractors—have launched multiple coordinated boycotts in an effort to improve working conditions. The antitrust agencies, once quick to condemn similar actions by Uber and Lyft drivers, have fallen conspicuously silent.

Why? Why should workers be allowed to negotiate cooperatively for a healthier workplace, yet not for a living wage? In a society largely organized around paying for basic social services, money is health—and even life itself.

Unraveling the Double Standard

Antitrust law, like the rest of industrial policy, involves difficult questions over which members of society can cooperate with one another. These laws allocate “coordination rights”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, industrial policy seemed generally to favor allocating these rights to corporations, while simultaneously denying them to workers and class-action plaintiffs. But, as the antitrust agencies’ apparent about-face on workplace organizing suggests, the times may be a-changing.

Some of today’s most existential threats to societal welfare—pandemics, climate change, pollution—will best be addressed via cooperation, not atomistic rivalry. On-the-ground stakeholders certainly seem to think so. Absent a coherent, unified federal policy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, state governors have reportedly begun to consider cooperating to provide a coordinated regional response. Last year, a group of auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to increase fuel-efficiency standards and reduce emissions. They did attract an antitrust investigation, but it was subsequently dropped—a triumph for pro-social cooperation. It was perhaps also a reminder that corporations, each of which is itself a cooperative enterprise, can still play the role they were historically assigned: serving the public interest.

Going forward, policy-makers should give careful thought to how their actions and inactions encourage or stifle cooperation. Judge Easterbrook praised an agreement between business owners because it “promoted enterprise”. What counts as legitimate “enterprise”, though, is an eminently contestable proposition.

The federal antitrust agencies’ anti-worker stance in particular seems ripe for revisiting. Its modern origins date back to the 1980s, when President Reagan’s FTC challenged a coordinated boycott among D.C.-area criminal-defense attorneys. The boycott was a strike of sorts, intended to pressure the city into increasing court-appointed fees to a level that would allow for adequate representation. (The mayor’s office, despite being responsible for paying the fees, actually encouraged the boycott.) As the sole buyer of this particular type of service, the government wielded substantial power in the marketplace. A coordinated front was needed to counter it. Nonetheless, the FTC condemned the attorneys’ strike as per se illegal—a label supposedly reserved for the worst possible anticompetitive behavior—and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

Reviving Cooperation

In the short run, the federal antitrust agencies should formally reverse this anti-labor course. When workers cooperate in an attempt to counter employers’ power, antitrust intervention is, at best, a misallocation of scarce agency resources. Surely there are (much) bigger fish to fry. At worst, hostility to such cooperation directly contravenes Congress’ vision for the antitrust laws. These laws were intended to protect workers from concentrated downstream power, not to force their exposure to it—as the federal agencies themselves have recognized elsewhere.

In the longer run, congressional action may be needed. Supreme Court antitrust case law condemning worker coordination should be legislatively overruled. And, in a sharp departure from the current trend, we should be making it easier, not harder, for workers to form cooperative unions. Capital can be combined into a legal corporation in just a few hours, while it takes more than a month to create an effective labor union. None of this is to say that competition should be abandoned—much the opposite, in fact. A market that pits individual workers against highly concentrated cooperative entities is hardly “competitive”.

Thinking more broadly, antitrust and industrial policy may need to allow—or even encourage—cooperation in a number of sectors. Automakers’ and other manufacturers’ voluntary efforts to fight climate change should be lauded and protected, not investigated. Where cooperation is already shielded and even incentivized, as is the case with corporations, affirmative steps may be needed to ensure that the public interest is being furthered.

The current moment is without precedent. Industrial policy is destined, and has already begun, to change. Although competition has its place, it cannot serve as the sole lynchpin for a just economy. Now more than ever, a revival of cooperation is needed.

[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 Christine S. Wilson (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).[1] The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Trade Commission or any other Commissioner.]  

I type these words while subject to a stay-at-home order issued by West Virginia Governor James C. Justice II. “To preserve public health and safety, and to ensure the healthcare system in West Virginia is capable of serving all citizens in need,” I am permitted to leave my home only for a limited and precisely enumerated set of reasons. Billions of citizens around the globe are now operating under similar shelter-in-place directives as governments grapple with how to stem the tide of infection, illness and death inflicted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the first response of many governments has been to impose severe limitations on physical movement to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The second response contemplated by many, and the one on which this blog post focuses, involves the extensive collection and analysis of data in connection with people’s movements and health. Some governments are using that data to conduct sophisticated contact tracing, while others are using the power of the state to enforce orders for quarantines and against gatherings.

The desire to use modern technology on a broad scale for the sake of public safety is not unique to this moment. Technology is intended to improve the quality of our lives, in part by enabling us to help ourselves and one another. For example, cell towers broadcast wireless emergency alerts to all mobile devices in the area to warn us of extreme weather and other threats to safety in our vicinity. One well-known type of broadcast is the Amber Alert, which enables community members to assist in recovering an abducted child by providing descriptions of the abductor, the abductee and the abductor’s vehicle. Citizens who spot individuals and vehicles that meet these descriptions can then provide leads to law enforcement authorities. A private nonprofit organization, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, coordinates with state and local public safety officials to send out Amber Alerts through privately owned wireless carriers.

The robust civil society and free market in the U.S. make partnerships between the private sector and government agencies commonplace. But some of these arrangements involve a much more extensive sharing of Americans’ personal information with law enforcement than the emergency alert system does.

For example, Amazon’s home security product Ring advertises itself not only as a way to see when a package has been left at your door, but also as a way to make communities safer by turning over video footage to local police departments. In 2018, the company’s pilot program in Newark, New Jersey, donated more than 500 devices to homeowners to install at their homes in two neighborhoods, with a big caveat. Ring recipients were encouraged to share video with police. According to Ring, home burglaries in those neighborhoods fell by more than 50% from April through July 2018 relative to the same time period a year earlier.

Yet members of Congress and privacy experts have raised concerns about these partnerships, which now number in the hundreds. After receiving Amazon’s response to his inquiry, Senator Edward Markey highlighted Ring’s failure to prevent police from sharing video footage with third parties and from keeping the video permanently, and Ring’s lack of precautions to ensure that users collect footage only of adults and of users’ own property. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy continues to investigate Ring’s police partnerships and data policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called Ring “a perfect storm of privacy threats,” while the UK surveillance camera commissioner has warned against “a very real power to understand, to surveil you in a way you’ve never been surveilled before.”

Ring demonstrates clearly that it is not new for potential breaches of privacy to be encouraged in the name of public safety; police departments urge citizens to use Ring and share the videos with police to fight crime. But emerging developments indicate that, in the fight against Covid-19, we can expect to see more and more private companies placed in the difficult position of becoming complicit in government overreach.

At least mobile phone users can opt out of receiving Amber Alerts, and residents can refuse to put Ring surveillance systems on their property. The Covid-19 pandemic has made some other technological intrusions effectively impossible to refuse. For example, online proctors who monitor students over webcams to ensure they do not cheat on exams taken at home were once something that students could choose to accept if they did not want to take an exam where and when they could be proctored face to face. With public schools and universities across the U.S. closed for the rest of the semester, students who refuse to give private online proctors access to their webcams – and, consequently, the ability to view their surroundings – cannot take exams at all.

Existing technology and data practices already have made the Federal Trade Commission sensitive to potential consumer privacy and data security abuses. For decades, this independent, bipartisan agency has been enforcing companies’ privacy policies through its authority to police unfair and deceptive trade practices. It brought its first privacy and data security cases nearly 20 years ago, while I was Chief of Staff to then-Chairman Timothy J. Muris. The FTC took on Eli Lilly for disclosing the e-mail addresses of 669 subscribers to its Prozac reminder service – many of whom were government officials, and at a time of greater stigma for mental health issues – and Microsoft for (among other things) falsely claiming that its Passport website sign-in service did not collect any personally identifiable information other than that described in its privacy policy.

The privacy and data security practices of healthcare and software companies are likely to impact billions of people during the current coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. already has many laws on the books that are relevant to practices in these areas. One notable example is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which set national standards for the protection of individually identifiable health information by health plans, health care clearinghouses and health care providers who accept non-cash payments. While the FTC does not enforce HIPAA, it does enforce the Health Breach Notification Rule, as well as the provisions in the FTC Act used to challenge the privacy missteps of Eli Lilly and many other companies.

But technological developments have created gaps in HIPAA enforcement. For example, HIPAA applies to doctors’ offices, hospitals and insurance companies, but it may not apply to wearables, smartphone apps or websites. Yet sensitive medical information is now commonly stored in places other than health care practitioners’ offices.  Your phone and watch now collect information about your blood sugar, exercise habits, fertility and heart health. 

Observers have pointed to these emerging gaps in coverage as evidence of the growing need for federal privacy legislation. I, too, have called on the U.S. Congress to enact comprehensive federal privacy legislation – not only to address these emerging gaps, but for two other reasons.  First, consumers need clarity regarding the types of data collected from them, and how those data are used and shared. I believe consumers can make informed decisions about which goods and services to patronize when they have the information they need to evaluate the costs and benefits of using those goods. Second, businesses need predictability and certainty regarding the rules of the road, given the emerging patchwork of regimes both at home and abroad.

Rules of the road regarding privacy practices will prove particularly instructive during this global pandemic, as governments lean on the private sector for data on the grounds that the collection and analysis of data can help avert (or at least diminish to some extent) a public health catastrophe. With legal lines in place, companies would be better equipped to determine when they are being asked to cross the line for the public good, and whether they should require a subpoena or inform customers before turning over data. It is regrettable that Congress has been unable to enact federal privacy legislation to guide this discussion.

Understandably, Congress does not have privacy at the top of its agenda at the moment, as the U.S. faces a public health crisis. As I write, more than 579,000 Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and more than 22,000 have perished. Sadly, those numbers will only increase. And the U.S. is not alone in confronting this crisis: governments globally have confronted more than 1.77 million cases and more than 111,000 deaths. For a short time, health and safety issues may take precedence over privacy protections. But some of the initiatives to combat the coronavirus pandemic are worrisome. We are learning more every day about how governments are responding in a rapidly developing situation; what I describe in the next section constitutes merely the tip of the iceberg. These initiatives are worth highlighting here, as are potential safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that societies around the world would be wise to embrace.

Some observers view public/private partnerships based on an extensive use of technology and data as key to fighting the spread of Covid-19. For example, Professor Jane Bambauer calls for contact tracing and alerts “to be done in an automated way with the help of mobile service providers’ geolocation data.” She argues that privacy is merely “an instrumental right” that “is meant to achieve certain social goals in fairness, safety and autonomy. It is not an end in itself.” Given the “more vital” interests in health and the liberty to leave one’s house, Bambauer sees “a moral imperative” for the private sector “to ignore even express lack of consent” by an individual to the sharing of information about him.

This proposition troubles me because the extensive data sharing that has been proposed in some countries, and that is already occurring in many others, is not mundane. In the name of advertising and product improvements, private companies have been hoovering up personal data for years. What this pandemic lays bare, though, is that while this trove of information was collected under the guise of cataloguing your coffee preferences and transportation habits, it can be reprocessed in an instant to restrict your movements, impinge on your freedom of association, and silence your freedom of speech. Bambauer is calling for detailed information about an individual’s every movement to be shared with the government when, in the United States under normal circumstances, a warrant would be required to access this information.

Indeed, with our mobile devices acting as the “invisible policeman” described by Justice William O. Douglas in Berger v. New York, we may face “a bald invasion of privacy, far worse than the general warrants prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.” Backward-looking searches and data hoards pose new questions of what constitutes a “reasonable” search. The stakes are high – both here and abroad, citizens are being asked to allow warrantless searches by the government on an astronomical scale, all in the name of public health.  

Abroad

The first country to confront the coronavirus was China. The World Health Organization has touted the measures taken by China as “the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans.” Among these measures are the “rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts,” as well as “the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to strengthen contact tracing and the management of priority populations.” An ambassador for China has said his government “optimized the protocol of case discovery and management in multiple ways like backtracking the cell phone positioning.” Much as the Communist Party’s control over China enabled it to suppress early reports of a novel coronavirus, this regime vigorously ensured its people’s compliance with the “stark” containment measures described by the World Health Organization.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong already had been testing the use of “smart wristbands” to track the movements of prisoners. The Special Administrative Region now monitors people quarantined inside their homes by requiring them to wear wristbands that send information to the quarantined individuals’ smartphones and alert the Department of Health and Police if people leave their homes, break their wristbands or disconnect them from their smartphones. When first announced in early February, the wristbands were required only for people who had been to Wuhan in the past 14 days, but the program rapidly expanded to encompass every person entering Hong Kong. The government denied any privacy concerns about the electronic wristbands, saying the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data had been consulted about the technology and agreed it could be used to ensure that quarantined individuals remain at home.

Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom has developed a system that the local CDC calls an “electronic fence.” Specifically, the government obtains the SIM card identifiers for the mobile devices of quarantined individuals and passes those identifiers to mobile network operators, which use phone signals to their cell towers to alert public health and law enforcement agencies when the phone of a quarantined individual leaves a certain geographic range. In response to privacy concerns, the National Communications Commission said the system was authorized by special laws to prevent the coronavirus, and that it “does not violate personal data or privacy protection.” In Singapore, travelers and others issued Stay-Home Notices to remain in their residency 24 hours a day for 14 days must respond within an hour if contacted by government agencies by phone, text message or WhatsApp. And to assist with contact tracing, the government has encouraged everyone in the country to download TraceTogether, an app that uses Bluetooth to identify other nearby phones with the app and tracks when phones are in close proximity.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has launched an app for mobile devices called HaMagen (the shield) to prevent the spread of coronavirus by identifying contacts between diagnosed patients and people who came into contact with them in the 14 days prior to diagnosis. In March, the prime minister’s cabinet initially bypassed the legislative body to approve emergency regulations for obtaining without a warrant the cellphone location data and additional personal information of those diagnosed with or suspected of coronavirus infection. The government will send text messages to people who came into contact with potentially infected individuals, and will monitor the potentially infected person’s compliance with quarantine. The Ministry of Health will not hold this information; instead, it can make data requests to the police and Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency. The police will enforce quarantine measures and Shin Bet will track down those who came into contact with the potentially infected.

Multiple Eastern European nations with constitutional protections for citizens’ rights of movement and privacy have superseded them by declaring a state of emergency. For example, in Hungary the declaration of a “state of danger” has enabled Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to engage in “extraordinary emergency measures” without parliamentary consent.  His ministers have cited the possibility that coronavirus will prevent a gathering of a sufficient quorum of members of Parliament as making it necessary for the government to be able to act in the absence of legislative approval.

Member States of the European Union must protect personal data pursuant to the General Data Protection Regulation, and communications data, such as mobile location, pursuant to the ePrivacy Directive. The chair of the European Data Protection Board has observed that the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security. But if those measures allow for the processing of non-anonymized location data from mobile devices, individuals must have safeguards such as a right to a judicial remedy. “Invasive measures, such as the ‘tracking’ of individuals (i.e. processing of historical non-anonymized location data) could be considered proportional under exceptional circumstances and depending on the concrete modalities of the processing.” The EDPB has announced it will prioritize guidance on these issues.

EU Member States are already implementing such public security measures. For example, the government of Poland has by statute required everyone under a quarantine order due to suspected infection to download the “Home Quarantine” smartphone app. Those who do not install and use the app are subject to a fine. The app verifies users’ compliance with quarantine through selfies and GPS data. Users’ personal data will be administered by the Minister of Digitization, who has appointed a data protection officer. Each user’s identification, name, telephone number, quarantine location and quarantine end date can be shared with police and other government agencies. After two weeks, if the user does not report symptoms of Covid-19, the account will be deactivated — but the data will be stored for six years. The Ministry of Digitization claims that it must store the data for six years in case users pursue claims against the government. However, local privacy expert and Panoptykon Foundation cofounder Katarzyna Szymielewicz has questioned this rationale.

Even other countries that are part of the Anglo-American legal tradition are ramping up their use of data and working with the private sector to do so. The UK’s National Health Service is developing a data store that will include online/call center data from NHS Digital and Covid-19 test result data from the public health agency. While the NHS is working with private partner organizations and companies including Microsoft, Palantir Technologies, Amazon Web Services and Google, it has promised to keep all the data under its control, and to require those partners to destroy or return the data “once the public health emergency situation has ended.” The NHS also has committed to meet the requirements of data protection legislation by ensuring that individuals cannot be re-identified from the data in the data store.

Notably, each of the companies partnering with the NHS at one time or another has been subjected to scrutiny for its privacy practices. Some observers have noted that tech companies, which have been roundly criticized for a variety of reasons in recent years, may seek to use this pandemic for “reputation laundering.” As one observer cautioned: “Reputations matter, and there’s no reason the government or citizens should cast bad reputations aside when choosing who to work with or what to share” during this public health crisis.

At home

In the U.S., the federal government last enforced large-scale isolation and quarantine measures during the influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic a century ago. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track diseases on a daily basis by receiving case notifications from every state. The states mandate that healthcare providers and laboratories report certain diseases to the local public health authorities using personal identifiers. In other words, if you test positive for coronavirus, the government will know. Every state has laws authorizing quarantine and isolation, usually through the state’s health authority, while the CDC has authority through the federal Public Health Service Act and a series of presidential executive orders to exercise quarantine and isolation powers for specific diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndromes (a category into which the novel coronavirus falls).

Now local governments are issuing orders that empower law enforcement to fine and jail Americans for failing to practice social distancing. State and local governments have begun arresting and charging people who violate orders against congregating in groups. Rhode Island is requiring every non-resident who enters the state to be quarantined for two weeks, with police checks at the state’s transportation hubs and borders.

How governments discover violations of quarantine and social distancing orders will raise privacy concerns. Police have long been able to enforce based on direct observation of violations. But if law enforcement authorities identify violations of such orders based on data collection rather than direct observation, the Fourth Amendment may be implicated. In Jones and Carpenter, the Supreme Court has limited the warrantless tracking of Americans through GPS devices placed on their cars and through cellphone data. But building on the longstanding practice of contact tracing in fighting infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, GPS data has proven helpful in fighting the spread of Covid-19. This same data, though, also could be used to piece together evidence of violations of stay-at-home orders. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Carpenter, “With access to [cell-site location information], the government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts… Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years.”

The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from government action, but the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test applied in Fourth Amendment cases connects the arenas of government action and commercial data collection. As Professor Paul Ohm of the Georgetown University Law Center notes, “the dramatic expansion of technologically-fueled corporate surveillance of our private lives automatically expands police surveillance too, thanks to the way the Supreme Court has construed the reasonable expectation of privacy test and the third-party doctrine.”

For example, the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network – infectious disease epidemiologists working with Facebook, Camber Systems and Cubiq – uses mobile device data to inform state and local governments about whether social distancing orders are effective. The tech companies give the researchers aggregated data sets; the researchers give daily situation reports to departments of health, but say they do not share the underlying data sets with governments. The researchers have justified this model based on users of the private companies’ apps having consented to the collection and sharing of data.

However, the assumption that consumers have given informed consent to the collection of their data (particularly for the purpose of monitoring their compliance with social isolation measures during a pandemic) is undermined by studies showing the average consumer does not understand all the different types of data that are collected and how their information is analyzed and shared with third parties – including governments. Technology and telecommunications companies have neither asked me to opt into tracking for public health nor made clear how they are partnering with federal, state and local governments. This practice highlights that data will be divulged in ways consumers cannot imagine – because no one assumed a pandemic when agreeing to a company’s privacy policy. This information asymmetry is part of why we need federal privacy legislation.

On Friday afternoon, Apple and Google announced their opt-in Covid-19 contact tracing technology. The owners of the two most common mobile phone operating systems in the U.S. said that in May they would release application programming interfaces that enable interoperability between iOS and Android devices using official contact tracing apps from public health authorities. At an unspecified date, Bluetooth-based contact tracing will be built directly into the operating systems. “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort,” the companies said in their press release.  

At this early stage, we do not yet know exactly how the proposed Google/Apple contact tracing system will operate. It sounds similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether, which is already available in the iOS and Android mobile app stores (it has a 3.3 out of 5 average rating in the former and a 4.0 out of 5 in the latter). TraceTogether is also described as a voluntary, Bluetooth-based system that avoids GPS location data, does not upload information without the user’s consent, and uses changing, encrypted identifiers to maintain user anonymity. Perhaps the most striking difference, at least to a non-technical observer, is that TraceTogether was developed and is run by the Singaporean government, which has been a point of concern for some observers. The U.S. version – like finding abducted children through Amber Alerts and fighting crime via Amazon Ring – will be a partnership between the public and private sectors.     

Recommendations

The global pandemic we now face is driving data usage in ways not contemplated by consumers. Entities in the private and public sector are confronting new and complex choices about data collection, usage and sharing. Organizations with Chief Privacy Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, and other personnel tasked with managing privacy programs are, relatively speaking, well-equipped to address these issues. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, senior management should continue to rely on the expertise and sound counsel of their CPOs and CISOs, who should continue to make decisions based on their established privacy and data security programs. Although developments are unfolding at warp speed, it is important – arguably now, more than ever – to be intentional about privacy decisions.

For organizations that lack experience with privacy and data security programs (and individuals tasked with oversight for these areas), now is a great time to pause, do some research and exercise care. It is essential to think about the longer-term ramifications of choices made about data collection, use and sharing during the pandemic. The FTC offers easily accessible resources, including Protecting Personal Information: A Guide for Business, Start with Security: A Guide for Business, and Stick with Security: A Business Blog Series. While the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB) applies only to financial institutions, the FTC’s GLB compliance blog outlines some data security best practices that apply more broadly. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) also offers security and privacy resources, including a privacy framework to help organizations identify and manage privacy risks. Private organizations such as the Center for Information Policy Leadership, the International Association of Privacy Professionals and the App Association also offer helpful resources, as do trade associations. While it may seem like a suboptimal time to take a step back and focus on these strategic issues, remember that privacy and data security missteps can cause irrevocable harm. Counterintuitively, now is actually the best time to be intentional about choices in these areas.

Best practices like accountability, risk assessment and risk management will be key to navigating today’s challenges. Companies should take the time to assess and document the new and/or expanded risks from the data collection, use and sharing of personal information. It is appropriate for these risk assessments to incorporate potential benefits and harms not only to the individual and the company, but for society as a whole. Upfront assessments can help companies establish controls and incentives to facilitate responsible behavior, as well as help organizations demonstrate that they are fully aware of the impact of their choices (risk assessment) and in control of their impact on people and programs (risk mitigation). Written assessments can also facilitate transparency with stakeholders, raise awareness internally about policy choices and assist companies with ongoing monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, these assessments will facilitate a return to “normal” data practices when the crisis has passed.  

In a similar vein, companies must engage in comprehensive vendor management with respect to the entities that are proposing to use and analyze their data. In addition to vetting proposed data recipients thoroughly, companies must be selective concerning the categories of information shared. The benefits of the proposed research must be balanced against individual protections, and companies should share only those data necessary to achieve the stated goals. To the extent feasible, data should be shared in de-identified and aggregated formats and data recipients should be subject to contractual obligations prohibiting them from re-identification. Moreover, companies must have policies in place to ensure compliance with research contracts, including data deletion obligations and prohibitions on data re-identification, where appropriate. Finally, companies must implement mechanisms to monitor third party compliance with contractual obligations.

Similar principles of necessity and proportionality should guide governments as they make demands or requests for information from the private sector. Governments must recognize the weight with which they speak during this crisis and carefully balance data collection and usage with civil liberties. In addition, governments also have special obligations to ensure that any data collection done by them or at their behest is driven by the science of Covid-19; to be transparent with citizens about the use of data; and to provide due process for those who wish to challenge limitations on their rights. Finally, government actors should apply good data hygiene, including regularly reassessing the breadth of their data collection initiatives and incorporating data retention and deletion policies. 

In theory, government’s role could be reduced as market-driven responses emerge. For example, assuming the existence of universally accessible daily coronavirus testing with accurate results even during the incubation period, Hal Singer’s proposal for self-certification of non-infection among private actors is intriguing. Thom Lambert identified the inability to know who is infected as a “lemon problem;” Singer seeks a way for strangers to verify each other’s “quality” in the form of non-infection.

Whatever solutions we may accept in a pandemic, it is imperative to monitor the coronavirus situation as it improves, to know when to lift the more dire measures. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and other observers have called for maintaining surveillance because of concerns about a resurgence of the virus later this year. For any measures that conflict with Americans’ constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of movement, there should be metrics set in advance for the conditions that will indicate when such measures are no longer justified. In the absence of pre-determined metrics, governments may feel the same temptation as Hungary’s prime minister to keep renewing a “state of danger” that overrides citizens’ rights. As Slovak lawmaker Tomas Valasek has said, “It doesn’t just take the despots and the illiberals of this world, like Orbán, to wreak damage.” But privacy is not merely instrumental to other interests, and we do not have to sacrifice our right to it indefinitely in exchange for safety.

I recognize that halting the spread of the virus will require extensive and sustained effort, and I credit many governments with good intentions in attempting to save the lives of their citizens. But I refuse to accept that we must sacrifice privacy to reopen the economy. It seems a false choice to say that I must sacrifice my Constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of association and free exercise of religion for another’s freedom of movement. Society should demand that equity, fairness and autonomy be respected in data uses, even in a pandemic. To quote Valasek again: “We need to make sure that we don’t go a single inch further than absolutely necessary in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting for public health.” History has taught us repeatedly that sweeping security powers granted to governments during an emergency persist long after the crisis has abated. To resist the gathering momentum toward this outcome, I will continue to emphasize the FTC’s learning on appropriate data collection and use. But my remit as an FTC Commissioner is even broader – when I was sworn in on Sept. 26, 2018, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” – and so I shall.


[1] Many thanks to my Attorney Advisors Pallavi Guniganti and Nina Frant for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The case of online retail platforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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