Archives For cost-benefit analysis

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Mark Jamison is the Gerald L. Gunter Memorial Professor and director of the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. He’s also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.]

Chairman Ajit Pai will be remembered as one of the most consequential Federal Communications Commission chairmen in history. His policy accomplishments are numerous, including the repeal of Title II regulation of the internet, rural broadband development, increased spectrum for 5G, decreasing waste in universal service funding, and better controlling robocalls.

Less will be said about the important work he has done rebuilding the FCC’s independence. It is rare for a new FCC chairman to devote resources to building the institution. Most focus on their policy agendas, because policies and regulations make up their legacies that the media notices, and because time and resources are limited. Chairman Pai did what few have even attempted to do: both build the organization and make significant regulatory reforms.

Independence is the ability of a regulatory institution to operate at arm’s length from the special interests of industry, politicians, and the like. The pressures to bias actions to benefit favored stakeholders can be tremendous; the FCC greatly influences who gets how much of the billions of dollars that are at stake in FCC decisions. But resisting those pressures is critical because investment and services suffer when a weak FCC is directed by political winds or industry pressures rather than law and hard analysis.

Chairman Pai inherited a politicized FCC. Research by Scott Wallsten showed that commission votes had been unusually partisan under the previous chairman (November 2013 through January 2017). From the beginning of Reed Hundt’s term as chairman until November 2013, only 4% of commission votes had divided along party lines. By contrast, 26% of votes divided along party lines from November 2013 until Chairman Pai took over. This division was also reflected in a sharp decline in unanimous votes under the previous administration. Only 47% of FCC votes on orders were unanimous, as opposed to an average of 60% from Hundt through the brief term of Mignon Clyburn.

Chairman Pai and his fellow commissioners worked to heal this divide. According to the FCC’s data, under Chairman Pai, over 80% of items on the monthly meeting agenda had bipartisan support and over 70% were adopted without dissent. This was hard, as Democrats in general were deeply against President Donald Trump and some members of Congress found a divided FCC convenient.

The political orientation of the FCC prior to Chairman Pai was made clear in the management of controversial issues. The agency’s work on net neutrality in 2015 pivoted strongly toward heavy regulation when President Barack Obama released his video supporting Title II regulation of the internet. And there is evidence that the net-neutrality decision was made in the White House, not at the FCC. Agency economists were cut out of internal discussions once the political decision had been made to side with the president, causing the FCC’s chief economist to quip that the decision was an economics-free zone.

On other issues, a vote on Lifeline was delayed several hours so that people on Capitol Hill could lobby a Democratic commissioner to align with fellow Democrats and against the Republican commissioners. And an initiative to regulate set-top boxes was buoyed, not by analyses by FCC staff, but by faulty data and analyses from Democratic senators.

Chairman Pai recognized the danger of politically driven decision-making and noted that it was enabled in part by the agency’s lack of a champion for economic analyses. To remedy this situation, Chairman Pai proposed forming an Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA). The commission adopted his proposal, but unfortunately it was with one of the rare party-line votes. Hopefully, Democratic commissioners have learned the value of the OEA.

The OEA has several responsibilities, but those most closely aligned with supporting the agency’s independence are that it: (a) provides economic analysis, including cost-benefit analysis, for commission actions; (b) develops policies and strategies on data resources and best practices for data use; and (c) conducts long-term research. The work of the OEA makes it hard for a politically driven chairman to pretend that his or her initiatives are somehow substantive.

Another institutional weakness at the FCC was a lack of transparency. Prior to Chairman Pai, the public was not allowed to view the text of commission decisions until after they were adopted. Even worse, sometimes the text that the commissioners saw when voting was not the text in the final decision. Wallsten described in his research a situation where the meaning of a vote actually changed from the time of the vote to the release of the text:

On February 9, 2011 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a proposed rule that included, among many other provisions, capping the Universal Service Fund at $4.5 billion. The FCC voted to approve a final order on October 27, 2011. But when the order was finally released on November 18, 2011, the $4.5 billion ceiling had effectively become a floor, with the order requiring the agency to forever estimate demand at no less than $4.5 billion. Because payments from the fund had been decreasing steadily, this floor means that the FCC is now collecting hundreds of billions of dollars more in taxes than it is spending on the program. [footnotes omitted]

The lack of transparency led many to not trust the FCC and encouraged stakeholders with inside access to bypass the legitimate public process for lobbying the agency. This would have encouraged corruption had not Chairman Pai changed the system. He required that decision texts be released to the public at the same time they were released to commissioners. This allows the public to see what the commissioners are voting on. And it ensures that orders do not change after they are voted on.

The FCC demonstrated its independence under Chairman Pai. In the case of net neutrality, the three Republican commissioners withstood personal threats, mocking from congressional Democrats, and pressure from Big Tech to restore light-handed regulation. About a year later, Chairman Pai was strongly criticized by President Trump for rejecting the Sinclair-Tribune merger. And despite the president’s support of the merger, he apparently had sufficient respect for the FCC’s independence that the White House never contacted the FCC about the issue. In the case of Ligado Networks’ use of its radio spectrum license, the FCC stood up to intense pressure from the U.S. Department of Defense and from members of Congress who wanted to substitute their technical judgement for the FCC’s research on the impacts of Ligado’s proposal.

It is possible that a new FCC could undo this new independence. Commissioners could marginalize their economists, take their directions from partisans, and reintroduce the practice of hiding information from the public. But Chairman Pai foresaw this and carefully made his changes part of the institutional structure of the FCC, making any steps backward visible to all concerned.

Over at the Federalist Society’s blog, there has been an ongoing debate about what to do about Section 230. While there has long-been variety in what we call conservatism in the United States, the most prominent strains have agreed on at least the following: Constitutionally limited government, free markets, and prudence in policy-making. You would think all of these values would be important in the Section 230 debate. It seems, however, that some are willing to throw these principles away in pursuit of a temporary political victory over perceived “Big Tech censorship.” 

Constitutionally Limited Government: Congress Shall Make No Law

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Originalists on the Supreme Court have noted that this makes clear that the Constitution protects against state action, not private action. In other words, the Constitution protects a negative conception of free speech, not a positive conception.

Despite this, some conservatives believe that Section 230 should be about promoting First Amendment values by mandating private entities are held to the same standards as the government. 

For instance, in his Big Tech and the Whole First Amendment, Craig Parshall of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) stated:

What better example of objective free speech standards could we have than those First Amendment principles decided by justices appointed by an elected president and confirmed by elected members of the Senate, applying the ideals laid down by our Founders? I will take those over the preferences of brilliant computer engineers any day.

In other words, he thinks Section 230 should be amended to only give Big Tech the “subsidy” of immunity if it commits to a First Amendment-like editorial regime. To defend the constitutionality of such “restrictions on Big Tech”, he points to the Turner intermediate scrutiny standard, in which the Supreme Court upheld must-carry provisions against cable networks. In particular, Parshall latches on to the “bottleneck monopoly” language from the case to argue that Big Tech is similarly situated to cable providers at the time of the case.

Turner, however, turned more on the “special characteristics of the cable medium” that gave it the bottleneck power than the market power itself. As stated by the Supreme Court:

When an individual subscribes to cable, the physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives the cable operator bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over most (if not all) of the television programming that is channeled into the subscriber’s home. Hence, simply by virtue of its ownership of the essential pathway for cable speech, a cable operator can prevent its subscribers from obtaining access to programming it chooses to exclude. A cable operator, unlike speakers in other media, can thus silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.

Turner v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 656 (1994).

None of the Big Tech companies has the comparable ability to silence competing speakers with a flick of the switch. In fact, the relationship goes the other way on the Internet. Users can (and do) use multiple Big Tech companies’ services, as well as those of competitors which are not quite as big. Users are the ones who can switch with a click or a swipe. There is no basis for treating Big Tech companies any differently than other First Amendment speakers.

Like newspapers, Big Tech companies must use their editorial discretion to determine what is displayed and where. Just like those newspapers, Big Tech has the First Amendment right to editorial discretion. This, not Section 230, is the bedrock law that gives Big Tech companies the right to remove content.

Thus, when Rachel Bovard of the Internet Accountability Project argues that the FCC should remove the ability of tech platforms to engage in viewpoint discrimination, she makes a serious error in arguing it is Section 230 that gives them the right to remove content.

Immediately upon noting that the NTIA petition seeks clarification on the relationship between (c)(1) and (c)(2), Bovard moves right to concern over the removal of content. “Unfortunately, embedded in that section [(c)(2)] is a catch-all phrase, ‘otherwise objectionable,’ that gives tech platforms discretion to censor anything that they deem ‘otherwise objectionable.’ Such broad language lends itself in practice to arbitrariness.” 

In order for CDA 230 to “give[] tech platforms discretion to censor,” they would have to not have that discretion absent CDA 230. Bovard totally misses the point of the First Amendment argument, stating:

Yet DC’s tech establishment frequently rejects this argument, choosing instead to focus on the First Amendment right of corporations to suppress whatever content they so choose, never acknowledging that these choices, when made at scale, have enormous ramifications. . . . 

But this argument intentionally sidesteps the fact that Sec. 230 is not required by the First Amendment, and that its application to tech platforms privileges their First Amendment behavior in a unique way among other kinds of media corporations. Newspapers also have a First Amendment right to publish what they choose—but they are subject to defamation and libel laws for content they write, or merely publish. Media companies also make First Amendment decisions subject to a thicket of laws and regulations that do not similarly encumber tech platforms.

There is the merest kernel of truth in the lines quoted above. Newspapers are indeed subject to defamation and libel laws for what they publish. But, as should be obvious, liability for publication entails actually publishing something. And what some conservatives are concerned about is platforms’ ability to not publish something: to take down conservative content.

It might be simpler if the First Amendment treated published speech and unpublished speech the same way. But it doesn’t. One can be liable for what one speaks, writes, or publishes on behalf of others. Indeed, even with the full protection of the First Amendment, there is no question that newspapers can be held responsible for delicts caused by content they publish. But no newspaper has ever been held responsible for anything they didn’t publish.

Free Markets: Competition as the Bulwark Against Abuses, not Regulation

Conservatives have long believed in the importance of property rights, exchange, and the power of the free market to promote economic growth. Competition is seen as the protector of the consumer, not big government regulators. In the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, conservatives have fought for capitalism over socialism, free markets over regulation, and competition over cronyism. But in the name of combating anti-conservative bias online, they are willing to throw these principles away.

The bedrock belief in the right of property owners to decide the terms of how they want to engage with others is fundamental to American conservatism. As stated by none other than Bovard (along with co-author Jim Demint in their book Conservative: Knowing What to Keep):

Capitalism is nothing more or less than the extension of individual freedom from the political and cultural realms to the economy. Just as government isn’t supposed to tell you how to pray, or what to think, or what sports teams to follow or books to read, it’s not supposed to tell you what to do with your own money and property.

Conservatives normally believe that it is the free choices of consumers and producers in the marketplace that maximize consumer welfare, rather than the choices of politicians and bureaucrats. Competition, in other words, is what protects us from abuses in the marketplace. Again as Bovard and Demint rightly put it:

Under the free enterprise system, money is not redistributed by a central government bureau. It goes wherever people see value. Those who create value are rewarded which then signals to the rest of the economy to up their game. It’s continuous democracy.

To get around this, both Parshall and Bovard make much of the “market dominance” of tech platforms. The essays take the position that tech platforms have nearly unassailable monopoly power which makes them unaccountable. Bovard claims that “mega-corporations have as much power as the government itself—and in some ways, more power, because theirs is unchecked and unaccountable.” Parshall even connects this to antitrust law, stating:  

This brings us to another kind of innovation, one that’s hidden from the public view. It has to do with how Big Tech companies use both algorithms plus human review during content moderation. This review process has resulted in the targeting, suppression, or down-ranking of primarily conservative content. As such, this process, should it continue, should be considered a kind of suppressive “innovation” in a quasi-antitrust analysis.

How the process harms “consumer welfare” is obvious. A more competitive market could produce social media platforms designing more innovational content moderation systems that honor traditional free speech and First Amendment norms while still offering features and connectivity akin to the huge players.

Antitrust law, in theory, would be a good way to handle issues of market power and consumer harm that results from non-price effects. But it is difficult to see how antitrust could handle the issue of political bias well:

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Neither antitrust nor quasi-antitrust regimes are well-suited to dealing with the perceived harm of anti-conservative bias. However unfulfilling this is to some conservatives, competition and choice are better answers to perceived political bias than the heavy hand of government. 

Prudence: Awareness of Unintended Consequences

Another bedrock principle of conservatism is to be aware of unintended consequences when making changes to long-standing laws and policies. In regulatory matters, cost-benefit analysis is employed to evaluate whether policies are improving societal outcomes. Using economic thinking to understand the likely responses to changes in regulation is fundamental to American conservatism. Or as Bovard and Demint’s book title suggests, conservatism is about knowing what to keep. 

Bovard has argued that since conservatism is a set of principles, not a dogmatic ideology, it can be in favor of fighting against the collectivism of Big Tech companies imposing their political vision upon the world. Conservatism, in this Kirkian sense, doesn’t require particular policy solutions. But this analysis misses what has worked about Section 230 and how the very tech platforms she decries have greatly benefited society. Prudence means understanding what has worked and only changing what has worked in a way that will improve upon it.

The benefits of Section 230 immunity in promoting platforms for third-party speech are clear. It is not an overstatement to say that Section 230 contains “The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.” It is important to note that Section 230 is not only available to Big Tech companies. It is available to all online platforms who host third-party speech. Any reform efforts at Section 230 must know what to keep.In a sense, Section (c)(1) of Section 230 does, indeed, provide greater protection for published content online than the First Amendment on its own would offer: it extends the First Amendment’s permissible scope of published content for which an online service cannot be held liable to include otherwise actionable third-party content.

But let’s be clear about the extent of this protection. It doesn’t protect anything a platform itself publishes, or even anything in which it has a significant hand in producing. Why don’t offline newspapers enjoy this “handout” (though the online versions clearly do for comments)? Because they don’t need it, and because — yes, it’s true — it comes at a cost. How much third-party content would newspapers publish without significant input from the paper itself if only they were freed from the risk of liability for such content? None? Not much? The New York Times didn’t build and sustain its reputation on the slapdash publication of unedited ramblings by random commentators. But what about classifieds? Sure. There would be more classified ads, presumably. More to the point, newspapers would exert far less oversight over the classified ads, saving themselves the expense of moderating this one, small corner of their output.

There is a cost to traditional newspapers from being denied the extended protections of Section 230. But the effect is less third-party content in parts of the paper that they didn’t wish to have the same level of editorial control. If Section 230 is a “subsidy” as critics put it, then what it is subsidizing is the hosting of third-party speech. 

The Internet would look vastly different if it was just the online reproduction of the offline world. If tech platforms were responsible for all third-party speech to the degree that newspapers are for op-eds, then they would likely moderate it to the same degree, making sure there is nothing which could expose them to liability before publishing. This means there would be far less third-party speech on the Internet.

In fact, it could be argued that it is smaller platforms who would be most affected by the repeal of Section 230 immunity. Without it, it is likely that only the biggest tech platforms would have the necessary resources to dedicate to content moderation in order to avoid liability.

Proposed Section 230 reforms will likely have unintended consequences in reducing third-party speech altogether, including conservative speech. For instance, a few bills have proposed only allowing moderation for reasons defined by statute if the platform has an “objectively reasonable belief” that the speech fits under such categories. This would likely open up tech platforms to lawsuits over the meaning of “objectively reasonable belief” that could deter them from wanting to host third-party speech altogether. Similarly, lawsuits for “selective enforcement” of a tech platform’s terms of service could lead them to either host less speech or change their terms of service.

This could actually exacerbate the issue of political bias. Allegedly anti-conservative tech platforms could respond to a “good faith” requirement in enforcing its terms of service by becoming explicitly biased. If the terms of service of a tech platform state grounds which would exclude conservative speech, a requirement of “good faith” enforcement of those terms of service will do nothing to prevent the bias. 

Conclusion

Conservatives would do well to return to their first principles in the Section 230 debate. The Constitution’s First Amendment, respect for free markets and property rights, and appreciation for unintended consequences in changing tech platform incentives all caution against the current proposals to condition Section 230 immunity on platforms giving up editorial discretion. Whether or not tech platforms engage in anti-conservative bias, there’s nothing conservative about abdicating these principles for the sake of political expediency.

Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development. 

Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.

There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move. 

What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets. 

The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation

One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace. 

This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs. 

The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.

For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.  

While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs. 

For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit. 

All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.

Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.

Municipal broadband as islands of chaos

Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.

The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.

This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes. 

Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.

But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.

Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate. 

Conclusion

There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.

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

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

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

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

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

The letter argues that:

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

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

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

The full letter is here.

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

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

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

Is taking action worth it?

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

        WTP = X% times Y% times VSL,

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

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

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

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

Actual, not just hypothetical, compensation

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

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

Markets don’t always work, perhaps like now 

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

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

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

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

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

The Economists' Hour

John Maynard Keynes wrote in his famous General Theory that “[t]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” 

This is true even of those who wish to criticize the effect of economic thinking on society. In his new book, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society,  New York Times economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum aims to show that economists have had a detrimental effect on public policy. But the central irony of the Economists’ Hour is that in criticizing the influence of economists over policy, Appelbaum engages in a great deal of economic speculation himself. Appelbaum would discard the opinions of economists in favor of “the lessons of history,” but all he is left with is unsupported economic reasoning. 

Much of The Economists’ Hour is about the history of ideas. To his credit, Appelbaum does a fair job describing Anglo-American economic thought post-New Deal until the start of the 21st century. Part I mainly focuses on macroeconomics, detailing the demise of the Keynesian consensus and the rise of the monetarists and supply-siders. If the author were not so cynical about the influence of economists, he might have represented these changes in dominant economic paradigms as an example of how science progresses over time.  

Interestingly, Appelbaum often makes the case that the insights of economists have been incredibly beneficial. For instance, in the opening chapter, he describes how Milton Friedman (one of the main protagonists/antagonists of the book, depending on your point of view) and a band of economists (including Martin Anderson and Walter Oi) fought the military establishment and ended the draft. For that, I’m sure most of us born in the past fifty years would be thankful. One suspects that group includes Appelbaum, though he tries to find objections, claiming for example that “by making war more efficient and more remote from the lives of most Americans, the end of the draft may also have made war more likely.” 

Appelbaum also notes positively that economists, most prominently Alfred Kahn in the United States, led the charge in a largely beneficial deregulation of the airline and trucking industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Yet, overall, it is clear that Appelbaum believes the “outsized” influence of economists over policymaking itself fails the cost-benefit analysis. Appelbaum focuses on the costs of listening too much to economists on antitrust law, trade and development, interest rates and currency, the use of cost-benefit analysis in regulation, and the deregulation of the financial services industry. He sees the deregulation of airlines and trucking as the height of the economists’ hour, and its close with the financial crisis of the late-2000s. His thesis is that (his interpretation of) economists’ notions of efficiency, their (alleged) lack of concern about distributional effects, and their (alleged) myopia has harmed society as their influence over policy has grown.

In his chapter on antitrust, for instance, Appelbaum admits that even though “[w]e live in a new era of giant corporations… there is little evidence consumers are suffering.” Appelbaum argues instead that lax antitrust enforcement has resulted in market concentration harmful to workers, democracy, and innovation. In order to make those arguments, he uncritically cites the work of economists and non-economist legal scholars that make economic claims. A closer inspection of each of these (economic) arguments suggests there is more to the story.

First, recent research questions the narrative that increasing market concentration has resulted in harm to consumers, workers, or society. In their recent paper, “The Industrial Revolution in Services,” Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg of Princeton University argue that increasing concentration is primarily due to technological innovation in services, retail, and wholesale sectors. While there has been greater concentration at the national level, this has been accompanied by increased competition locally as national chains expanded to more local markets. Of note, employment has increased in the sectors where national concentration is rising.

The rise in national industry concentration in the US between 1977 and 2013 is driven by a new industrial revolution in three broad non-traded sectors: services, retail, and wholesale. Sectors where national concentration is rising have increased their share of employment, and the expansion is entirely driven by the number of local markets served by firms. Firm employment per market has either increased slightly at the MSA level, or decreased substantially at the county or establishment levels. In industries with increasing concentration, the expansion into more markets is more pronounced for the top 10% firms, but is present for the bottom 90% as well. These trends have not been accompanied by economy-wide concentration. Top U.S. firms are increasingly specialized in sectors with rising industry concentration, but their aggregate employment share has remained roughly stable. We argue that these facts are consistent with the availability of a new set of fixed-cost technologies that enable adopters to produce at lower marginal costs in all markets. We present a simple model of firm size and market entry to describe the menu of new technologies and trace its implications.

In other words, any increase in concentration has been sector-specific and primarily due to more efficient national firms expanding into local markets. This has been associated with lower prices for consumers and more employment opportunities for workers in those sectors.

Appelbaum also looks to Lina Khan’s law journal article, which attacks Amazon for allegedly engaging in predatory pricing, as an example of a new group of young scholars coming to the conclusion that there is a need for more antitrust scrutiny. But, as ICLE scholars Alec Stapp and Kristian Stout have pointed out, there is very little evidence Amazon is actually engaging in predatory pricing. Khan’s article is a challenge to the consensus on how to think about predatory pricing and consumer welfare, but her underlying economic theory is premised on Amazon having such a long time horizon that they can lose money on retail for decades (even though it has been profitable for some time), on the theory that someday down the line they can raise prices after they have run all retail competition out.

Second, Appelbaum argues that mergers and acquisitions in the technology sector, especially acquisitions by Google and Facebook of potential rivals, has decreased innovation. Appelbaum’s belief is that innovation is spurred when government forces dominant players “to make room” for future competition. Here he draws in part on claims by some economists that dominant firms sometimes engage in “killer acquisitions” — acquiring nascent competitors in order to reduce competition, to the detriment of consumer welfare. But a simple model of how that results in reduced competition must be balanced by a recognition that many companies, especially technology startups, are incentivized to innovate in part by the possibility that they will be bought out. As noted by the authors of the leading study on the welfare effects of alleged “killer acquisitions”,

“it is possible that the presence of an acquisition channel also has a positive effect on welfare if the prospect of entrepreneurial exit through acquisition (by an incumbent) spurs ex-ante innovation …. Whereas in our model entrepreneurs are born with a project and thus do not have to exert effort to come up with an idea, it is plausible that the prospect of later acquisition may motivate the origination of entrepreneurial ideas in the first place… If, on the other hand, killer acquisitions do increase ex-ante innovation, this potential welfare gain will have to be weighed against the ex-post efficiency loss due to reduced competition. Whether the former positive or the latter negative effect dominates will depend on the elasticity of the entrepreneur’s innovation response.”

This analysis suggests that a case-by-case review is necessary if antitrust plaintiffs can show evidence that harm to consumers is likely to occur due to a merger.. But shifting the burden to merging entities, as Applebaum seems to suggest, will come with its own costs. In other words, more economics is needed to understand this area, not less.

Third, Appelbaum’s few concrete examples of harm to consumers resulting from “lax antitrust enforcement” in the United States come from airline mergers and telecommunications. In both cases, he sees the increased attention from competition authorities in Europe compared to the U.S. at the explanation for better outcomes. Neither is a clear example of harm to consumers, nor can be used to show superior antitrust frameworks in Europe versus the United States.

In the case of airline mergers, Appelbaum argues the gains from deregulation of the industry have been largely given away due to poor antitrust enforcement and prices stopped falling, leading to a situation where “[f]or the first time since the dawn of aviation, it is generally cheaper to fly in Europe than in the United States.” This is hard to square with the data. 

As explained in a recent blog post on Truth on the Market by ICLE’s chief economist Eric Fruits: 

While the concentration and profits story fits the antitrust populist narrative, other observations run contrary to [this] conclusion. For example, airline prices, as measured by price indexes, show that changes in U.S. and EU airline prices have fairly closely tracked each other until 2014, when U.S. prices began dropping. Sure, airlines have instituted baggage fees, but the CPI includes taxes, fuel surcharges, airport, security, and baggage fees. It’s not obvious that U.S. consumers are worse off in the so-called era of rising concentration. 

In fact, one recent study, titled Are legacy airline mergers pro- or anti-competitive? Evidence from recent U.S. airline mergers takes it a step further. Data from legacy U.S. airline mergers appears to show they have resulted in pro-consumer benefits once quality-adjusted fares are taken into account:

Our main conclusion is simple: The recent legacy carrier mergers have been associated with pro-competitive outcomes. We find that, on average across all three mergers combined, nonstop overlap routes (on which both merging parties were present pre-merger) experienced statistically significant output increases and statistically insignificant nominal fare decreases relative to non-overlap routes. This pattern also holds when we study each of the three mergers individually. We find that nonstop overlap routes experienced statistically significant output and capacity increases following all three legacy airline mergers, with statistically significant nominal fare decreases following Delta/Northwest and American/USAirways mergers, and statistically insignificant nominal fare decreases following the United/Continental merger… 

One implication of our findings is that any fare increases that have been observed since the mergers were very unlikely to have been caused by the mergers. In particular, our results demonstrate pro-competitive output expansions on nonstop overlap routes indicating reductions in quality-adjusted fares and a lack of significant anti-competitive effects on connecting overlaps. Hence ,our results demonstrate consumer welfare gains on overlap routes, without even taking credit for the large benefits on non-overlap routes (due to new online service, improved service networks at airports, fleet reallocation, etc.). While some of our results indicate that passengers on non-overlap routes also benefited from the mergers, we leave the complete exploration of such network effects for future research.

In other words, neither part of Applebaum’s proposition, that Europe has cheaper fares and that concentration has led to worse outcomes for consumers in the United States, appears to be true. Perhaps the influence of economists over antitrust law in the United States has not been so bad after all.

Appelbaum also touts the lower prices for broadband in Europe as an example of better competition policy over telecommunications in Europe versus the United States. While prices are lower on average in Europe for broadband, this obfuscates distribution of prices depending on speed tiers. UPenn Professor Christopher Yoo’s 2014 study titled U.S. vs. European Broadband Deployment: What Do the Data Say? found:

U.S. broadband was cheaper than European broadband for all speed tiers below 12 Mbps. U.S. broadband was more expensive for higher speed tiers, although the higher cost was justified in no small part by the fact that U.S. Internet users on average consumed 50% more bandwidth than their European counterparts.

Population density also helps explain differences between Europe and the United States. The closer people are together, the easier it is to build out infrastructure like broadband Internet. The United States is considerably more rural than most European countries. As a result, consideration of prices and speed need to be adjusted to reflect those differences. For instance, the FCC’s 2018 International Broadband Data Report shows a move in position from 23rd to 14th for the United States compared to 28 (mostly European) other countries once population density and income are taken into consideration for fixed broadband prices (Model 1 to Model 2). The United States climbs even further to 6th out of the 29 countries studied if data usage is included and 7th if quality (i.e. websites available in language) is taken into consideration (Model 4).

Country Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Price Rank Price Rank Price Rank Price Rank
Australia $78.30 28 $82.81 27 $102.63 26 $84.45 23
Austria $48.04 17 $60.59 15 $73.17 11 $74.02 17
Belgium $46.82 16 $66.62 21 $75.29 13 $81.09 22
Canada $69.66 27 $74.99 25 $92.73 24 $76.57 19
Chile $33.42 8 $73.60 23 $83.81 20 $88.97 25
Czech Republic $26.83 3 $49.18 6 $69.91 9 $60.49 6
Denmark $43.46 14 $52.27 8 $69.37 8 $63.85 8
Estonia $30.65 6 $56.91 12 $81.68 19 $69.06 12
Finland $35.00 9 $37.95 1 $57.49 2 $51.61 1
France $30.12 5 $44.04 4 $61.96 4 $54.25 3
Germany $36.00 12 $53.62 10 $75.09 12 $66.06 11
Greece $35.38 10 $64.51 19 $80.72 17 $78.66 21
Iceland $65.78 25 $73.96 24 $94.85 25 $90.39 26
Ireland $56.79 22 $62.37 16 $76.46 14 $64.83 9
Italy $29.62 4 $48.00 5 $68.80 7 $59.00 5
Japan $40.12 13 $53.58 9 $81.47 18 $72.12 15
Latvia $20.29 1 $42.78 3 $63.05 5 $52.20 2
Luxembourg $56.32 21 $54.32 11 $76.83 15 $72.51 16
Mexico $35.58 11 $91.29 29 $120.40 29 $109.64 29
Netherlands $44.39 15 $63.89 18 $89.51 21 $77.88 20
New Zealand $59.51 24 $81.42 26 $90.55 22 $76.25 18
Norway $88.41 29 $71.77 22 $103.98 27 $96.95 27
Portugal $30.82 7 $58.27 13 $72.83 10 $71.15 14
South Korea $25.45 2 $42.07 2 $52.01 1 $56.28 4
Spain $54.95 20 $87.69 28 $115.51 28 $106.53 28
Sweden $52.48 19 $52.16 7 $61.08 3 $70.41 13
Switzerland $66.88 26 $65.01 20 $91.15 23 $84.46 24
United Kingdom $50.77 18 $63.75 17 $79.88 16 $65.44 10
United States $58.00 23 $59.84 14 $64.75 6 $62.94 7
Average $46.55 $61.70 $80.24 $73.73

Model 1: Unadjusted for demographics and content quality

Model 2: Adjusted for demographics but not content quality

Model 3: Adjusted for demographics and data usage

Model 4: Adjusted for demographics and content quality

Furthermore, investment and buildout are other important indicators of how well the United States is doing compared to Europe. Appelbaum fails to consider all of these factors when comparing the European model of telecommunications to the United States’. Yoo’s conclusion is an appropriate response:

The increasing availability of high-quality data has the promise to effect a sea change in broadband policy. Debates that previously relied primarily on anecdotal evidence and personal assertions of visions for the future can increasingly take place on a firmer empirical footing. 

In particular, these data can resolve the question whether the U.S. is running behind Europe in the broadband race or vice versa. The U.S. and European mapping studies are clear and definitive: These data indicate that the U.S. is ahead of Europe in terms of the availability of Next Generation Access (NGA) networks. The U.S. advantage is even starker in terms of rural NGA coverage and with respect to key technologies such as FTTP and LTE. 

Empirical analysis, both in terms of top-level statistics and in terms of eight country case studies, also sheds light into the key policy debate between facilities-based competition and service-based competition. The evidence again is fairly definitive, confirming that facilities-based competition is more effective in terms of driving broadband investment than service-based competition. 

In other words, Appelbaum relies on bad data to come to his conclusion that listening to economists has been wrong for American telecommunications policy. Perhaps it is his economic assumptions that need to be questioned.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, in antitrust, environmental regulation, and other areas he reviewed, Appelbaum does not believe economic efficiency should be the primary concern anyway.  For instance, he repeats the common historical argument that the purpose of the Sherman Act was to protect small businesses from bigger, and often more efficient, competitors. 

So applying economic analysis to Appelbaum’s claims may itself be an illustration of caring too much about economic models instead of learning “the lessons of history.” But Appelbaum inescapably assumes economic models of its own. And these models appear less grounded in empirical data than those of the economists he derides. There’s no escaping mental models to understand the world. It is just a question of whether we are willing to change our mind if a better way of understanding the world presents itself. As Keynes is purported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

For all the criticism of economists, there at least appears to be a willingness among them to change their minds, as illustrated by the increasing appreciation for anti-inflationary monetary policy among macroeconomists described in The Economists’ Hour. The question which remains is whether Appelbaum and other critics of the economic way of thinking are as willing to reconsider their strongly held views when they conflict with the evidence.

These days, lacking a coherent legal theory presents no challenge to the would-be antitrust crusader. In a previous post, we noted how Shaoul Sussman’s predatory pricing claims against Amazon lacked a serious legal foundation. Sussman has returned with a new post, trying to build out his fledgling theory, but fares little better under even casual scrutiny.

According to Sussman, Amazon’s allegedly anticompetitive 

conduct not only cemented its role as the primary destination for consumers that shop online but also helped it solidify its power over brands.

Further, the company 

was willing to go to great lengths to ensure brand availability and inventory, including turning to the grey market, recruiting unauthorized sellers, and even selling diverted goods and counterfeits to its customers.

Sussman is trying to make out a fairly convoluted predatory pricing case, but once again without ever truly connecting the dots in a way that develops a cognizable antitrust claim. According to Sussman: 

Amazon sold products as a first-party to consumers on its platform at below average variable cost and [] Amazon recently began to recoup its losses by shifting the bulk of the transactions that occur on the website to its marketplace, where millions of third-party sellers pay hefty fees that enable Amazon to take a deep cut of every transaction.

Sussman now bases this claim on an allegation that Amazon relied on  “grey market” sellers on its platform, the presence of which forces legitimate brands onto the Amazon Marketplace. Moreover, Sussman claims that — somehow — these brands coming on board on Amazon’s terms forces those brands raise prices elsewhere, and the net effect of this process at scale is that prices across the economy have risen. 

As we detail below, Sussman’s chimerical argument depends on conflating unrelated concepts and relies on non-public anecdotal accounts to piece together an argument that, even if you squint at it, doesn’t make out a viable theory of harm.

Conflating legal reselling and illegal counterfeit selling as the “grey market”

The biggest problem with Sussman’s new theory is that he conflates pro-consumer unauthorized reselling and anti-consumer illegal counterfeiting, erroneously labeling both the “grey market”: 

Amazon had an ace up its sleeve. My sources indicate that the company deliberately turned to and empowered the “grey market“ — where both genuine, authentic goods and knockoffs are purchased and resold outside of brands’ intended distribution pipes — to dominate certain brands.

By definition, grey market goods are — as the link provided by Sussman states — “goods sold outside the authorized distribution channels by entities which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods.” Yet Sussman suggests this also encompasses counterfeit goods. This conflation is no minor problem for his argument. In general, the grey market is legal and beneficial for consumers. Brands such as Nike may try to limit the distribution of their products to channels the company controls, but they cannot legally prevent third parties from purchasing Nike products and reselling them on Amazon (or anywhere else).

This legal activity can increase consumer choice and can lead to lower prices, even though Sussman’s framing omits these key possibilities:

In the course of my conversations with former Amazon employees, some reported that Amazon actively sought out and recruited unauthorized sellers as both third-party sellers and first-party suppliers. Being unauthorized, these sellers were not bound by the brands’ policies and therefore outside the scope of their supervision.

In other words, Amazon actively courted third-party sellers who could bring legitimate goods, priced competitively, onto its platform. Perhaps this gives Amazon “leverage” over brands that would otherwise like to control the activities of legal resellers, but it’s exceedingly strange to try to frame this as nefarious or anticompetitive behavior.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are also potential consumer gains when Amazon tries to restrict grey market activity by partnering with brands. But it is up to Amazon and the brands to determine through a contracting process when it makes the most sense to partner and control the grey market, or when consumers are better served by allowing unauthorized resellers. The point is: there is simply no reason to assume that either of these approaches is inherently problematic. 

Yet, even when Amazon tries to restrict its platform to authorized resellers, it exposes itself to a whole different set of complaints. In 2018, the company made a deal with Apple to bring the iPhone maker onto its marketplace platform. In exchange for Apple selling its products directly on Amazon, the latter agreed to remove unauthorized Apple resellers from the platform. Sussman portrays this as a welcome development in line with the policy changes he recommends. 

But news reports last month indicate the FTC is reviewing this deal for potential antitrust violations. One is reminded of Ronald Coase’s famous lament that he “had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same they said it was tacit collusion.” It seems the same is true for Amazon and its relationship with the grey market.

Amazon’s incentive to remove counterfeits

What is illegal — and explicitly against Amazon’s marketplace rules  — is selling counterfeit goods. Counterfeit goods destroy consumer trust in the Amazon ecosystem, which is why the company actively polices its listings for abuses. And as Sussman himself notes, when there is an illegal counterfeit listing, “Brands can then file a trademark infringement lawsuit against the unauthorized seller in order to force Amazon to suspend it.”

Sussman’s attempt to hang counterfeiting problems around Amazon’s neck belies the actual truth about counterfeiting: probably the most cost-effective way to stop counterfeiting is simply to prohibit all third-party sellers. Yet, a serious cost-benefit analysis of Amazon’s platforms could hardly support such an action (and would harm the small sellers that antitrust activists seem most concerned about).

But, more to the point, if Amazon’s strategy is to encourage piracy, it’s doing a terrible job. It engages in litigation against known pirates, and earlier this year it rolled out a suite of tools (called Project Zero) meant to help brand owners report and remove known counterfeits. As part of this program, according to Amazon, “brands provide key data points about themselves (e.g., trademarks, logos, etc.) and we scan over 5 billion daily listing update attempts, looking for suspected counterfeits.” And when a brand identifies a counterfeit listing, they can remove it using a self-service tool (without needing approval from Amazon). 

Any large platform that tries to make it easy for independent retailers to reach customers is going to run into a counterfeit problem eventually. In his rush to discover some theory of predatory pricing to stick on Amazon, Sussman ignores the tradeoffs implicit in running a large platform that essentially democratizes retail:

Indeed, the democratizing effect of online platforms (and of technology writ large) should not be underestimated. While many are quick to disparage Amazon’s effect on local communities, these arguments fail to recognize that by reducing the costs associated with physical distance between sellers and consumers, e-commerce enables even the smallest merchant on Main Street, and the entrepreneur in her garage, to compete in the global marketplace.

In short, Amazon Marketplace is designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to sell their products to Amazon customers. As the WSJ reported

Counterfeiters, though, have been able to exploit Amazon’s drive to increase the site’s selection and offer lower prices. The company has made the process to list products on its website simple—sellers can register with little more than a business name, email and address, phone number, credit card, ID and bank account—but that also has allowed impostors to create ersatz versions of hot-selling items, according to small brands and seller consultants.

The existence of counterfeits is a direct result of policies designed to lower prices and increase consumer choice. Thus, we would expect some number of counterfeits to exist as a result of running a relatively open platform. The question is not whether counterfeits exist, but — at least in terms of Sussman’s attempt to use antitrust law — whether there is any reason to think that Amazon’s conduct with respect to counterfeits is actually anticompetitive. But, even if we assume for the moment that there is some plausible way to draw a competition claim out of the existence of counterfeit goods on the platform, his theory still falls apart. 

There is both theoretical and empirical evidence for why Amazon is likely not engaged in the conduct Sussman describes. As a platform owner involved in a repeated game with customers, sellers, and developers, Amazon has an incentive to increase trust within the ecosystem. Counterfeit goods directly destroy that trust and likely decrease sales in the long run. If individuals can’t depend on the quality of goods on Amazon, they can easily defect to Walmart, eBay, or any number of smaller independent sellers. That’s why Amazon enters into agreements with companies like Apple to ensure there are only legitimate products offered. That’s also why Amazon actively sues counterfeiters in partnership with its sellers and brands, and also why Project Zero is a priority for the company.

Sussman relies on private, anecdotal claims while engaging in speculation that is entirely unsupported by public data 

Much of Sussman’s evidence is “[b]ased on conversations [he] held with former employees, sellers, and brands following the publication of [his] paper”, which — to put it mildly — makes it difficult for anyone to take seriously, let alone address head on. Here’s one example:

One third-party seller, who asked to remain anonymous, was willing to turn over his books for inspection in order to illustrate the magnitude of the increase in consumer prices. Together, we analyzed a single product, of which tens of thousands of units have been sold since 2015. The minimum advertised price for this single product, at any and all outlets, has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years. Despite this fact, this seller’s margins on this product are tighter than ever due to Amazon’s fee increases.

Needless to say, sales data showing the minimum advertised price for a single product “has increased more than 30 percent in the past four years” is not sufficient to prove, well, anything. At minimum, showing an increase in prices above costs would require data from a large and representative sample of sellers. All we have to go on from the article is a vague anecdote representing — maybe — one data point.

Not only is Sussman’s own data impossible to evaluate, but he bases his allegations on speculation that is demonstrably false. For instance, he asserts that Amazon used its leverage over brands in a way that caused retail prices to rise throughout the economy. But his starting point assumption is flatly contradicted by reality: 

To remedy this, Amazon once again exploited brands’ MAP policies. As mentioned, MAP policies effectively dictate the minimum advertised price of a given product across the entire retail industry. Traditionally, this meant that the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online, where consumers are charged an additional shipping fee at checkout.

Sussman presents no evidence for the claim that “the price of a typical product in a brick and mortar store would be lower than the price online.” The widespread phenomenon of showrooming — when a customer examines a product at a brick-and-mortar store but then buys it for a lower price online — belies the notion that prices are higher online. One recent study by Nielsen found that “nearly 75% of grocery shoppers have used a physical store to ‘showroom’ before purchasing online.”

In fact, the company’s downward pressure on prices is so large that researchers now speculate that Amazon and other internet retailers are partially responsible for the low and stagnant inflation in the US over the last decade (dubbing this the “Amazon effect”). It is also curious that Sussman cites shipping fees as the reason prices are higher online while ignoring all the overhead costs of running a brick-and-mortar store which online retailers don’t incur. The assumption that prices are lower in brick-and-mortar stores doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Conclusion

Sussman can keep trying to tell a predatory pricing story about Amazon, but the more convoluted his theories get — and the less based in empirical reality they are — the less convincing they become. There is a predatory pricing law on the books, but it’s hard to bring a case because, as it turns out, it’s actually really hard to profitably operate as a predatory pricer. Speculating over complicated new theories might be entertaining, but it would be dangerous and irresponsible if these sorts of poorly supported theories were incorporated into public policy.

Neither side in the debate over Section 230 is blameless for the current state of affairs. Reform/repeal proponents have tended to offer ill-considered, irrelevant, or often simply incorrect justifications for amending or tossing Section 230. Meanwhile, many supporters of the law in its current form are reflexively resistant to any change and too quick to dismiss the more reasonable concerns that have been voiced.

Most of all, the urge to politicize this issue — on all sides — stands squarely in the way of any sensible discussion and thus of any sensible reform.

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Dan Mitchell is the co-founder of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

In an ideal world, the discussion and debate about how (or if) to tax e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn, and other tobacco harm-reduction products would be guided by science. Policy makers would confer with experts, analyze evidence, and craft prudent and sensible laws and regulations.

In the real world, however, politicians are guided by other factors.

There are two things to understand, both of which are based on my conversations with policy staff in Washington and elsewhere.

First, this is a battle over tax revenue. Politicians are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if a substantial number of smokers switch to options such as vaping.

This is very much akin to the concern that electric cars and fuel-efficient cars will lead to a loss of money from excise taxes on gasoline.

In the case of fuel taxes, politicians are anxiously looking at other sources of revenue, such as miles-driven levies. Their main goal is to maintain – or preferably increase – the amount of money that is diverted to the redistributive state so that politicians can reward various interest groups.

In the case of tobacco, a reduction in the number of smokers (or the tax-driven propensity of smokers to seek out black-market cigarettes) is leading politicians to concoct new schemes for taxing e-cigarettes and related non-combustible products.

Second, this is a quasi-ideological fight. Not about capitalism versus socialism, or big government versus small government. It’s basically a fight over paternalism, or a battle over goals.

For all intents and purposes, the question is whether lawmakers should seek to simultaneously discourage both tobacco use and vaping because both carry some risk (and perhaps because both are considered vices for the lower classes)? Or should they welcome vaping since it leads to harm reduction as smokers shift to a dramatically safer way of consuming nicotine?

In statistics, researchers presumably always recognize the dangers of certain types of mistakes, known as Type I errors (also known as a “false positive”) and Type II errors (also known as a “false negative”).

How does this relate to smoking, vaping, and taxes?

Simply stated, both sides of the fight are focused on a key goal and secondary issues are pushed aside. In other words, tradeoffs are being ignored.

The advocates of high taxes on e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are fixated on the possibility that vaping will entice some people into the market. Maybe vaping wil even act as a gateway to smoking. So, they want high taxes on vaping, akin to high taxes on tobacco, even though the net result is that this leads many smokers to stick with cigarettes instead of making a switch to less harmful products.

On the other side of the debate are those focused on overall public health. They see emerging non-combustible products as very effective ways of promoting harm reduction. Is it possible that e-cigarettes may be tempting to some people who otherwise would never try tobacco? Yes, that’s possible, but it’s easily offset by the very large benefits that accrue as smokers become vapers.

For all intents and purposes, the fight over the taxation of vaping is similar to other ideological fights.

The old joke in Washington is that a conservative is someone who will jail 99 innocent people in order to put one crook in prison and a liberal is someone who will free 99 guilty people to prevent one innocent person from being convicted (or, if you prefer, a conservative will deny 99 poor people to catch one welfare fraudster and a liberal will line the pockets of 99 fraudsters to make sure one genuinely poor person gets money).

The vaping fight hasn’t quite reached this stage, but the battle lines are very familiar. At some point in the future, observers may joke that one side is willing to accept more smoking if one teenager forgoes vaping while the other side is willing to have lots of vapers if it means one less smoker.

Having explained the real drivers of this debate, I’ll close by injecting my two cents and explaining why the paternalists are wrong. But rather than focus on libertarian-type arguments about personal liberty, I’ll rely on three points, all of which are based on conventional cost-benefit analysis and the sensible approach to excise taxation.

  • First, tax policy should focus on incentivizing a switch and not punishing those who chose a less harmful products. The goal should be harm reduction rather than revenue maximization.
  • Second, low tax burdens also translate into lower long-run spending burdens because a shift to vaping means a reduction in overall healthcare costs related to smoking cigarettes.
  • Third, it makes no sense to impose punitive “sin taxes” on behaviors that are much less, well, sinful. There’s a big difference in the health and fiscal impact of cigarettes compared to the alternatives.

One final point is that this issue has a reverse-class-warfare component. Anti-smoking activists generally have succeeded in stigmatizing cigarette consumption and most smokers are now disproportionately from the lower-income community. For better (harm reduction) or worse (elitism), low-income smokers are generally treated with disdain for their lifestyle choices.  

It is not an explicit policy, but that disdain now seems to extend to any form of nicotine consumption, even though the health effects of vaping are vastly lower.

ICLE has released a white paper entitled Vapor products, harm reduction, and taxation: Principles, evidence and a research agenda, authored by ICLE Chief Economist, Eric Fruits.

More than 20 countries have introduced taxation on e-cigarettes and other vapor products. In the United States, several states and local jurisdictions have enacted e-cigarette taxes.

The concept of tobacco harm reduction began in 1976 when Michael Russell, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Addiction Research Unit of Maudsley Hospital in London, wrote: “People smoke for nicotine but they die from the tar.”  Russell hypothesized that reducing the ratio of tar to nicotine could be the key to safer smoking.

Since then, much of the harm from smoking has been well-established as caused almost exclusively by toxicants released through the combustion of tobacco. Public Health England and the American Cancer Society have concluded non-combustible tobacco products as well as pure nicotine products are considerably less harmful than combustible products. Earlier this year, the American Cancer Society shifted its position on e-cigarettes, recommending that individuals who do not quit smoking, “… should be encouraged to switch to the least harmful form of tobacco product possible; switching to the exclusive use of e-cigarettes is preferable to continuing to smoke combustible products.”

In contrast, some public health advocates urge a precautionary approach in which the introduction and sale of e-cigarettes be limited or halted until the products are demonstrably safe.

Policymakers face a wide range of strategies regarding the taxation of vapor products. On the one hand, principles of harm reduction suggest vapor products should face no taxes or low taxes relative to conventional cigarettes, to guide consumers toward a safer alternative to smoking. the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concludes:

The level of taxation on smoking-related products should directly correspond to the health risks that they present, to encourage less harmful consumption. Applying that logic, e-cigarettes should remain the least-taxed and conventional cigarettes the most, with heat-not-burn products falling between the two.

In contrast, the precautionary principle as well as principles of tax equity point toward the taxation of vapor products at rates similar to conventional cigarettes.

Analysis of tax policy issues is complicated by divergent—and sometimes obscured—intentions of such policies. Some policymakers claim that the objective of taxing nicotine products is to reduce nicotine consumption. Other policymakers indicate the objective is to raise revenues to support government spending. Often missed in the policy discussion is the effect of fiscal policies on innovation and the development and commercialization of harm-reducing products. Also, often missed are the consequences for current consumers of nicotine products, including smokers seeking to quit using harmful conventional cigarettes.

Policy decisions regarding taxation of vapor products should take into account both long-term fiscal effects, as well as broader economic and welfare effects. These effects might (or might not) suggest very different tax policies to those that have been enacted or are under consideration.

Apart from being a significant source of revenue, the cigarette taxes have been promoted as “sin” taxes to discourage consumption either because of externalities caused by smoking (increased costs for third-party health payers and health consequences) or paternalism. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in U.S., smoking-related illness in the U.S. costs more than $300 billion each year, including; (1) nearly $170 billion for direct medical care for adults and (2) more than $156 billion in lost productivity, including $5.6 billion in lost productivity due to secondhand smoke exposure.

The CDC’s cost estimates raise important questions regarding who bears the burden of smoking related illness. Much of the cost is borne by private insurance, which charges steeper premiums for customers who smoke. In addition, the CDC estimates reflect costs imposed by people who have smoked for decades—many of whom have now quit. A proper accounting of the costs vis-à-vis tax policy would measure the incremental discounted costs imposed by today’s smokers.

According to Levy et al. (2017), a strategy of replacing cigarette smoking with e-cigarettes would yield substantial life year gains, even under pessimistic assumptions regarding cessation, initiation, and relative harm. Increased longevity does not simply extend the individual’s years of retirement and reliance on government transfers but has impact on greater work effort and productivity together with higher tax payments on consumption.

Vapor products that cause less direct harm or have lower externalities (e.g., the absence of “second hand smoke”) should be subject to a lower “sin” tax. A cost-benefit analysis of the desired excise tax rate on vapor products would include reduced health spending as an offset against excise tax revenue that was foregone by putting a lesser rate on those products.

State and local governments in the U.S. collect more than $18 billion a year in tobacco taxes. While some jurisdictions earmark a portion of tobacco taxes for prevention and cessation efforts, in practice most tobacco taxes are treated by policymakers as general revenues to be spent in whatever way the legislative body determines.

In the long-run, the goals of reducing or eliminating consumption of the taxed good and generating revenues are in conflict. If the tax is successful in reducing consumption, it falls short in generating revenue. Similarly, if the tax succeeds in generating revenues, it falls short in reducing or eliminating consumption.

Substitutability is another consideration. An increase in the tax on spirits will result in an increase in beer and wine purchases. A high toll on a road will divert traffic to untolled streets that may not be designed for increased traffic volumes. Evidence from the U.S. and Europe indicate high or rising tobacco taxes in one jurisdiction will result in increased sales in bordering jurisdictions as well as increase illegal cross-jurisdiction sales or smuggling.

As of March 2018, nine U.S. states have enacted taxes on e-cigarettes:

California 65.08% on wholesale price
Delaware 0.05 USD/ml
DC 70% on wholesale price
Kansas 0.05 USD/ml
Louisiana 0.05 USD/ml
Minnesota 95% of wholesale price
North Carolina 0.05 USD/ml
Pennsylvania 40% of wholesaler price
West Virginia 0.075 USD/ml

In addition, 22 countries outside of the U.S. have introduced taxation on e-cigarettes.

The effects of different types of taxation on usage and thus economic outcomes varies. Research to date finds a wide range of own price and cross price elasticities for e-cigarettes. While most researchers conclude that the demand for e-cigarettes is more elastic than the demand for combustible cigarettes, some studies find inelastic demand and some studies find highly elastic demand. Economic theory would point to e-cigarettes as a substitute for combustible cigarettes. Some empirical research supports this hypothesis, while others conclude the two products are complements.

In addition to e-cigarettes, little cigars and smokeless tobacco are also potential substitutes for cigarettes. The results from Zheng, et al. (2016) suggest increases in sales of little cigars and smokeless tobacco products would account for about 14 percent of the decline in cigarette sales associated with a hypothetical 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes. On the other hand, another study using a seemingly identical data set (Zheng, et al., 2017), suggests that sales of little cigars and smokeless tobacco would decrease in the face of an increase in cigarette prices.

The wide range of estimated elasticities calls into question the reliability of published estimates. As a nascent area of research, the policy debate would benefit from additional research that involves larger samples with better statistical power, reflects the dynamic nature of this relatively new product category, and accounts for the wide variety of vapor products.

More importantly, demand and supply conditions for e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products and other electronic nicotine delivery products have been changing rapidly over the past few years—and are expected for rapidly change into the foreseeable future. Thus, estimates of demand parameters, such as elasticity and cross-price elasticity estimates, are almost certain to vary over time as users gain knowledge and experience and as products and suppliers enter the market.

Because the market for e-cigarettes and other vapor products is small and developing, the tax bearing capacity of these new product segments are untested and unknown. Moreover, current tax levels and prices could be also misleading based on the relatively sparse empirical data, in which case more data points and evaluation is needed. One can argue, given the slow growth rates of these segments in many markets, that current prices of e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products are relatively high when compared to cigarettes and a tax or an increase on existing tax would slow down the segment growth or even lead to a decline.

Separately, the challenges in assessing a tax on electronic nicotine delivery products indicate the costs of collecting the tax, especially an excise tax, may be much higher than similar taxes levied on combustible cigarettes. In addition, as discussed above, heavy taxation of this relatively new industry would likely stifle innovation in a way that is contrary to the goal harm reduction.

Principles of harm reduction recognize that every proposal has uncertain outcomes as well as potential spillovers and unforeseen consequences. Nevertheless, the basic principle of harm reduction is a focus on safer rather than safe. Policymakers must make their decisions weighing the expected benefits and expected costs. With such high risks and costs associated with cigarette and other combustible use, taxes and regulations must be developed in an environment of uncertainty and with an eye toward a net reduction in harm, rather than an unattainable goal of zero harm.

Read the full report.

Ours is not an age of nuance.  It’s an age of tribalism, of teams—“Yer either fer us or agin’ us!”  Perhaps I should have been less surprised, then, when I read the unfavorable review of my book How to Regulate in, of all places, the Federalist Society Review.

I had expected some positive feedback from reviewer J. Kennerly Davis, a contributor to the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  The “About” section of the Project’s website states:

In the ultra-complex and interconnected digital age in which we live, government must issue and enforce regulations to protect public health and safety.  However, despite the best of intentions, government regulation can fail, stifle innovation, foreclose opportunity, and harm the most vulnerable among us.  It is for precisely these reasons that we must be diligent in reviewing how our policies either succeed or fail us, and think about how we might improve them.

I might not have expressed these sentiments in such pro-regulation terms.  For example, I don’t think government should regulate, even “to protect public health and safety,” absent (1) a market failure and (2) confidence that systematic governmental failures won’t cause the cure to be worse than the disease.  I agree, though, that regulation is sometimes appropriate, that government interventions often fail (in systematic ways), and that regulatory policies should regularly be reviewed with an eye toward reducing the combined costs of market and government failures.

Those are, in fact, the central themes of How to Regulate.  The book sets forth an overarching goal for regulation (minimize the sum of error and decision costs) and then catalogues, for six oft-cited bases for regulating, what regulatory tools are available to policymakers and how each may misfire.  For every possible intervention, the book considers the potential for failure from two sources—the knowledge problem identified by F.A. Hayek and public choice concerns (rent-seeking, regulatory capture, etc.).  It ends up arguing:

  • for property rights-based approaches to environmental protection (versus the command-and-control status quo);
  • for increased reliance on the private sector to produce public goods;
  • that recognizing property rights, rather than allocating usage, is the best way to address the tragedy of the commons;
  • that market-based mechanisms, not shareholder suits and mandatory structural rules like those imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, are the best way to constrain agency costs in the corporate context;
  • that insider trading restrictions should be left to corporations themselves;
  • that antitrust law should continue to evolve in the consumer welfare-focused direction Robert Bork recommended;
  • against the FCC’s recently abrogated net neutrality rules;
  • that occupational licensure is primarily about rent-seeking and should be avoided;
  • that incentives for voluntary disclosure will usually obviate the need for mandatory disclosure to correct information asymmetry;
  • that the claims of behavioral economics do not justify paternalistic policies to protect people from themselves; and
  • that “libertarian-paternalism” is largely a ruse that tends to morph into hard paternalism.

Given the congruence of my book’s prescriptions with the purported aims of the Regulatory Transparency Project—not to mention the laundry list of specific market-oriented policies the book advocates—I had expected a generally positive review from Mr. Davis (whom I sincerely thank for reading and reviewing the book; book reviews are a ton of work).

I didn’t get what I’d expected.  Instead, Mr. Davis denounced my book for perpetuating “progressive assumptions about state and society” (“wrongheaded” assumptions, the editor’s introduction notes).  He responded to my proposed methodology with a “meh,” noting that it “is not clearly better than the status quo.”  His one compliment, which I’ll gladly accept, was that my discussion of economic theory was “generally accessible.”

Following are a few thoughts on Mr. Davis’s critiques.

Are My Assumptions Progressive?

According to Mr. Davis, my book endorses three progressive concepts:

(i) the idea that market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources, (ii) the idea that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that can correct private ordering market failures and optimize the allocation of resources, and (iii) the idea that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.

I agree with Mr. Davis that these are progressive ideas.  If my book embraced them, it might be fair to label it “progressive.”  But it doesn’t.  Not one of them.

  1. Market Failure

Nothing in my book suggests that “market based arrangements among private parties routinely misallocate resources.”  I do say that “markets sometimes fail to work well,” and I explain how, in narrow sets of circumstances, market failures may emerge.  Understanding exactly what may happen in those narrow sets of circumstances helps to identify the least restrictive option for addressing problems and would thus would seem a pre-requisite to effective policymaking for a conservative or libertarian.  My mere invocation of the term “market failure,” however, was enough for Mr. Davis to kick me off the team.

Mr. Davis ignored altogether the many points where I explain how private ordering fixes situations that could lead to poor market performance.  At the end of the information asymmetry chapter, for example, I write,

This chapter has described information asymmetry as a problem, and indeed it is one.  But it can also present an opportunity for profit.  Entrepreneurs have long sought to make money—and create social value—by developing ways to correct informational imbalances and thereby facilitate transactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

I then describe the advent of companies like Carfax, AirBnb, and Uber, all of which offer privately ordered solutions to instances of information asymmetry that might otherwise create lemons problems.  I conclude:

These businesses thrive precisely because of information asymmetry.  By offering privately ordered solutions to the problem, they allow previously under-utilized assets to generate heretofore unrealized value.  And they enrich the people who created and financed them.  It’s a marvelous thing.

That theme—that potential market failures invite privately ordered solutions that often obviate the need for any governmental fix—permeates the book.  In the public goods chapter, I spend a great deal of time explaining how privately ordered devices like assurance contracts facilitate the production of amenities that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  In discussing the tragedy of the commons, I highlight Elinor Ostrom’s work showing how “groups of individuals have displayed a remarkable ability to manage commons goods effectively without either privatizing them or relying on government intervention.”  In the chapter on externalities, I spend a full seven pages explaining why Coasean bargains are more likely than most people think to prevent inefficiencies from negative externalities.  In the chapter on agency costs, I explain why privately ordered solutions like the market for corporate control would, if not precluded by some ill-conceived regulations, constrain agency costs better than structural rules from the government.

Disregarding all this, Mr. Davis chides me for assuming that “markets routinely fail.”  And, for good measure, he explains that government interventions are often a bigger source of failure, a point I repeatedly acknowledge, as it is a—perhaps the—central theme of the book.

  1. Trust in Experts

In what may be the strangest (and certainly the most misleading) part of his review, Mr. Davis criticizes me for placing too much confidence in experts by giving short shrift to the Hayekian knowledge problem and the insights of public choice.

          a.  The Knowledge Problem

According to Mr. Davis, the approach I advocate “is centered around fully functioning experts.”  He continues:

This progressive trust in experts is misplaced.  It is simply false to suppose that government policymakers are capable of formulating executive directives that effectively improve upon private arrangements and optimize the allocation of resources.  Friedrich Hayek and other classical liberals have persuasively argued, and everyday experience has repeatedly confirmed, that the information needed to allocate resources efficiently is voluminous and complex and widely dispersed.  So much so that government experts acting through top down directives can never hope to match the efficiency of resource allocation made through countless voluntary market transactions among private parties who actually possess the information needed to allocate the resources most efficiently.

Amen and hallelujah!  I couldn’t agree more!  Indeed, I said something similar when I came to the first regulatory tool my book examines (and criticizes), command-and-control pollution rules.  I wrote:

The difficulty here is an instance of a problem that afflicts regulation generally.  At the end of the day, regulating involves centralized economic planning:  A regulating “planner” mandates that productive resources be allocated away from some uses and toward others.  That requires the planner to know the relative value of different resource uses.  But such information, in the words of Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, “is not given to anyone in its totality.”  The personal preferences of thousands or millions of individuals—preferences only they know—determine whether there should be more widgets and fewer gidgets, or vice-versa.  As Hayek observed, voluntary trading among resource owners in a free market generates prices that signal how resources should be allocated (i.e., toward the uses for which resource owners may command the highest prices).  But centralized economic planners—including regulators—don’t allocate resources on the basis of relative prices.  Regulators, in fact, generally assume that prices are wrong due to the market failure the regulators are seeking to address.  Thus, the so-called knowledge problem that afflicts regulation generally is particularly acute for command-and-control approaches that require regulators to make refined judgments on the basis of information about relative costs and benefits.

That was just the first of many times I invoked the knowledge problem to argue against top-down directives and in favor of market-oriented policies that would enable individuals to harness local knowledge to which regulators would not be privy.  The index to the book includes a “knowledge problem” entry with no fewer than nine sub-entries (e.g., “with licensure regimes,” “with Pigouvian taxes,” “with mandatory disclosure regimes”).  There are undoubtedly more mentions of the knowledge problem than those listed in the index, for the book assesses the degree to which the knowledge problem creates difficulties for every regulatory approach it considers.

Mr. Davis does mention one time where I “acknowledge[] the work of Hayek” and “recognize[] that context specific information is vitally important,” but he says I miss the point:

Having conceded these critical points [about the importance of context-specific information], Professor Lambert fails to follow them to the logical conclusion that private ordering arrangements are best for regulating resources efficiently.  Instead, he stops one step short, suggesting that policymakers defer to the regulator most familiar with the regulated party when they need context-specific information for their analysis.  Professor Lambert is mistaken.  The best information for resource allocation is not to be found in the regional office of the regulator.  It resides with the persons who have long been controlled and directed by the progressive regulatory system.  These are the ones to whom policymakers should defer.

I was initially puzzled by Mr. Davis’s description of how my approach would address the knowledge problem.  It’s inconsistent with the way I described the problem (the “regional office of the regulator” wouldn’t know people’s personal preferences, etc.), and I couldn’t remember ever suggesting that regulatory devolution—delegating decisions down toward local regulators—was the solution to the knowledge problem.

When I checked the citation in the sentences just quoted, I realized that Mr. Davis had misunderstood the point I was making in the passage he cited (my own fault, no doubt, not his).  The cited passage was at the very end of the book, where I was summarizing the book’s contributions.  I claimed to have set forth a plan for selecting regulatory approaches that would minimize the sum of error and decision costs.  I wanted to acknowledge, though, the irony of promulgating a generally applicable plan for regulating in a book that, time and again, decries top-down imposition of one-size-fits-all rules.  Thus, I wrote:

A central theme of this book is that Hayek’s knowledge problem—the fact that no central planner can possess and process all the information needed to allocate resources so as to unlock their greatest possible value—applies to regulation, which is ultimately a set of centralized decisions about resource allocation.  The very knowledge problem besetting regulators’ decisions about what others should do similarly afflicts pointy-headed academics’ efforts to set forth ex ante rules about what regulators should do.  Context-specific information to which only the “regulator on the spot” is privy may call for occasional departures from the regulatory plan proposed here.

As should be obvious, my point was not that the knowledge problem can generally be fixed by regulatory devolution.  Rather, I was acknowledging that the general regulatory approach I had set forth—i.e., the rules policymakers should follow in selecting among regulatory approaches—may occasionally misfire and should thus be implemented flexibly.

           b.  Public Choice Concerns

A second problem with my purported trust in experts, Mr. Davis explains, stems from the insights of public choice:

Actual policymakers simply don’t live up to [Woodrow] Wilson’s ideal of the disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat.  To the contrary, a vast amount of research related to public choice theory has convincingly demonstrated that decisions of regulatory agencies are frequently shaped by politics, institutional self-interest and the influence of the entities the agencies regulate.

Again, huzzah!  Those words could have been lifted straight out of the three full pages of discussion I devoted to public choice concerns with the very first regulatory intervention the book considered.  A snippet from that discussion:

While one might initially expect regulators pursuing the public interest to resist efforts to manipulate regulation for private gain, that assumes that government officials are not themselves rational, self-interest maximizers.  As scholars associated with the “public choice” economic tradition have demonstrated, government officials do not shed their self-interested nature when they step into the public square.  They are often receptive to lobbying in favor of questionable rules, especially since they benefit from regulatory expansions, which tend to enhance their job status and often their incomes.  They also tend to become “captured” by powerful regulatees who may shower them with personal benefits and potentially employ them after their stints in government have ended.

That’s just a slice.  Elsewhere in those three pages, I explain (1) how the dynamic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs allows inefficient protectionist policies to persist, (2) how firms that benefit from protectionist regulation are often assisted by “pro-social” groups that will make a public interest case for the rules (Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists syndrome), and (3) the “[t]wo types of losses [that] result from the sort of interest-group manipulation public choice predicts.”  And that’s just the book’s initial foray into public choice.  The entry for “public choice concerns” in the book’s index includes eight sub-entries.  As with the knowledge problem, I addressed the public choice issues that could arise from every major regulatory approach the book considered.

For Mr. Davis, though, that was not enough to keep me out of the camp of Wilsonian progressives.  He explains:

Professor Lambert devotes a good deal of attention to the problem of “agency capture” by regulated entities.  However, he fails to acknowledge that a symbiotic relationship between regulators and regulated is not a bug in the regulatory system, but an inherent feature of a system defined by extensive and continuing government involvement in the allocation of resources.

To be honest, I’m not sure what that last sentence means.  Apparently, I didn’t recite some talismanic incantation that would indicate that I really do believe public choice concerns are a big problem for regulation.  I did say this in one of the book’s many discussions of public choice:

A regulator that has both regular contact with its regulatees and significant discretionary authority over them is particularly susceptible to capture.  The regulator’s discretionary authority provides regulatees with a strong motive to win over the regulator, which has the power to hobble the regulatee’s potential rivals and protect its revenue stream.  The regular contact between the regulator and the regulatee provides the regulatee with better access to those in power than that available to parties with opposing interests.  Moreover, the regulatee’s preferred course of action is likely (1) to create concentrated benefits (to the regulatee) and diffuse costs (to consumers generally), and (2) to involve an expansion of the regulator’s authority.  The upshot is that that those who bear the cost of the preferred policy are less likely to organize against it, and regulators, who benefit from turf expansion, are more likely to prefer it.  Rate-of-return regulation thus involves the precise combination that leads to regulatory expansion at consumer expense: broad and discretionary government power, close contact between regulators and regulatees, decisions that generally involve concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and regular opportunities to expand regulators’ power and prestige.

In light of this combination of features, it should come as no surprise that the history of rate-of-return regulation is littered with instances of agency capture and regulatory expansion.

Even that was not enough to convince Mr. Davis that I reject the Wilsonian assumption of “disinterested, objective, apolitical, expert technocrat[s].”  I don’t know what more I could have said.

  1. Social Welfare

Mr. Davis is right when he says, “Professor Lambert’s ultimate goal for his book is to provide policymakers with a resource that will enable them to make regulatory decisions that produce greater social welfare.”  But nowhere in my book do I suggest, as he says I do, “that the welfare of society is actually something that exists separate and apart from the individual welfare of each of the members of society.”  What I mean by “social welfare” is the aggregate welfare of all the individuals in a society.  And I’m careful to point out that only they know what makes them better off.  (At one point, for example, I write that “[g]overnment planners have no way of knowing how much pleasure regulatees derive from banned activities…or how much displeasure they experience when they must comply with an affirmative command…. [W]ith many paternalistic policies and proposals…government planners are really just guessing about welfare effects.”)

I agree with Mr. Davis that “[t]here is no single generally accepted methodology that anyone can use to determine objectively how and to what extent the welfare of society will be affected by a particular regulatory directive.”  For that reason, nowhere in the book do I suggest any sort of “metes and bounds” measurement of social welfare.  (I certainly do not endorse the use of GDP, which Mr. Davis rightly criticizes; that term appears nowhere in the book.)

Rather than prescribing any sort of precise measurement of social welfare, my book operates at the level of general principles:  We have reasons to believe that inefficiencies may arise when conditions are thus; there is a range of potential government responses to this situation—from doing nothing, to facilitating a privately ordered solution, to mandating various actions; based on our experience with these different interventions, the likely downsides of each (stemming from, for example, the knowledge problem and public choice concerns) are so-and-so; all things considered, the aggregate welfare of the individuals within this group will probably be greatest with policy x.

It is true that the thrust of the book is consequentialist, not deontological.  But it’s a book about policy, not ethics.  And its version of consequentialism is rule, not act, utilitarianism.  Is a consequentialist approach to policymaking enough to render one a progressive?  Should we excise John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty from the classical liberal canon?  I surely hope not.

Is My Proposed Approach an Improvement?

Mr. Davis’s second major criticism of my book—that what it proposes is “just the status quo”—has more bite.  By that, I mean two things.  First, it’s a more painful criticism to receive.  It’s easier for an author to hear “you’re saying something wrong” than “you’re not saying anything new.”

Second, there may be more merit to this criticism.  As Mr. Davis observes, I noted in the book’s introduction that “[a]t times during the drafting, I … wondered whether th[e] book was ‘original’ enough.”  I ultimately concluded that it was because it “br[ought] together insights of legal theorists and economists of various stripes…and systematize[d] their ideas into a unified, practical approach to regulating.”  Mr. Davis thinks I’ve overstated the book’s value, and he may be right.

The current regulatory landscape would suggest, though, that my book’s approach to selecting among potential regulatory policies isn’t “just the status quo.”  The approach I recommend would generate the specific policies catalogued at the outset of this response (in the bullet points).  The fact that those policies haven’t been implemented under the existing regulatory approach suggests that what I’m recommending must be something different than the status quo.

Mr. Davis observes—and I acknowledge—that my recommended approach resembles the review required of major executive agency regulations under Executive Order 12866, President Clinton’s revised version of President Reagan’s Executive Order 12291.  But that order is quite limited in its scope.  It doesn’t cover “minor” executive agency rules (those with expected costs of less than $100 million) or rules from independent agencies or from Congress or from courts or at the state or local level.  Moreover, I understand from talking to a former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is charged with implementing the order, that it has actually generated little serious consideration of less restrictive alternatives, something my approach emphasizes.

What my book proposes is not some sort of governmental procedure; indeed, I emphasize in the conclusion that the book “has not addressed … how existing regulatory institutions should be reformed to encourage the sort of analysis th[e] book recommends.”  Instead, I propose a way to think through specific areas of regulation, one that is informed by a great deal of learning about both market and government failures.  The best audience for the book is probably law students who will someday find themselves influencing public policy as lawyers, legislators, regulators, or judges.  I am thus heartened that the book is being used as a text at several law schools.  My guess is that few law students receive significant exposure to Hayek, public choice, etc.

So, who knows?  Perhaps the book will make a difference at the margin.  Or perhaps it will amount to sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But I don’t think a classical liberal could fairly say that the analysis it counsels “is not clearly better than the status quo.”

A Truly Better Approach to Regulating

Mr. Davis ends his review with a stirring call to revamp the administrative state to bring it “in complete and consistent compliance with the fundamental law of our republic embodied in the Constitution, with its provisions interpreted to faithfully conform to their original public meaning.”  Among other things, he calls for restoring the separation of powers, which has been erased in agencies that combine legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and for eliminating unchecked government power, which results when the legislature delegates broad rulemaking and adjudicatory authority to politically unaccountable bureaucrats.

Once again, I concur.  There are major problems—constitutional and otherwise—with the current state of administrative law and procedure.  I’d be happy to tear down the existing administrative state and begin again on a constitutionally constrained tabula rasa.

But that’s not what my book was about.  I deliberately set out to write a book about the substance of regulation, not the process by which rules should be imposed.  I took that tack for two reasons.  First, there are numerous articles and books, by scholars far more expert than I, on the structure of the administrative state.  I could add little value on administrative process.

Second, the less-addressed substantive question—what, as a substantive matter, should a policy addressing x do?—would exist even if Mr. Davis’s constitutionally constrained regulatory process were implemented.  Suppose that we got rid of independent agencies, curtailed delegations of rulemaking authority to the executive branch, and returned to a system in which Congress wrote all rules, the executive branch enforced them, and the courts resolved any disputes.  Someone would still have to write the rule, and that someone (or group of people) should have some sense of the pros and cons of one approach over another.  That is what my book seeks to provide.

A hard core Hayekian—one who had immersed himself in Law, Legislation, and Liberty—might respond that no one should design regulation (purposive rules that Hayek would call thesis) and that efficient, “purpose-independent” laws (what Hayek called nomos) will just emerge as disputes arise.  But that is not Mr. Davis’s view.  He writes:

A system of governance or regulation based on the rule of law attains its policy objectives by proscribing actions that are inconsistent with those objectives.  For example, this type of regulation would prohibit a regulated party from discharging a pollutant in any amount greater than the limiting amount specified in the regulation.  Under this proscriptive approach to regulation, any and all actions not specifically prohibited are permitted.

Mr. Davis has thus contemplated a purposive rule, crafted by someone.  That someone should know the various policy options and the upsides and downsides of each.  How to Regulate could help.

Conclusion

I’m not sure why Mr. Davis viewed my book as no more than dressed-up progressivism.  Maybe he was triggered by the book’s cover art, which he says “is faithful to the progressive tradition,” resembling “the walls of public buildings from San Francisco to Stalingrad.”  Maybe it was a case of Sunstein Derangement Syndrome.  (Progressive legal scholar Cass Sunstein had nice things to say about the book, despite its criticisms of a number of his ideas.)  Or perhaps it was that I used the term “market failure.”  Many conservatives and libertarians fear, with good reason, that conceding the existence of market failures invites all sorts of government meddling.

At the end of the day, though, I believe we classical liberals should stop pretending that market outcomes are always perfect, that pure private ordering is always and everywhere the best policy.  We should certainly sing markets’ praises; they usually work so well that people don’t even notice them, and we should point that out.  We should continually remind people that government interventions also fail—and in systematic ways (e.g., the knowledge problem and public choice concerns).  We should insist that a market failure is never a sufficient condition for a governmental fix; one must always consider whether the cure will be worse than the disease.  In short, we should take and promote the view that government should operate “under a presumption of error.”

That view, economist Aaron Director famously observed, is the essence of laissez faire.  It’s implicit in the purpose statement of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.  And it’s the central point of How to Regulate.

So let’s go easy on the friendly fire.

The FTC will hold an “Informational Injury Workshop” in December “to examine consumer injury in the context of privacy and data security.” Defining the scope of cognizable harm that may result from the unauthorized use or third-party hacking of consumer information is, to be sure, a crucial inquiry, particularly as ever-more information is stored digitally. But the Commission — rightly — is aiming at more than mere definition. As it notes, the ultimate objective of the workshop is to address questions like:

How do businesses evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of collecting and using information in light of potential injuries? How do they make tradeoffs? How do they assess the risks of different kinds of data breach? What market and legal incentives do they face, and how do these incentives affect their decisions?

How do consumers perceive and evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of sharing information in light of potential injuries? What obstacles do they face in conducting such an evaluation? How do they evaluate tradeoffs?

Understanding how businesses and consumers assess the risk and cost “when information about [consumers] is misused,” and how they conform their conduct to that risk, entails understanding not only the scope of the potential harm, but also the extent to which conduct affects the risk of harm. This, in turn, requires an understanding of the FTC’s approach to evaluating liability under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The problem, as we discuss in comments submitted by the International Center for Law & Economics to the FTC for the workshop, is that the Commission’s current approach troublingly mixes the required separate analyses of risk and harm, with little elucidation of either.

The core of the problem arises from the Commission’s reliance on what it calls a “reasonableness” standard for its evaluation of data security. By its nature, a standard that assigns liability for only unreasonable conduct should incorporate concepts resembling those of a common law negligence analysis — e.g., establishing a standard of due care, determining causation, evaluating the costs of and benefits of conduct that would mitigate the risk of harm, etc. Unfortunately, the Commission’s approach to reasonableness diverges from the rigor of a negligence analysis. In fact, as it has developed, it operates more like a strict liability regime in which largely inscrutable prosecutorial discretion determines which conduct, which firms, and which outcomes will give rise to liability.

Most troublingly, coupled with the Commission’s untenably lax (read: virtually nonexistent) evidentiary standards, the extremely liberal notion of causation embodied in its “reasonableness” approach means that the mere storage of personal information, even absent any data breach, could amount to an unfair practice under the Act — clearly not a “reasonable” result.

The notion that a breach itself can constitute injury will, we hope, be taken up during the workshop. But even if injury is limited to a particular type of breach — say, one in which sensitive, personal information is exposed to a wide swath of people — unless the Commission’s definition of what it means for conduct to be “likely to cause” harm is fixed, it will virtually always be the case that storage of personal information could conceivably lead to the kind of breach that constitutes injury. In other words, better defining the scope of injury does little to cabin the scope of the agency’s discretion when conduct creating any risk of that injury is actionable.

Our comments elaborate on these issues, as well as providing our thoughts on how the subjective nature of informational injuries can fit into Section 5, with a particular focus on the problem of assessing informational injury given evolving social context, and the need for appropriately assessing benefits in any cost-benefit analysis of conduct leading to informational injury.

ICLE’s full comments are available here.

The comments draw upon our article, When ‘Reasonable’ Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-Less Data Security Standard, forthcoming in the Journal of Law, Economics and Policy.