Quotulatiousness

November 26, 2014

Michael Geist – Uber’s privacy problem

Filed under: Business, Cancon — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:36

Michael Geist looks at one of the less obvious issues in the Uber dispute with Canadian regulators:

The mounting battle between Uber, the popular app-based car service, and the incumbent taxi industry has featured court dates in Toronto, undercover sting operations in Ottawa, and a marketing campaign designed to stoke fear among potential Uber customers. As Uber enters a growing number of Canadian cities, the ensuing regulatory fight is typically pitched as a contest between a popular, disruptive online service and a staid taxi industry intent on keeping new competitors out of the market.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that if the issue was only a question of choosing between a longstanding regulated industry and a disruptive technology, the outcome would not be in doubt. The popularity of a convenient, well-priced alternative, when contrasted with frustration over a regulated market that artificially limits competition to maintain pricing, is unsurprisingly going to generate enormous public support and will not be regulated out of existence.

While the Uber regulatory battles have focused on whether it constitutes a taxi service subject to local rules, last week a new concern attracted attention: privacy. Regardless of whether it is a taxi service or a technological intermediary, it is clear that Uber collects an enormous amount of sensitive, geo-locational information about its users. In addition to payment data, the company accumulates a record of where its customers travel, how long they stay at their destinations, and even where they are located in real-time when using the Uber service.

Reports indicate that the company has coined the term “God View” for its ability to track user movements. The God View enables it to simultaneously view all Uber cars and all customers waiting for a ride in an entire city. When those mesh – the Uber customer enters an Uber car – they company can track movements along city streets. Uber says that use of the information is strictly limited, yet it would appear that company executives have accessed the data to develop portfolios on some of its users.

November 19, 2014

Net Neutrality is a good thing, right?

Net Neutrality is back in the news thanks to President Obama making a PR push to the regulators who may (or may not) be crafting regulations to bring the internet under government supervision:

Because this issue is still in the FCC’s hands, no one can know for sure what rules the agency will adopt. One important question, though, is: will neutrality apply to wireless services or only to cable-based ISPs, such as Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T? In addition, will failure to preserve the status quo slow down the speed at which Internet connections and broadband capacity expand (because ISPs won’t be able to shift more of the expansion costs onto the “hogs”)? And what exactly is wrong with ISPs wanting to charge content providers higher prices for more bandwidth and faster, more reliable downloads?

More certain, however, is that regulations requiring “net neutrality” will end up benefiting the large, established ISPs. Incumbent firms have gained from “common carrier” regulation throughout U.S. history. As a matter of fact, the FCC predictably will be captured (if it has not already been) by the very companies President Obama wants to regulate “in the public interest.”

The president’s call to action sounds eerily similar to demands for federal railroad regulation that ultimately led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Until it was put out of business in the early 1980s by President Jimmy Carter, the ICC allowed the railroads and, later, motor carriers and pipelines to charge prices exceeding competitive levels, thereby trying its best to protect the carriers’ profits at consumers’ expense.

William Shugart follows up on his original post:

The source of today’s online bottleneck can be traced back to local and regional government authorities, who quickly recognized the benefits (to them personally) of creating and granting exclusive franchises to one ISP that would, for the term of the contract, be a monopolist. (Government officials can extract more rents if they negotiate with only a handful of contestants.) Given that only one ISP would “win” the right to provide online content to local customers, the local monopolists also recognized a benefit of exclusive franchises: They would have the freedom to discriminate against some content suppliers by adding extra fees for privileged access.

So, a simple solution to the absence of net neutrality is readily available: Foster competition between ISPs.

Some people might raise the objection that, in this realm, robust competition for consumer dollars is unlikely because the suppliers of connections to the Internet are “natural monopolists”. In fact, ISPs are not “natural monopolists” as some commentators would have us believe. They are local government-granted monopolies. (Even Frederic Scherer, the author of the influential textbook Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance, wrote that such claims of “natural monopoly” are “trumped up.”) Competition between ISPs nowadays is a contest for the favors of mayors and city councils who ultimately will determine who will win the exclusive franchise; it is not competition for the business of paying customers.

November 17, 2014

QotD: The Amazon-Hachette dispute

Filed under: Business, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The first thing to remember about the Amazon/Hachette Book Group dispute is that this sort of thing happens all the time in business. When two big companies negotiate, it’s like Mothra and Godzilla: Each party can throw around a lot of weight, which means some collateral damage. It’s not exactly unheard of for a company that doesn’t like a supplier’s price to stop carrying the product, or to deny the supplier valuable end-cap space, or otherwise deprioritize the sales of the contested items.

The second thing to remember about the Amazon/Hachette dispute is that writers are categorically unable to see what they do as in any way akin to, say, selling potato chips. Writing is special and sacred! The sight of our product being treated like Chef Boyardee spaghetti is more than our tender souls can bear. And unlike grocery suppliers, writers have access to column space in which to pour out our anguish. That’s why so much ink has been spilled over this contretemps.

The third thing to remember is that publisher interests are not the same as author interests. Neither are Amazon’s. Amazon would like to sell books as cheaply as possible because this enhances the market value of their economies of scale. Publishers would like to keep prices high not just to enhance their profits, but also to keep multiple channels open for their books; it is not in their interest for Amazon to succeed in killing off the competition.

Megan McArdle, “Does Amazon’s Monopoly Really Matter?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-24.

November 9, 2014

Rent-seekers and crony capitalists love big government

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:38

One of the reasons I’m a small-government fan is that the less the government tries to do, the less opportunity for rent-seekers and crony capitalists to batten on the inevitable opportunities that big government provides when it controls and regulates far beyond its competence:

A nice little point being made over in the New York Times, that for all of the public rhetoric about free markets and competition it’s not actually true that the Republicans are entirely pro-free market and pro-competition at all levels of governance. There’s an explanation for this too, an explanation that comes from the late economist Mancur Olsen. That explanation being about the level of the system that decides what will happen on a particular matter and thus where the special interests will try to capture governance.

    Republicans have hailed Uber, the smartphone-based car service, as a symbol of entrepreneurial innovation that could be strangled by misplaced government regulation. In August, the Republican National Committee urged supporters to sign a petition in support of the company, warning that “government officials are trying to block Uber from providing services simply because it’s cutting into the taxi unions’ profits.”

Josh Barro then goes on to point out that while the national Republican party might be saying such fine words when we get down to the people who actually regulate taxi rides then local Republicans can be just as pro-taxis and anti-Uber as any group of Democrats.

[…] More likely, to me at least, is that Mancur Olsen had it exactly right. His point being that over time democracy will end up being a competition between special interests for control of that democratic apparatus. The basic background insight is spread costs and concentrated benefits. One analogy is the pig and the chicken deciding what to have for breakfast. If they decide upon bacon and eggs then the chicken is interested but the pig is rather committed there. So it is with the regulation of producers and the competition that they might faced. US consumers of sugar might be paying $50 a year each to protect US sugar producers (that number’s not right but it’s not far off, it’s not $5 each nor $500) but rationally, when there’s so much else for us to think about, it’s sensible enough for us to not get very excited nor angry about this. But the sugar producers are making millions a year out of that same system of restrictions and subsidies. They’re very interested indeed in making sure that it continues.

We who take taxis or Uber are quite interested in Uber (and Lyft and all the others) being able to continue in business. But it’s not the end of our lifestyle if the regulatory apparatus is able to stifle them. But for the people who, for example, own taxi medallions in NYC then the replacement of the traditional taxi market by Uber will mean the potential loss of up to $1 million for each medallion. They’re very much more interested in crimping Uber’s style than we consumers are in expanding it.

Olsen went on to point out that the special interests are obviously more interested than we are in the details of regulation. And they’ll concentrate their efforts at whatever level of the regulatory and democratic system it is that affects their direct interests. Contributing to election campaigns, making their views known and so on, wheeling and dealing to promote their interests.

October 19, 2014

Brace yourselves for Beer Store price hikes

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:38

In the Toronto Star, Rob Ferguson details the provincial government’s new-hatched plans to pry more money out of consumers (by way of the Beer Store monopoly):

Premier Kathleen Wynne says she won’t shrink from a battle with The Beer Store as her government thirsts for a bigger cut of sales despite brewers’ warnings it would mean higher prices for suds lovers.

The comments came Saturday as Wynne commented in detail for the first time on recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel on squeezing more money from publicly owned agencies and the distribution system for beer, wine and spirits.

“They’ve laid out some challenging ideas for us and I’m absolutely willing take those on,” Wynne said of the panel headed by TD Bank chair Ed Clark.

“Will it be easy, will it be a path that is without any challenges? No it won’t be but that’s not a problem from my perspective. That’s exactly why it needs to be taken on,” she added after a 22-minute speech to party members in this border city for a strategy session and victory party after winning a majority in the June 12 election.

Clark’s recommendations Friday were a timely distraction for Wynne with the legislature starting its fall session Monday and her Liberals under fire for a bailout of the mostly vacant MaRS office tower across from Queen’s Park, with taxpayers on the hook for hefty interest payments.

The government already taxes beer at 44%. I guess they think that’s too little.

October 9, 2014

The lightbulb cartel of 1924 and the birth of “planned obsolescence”

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Markus Krajewski writes about the formation of a multinational industrial cartel shortly after the First World War that helped create the very concept of “planned obsolescence” for (no) fun and (their) profit:

On 23 December 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. As revelers hung Christmas lights elsewhere in the city, the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.

[…]

How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.

The details of this effort have been very slow to emerge. Some facts came to light in the 1940s, when the U.S. government investigated GE and a number of its business partners for anticompetitive practices. Others were uncovered more recently, when I and the German journalist Helmut Höge delved into the corporate archives of Osram in Berlin. Jointly founded in 1920 by three German companies, Osram remains one of the world’s leading makers of all kinds of lighting, including state-of-the-art LEDs. In the archives, we found meticulous correspondence between the cartel’s factories and laboratories, which were researching how to modify the filament and other measures to shorten the life span of their bulbs.

The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine.

Companies were also fined for exceeding their sales quotas, which were constantly being adjusted. In 1927, for example, Tokyo Electric noted in a memo to the cartel that after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs, sales had jumped fivefold. “But if the increase in our business resulting from such endeavors directly mean[s] a heavy penalty, it must be a thing out of reason and shall quite discourage us,” the memo stated.

The great Adam Smith, of course, saw this coming in 1776: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Some things never change.

August 23, 2014

Pennsylvania police to destroy rare wine collection

Filed under: Law, USA, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Michelle Minton tells the sad tale of a rare wine fan who got too greedy (as the state tells it) or a state that got too greedy (as Pennsylvania wine fans tell it):

In the fifth century BCE, famous Greek tragedian Euripides supposedly said, “where this no wine there is no love.” This certainly holds true in present day Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s strictest alcohol regulatory regimes. And according to Tom Wark, executive director for the American Wine Consumer Coalition, Pennsylvania is “the worst state to live in if you’re a wine lover.” In Philadelphia, one man surely isn’t feeling the brotherly love after police raided his home and seized 2,426 bottles of rare wine—with an estimated value of more than $125,000—that the police reportedly plan to “destroy.”

Arthur Goldman, a 50-year-old lawyer, alleged ran afoul of Pennsylvania’s archaic wine laws by purchasing and selling through unapproved channels. In Pennsylvania, one of ten states that doesn’t allow direct shipping of wine to consumers, the only place one can purchase wine is through state-owned liquor stores. For wine connoisseurs looking for a bottle unavailable for purchase in state stores, the only other option is to order their wine through one of the sanctioned “direct wine shippers” and have it sent to a state store. Of course, this adds a certain cost to the purchase (shipping charge, plus $4.50 handling, the state’s 18 percent Johnstown Flood tax, 6 percent sales tax, and an addition 2 percent Philadelphia tax). With an average shipping rate of $7 per bottle or $22 per case, this means that a typical $50 bottle of wine would end up costing $74. A case of that wine, which would have cost $600 could cost around $832 after jumping through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s hoops. Of course, Goldman was likely purchasing much rarer and more expensive wines—the tax and shipping costs, assuming the approved direct shipping companies had the wines he wanted—could have been astronomical.

Cops paint a picture of a sophisticated racket meant to make Goldman a lot of money, but his lawyer asserts it was more like a group of 15-20 wine connoisseurs for whom Goldman would procure bottles unavailable in the state, only charging them for his costs.

August 20, 2014

New report calls for Ontario to break up the LCBO

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics, Wine — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:33

In the Toronto Star, Richard Brennan reports on a new study by the C.D. Howe Institute calling for the province to join the modern era:

The “quasi-monopoly” LCBO and The Beer Store have hosed Ontario consumers long enough, a C.D. Howe Institute report says.

The right-wing think tank said the Ontario government should strip them both of their almost exclusive right to sell beer, wine and spirits, suggesting the report proves that opening up to alcohol sales to competition will mean lower prices.

“The lack of competition in Ontario’s system for alcoholic beverage retailing causes higher prices for consumers and foregone government revenue,” states the 30-page report, Uncorking a Strange Brew: The Need for More Competition in Ontario’s Alcoholic Beverage Retailing System, to be released publicly Wednesday.

The report includes tables comparing Ontario beer prices to other provinces with greater private sector involvement, particularly with Quebec, where a case of 24 domestic beers can be as much as $10 cheaper and even more for imported brands.

Since 1927, when the Liquor Control Act was passed, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the privately owned Brewers Warehousing Company Limited have had a stranglehold on alcohol sale in the province.

“The Beer Store’s quasi-monopoly of beer retailing is … an anachronism,” the report says, referring to the foreign-owned private retailer that is protected by provincial legislation.

Britain’s railway system under private and public ownership

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:13

At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Ben Southwood asks the question “What would we consider a successful railway system?”

Under many measures, the railways have performed remarkably since privatisation. It is not surprising that the British public would nevertheless like to renationalise them, given how ignorant we know they are, but it’s at least slightly surprising that large sections of the intelligentsia seem to agree.

Last year I wrote a very short piece on the issue, pointing out the basic facts: the UK has had two eras of private railways, both extremely successful, and a long period of extremely unsuccessful state control. Franchising probably isn’t the ideal way of running the rail system privately, but it seems like even a relatively bad private system outperforms the state.

British railway passengers 1830-2010

Short history: approximately free market in rail until 1913, built mainly with private capital. Government control/direction during the war. Government decides the railways aren’t making enough profit in 1923 and reorganises them into bigger regional monopolies. These aren’t very successful (in a very difficult macro environment) so it nationalises them — along with everything else — in the late 1940s.

By the 1960s the government runs railways into the ground to the point it essentially needs to destroy or mothball half the network. Government re-privatises the railways in 1995 — at this point passenger journeys have reached half the level they were at in 1913. Within 15 years they’ve made back the ground lost in the previous eighty.

July 14, 2014

When unions took over the public sector

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:09

Dmitri Melhorn says the union movement is missing an opportunity to be more relevant in the private sector, because public sector unions don’t help poorer workers (because public sector union members are middle class professionals, not working class):

Progressive hostility to [Harris v. Quinn], however, is shortsighted. Harris and decisions like it have the potential to revitalize progressive politics by restoring the relevance and political potency that labor held in the early-to-mid-20th century. The great labor leaders of that era — AFL-CIO President George Meany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the like — agreed with the majority in Harris: it was both impractical and inadvisable to afford public employees compulsory collective bargaining rights.

Roosevelt said that collective bargaining and public workers’ right to strike would be “unthinkable and intolerable.” Meany said it would be “impossible.” In the view of these leaders, civil service laws from the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1920s had made government jobs good and safe. Labor and progressives, therefore, needed to focus on blue-collar workers’ need to fight collectively for basic safety, dignity and living wages. Through this focus, the United States saw historic gains in the well-being of workers and the country’s middle class.

That labor heyday lasted through the 1950s, but starting in the late 1960s labor lost ground. Public-sector unions grew rapidly, but private-sector unions shrank. By 2012, public-sector workers had union membership rates more than five times higher than rates among private-sector workers.

Essentially, the public-sector unions sucked up all the oxygen. Talented labor organizers opted to work with government workers: their members were relatively prosperous and well connected, so they were easy and lucrative to organize. As explained in Jake Rosenfeld’s book What Unions No Longer Do from earlier this year, this shift to public-sector unions meant that unions no longer fought primarily for the working poor. Instead, much of their muscle was devoted to improving the status of middle-class professionals.

June 25, 2014

Mexico’s champion crony capitalist

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:31

I don’t read the various financial magazines’ regular fanboi coverage of multi-billionaires, so I wasn’t all that aware of the fabulous wealth of Mexico’s Carlos Slim. Slim is one of the richest men in the world, but he doesn’t owe his success to technical innovation or outstanding business skills … he owns the Mexican telephone market thanks to a sweetheart “privatization” deal he got from his good friend in the Presidential palace back in 1990. In other words, his fortune largely derives from his ability to skim off vast profits from a captive customer base. Steve Sailer rounds up some interesting snippets about Slim, including a bit from French economist and current media darling Thomas Piketty:

Andres Oppenheimer wrote for PBS:

    Mexico in the early nineties was similar to American capitalism in the late 1870s. Azcarraga, Slim, and Hernandez were not much different from railroad and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie or oil trader John D. Rockefeller. Like the American “Robber Barons” of their time, the Mexico Twelve were making a fortune from their close partnership with the government. And to their immense relief, Mexico was not contemplating anything like the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had broken up U.S. monopolies through forced sell-offs.

In return, Salinas demanded at a private dinner party on February 23, 1993 that Slim and Mexico’s other 29 oligarchs donate $25 million each to the ruling party’s campaign war chest, a total of $750 million. Oppenheimer notes:

    Telecommunications magnate Slim … supported the motion, adding only that he wished the funds had been collected privately, rather than at a dinner, because publicity over the banquet could “turn into a political scandal.”

Now, you might think that there is something unseemly about a regular contender for the title of World’s Richest Man making his fortune off the relatively small Mexican economy. We’re constantly told that Mexicans have to be allowed to flock to America to escape starvation in their own land. Yet one well-connected monopolist is permitted to pile up an enormous trove by charging exorbitant fees for the lifeblood of any economy, communications.

A 2006 article in the New York Times pointed out:

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of wealthy countries based in Paris, reports that Mexicans pay some of the highest phone rates in the world, with calls costing 50 percent more than the group’s average. Forbes reported that the average monthly phone bill for a small business in Mexico is $132, compared with $60 in the United States.

Slim epitomizes the toll taken on the Mexican economy by monopolists:

    As a result, said Mr. Ortiz of the Bank of Mexico, economic growth is one percentage point less than it could be with real competition. There are not enough jobs to keep workers from migrating to the United States …

Piketty, however, is offended by how Slim

    … is often described in the Western press as one who owes his great wealth to monopoly rents obtained through (implicitly corrupt) government favors…

(Slim, himself, has been proactive about improving his press coverage: in 2008 he financially bailed out the New York Times and is now the newspaper of record’s second-biggest owner. Not surprisingly, Slim, who profits lavishly off long distance calls between illegal immigrants in America and their loved ones in Mexico, doesn’t get mentioned much in the Times’ vociferous denunciations of immigration skeptics.)

Piketty, in his inimitable prose style, explains that criticizing Slim is a mistake, if not downright racist:

    Rather than indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth, which in practice often amounts to an exercise in Western ethnocentrism, I think it is more useful to try to understand the general laws that govern the dynamics of wealth—leaving individuals aside and thinking instead about modes of regulation, and in particular taxation, that apply equally to everyone, regardless of nationality.

In other words, rather than the citizens of Mexico using the rule of law to break up Slim’s monopoly, as Americans did with Rockefeller’s, the important thing is for readers of Capital to take global control.

What could possibly go wrong in Piketty’s planetary empire?

June 2, 2014

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Random Penguin and other publishing Monopoly players

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:32

A quite contrarian take on the upheavals in the publishing world by Hugh Howey:

A similar game is being played in the book industry today, as it has been played in many other industries. Here at BEA, I’m hearing a lot about monopolies. (And monopsonies, for those who prefer to quibble semantically rather than understand what is meant and forge ahead in productive conversation.) Practically everyone here at the book expo believes that Amazon has gotten too big, that they wield a disproportionate amount of power, and that they must be reigned in or defeated.

I am told, without exaggeration and in all seriousness, that Amazon wants to “crush their competition.” I hear that they want to “put everyone else out of business.” Two things are true, both of which make these statements ridiculous: The first is that Amazon most certainly doesn’t want all of their competitors to go out of business, because then they’d be the only game in town and the government would have no choice but to break them up. The second is that of course they are acting as if they want to put their competitors out of business. That’s how you improve your business practices. You try to out-do your competition.

Unless … you don’t understand at all what it means to compete. Which I think explains the righteous indignation. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

[…]

Ironically, the biggest losers in this shift have been yesterday’s villains. The massive brick and mortar discounters — who once were blamed for literature’s downfall, who sold “loss leaders,” who roughed up publishers in negotiations — have become the bulwark behind which all legacy hopes now hunker. Little explored is the possibility that Amazon is helping independent bookstores by clearing out these former predators.

When it comes to discounting and selection, B&N can’t compete with Amazon. When it comes to book browsing, Amazon can’t compete with curated independent bookstores. If you line the three sales models up from small indie stores to big discounters to Amazon, you’ll see that neighbors compete with and harm one another. Concurrent with the shuttering of Borders and the shrinking of B&N, we are also seeing a rise of indie shops. Coincidence? Or are we heading toward a future where Amazon and indie bookstores coexist because they provide two very different shopping experiences and fulfill quite separate needs?

Best estimates give Amazon roughly half of the book market. With the shutter of Borders, B&N now has a more disproportionate control of brick and mortar shelfspace than Amazon does of online book sales. This is especially powerful as the rest of the smaller bookstores have less leverage for bargaining with publishers. Who is the monopoly?

June 1, 2014

In the Progressive Era, “big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy”

Timothy Carney says we should know much more about socialist historian Gabriel Kolko and his careful debunking of the “Teddy Roosevelt as trust-buster” myth:

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko, who died this month at age 81.

Kolko was a self-described socialist and a Harvard-educated historian, but he had little use for the liberal political establishment’s pious regard for the Progressive Era of 1900 to 1916. And he was never credulous enough to believe that government intervention in the economy was generally in the public interest.

For today’s politics, Kolko’s most important book was The Triumph of Conservatism, published in 1967. His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

The standard history of the Progressive Period — which painted Teddy and the Feds as the scourge of Big Business — relied too much on the public rhetoric of TR and his cohorts. Kolko dug deeper to show how Big Business truly felt about Big Government, and how the Progressives truly felt about Big Business.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society — the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy.

[…]

Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation. “[S]mall businesses often operate much closer to the margin and are acutely sensitive to policies that threaten to drive up costs.” Also, “CEOs can hire experts to help them cope with added regulatory burdens and can spread the costs over a large workforce.”

Kolko’s research smashed the favorite tales of the Progressive myth. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which included descriptions of rancid meat-packing plants, Roosevelt saw Sinclair as personally despicable, but a useful asset in his quest to impose federal meat inspection. Sinclair opposed Roosevelt’s regulation, and Kolko relates that “the big packers were warm friends of regulation, especially when it primarily affected their innumerable small competitors.”

By “conservatism,” Kolko meant “stability,” and preservation of the status quo. This is often the aim of corporate giants. It is consistently the consequence of federal action. And it is reliably the enemy of entrepreneurship, economic growth and free choice.

May 27, 2014

QotD: What capitalism should do now

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:13

Just as democracy can be corrupted by repressive populism, so can capitalism be perverted by “rent-seeking” — when people seek to gain more than the goods and services they produce are worth to others.

Sometimes they use political influence to sustain monopolies or to prevent new entrants and innovators from competing for custom. Sometimes they use governments to provide subsidies from taxpayers, or to prohibit cheaper imports.

Sometimes they do deals with governments that provide taxpayer funds to cushion losses derived from incompetence or recklessness. These forms of crony capitalism detract from capitalism’s real benefits and achievements.

What capitalism should now do is to free itself from these rent-seeking perversions and spread its benefits as widely as possible.

It should act against anti-competitive practices to give people instead the power of free choices between competing goods and services. It should spread ownership of capital and investment as widely as possible through such things as personal pensions and individual savings accounts.

It should lower the barriers to entry so that everyone can aspire to start up a business to bring goods and services to others. It should seek a tax system that rewards success rather than punishing it.

Capitalism should become inclusive, making it as easy and as attractive as possible for as many as possible to set aside some part of present consumption in order to invest some of their resources and their time in providing goods and services that others will want. It should become true capitalism.

Dr. Madsen Pirie, contributing to “Viewpoints: What should capitalism do?”, BBC News, 2014-05-26.

May 16, 2014

The built-in confusion about net neutrality

Filed under: Business, Government, History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:33

While I’ve been following the net neutrality debate, I was still unconvinced that either side had the answers. In a post from 2008, ESR helps to explain why I was confused:

Let it be clear from the outset that the telcos are putting their case for being allowed to do these things with breathtaking hypocrisy. They honk about how awful it is that regulation keeps them from setting their own terms, blithely ignoring the fact that their last-mile monopoly is entirely a creature of regulation. In effect, Theodore Vail and the old Bell System bribed the Feds to steal the last mile out from under the public’s nose between 1878 and 1920; the wireline telcos have been squatting on that unnatural monopoly ever since as if they actually had some legitimate property right to it.

But the telcos’ crimes aren’t merely historical. They have repeatedly bargained for the right to exclude competitors from their networks on the grounds that if the regulators would let them do that, they’d be able to generate enough capital to deploy broadband everywhere. That promise has been repeatedly, egregiously broken. Instead, they’ve creamed off that monopoly rent as profit or used it to cross-subsidize competition in businesses with higher rates of return. (Oh, and of course, to bribe legislators and buy regulators.)

Mistake #1 for libertarians to avoid is falling for the telcos’ “we’re pro-free market” bullshit. They’re anything but; what they really want is a politically sheltered monopoly in which they have captured the regulators and created business conditions that fetter everyone but them.

OK, so if the telcos are such villainous scum, the pro-network-neutrality activists must be the heroes of this story, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Your typical network-neutrality activist is a good-government left-liberal who is instinctively hostile to market-based approaches. These people think, rather, that if they can somehow come up with the right regulatory formula, they can jawbone the government into making the telcos play nice. They’re ideologically incapable of questioning the assumption that bandwidth is a scarce “public good” that has to be regulated. They don’t get it that complicated regulations favor the incumbent who can afford to darken the sky with lawyers, and they really don’t get it about outright regulatory capture, a game at which the telcos are past masters.

[…]

In short, the “network neutrality” crowd is mainly composed of well-meaning fools blinded by their own statism, and consequently serving mainly as useful idiots for the telcos’ program of ever-more labyrinthine and manipulable regulation. If I were a telco executive, I’d be on my knees every night thanking my god(s) for this “opposition”. Mistake #2 for any libertarian to avoid is backing these clowns.

In the comments, he summarizes “the history of the Bell System’s theft of the last mile”.

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