Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Video Primer on Public Choice

by Levi Russell

The video below is a great introduction to Public Choice economics. It's about an hour long and is delivered by Ivan Pongracic, a professor at Hillsdale College who studied under Jim Buchanan.
Here are some of the topics covered:

The Public Interest View
Precursors to Public Choice
Voting and Group Rationality
Rent Seeking
Constitutional Political Economy

At certain points, Pongracic gets a bit too ideological for my taste, but the video is still good if you ignore those bits.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Sam Peltzman on Antitrust and Humility

by Levi Russell

Over at the ProMarket blog, there's a great interview of Sam Peltzman on industry concentration. The whole thing is worth reading, but I thought I'd reproduce what I think are probably the most controversial of Peltzman's responses.

Q: Which industries should we be concerned with when we look at questions of concentration?

The traditional answer, embedded in the merger guidelines, is “be concerned if concentration increases in an already concentrated industry.” The evidentiary basis for this is thin. A much older literature struggled vainly for years to find a broad pattern whereby adverse effects of concentration could be localized to highly concentrated industries. I am unaware that the state of knowledge on where we should be concerned—or indeed if we should be concerned—has improved much. Basically, antitrust policy relies more heavily on beliefs rather than a strong consensus about facts.

Q: The five largest internet and tech companies—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—have outstanding market share in their markets. Are current antitrust policies and theories able to deal with the potential problems that arise from the dominant positions of these companies and the vast data they collect on users?

See my answer to [the question above]. It is hubris to believe that economists and antitrust officials can predict the future, which is what you need to do in this sector. Who remembers that free web browsers were once thought to be a dangerous threat to competition?

Q: President Trump has signaled before and after the election that he may block mergers and go after certain dominant companies. What kind of antitrust policies should we expect from him? Pro-business, pro-competition, or political antitrust?

See [the questions above]. I prefer humility to hubris.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Blue Apron Blues

by Levi Russell

Blue Apron released a very nice-looking ad back in January that I'm certain appeals to their audience. Unfortunately, it perpetuates some wrongheaded ideas about food systems. Yes, I know this is an ad and that it's sort of silly to criticize an ad, but I think there's some value in explaining what is wrong with the sort of thinking put forth in ads like this. Now that I've "poisoned the well," here's the ad:



After mischaracterizing the US food system as a grayed-out assembly line factory, the narrator describes an ideal food system in which "chefs and farmers would plan crops and recipes together to make farm land healthier and grow ingredients that taste better." He then complains about the current system's supermarkets, food transit, and waste. Instead, in the ideal food system, food would be delivered fresh, straight to your door!

All of this sounds great, but what does it cost? Certainly Blue Apron isn't suggesting that literally the entire food system of the US could be replaced by their model. How much does Blue Apron cost? About the same as a meal at a fast-casual restaurant.

Yes, there are problems with food waste, lack of freshness, etc in the current food system. However, specialized production and large supermarkets feed the poorest among us quite well. At its current prices, there's simply no way Blue Apron could do that.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Discussion of Cost-Benefit Analysis

by Levi Russell

One of my favorite economics blogs is Cafe Hayek. Don Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University, does a great job of using the economic thought of Alchian, Buchanan, Coase, Demsetz, and others to criticize popular fallacies and the perspectives of other professional economists.

Recently Boudreaux posted a couple of discussions on cost-benefit analysis. Below I reproduce key segments of these posts.

Boudreaux is clearly a fan of cost-benefit analysis, but he has a unique take on precisely who is best positioned to conduct such an analysis:
In this light, the benefit of moving consistently in the libertarian direction is that, to the extent that this movement is successful, one result is that both the number and the reliability of cost-benefit analyses increases. In the absence of the FDA and its prohibitions, each individual – with or without the consultation of his or her physician (as he or she chooses) – would make a series of personal cost-benefit analysis, throughout time, regarding various medical options.

This decentralized process of cost-benefit analyses would be on-going. Every hour of every day, each of many individuals would be doing his or her own cost-benefit analysis. And because each of these cost-benefit analysts would, unlike those who conduct cost-benefit analysis on government programs, (1) have more of his or her own money on the line, and, more significantly, (2) have his or her own health at stake, the results of these countless cost-benefit analyses would be much more reliable than are the results of unavoidably only occasional and information-thin cost-benefit analyses conducted on the overall effects of FDA policies and other government actions.

So, yes, by all means let’s have more – and more trustworthy – cost-benefit analysis. One of best means of achieving this happy result in matters of Americans’ health care is to abolish the FDA. To support the retention of the FDA – to support the retention of this agency’s current ability to prevent Americans from using whichever medical products they individually choose – is to oppose maximum possible cost-benefit analyses.
He follows that post up with another example:
Let me put this last point somewhat differently: if the income gains, from a minimum wage, captured by some people are to be counted as ‘benefits’ to be weighed against the losses of other people – and if these gains can in principle be so high relative to the losses that the minimum wage passes a cost-benefit test that then is used to support the minimum wage – then there is flung open a Pandora’s box of utilitarian horrors.

For example, someone (call him CB) might propose that the state prohibit the employment of all blacks under the age of 20. CB would correctly point out that, while his policy would obviously have some losers, it would also produce winners – namely, the wages of non-black, mostly young workers will increase as a result. And he’d be correct. I can also imagine that, in reality, the measured increase in the aggregate pay of this policy’s winners would be larger than the measured decrease in the aggregate pay of its losers (especially if we confine “losers” only to the black teenagers who lose jobs). Yet who would counsel that we should, therefore, withhold judgment on CB’s proposed policy until a cost-benefit analysis is conducted? Who would think it to be “libertarian” or “one-sided” or “unscientific” to prejudge as unacceptable a policy of prohibiting the employment of blacks under the age of 20?
Here are a couple of related short posts:

This one, by Jon Murphy, one of Boudreaux's PhD students, tackles the issue of aggregation in cost-benefit analysis. Another by Roger Meiners at the Property and Environment Research Center examines the use of cost-benefit analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Big Ag Antitrust Blog Symposium

by Levi Russell

Recently I was part of a blog symposium put together by the International Center for Law and Economics at the Truth on the Market blog. The posts were quite diverse in terms of subject matter and perspective, so I think they're worth a read if you want to get a better understanding of what is going on with the Bayer/Monsanto, Dow/DuPont, and ChemChina/Syngenta mergers and acquisitions. There were some great contributions from the lawyers and economists on the panel and I was humbled to be invited to be a part of it. Below are links to the posts in order of the authors' last names.

Shubha Ghosh - Patents and mergers

Allen Gibby - Conglomerate effects and the incentive to deal reasonably with other providers of complementary products

Ioannis Lianos - Finding your way in the seeds/agro-chem mergers labyrinth

Geoffrey Manne - Innovation-driven market structure in the ag-biotech industry

Diana Moss - Mergers, innovation, and agricultural biotechnology: Putting the squeeze on growers and consumers?

Nicolas Petit - Antitrust review of ag-biotech mergers: Appropriability versus cannibalization

Levi Russell - Contestability theory in the real world
                        Effects of gene editing on ag-biotech antitrust

Joanna Shepherd - Understanding innovation markets in antitrust analysis

Michael Sykuta - Innovation trends in agriculture and their implications for M & A analysis

Friday, March 31, 2017

More Demsetz on Externalities

by Levi Russell

I recently ran across a lecture by Harold Demsetz presented at the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana back in 2011. Unfortunately, the video isn't online anymore, but I did find a written version. It's fairly short as lectures go, so I recommend you read it. If you don't have time to read 11 pages, check out the excerpts below.

Demsetz starts off by discussing the perfect competition model (which he calls the "perfect decentralization model"). This provides the backdrop for his discussion and critique of Pigou and Coase.
Consider Pigou’s method of argument first. He constructs examples of divergences between private and social cost. These examples differ circumstantially but in their nature s they are all the same. A favorite example involves the misallocation of traffic between two roads that connect the same terminal points. One road is subject to considerable congestion because it is narrow; the other road is wide and escapes much of this congestion but takes longer to transit because it lacks the directness of route of the narrow road. Pigou claims that the equilibrium number of autos using the narrow road will be inefficient. This is because drivers using this road do not take account of the costs of increased congestion they impose on others who use the road.  But what Pigou fails to do is show that the se example s are consistent with the presumptive conditions set down in the perfect decentralization model.  Frank H. Knight (1924), in a brilliant article on social cost, criticizes Pigou’s two -¬‐ road example. He notes that Pigou allow s free access to the two roads. Presumably, then, these roads are publicly provided and managed and, as such, cannot be a basis for criticism of private re source allocation. Knight argues that these roads, had they been private, would have been priced (in a competitive setting) so as to achieve an efficient allocation of traffic; price to use the narrow road would have been raised to levels higher than to use the broad road. Pigou’s examples do not uncover a logical flaw in the neoclassical model, since virtually all are based on an absence of private ownership. This is not to say that all resources in a real economy are privately owned but that Pigou’s work is properly interpreted in terms of the consequences of an absence of private ownership (or, more provocatively, as the presence of mismanaged public or collective ownership) than as inefficiency deduced within the context of the neoclassical model.
...
Coase noted a defect in Pigou’s argument that in its nature was much like that seen by Knight but which was not based on the absence of private ownership. Coase pointed to Pigou’s failure to recognize that the cost of using the price system disrupted the ability of a market-¬‐based price system to face users of resources with the full consequences of the uses they chose. Free use of the price system was implicitly assumed in the neoclassical model, since it treats prices as known to all who would use them. Coase’s complaint about neoclassical economics is empirical error, not logical error. The empirical error being that its model abstracts from an important aspect of the real world. As described above, Pigou gave no explanation for why a separation between private and social cost should exist in an economy that conforms to the conditions of perfect decentralization. Coase also offers no reason; instead, he openly modifies the perfect decentralization model to accommodate the fact that positive costs must be incurred to engage in exchange. The modified model allows him to rationalize the existence of a separation between private and social cost, or so he thinks. Just what this cost consists of remains somewhat vague, but I adopt Coase’s general notion.
 ...
Coase demonstrates the importance of transaction cost by way of two contrasting cases. The first shows that no difference between private and social cost can exist if the cost of transacting is zero, since, in this case, all who would bear costs from someone’s actions can bring these costs into that person’s calculations by making him or her offers to desist or modify the intended actions; similarly, this person can require revenues from those who would benefit from these actions. Nothing is left unaccounted for as long as legal rights of actions are in place. Coase’s argument is correct in this case. His presentation of the second case, involving positive transaction cost, claims that inefficiency may arise because some of the negotiations required to account for all costs and benefits cannot surmount the barrier put in place by transaction cost even if legal rights of action are in place. And here, Coase makes an error that still goes unappreciated by economists. 
 ...
Coase has treated the legal system and its courts as if they are parts of the economic system that was modeled by neoclassical economists, but, as already noted, their model assumes that all resources are privately owned and that ownership is fully respected; there is no place in it for the courtroom drama imagined by Coase. Moreover, real social systems in fact design courts so as to insulate them the influence of the marketplace. Offers and acceptances of payments to the court for desired decisions are illegal, and court survival is not made to depend on earned profit from decisions rendered. The neoclassical model of an economy and the conclusions drawn from it are confined to economic institutions, to firms, buyers, sellers and so on. The model draws no conclusions about resource allocation which results from actions taken by non-¬‐market institutions like courts and legislatures. In any case, Pigou did not base his examples of inefficiency on ownership ambiguity or court mistake.

While adopting the neoclassical perspective of market behavior, which sees ownership and markets as instruments by which resource values are maximized, Coase has relied on court decisions to assess the efficiency of the economic system. The implication he draws, that the economic system has made a mistake in allocating resources, is quite wrong. The court may have made its choice of owner for reasons different from maximization of market value or it simply may have made a mistake because it is not guided in its decisions by a market-¬‐based calculus. These reasons may seem good to some and bad to others, but they are irrelevant to the externality problem whose proper domicile is wholly within the economic system. Indeed, although there are good reasons for not creating a different legal system, if the court were to be transformed into a market institution and allowed to survive only by revenues secured from petitioners who buy its services and decisions, control of a resource would go to the person who can put it to its highest value use.

The economic system simply takes the court’s decision as an exogenously imposed constraint on its operations, much as it takes a decision by the State to tax or redistribute wealth. An efficient economic system is one that makes the most of scarce resources within the constraints handed down to it by courts and legislatures. Efficiency requires the market to block the transaction between the two claimants discussed above if the cost of their transacting exceeds the increase in value expected to be realized from a change in ownership of the resource.
 ...
There is no difference between transaction cost and other costs in this respect. The amount of soot from the production of steel may remain greater than is desired by the owner of a nearby laundry because the cost of transacting between laundry and mill owners is too great to make a transaction worth undertaking or because the launderer and steel mill owner believe that the cost of substituting hard coal for soft is greater than the cost borne by the launderer as a result of soot. In both cases, more soot descends on the laundry than if the cost of reducing soot were smaller. If we do not think resources are misallocated in the case in which hard coal is too costly to use, why should we think resources are misallocated in the case in which transaction cost is too costly to bear? Both situations are compatible with efficient resource allocation, and, after all, it is efficiency that is sought; neither negotiations nor hard coal are sought in and of themselves. Indeed, one can rewrite the neoclassical model with transaction cost included. This just shifts supply curves upward (or demand curves downward), but it carries no implications of inefficiency at equilibrium values of price and output.

I emphasize that none of what is written above denies the possibility of inefficiency in a competitive, private ownership economy. My message is that this possibility is not a result of positive transaction cost. Our reliance on a transaction cost rationale has caused us to exaggerate the scope of what externality problem might remain.
 ...

By now, the reader must suspect me of playing a word game. In part I am, but the game is not my doing. ‘Externality’ means nothing if it does not suggest something apart from a reckoning. Yet, a non-¬‐trivial component of what is written above makes a case that there is no ‘apartness’ from the market calculus. Something rationally not ‘worth’ taking into account is not equivalent to error or to inefficiency. That it is not taken into account is a reckoning if it follows from an anticipation that it is not worth taking into account. An explicit accounting for everything would be inefficient in a world in which knowledge is not free. 
 ...

Supply and demand as interpreted by the neoclassical model are expressions of true willingness to cooperate in a world that is highly dependent on specialization for its wealth. The neoclassical model faces buyers and sellers with given, non-­‐negotiable equilibrium market prices, determined on markets that cannot be influenced by individual bargaining. The model is not designed to treat strategic action, yet examples such as climate change and atmospheric quality represent problems that arise from the attempt to get others to settle for a smaller share of the surplus made available through cooperative behavior.


A close reading of Pigou and Coase does not reveal concern about strategic behavior. The distribution of traffic between Pigou’s two roads is inefficient because no price is charged for using them, not because drivers deceive each other. The failure to realize maximum value from available resources in Coase’s court room drama is a problem of legal error, not one of false testimony.


What advantage does the State bring to the resolution of strategic problems? It brings legitimate power to coerce; in these instances, the power to coerce people to pay for a public good. Just as we find that the State’s ability to coerce makes it a desirable agent in helping to maintain law and order, so we may find it a desirable agent in helping to finance production of goods and services that are important and are subject to serious strategic bargaining problems. It is possible in some instances to remedy the problem through a proper set of private rights –substitute a toll way for a free way. In other instances, the effective use of coercive power might require direct implementation by the State. People will value the alternatives of coercive State and voluntary-­‐dealings markets differently, depending on the confidence in which they hold the State and on the value they attach to personal freedom, but I see no reason to classify these important problems as externality-­‐caused inefficiencies. This now seems to me to be a classification without content.
 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Should We Fear Tech-Driven Price Discrimination?

by Levi Russell

Writing at Bloomberg View, mathematician and author Cathy O'Neil walks through several ways in which new retail technology could enhance businesses' ability to engage in price discrimination. I recommend reading her piece, as it makes some good arguments in favor of being concerned. However, I think there are reasons to believe price discrimination either 1) is sometimes beneficial or 2) can be easily avoided.

What is price discrimination? It's the practice of charging people different prices for the same good based on their ability or desire to pay. O'Neil mentions that rules are in place that outlaw this practice, except in the cases of coupons, memberships, or bulk orders. But there are other cases. Senior citizen or military discounts are common. These discounts are based on the general idea that significant segments of these populations have relatively low incomes. Yes, there are well-paid soldiers and many, many people over 65 are quite wealthy, but these discounts apply to enlisted soldiers and elderly retirees on fixed incomes.

Coupons, membership deals, bulk discounts, and discounts for military and seniors are generally thought of in a positive light. People who have lower incomes but more time to cut out coupons will pay lower prices. Those willing to give shopping information to retailers get discounts. Some of us pay higher prices so that soldiers and seniors, who might have lower incomes, can still enjoy goods and services at prices they can afford.

Moving to online shopping, O'Neil explains how retailers collect data on their (potential) customers and are able to prey upon the desperate or cavalier by charging higher prices. Here are some examples with potential solutions in italics:

Retailers collect shopping and other data based on your IP address or browser "cookies."
Clear your browser's cache regularly.
Use the Tor browser, which makes it very, very difficult for you to be identified by websites


Retailers collect data based on user's individual profiles.
Many online retailers allow you to purchase without creating an account.

Personal assistants like Google Home or Alexa might pick up on behavioral cues that allow them to charge high prices.
 Just don't buy one. 

A common theme on this blog is that, as Harold Demsetz pointed out decades ago, comparing the real world with all its faults to a perfect ideal "alternative" isn't necessarily a good guide for policy. So, if advances in retail technology allow retailers to adjust prices based on income or stress or other factors, should something be done to slow these advances? Does it make sense to forego the benefits of improved technology to avoid these potential costs? I don't know the answer to that, but I'm interested in reading your thoughts.