Britain’s Pornographer and Puritan Coalition

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Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.

Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.

Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.

Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.

On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.

Is planned obsolescence a good thing?

There is this recurring argument that goods don’t last as long today as they did fifty years ago. My father berated me a few months ago about my economics by saying that back in his time, goods lasted longer. I questioned his data (there are signs that goods last as long as they did twenty or thirty years ago). This new ATTN video on Repair Cafes would have caused my father to rejoice greatly. However, I am going to ask a question here and go a step further: is planned obsolescence the symptom of a good thing?

Here is my argument (feel free to throw rocks after).

Improving the lifespan of a good requires a greater level of inputs which increases the marginal costs of the good. Producing a higher-quality good basically shifts the supply curve leftwards. Basically, we pay a little more for something that lasts longer. However, if we are living in a world of rapid technological innovation, what is the point of expending more resources on a good with a twenty-year lifespan but which will be obsolete two years?

Take my previous iPhone – it lasted three years before it simply decided to not work. In the three years between my old phone and my new phone, there was a rapid change in quality: more memory, better camera, faster processing, better sound. Imagine that Apple had invested billions to increase the life of my iPhone from three to nine years. Would I have bought that phone? In all honesty, it would depend on the price increase but the answer would have been closer to “no” than to “yes”. So in a way, Apple reaches a marginal consumer like me by lowering the price and turns me into a technology adopter. However, let’s imagine this from Apple’s perspective. Its in a race for its life against competitors who keep inventing new widgets and features that change the manner in which we consume. So, its choice is the following:

A: Increase lifespan, higher marginal costs and a leftward shift of supply that causes slightly higher prices and less demand. These resources cannot be expended on R&D and innovation
B: Shorten lifespan, lower marginal costs, lower prices, more goods consumed; more resources on R&D and innovation.

If everyone is inventing rapidly, then B is the dominant strategy. If innovation is zero, A is the dominant strategy. Basically, in a Schumpeterian world like I am describing, the short lifespan of goods is a symptom of great innovations and better days to come.

What do you think?

 

Trump’s rejection of TPP: a political economy comment

Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems virtually certain. Without the United States and with a weak Canadian prime minister on the issue (who got elected without a clear position on it), the agreement will die a swift death. By dying that rapidly, it confirms a point I have been making for years: agreements like the TPP are managed trade that generate as much (if not more) opposition than genuine free trade agreements (those that could fit on a few pages, not 10,000).

Protectionism are basically income-redistributing schemes. Shifting from protectionism to free trade means altering these schemes. Thus, the political opposition and the agreements we have seen over the last decades where special dispensations are placed inside the agreements. In some instances, like the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988 (CUFTA), this leads to genuinely freer (not free) trade. In other cases, like CAFTA in the early 2000s, the agreement is nothing less than rent-seeking by different means.

In the case of TPP, it seems that popular discontent is large enough to kill this very complex (and flawed) agreement. I am not sure whether or not, in net terms, the TPP was an improvement over the current state of affairs. What I am sure is that the opposition was similar to what the opposition would have been with unilateral trade liberalization.

At this point, small countries with no influence on world demand (like Canada) should simply go “at it alone”. What I mean is that unilateral trade liberalization is the way to go. There is a strong case for unilateral trade liberalization (see notably the work of Edwards and Lederman) for small economies. A large part of the cost of protectionism is not the level of tariffs and quotas, but the distortions generated in relative prices that lead to inefficient allocations of resources.The low hanging fruits are to be found in the tree of leveling the field. Small countries could convert quotas into tariffs and set a uniform (across the board) low tariff (see Chile’s case).Although far from ideal free trade (no barriers), this would represent a considerable improvement over the distorted relative entry barriers.

In such a situation, the political costs would be the same as those with agreements like the TPP, but the benefits would be infinitely larger making it easier for governments to proceed. The narrative would also be easy to sell to electorates: no special treatment for anyone. In the long-term, this may even “spillover” into multilateral trade agreements by reducing frictions during negotiations.

The Incredible Bread Machine (R.W. Grant)

This is a legend of success and plunder
And a man, Tom Smith, who squelched world hunger.
Now, Smith, an inventor, had specialized
In toys. So, people were surprised
When they found that he instead
Of making toys, was BAKING BREAD!

The way to make bread he’d conceived
Cost less than people could believe.
And not just make it! This device
Could, in addition, wrap and slice!
The price per loaf, one loaf or many:
The miniscule sum of under a penny.

Can you imagine what this meant?
Can you comprehend the consequent?
The first time yet the world well fed!
And all because of Tom Smith’s bread.

A citation from the President
For Smith’s amazing bread.
This and other honors too
Were heaped upon his head.

But isn’t it a wondrous thing
How quickly fame is flown?
Smith, the hero of today
Tomorrow, scarcely known.

Yes, the fickle years passed by;
Smith was a millionaire,
But Smith himself was now forgot
Though bread was everywhere.

People, asked from where it came,
Would very seldom know.
They would simply eat and ask,
“Was not it always so?”

However, Smith cared not a bit,
For millions ate his bread,
And “Everything is fine,” thought he,
“I am rich and they are fed!”

Everything was fine, he thought?
He reckoned not with fate.
Note the sequence of events
Starting on the date
On which the business tax went up.
Then, to a slight extent,
The price on every loaf rose too:
Up to one full cent!

“What’s going on?” the public cried,
“He’s guilty of pure plunder.
He has no right to get so rich
On other people’s hunger!”

(A prize cartoon depicted Smith
With fat and drooping jowls
Snatching bread from hungry babes
Indifferent to their howls!)

Well, since the Public does come first,
It could not be denied
That in matters such as this,
The Public must decide.

So, antitrust now took a hand.
Of course, it was appalled
At what it found was going on.
The “bread trust,” it was called.

Now this was getting serious.
So Smith felt that he must
Have a friendly interview
With the men in antitrust.
So, hat in hand, he went to them.
They’d surely been misled;
No rule of law had he defied.
But then their lawyer said:

The rule of law, in complex times,
Has proved itself deficient.
We much prefer the rule of men!
It’s vastly more efficient.
Now, let me state the present rules.

The lawyer then went on,
These very simpIe guidelines
You can rely upon:
You’re gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it’s unfair competition
If you think you can charge less.

A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion:
Don’t try to charge the same amount:
That would be collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do, you see,
Then the market would be yours
And that’s monopoly!”

Price too high? Or price too low?
Now, which charge did they make?
Well, they weren’t loath to charging both
With Public Good at stake!

In fact, they went one better
They charged “monopoly!”
No muss, no fuss, oh woe is us,
Egad, they charged all three!

“Five years in jail,” the judge then said.
“You’re lucky it’s not worse.
Robber Barons must be taught
Society Comes First!”

Now, bread is baked by government.
And as might be expected,
Everything is well controlled;
The public well protected.

True, loaves cost a dollar each.
But our leaders do their best.
The selling price is half a cent.
(Taxes pay the rest!)

Why You Should Avoid “Capitalism”

“Capitalism” means the sector of an economy in which markets determine prices and quantities. In a “capitalist” system, both the market for goods and the market for inputs are based on voluntary action within the constraints of governmental interventions, namely taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and mandates.

The term “capitalism” was first used in 1854 by William Thackeray in his novel The Newcomes. The term “capitalist” was used previously to refer to an owner of capital goods. The term was popularized by the German sociologist Max Weber as well as by socialists who use the term to condemn private enterprise as a system that exploits labor. In response, advocates of free markets use the term to mean private enterprise and to praise the concept of a free-market economy.

Confusion sets in as adjectives apply the term to markets with governmental interventions or to governmental enterprise, as in “state capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” “welfare capitalism,” “monopoly capitalism,” and “taxpayer-financed capitalism.” Thus “capitalism” is used to refer to current mixed economics (mixtures of markets and governmental intervention) and also to the concept of the pure free market. With the bad connotations as used by socialists, some advocates of reforms then present their approach as an alternative to “capitalism”.

Critics of markets use the term “capitalism” for propaganda by slyly shifting the meaning with this argument: 1) economies today are capitalist; 2) economies today have unemployment, poverty, and pollution; 3) therefore, capitalism causes these problems. The first statement uses “capitalism” as a label for current mixed economies, while the third one implicitly shifts the meaning to private enterprise or free markets.

The term “capitalism” is inherently confusing, since economies have three inputs: land, labor, and capital goods, and there is no logical reason to emphasize capital, unless one is going beyond the definition by claiming that capital dominates labor.

The term “capital” is itself ambiguous, as it can refer to any asset, including funds, capital goods, and reputation. It would be clearer to use the term “marketism,” but that word has already been adopted to mean the advocacy of free markets. “Marketocracy” is used by a mutual fund and portfolio web site. The term “market-priceism” is not yet in use, and would be a clearer term than “capitalism.”

An alternative to market prices is communism, in which goods are shared in a community such as a family. Another alternative is state socialism, in which government plans and controls production and resources, as well as the distribution of goods. Most economies today are mixed, consisting of a market sector and governmental impositions that alter the outcomes.

Economic discourse would be clearer if we used more precise terms. Instead of using “capitalism” to mean economic freedom, use “free markets,” “pure markets,” “private enterprise,” and “laissez faire.” Instead of using “capitalism” or “crony capitalism” for the actual economy, use “mixed economy” or “interventionism.” Instead of using “capitalism” for the exploitation of labor, use “capital domination.” For an economic system in which inputs and products trade in markets, use “market-priceism.”

Max Weber used terms such as “the development of capitalism” and “the evolution of capitalism.” This implies more than market-priceism. Weber analyzed economic development with private enterprise and market prices. He wrote of how such development could be strangled by the political structure. It would be clearer to call this “market-based development.”

Like the classical economists, Weber recognized the distinction between capital goods and land. He referred to “landlordism” and “prebends,” income from rent. In his essay “Structures of Power,” Weber wrote of land being an object of forceful acquisition, with ground rent frequently being “the produce of violent political subjection.”

In his essay “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Weber wrote of some religions promoting a “rational way of life” which “paved the way for the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism” and the ethos of the individualism of the middle classes with their small businesses. With due respect and admiration for Max Weber, this concept is better referred to with terms such as the spirit of private property, of competitive private enterprise, and of free markets.

The term “capitalism” is now so deeply dug into the global culture that it is here to stay. But those who wish to clearly understand and analyze economics would be wise to avoid the term and instead use words such as “mixed economy,” “pure free markets,” and, if it pleases you, “market-priceism.”

A Quiz on Public Finance

How well do you understand public finance? Below is a quiz. Answer whether the statements are true or false, and briefly explain why. If you think that the statement is only sometimes true, or true under particular conditions, say “maybe” and explain. My answers follow the quiz, but first write down your own answers.

1. After a high tax on land value is in place, it will impose a burden on landowners and reduce the productivity and efficiency of the economy.
2. The most efficient way to pay for a city bus service is to make the bus riders pay for the full cost.
3. The best way to decide whether a club should have a party is by a yes-no vote, with the majority of those voting deciding the outcome.
4. No decentralized pricing system can optimally provide collective consumption.
5. Subsidies that reduce the price of goods below the cost of production typically have net benefits to society.
6. The best policy for government budgets is always to avoid deficits, hence to finance all spending from current revenues such as taxes and fees.
7. The best way to handle pollution is with restrictive regulations, as these are less costly than pollution taxes or permits.
8. The least worst tax for the USA would be a flat-rate income tax with no deductions or credits.
9. The least worst tax for the USA would be a national sales tax that replaces the income tax.
10. A pure free market generally fails to provide adequate public goods and to efficiently and equitably handle externalities such as congestion and pollution.

Answers

1. False. A tax on land value reduces the price of land and replaces what would have been paid in mortgage interest. A land-value tax pushes land to its most productive use, increasing productivity and efficiency.

2. False. The best way to pay for mass transit is to charge riders only when the service would otherwise be too crowded, and just enough to prevent congestion. The rest of the cost is best paid for from the increase in the land rent generated by the transit.

3. False. The best way to decide on a club party is the method called “demand revelation.” Each member records the most he would pay for the party. The amounts are added up. If the total is greater than the cost, have the party. To keep the members honest, if any member changed the outcome, relative to stating one’s cost, that person has to compensate the group an amount equal to the net loss of everyone else (their stated values minus their costs). This method is better because it measures how much the members want the party, not just whether they want it.

4. False. Collective consumption paid for by land rent can be decentralized, because the rent reflects the demand to be located there, and the land will not flee, hide, or shrink when its rent is tapped to pay for collective goods.

5. False. The social cost of taxes that pay for subsidies is greater than the gain to consumers.

6. False. Government borrowing can be a good policy if the funds are spent for investments that are more productive than if the funds were spent in private investments. Otherwise, the budget should not have a deficit.

7. False. A charge or tax on pollution, based on its damage, is more effective than regulations and permits, and the funds can replace taxes that harm the economy.

8. False. A land-value tax is better for the economy than a flat-rate income tax.

9. False. A land-value tax is better for the economy than a national sales tax.

10. Some textbooks say this is true, but the better answer is, False. Private communities such as homeowners’ associations and shopping centers can and do provide public goods from the site rentals. In a pure market, pollution is trespass that requires compensation. Private transit can have congestion charges. A pure free market would have contractual governance that could adequately provide public goods and prevent pollution and congestion.

Myths about Libertarianism

Many articles have recently appeared in magazines, web sites, and social media criticizing free markets and libertarian ideas. It seems to me that this opposition is a result of a growing interest in freedom as people realize that the economies of the world are in serious trouble. As people see continuing high unemployment, slow growth, ever greater government debt, environmental disaster, more turbulent weather, and endless wars, some folks seek solutions in greater freedom while others seek solutions in greater state control. The critics of libertarianism and economic freedom have fallen for several fallacies.

1. Critics confuse today’s mixed economies, a mixture of markets and government intervention, with a “free market.” A truly free market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary for all persons. Government intervention changes what people would otherwise voluntarily do. A pure market would not impose the taxation of labor and capital. It would not prohibit trade with Cuba. Free markets would not subsidize industry. Any peaceful and honest action would be free of restrictions and taxes. That is not the economy we have today in any country.

2. Critics use the term “capitalism” to falsely blame markets for economic trouble. Those opposed to private enterprise call today’s economies “capitalist.” They then note that the economy has trouble such as poverty, great inequality, unemployment, and recessions. The critics conclude that “capitalism” causes these problems. This illogic uses a sly change in meaning. They use the term “capitalism” as a label for the current economies and also to refer to free markets. It makes no sense to label the economy as XYZ and then say XYZ causes problems. The critics use the double meaning of “capitalism” to blame the non-existing free market for social problems. This confusion is often deliberate, as I have found that it is almost impossible to get the critics to replace their confusing use of the term “capitalism” with clearer terms such as either the “mixed economy” or the “pure market.”

3. Critics think that the “market” means “anything goes.” For example, they think that a free market allows unlimited pollution. They often call this, “unbridled capitalism.” But freedom stops at the limit of harm. In a pure market with property rights for all resources, pollution that crosses outside one’s own property is trespass and invasion. This violation of others’ property rights would require compensation, and that payment would limit pollution.

4. Critics confuse privatization with contracting out. They then blame private enterprise for problems such as occurs with private prisons. When government contracts with private firms to produce roads, it is still a governmental road. When governments hire private contractors to provide services in a war, it is still government’s war. Government sets the rules when firms do work under contract. Genuine privatization means transferring the whole ownership, financing, and operation to a private firm.

5. Critics overlook subsidies. Government distorts the economy with subsidies to agriculture, energy production, and other corporate welfare. The biggest subsidy is implicit: the greater land rent and land value generated by the public goods provided by government and financed mostly from taxes on labor and enterprise. Critics not only ignore this implicit subsidy but also overlook the explicit subsidies to agriculture and programs such as the promotion of ethanol from corn.

6. Critics do not understand the crowding out of private services because of government programs. The critics of libertarianism say that with less government, old folks and poor folks would starve and die because they would not receive social security and medical care. What they overlook is that the reason many of the elderly have little savings for retirement is that government took away half their income while they were working. Income taxes reduce their net wages, while sales taxes raise the cost of living. Low-income people pay little or no income tax, but they pay hefty sales and excise taxes, and they indirectly pay property taxes from their rental payments to landlords. Libertarians want to abolish poverty and have a society where all people have good medical care. They just want to accomplish this by letting workers keep their full pay, which would enable them to pay for their own medical services. Also, with no taxes on interest and dividend income, people would be better able to provide for their own retirement income, indeed to have much more than social security now provides.

7. Critics fail to understand contractual governance. A pure market would not consist of isolated individuals. Human beings have always lived in community associations. In a free market, communities such as condominiums, land trusts, and civic associations would provide the public goods that the members want.

8. The critics of market believe that corporations control the economy, exploit labor, and plunder the planet. Corporations do have power, but mainly because they obtain subsidies and monopoly privileges from governments. But labor unions and lawyers also lobby the government for power and favors. Rather than blaming private enterprise, the critics should examine how the structure of government enables special interest to obtain power and wealth.

Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1905 that nobody really argues with the economics and philosophy of Henry George and public revenue from land rent; the critics either misunderstand the concepts, or they create misinformation. The same applies to critics of libertarianism. The fact that the critics falsify the free market in criticizing it implies that the actual concept is sound, otherwise they would provide valid arguments.

Nobody has refuted the free market and the libertarian ethic of “live and let live”. The critics of liberty either misunderstand it or else falsify it. Even when their errors in logic, their false evidence, and their confused terminology are pointed out, the critics persist in their falsification. They are stubbornly anchored to their viewpoints. Why this is so is a problem I will leave to psychologists to figure out.