Posts tagged ‘monopoly’

Unvarnished Technocracy

The New York Times editorial board had one of the most jaw-dropping pieces I have read in a long time.  In it, they are absolutely unapologetic in saying that they think the government can spend your money better than you can -- and the larger the government take, the happier we all will be.

The munificence of American corporate titans warms the heart, sort of.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that the top 50 donors gave $7.3
billion to charity last year "” about $150 million per head....

Yet we'd be so much happier about all the good things America's
moneyed elite pay for if the government made needed public investments

The flip side of American private largess is the stinginess of
the public sector. Philanthropic contributions in the United States "”
about $300 billion in 2006 "” probably exceed those of any other
country. By contrast, America's tax take is nearly the lowest in the
industrial world.

Oh my God, does anyone actually believe that Congress does a better job spending your money than you do?  Apparently they do:

Critics of government spending argue that America's private sector does
a better job making socially necessary investments. But it doesn't.
Public spending is allocated democratically among competing demands.
Rich benefactors can spend on anything they want, and they tend to
spend on projects close to their hearts.

LOLOLOL.  Has anyone looked at the last highway bill?  How many tens of thousands of politically motivated earmarks were there?   

Philanthropic contributions are usually tax-free. They directly reduce
the government's ability to engage in public spending. Perhaps the
government should demand a role in charities' allocation of resources
in exchange for the tax deduction. Or maybe the deduction should go
altogether. Experts estimate that tax breaks motivate 25 percent to 30
percent of contributions.

At the end of the day, this is not about a better prioritization process for spending -- this is about the NY Times getting a bigger say for itself in said spending.  They know that Warren Buffet couldn't give a rat's behind what the NY Times thinks about how he spends his money, but Congressmen trying to get reelected do care.  The NY Times wields a lot of political, but little private, influence, so they want to see as much spending as possible shift to political hands where the Times wields clout.

Postscript: Boy, here is some quality journalism:

Federal, state and local tax collections amount to just more than 25.5
percent of the nation's economic output. The Finnish government
collects 48.8 percent. As a result, the United States spends less on
social programs than virtually every other rich industrial country,
according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The Finnish government probably has money to build children's health

"Probably has money?"  What does that mean?  Do they have government-funded children's health clinics or not?  The Times couldn't work up enough energy to fact-check that?  And by the way, who, other than the NY Times, declared that the best marginal use of additional public funds is for children's health clinics?

Postscript #2: Many of the very rich have been funding schools that are competitive with government-monopoly schools.  In this and many other cases, wealthy people fund programs that work better and cheaper than government alternatives.  I am sure that not only would the feds be happy to have this money to spend themselves (on some fat earmarks for key donors, most likely) but they would additionally be thrilled to get rid of the competition.

Update:  I must be going senile.  I missed the most obvious logical fallacy of all.  The NY Times says that our democratic government is the best possible mechanism for allocating funds.  But doesn't that also mean its the best possible mechanism for setting spending levels?  How can it complain that our democratic government is doing a bad job in setting total spending levels but does a great job in allocating that spending?

Get Your Laws off My Body

For a while now, I have been fascinated by the contrast between the Left's position on abortion and its position on universal health care. 

In the abortion debate, the Left was careful to try to establish a broader principal than just support for abortion.  Their position was (and still is) that the government should not interfere in a woman's decision-making about her own body.  Cool.  That's a general principal that any libertarian could love  (Note that there are many libertarians who accept this principal but argue that abortion is the one exception to it if one considers the fetus an independent life.)  The National Organization for Women have cleverly embodied this general principal in the T-Shirt below:

So now we come to universal health care.  And most every leftish plan has the government paying all of our health care bills.  Well I can absolutely assure you now, both via common sense and observance of practices in European countries with socialized medicine, that a couple of things follow from universal coverage:

  1. The government will be the final decision maker for what care each person will or will not get, how procedures will be performed, and what drugs will be authorized.  If they did not take on these decisions, the system would simply implode financially.  The government cannot afford to pay the bills while allowing individuals to still make their own choices about their care.
  2. The government will have a strong financial incentive to change people's individual lifestyles.  What they eat, how they exercise, their sexual practices, etc. all have a great influence on future health care costs.  Already, we see countries like Britain starting to meddle in these lifestyle choices in the name of reducing health costs.  It is why I have termed the health care Trojan horse for fascism.

I don't think even universal coverage supporters would refute these two points except to say maybe "yes, the government will do those things but we promise to be gentle."   Here is Jon Edwards:

"I'm mandating healthcare for every man woman and child in America and that's the only way to have real universal healthcare."

"Evertime you go into contact with the helathcare system or the govenment you will be signed up."

During a press avail following the event Edwards reiterated his mandate:

"Basically every time they come into contact with either the healthcare
system or the government, whether it's payment of taxes, school, going
to the library, whatever it is they will be signed up."

When asked by a reporter if an individual decided they didn't want healthcare Edwards quickly responded, "You don't get that choice."

So given that, how does the left hold universal coverage in their head at the same time as they argue that "a woman should make decisions for her own body"?  How can the NOW website sell "Keep your laws off my body" T-shirts while promoting universal coverage laws on their home page?  How do you reconcile "pro-choice" with Edward's "you don't get that choice."

I am really interested in someone taking a shot at this.  And don't tell me that the difference is that in universal coverage, the argument is just over what the government will and won't pay for.  I agree not having the government pay for something is not the same as banning it when there are plenty of private alternatives.  But in the systems being advocated by Democratic candidates like Edwards, there will be no "other system" -- the government will be the monopoly provider, or at least the monopoly rules-setter.  It will be what the government wants to give you or nothing.  And there won't even necessarily be another country to which one can run away to get her procedure, because America is that country today where victims of socialist medicine escape to get needed and timely care.

More Anti-Consumer Regulation

We seem to be getting these stories in batches lately (others here and here) but leave it to the EU to trump even San Francisco in anti-consumer stupidity:

Microsoft lost its appeal of a European antitrust order Monday
that obliges the technology giant to share communications code with
rivals, sell a copy of Windows without Media Player and pay a $613
million fine - the largest ever by EU regulators.

The EU
Court of First Instance ruled against Microsoft on both parts of the
case, saying the European Commission was correct in concluding that
Microsoft was guilty of monopoly abuse in trying to use its power over
desktop computers to muscle into server software.

It also said regulators had clearly demonstrated that selling media software with Windows had damaged rivals.

court observes that it is beyond dispute that in consequence of the
tying consumers are unable to acquire the Windows operating system
without simultaneously acquiring Windows Media Player," it said.

that regard, the court considers that neither the fact that Microsoft
does not charge a separate price for Windows Media Player nor the fact
that consumers are not obliged to use that Media Player is irrelevant."

Yes, you are reading it correctly.  Microsoft is being penalized for giving the consumer too much value by bundling in additional features and programs for free into its OS.  And just to make sure that you understand that this has nothing to do with the consumer, but is purely a complaint of large competitors that can't keep up, they make it clear that they want the bundling stopped even if it does not change the price of the OS one penny (pfennig or whatever the Euro equivalent is).  They want the product stripped down and are deliberately trying to reduce its value to customers.

Gwynnie at Maggie's Farm has a funny comment, saying, "Microsoft is guilty of succeeding while American."

Great Moments in Monopolies

True monopolies, which are extraordinarily rare in the private sector but all too common when the government uses it coercive power, lose any incentive to provide good customer service.  Via Adam Schaeffer at Cato, here are your government monopoly schools at work:

In Montgomery County, beloved third-grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was
bounced on the word of one reviewer despite an outpouring of support
from parents who knew what great work she had done with their
children.  I can't say it better than it's reported:

But a panel of eight teachers and eight principals
charged with reviewing Kim's performance gave little weight to the
parent letters when they considered her future in a closed-door
meeting, according to panel members.

Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County
Education Association and co-chairman of the panel, said in an
interview that the strong parental support for Kim was considered only
a "secondary data source."

The good test scores of Kim's students, he said, were also secondary.
The primary sources for the decisions, he said, were the judgments of
Principal Elaine Chang, a consulting teacher assigned to evaluate Kim
and the panel members themselves that Kim was ineffective in the
classroom and hurting her students' progress.

"That's a bunch of hooey," said Elyse Summers, one of the multitude
of pro-Kim parents. "Our children went to Mrs. Kim's class every day,
came home and are performing extremely well."

"We take parent feedback, both good and bad, about teachers very
seriously," Edwards replied. But the Montgomery schools spokesman added
that "the final decision about the effectiveness of teachers must come
down to those with the professional expertise."

So, it does not matter if you are a great teacher who gets good results, if you don't kiss the principal's ass enough, you are gone.  This is not to say that private employers can't be equally silly.  However, in the private sector, if a company is stupid enough to fire a good employee for petty political reasons, its competitors will snap that person up.  If it happens enough, company 2 will quickly begin to outcompete company 1.  When the government maintains a forced monopoly on schools, there are no such feedback mechanisms to force improvement, except maybe parental feedback, and you see how much that achieves in this case.

Anti-Trust is Anti-Consumer

This is part 158 or so of a series of posts on how anti-trust law is often portrayed as being pro-consumer, but whose effect in practice is usually just to politically powerful competitors rather than consumers.

I have written a couple of posts on the National Association of Broadcasters hypocritical opposition to the Sirius-XM satellite merger. Radley Balko takes on this same topic:

So when XM and Sirius announced a highly-publicized merger this
year, everything changed for the NAB. Clearly, the two startups it so
feared for so long were floundering. And with no other licensed
satellite providers around, the NAB's position on the merger became
clear: What's bad for satellite is good for the NAB. So the NAB would
oppose an XM-Sirius alliance.

Problem is, the only colorable
argument against the merger is that it would create a monopoly for
satellite radio. XM and Sirius cleverly (and probably accurately)
headed that objection off by noting that satellite radio competes with
a variety of technologies for the listener's ear. This put the NAB in
an awkward position. The lobby would have to argue that despite its
15-year effort to derail satellite radio, satellite radio was not a
competitor. Of course, the harder the NAB fights and the more money the
NAB spends to promote this message, the clearer it becomes that the NAB
fears the competition posed by an XM-Sirius alliance. In effect, the
more the NAB fights the merger, the more it undermines its own argument
against it.

But the NAB has a lot of clout, since it controls most of the media.  Here, for example, is the Boston Globe whoring for the NAB without mentioning that their parent company is a member of the NAB.

Another Leftish Howler on Government Health Care

From Kevin Drum, who I consider one of the smarter folks on the left (but not this time):

A few days ago, during an email exchange with a
friend, I mentioned that I don't usually tout cost savings as a big
argument in favor of universal healthcare. It's true that a national
healthcare plan would almost certainly save money compared to our
current Rube Goldberg system, but I suspect the savings would be
modest. Rather, the real advantages of national healthcare are related
to things like access (getting everyone covered), efficiency (cutting down on useless -- or even deliberately counterproductive -- administrative bureaucracies), choice
(allowing people to choose and keep a family doctor instead of being
jerked around everytime their employer decides to switch health
providers), and social justice (providing decent, hassle-free healthcare for the poor).

Name one industry the government has taken over in a monopolistic fashion and subsequently increased efficiency or individual choice?  Anyone?  Buehler?  In fact, I am not sure I can name one government program that even provides the poor with decent, hassle-free services. 

Lets take the most ubiquitous government monopoly, that on K-12 education. 

  • Efficiency?  My kid's for-profit secular private school has a administrator to student ratio of at least 1:15.  How many assistant principals does your public school have?  Many public schools are approaching 1 administrator for every 1 teacher.
  • Choice?  That's a laugh.  The government and its unions fight choice in education tooth and nail.  In fact, in the context of education, Drum and others have effectively argued that choice is the enemy of his last point, social justice, so it is absurd to argue that government monopolistic health care will optimize both.  Yes, people may be frustrated their insurance company does not cover X procedure, but this will only get worse when the government is making the choices for us.  Oh, and by the way, about the evils of those employers running our health plans?  They do so only because of WWII wage controls and decades of federal tax policy that have provided them strong incentive to do so. 
  • Decent, hassle-free service?  Ask a concerned black family in an inner-city school how good their kid's government-provided education is.  In fact, I will bet that most inner city parents get healthcare of better quality today despite the admittedly Rube Goldberg system we have (courtesy of years of silly government interventions) than the quality of education they receive from the government education monopoly.  After all, most of them walk out of the hospital today with their life, while many of their kids are walking out of worthless government schools with no life.

As to the claim that national health care would "almost certainly save money," that is hard to argue with for this reason:  The government, once in charge of health care choices, can simply start denying procedures and care ("rationing").  This is in fact how costs are managed in most socialist medical systems.  So while this statement is technically true, it would be very hard for anyone to really believe that for the same quality and quantity of care, the government could do it cheaper.

Statements I Never Expected to Read

"Arizona Republic gave an unqualified endorsement of school choice today"

From Adam Shaeffer at Cato.  The AZ Republic editorial is here.  It is really rare to see a local paper break with the established monopoly education interests.  However, before we get too excited, I will observe that the Arizona school choice plan discussed falls pretty short of full school choice, but it is a step in the right direction.

Depressing Fact of the Day

I would like to say that I am surprised, but:

An academic survey
study conducted in 1990 compared how much Americans and Russians
understood about the way markets work. It found no significant
difference. Americans understood free markets no better than a nation
of people with virtually no personal experience of them. That's
sobering. And since the heaviest academic emphasis of the last fifteen
years has been on elementary mathematics and reading, there is little
reason to believe that we have improved our grasp of economics in the

This is a funny but probably true observation:

it would be institutionally suicidal for a monopoly school system to do
a good job of teaching market economics. The very fact that we continue
to have a monopoly school system is retroactive proof that market
economics has not been well taught. Monopolies, after all, tend to be
frowned on by the economically savvy.

Its All Monopoly Money

A lot of bad legislation has been passed to protect consumers from the "scourge" of monopoly.  The most common fear is that some company will lock up the market and then start raising prices.  This never happens in real life, because entry in most markets is far easier than most people imagine, particularly in modern America where there are so many accumulations of capital looking for a way to be spent.  In fact, the only time such price-gouging monopolies are ever sustainable is when they are backed by the coercive power of government.

The milk market, for decades one of the most egregious examples of government price-fixing for the benefit of producers over consumers, provides us with a perfect example of this phenomena:  A cartel charging too high of prices that is taken on by a maverick price-cutting outsider, who was on a path to success until the feds slapped him down.

In the summer of 2003, shoppers in Southern California began getting a break on the price of milk.

maverick dairyman named Hein Hettinga started bottling his own milk and
selling it for as much as 20 cents a gallon less than the competition,
exercising his right to work outside the rigid system that has
controlled U.S. milk production for almost 70 years. Soon the effects
were rippling through the state, helping to hold down retail prices at
supermarkets and warehouse stores.

That was when a coalition of giant milk companies and dairies, along
with their congressional allies, decided to crush Hettinga's
initiative. For three years, the milk lobby spent millions of dollars
on lobbying and campaign contributions and made deals with lawmakers,
including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

March, Congress passed a law reshaping the Western milk market and
essentially ending Hettinga's experiment -- all without a single
congressional hearing.

The most hilarious (or disgusting, depending on my mood) part is listening to the statements of other milk producers complaining about the new competition and price-cutting, something the rest of us in business face as a matter of routine, but from which the privileged few in the dairy business are shielded:

Hettinga's operation was "damaging to the marketplace," said Elvin
Hollon, director of economic analysis for Dairy Farmers of America.
"Nobody ever envisioned there would be such large handlers" outside the

"So," Hollon said, "the regulations had to change."

and this:

In an interview later, Nunes called the milk legislation a victory for
"every dairy farmer in America except those who were gaming the
system." He added, "People out there were making millions of dollars a
year off the backs of America's dairy farmers . . . that was a wrong
that was finally righted.

That last paragraph is so brazen you may not even get it ... he is referring to competitors that are charging lower prices.  They are "making millions of dollars off the backs of America's dairy farmers" the same way the Honda Civic made millions of dollars off the back of the Yugo.  Under the new law passed by the dairy industry's cronies, Hettinga can still operate like he has been, as long as he pays $400,000 each year to his competitors to make up for the fact that he is out-competing them.

I will say I probably would like this guy -- he is able to look on the bright side:

"I still think this is a great country," Hettinga said. "In Mexico, they would have just shot me."

Yeah, we're much better here.  The government only rapes rather than kills you.

Ethics of Frequent Flier Programs

Am I the only one who gets ethical qualms about frequent flier programs?  If your job was to buy supplies for the company you work for, and a printer company offered to give you and your family a Hawaiian vacation if only you would have your company buy their printers instead of the competition's, could we all agree that would be a kickback or bribe?  And that it would be, if not illegal, certainly unethical?

So why don't the same rules apply to airline travel?  When buying an airline flight for business, you are acting as a purchasing agent for your company.  And the airlines, in the form of frequent flier miles, are offering you [not the company] something of value to steer your corporate purchasing decisions to their product.  Frequent flier miles are a blatant kickback.  Informal poll:  How many of you have purchased flights that are a worse deal for your company but a better deal for your frequent flier account?

A further rant: OK, if you are not turned off by that rant, here is a related one about Visa cards that give out frequent flier miles.  As mentioned earlier, these are hugely profitable for credit card companies, so much so that they create much of the value in modern airlines.  Credit card companies, perhaps the only stable monopoly I have seen in my lifetime, have perfected the art of forcing retailers to subsidize their credit card users. 

Now, a fairly rational person would expect that a cash transaction is cheaper than doing one on credit.  However, due to the very strong position of MC and Visa processors, credit card customers actually get a lower price than cash customers.  Here is why:  Credit card companies have taken to giving their users a rebate on their purchases, either in cash or frequent flier miles or some other compensation.  These rebates are funded by charging higher interchange fees to merchants (basically a percentage of credit card transactions cleared).  The magic occurs because merchants, in their processing agreements, are generally banned from giving discounts to customers for using cash.  As a result, the higher credit card interchange fees are spread among all customers, cash or credit card, equally.   The result is that credit card customers pay lower net prices than cash customers, when the rebates are factored in.

Though our trade association tries to seek government action of some sort, I am neither confident that this will help or philosophically inclined to ask for such help.  Right now, I am working within the association to try to build support for some sort of one day boycott against accepting credit cards as a starting point to trying to build up some group negotiating power vs. the credit card processors.

In Case You Thought Anti-Trust Was About Consumers, Part 2

In this post I said:

I could spend all day discussing the follies of anti-trust law.  But
one of the memes that still seems to hang on is that anti-trust was
designed as a form of consumer protection, with the government
protecting consumers from the monopoly power of consolidated

I am not enough of a business historian to comment on whether
anti-trust has ever been used for consumer protection, but it is clear
that it is not any more.  That has been one very expensive lesson we
can all learn from the Microsoft anti-trust cases, both in the US and

Here is further proof.  NicSand, who used to have 2/3 of the retail channel for sandpaper locked up with exclusive deals, is complaining that 3M has usurped them and has taken their market share.   NicSand enjoyed monopoly margins for years, finally faced long-overdue price competition from 3M, and lost a lot of the business.  So they sued for anti-trust.

Between 1997 and 2000, 3M entered into contracts to supply automotive sandpaper
to Advanced Auto, Autozone, CSK and KMart and did so at prices ranging from 10%
to 30% over NicSand's costs. But nothing about this sequence of events suggests
an antitrust violation. As to the market share that 3M garnered over these
years, "it takes one to know one" is hardly an accredited hallmark of antitrust
liability"”particularly when NicSand's apparent solution to this problem is not
to encourage the entry of other suppliers to this lopsided market but to
preserve its 67% market share. As to 3M's discounting, NicSand of course has no
right"”under the antitrust laws no less"”to preserve 40"“50% margins on a product
that (so far as the allegations are concerned) does not take any ingenuity to
make. One can fairly doubt the size of NicSand's and 3M's R&D departments
for automotive sandpaper.

Unable to argue that 3M's discounting amounted to anything but legitimate (and
apparently long-overdue) competition, NicSand focuses on the fact that 3M
entered into exclusive contracts with the four large retailers that switched
from NicSand to 3M. Yet according to NicSand's amended complaint, the retailers
made exclusivity one of the preconditions for doing business with a new
supplier. The complaint says that the large retailers (1) choose to carry just
one brand of automotive sandpaper for sale to consumers, (2) re-negotiate these
one-brand contracts just once a year, (3) require a new supplier to purchase the
retailer's existing supply of automotive sandpaper, (4) require a new supplier
to provide racks and other display equipment, (5) require a new supplier to
produce a full line of automotive sandpaper and (6) require a new supplier to
provide a discount on the retailer's first order. NicSand of course complied
with these requirements in obtaining the supply business it held in 1997, and 3M
complied with them in winning some of that business away. If retailers have made
supplier exclusivity a barrier to entry, one cannot bring an antitrust claim
against another supplier for complying with that precondition. Put another way,
NicSand did not sue 3M insisting that it had a right to share shelf space; it
sued 3M because it wanted that shelf space all to itself"”just as it had it in
1997. This is precisely the kind of all-for-one-and-all-for-one competitor claim
that the antitrust laws do not protect.

Anti-trust is not about the consumer.  It is about one company trying to use the government to sit on its competitors.

Update: Oh, and in case you thought liscencing of professionals was about consumers rather than protecting incumbent competitors, example number 439,126:

If you've spent as much time on farms as I have, you may imagine that
floating horse teeth has something to do with a backup of equine urine. It
actually refers to the time-honored practice of filing horses' teeth to prevent
them from getting uncomfortably long. At the behest of veterinarians (who
else?), the state of Minnesota is trying to limit
the service to veterinarians, and the Institute for Justice (who else?) is challenging
the protectionist regulations in state court.

Should you balk at going to veterinary school just so you can file horse
teeth for a living (a technique veterinary schools don't even teach), Minnesota
will give you a pass if you 1) have more than 10 years of experience or 2) pass
an exam given by the Dallas-based International Association of Equine Dentistry.
"To qualify to take the IAED's test," I.J. notes, "you must float the teeth of
250 horses under the supervision of an existing IAED member. Not only are there
no IAED members in Minnesota, it is illegal to float without a license. So, to
abide by the law in Minnesota, you must break it."

In Case You Thought Anti-Trust Was About Consumers

I could spend all day discussing the follies of anti-trust law.  But one of the memes that still seems to hang on is that anti-trust was designed as a form of consumer protection, with the government protecting consumers from the monopoly power of consolidated enterprises.

I am not enough of a business historian to comment on whether anti-trust has ever been used for consumer protection, but it is clear that it is not any more.  That has been one very expensive lesson we can all learn from the Microsoft anti-trust cases, both in the US and Europe. 

If you remember the US cases, Sun, Netscape, Oracle and other Microsoft competitors, having failed to best Microsoft in the marketplace, went running to the FTC to get them to sit on Microsoft for them.  And they were successful, with a series of high-profile settlements.  Nowhere was there even a hint that these cases were about the consumer -- in fact, the settlement demanded was to remove functionality and free add-on components from the Windows OS, making it less attractive to consumers.

We can see this again in the recent decision by an EU court, which seems very happy to use anti-trust law to step on an American competitor in favor of local companies (my emphasis added).

Microsoft was fined $357 million, on top of the record $613 million
fine it paid in the original order. It also faces new penalties of
$3.82 million a day beginning July 31....

The commission has said that it is concerned about Vista's Internet
search capabilities and method of managing digital rights. Regulators
also are worried about the implications for competitors of a new
technology for saving documents that is similar to the Portable
Document Format developed by Adobe Systems Inc.

Microsoft's chief crime is not doing enough to help competitors compete against them:

The fines announced Wednesday come after the EU told Microsoft to
supply "complete and accurate technical specifications" to developers,
so they could make software for servers that help computers running
Windows, printers and other devices on a network talk to each other. It
accused Microsoft of using its monopoly position with Windows to elbow
into the server software market.

Kroes said Microsoft's earlier efforts had not come even close to a readable manual developers could use.

Again, settlements are taking the form of defeaturing the product consumers get:

Smith said Microsoft had suggested various ways it could offer Vista in
Europe, to address concerns about XPS. One option is to ship Vista
without it, while another is to include ways for PC makers or others to
either remove certain XPS utilities or make them invisible.

And, by the way, this certainly gives one a lot of confidence in the due process the courts in Europe are going to give you as an American:

"In some ways, these fines are only partially about complying with the
... prior case, and half about sending a message to Microsoft that the
European Commission is not going away,"

You get that?  It sounds like a mafioso beating someone up because they didn't show him enough respect.

By the way, I am frustrated with Microsoft and their pricing as well.  Rather than run to the government, though, I have employed this and this and this.

More Reasons to Fear the Patriot Act

There have been any number of stories about how provisions of the Patriot Act are used more routinely to proecute drug cases than to pursue, you know, terrorists.  Note, however, this provision in the Patriot Act that has nothing to do with national security (via Overlawyered).

Quietly slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act:
first-time-ever authority for the Justice Department to engage in
wiretapping and bugging of private premises for purposes of going after
antitrust violators.

Given the fact the the feds regularly prosecute companies with large market shares for A) raising prices (i.e. monopoly pricing); for B) lowering prices (i.e. predatory pricing); and for C) keeping prices the same (ie price fixing), this becomes an open mandate to listen into any private conversation at any company with a non-trivial market share.  Have fun at your next staff meeting over there at Microsoft or Exxon. 

From the Incredible Bread Machine by G.W. Grant:

"Now let me state the present rules,"
The lawyer then went on,

"These very simple 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!

Coyote Blog NCAA Bracket Challenge

Note: This post sticky through 3/16.  Look below for newest posts.

As promised, we are proud to announce the first annual Coyote Blog NCAA Bracket Challenge.  Yes, I know that many of you are bracketed out, but for those of you who are self-employed and don't have an office pool to join or who just can't get enough of turning in brackets, this pool is offered as my public service.  In particular, I invite bloggers who are experiencing post-Weblog-Award depression to reignite the spirit of online competition.  I mean, why should NZ Bear have the monopoly on ranking bloggers? 

I don't know if we will get 1 or 100 entries, but all are welcome, so send the link to friends as well.  There is no charge to join in and I have chosen a service with the absolutely least intrusive log-in (name, email, password only) and no spam.  The only thing I ask is that, since my kids are participating, try to keep the team names and board chat fairly clean.

To join, go to and sign up, then enter your bracket.

Scoring is as follows:

Round 1 correct picks:  2 points
Round 2:  4
Round 3:  6
Round 4:  8
Round 5:  10
Round 6:  20

In honor of the Blogfaddah, we have added the special "Army of Davids" bonus scoring:  If you correctly pick the underdog in any round (ie, the team with the higher number seed) to win, then you receive bonus points for that correct pick equal to the difference in the two team's seeds.  So don't be afraid to go for the long-shots!

OK, so what about the prizes?  Well, fame and recognition on this weblog should be enough, but, for those who enjoy recreation, my company will give the winner a choice of 3 nights free camping at one of the public campgrounds we run, or a half-day jet ski rental at Lake Havasu, or a half-day boat rental at Burney Falls State Park in California, Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, or Patagonia Lake in Arizona.

Disclaimer: I sincerely hope that there is something about this purely recreational activity that violates the ridiculous gambling laws we have in this country, because I feel the need to protest them at every turn.  For example, can any politician explain to me why gambling in many Midwestern states is moral on a boat but immoral and therefore illegal on dry land next to the boat?

Update:  We already had a number of entries in the first hour this was up, so it looks like it is going to be a lot of fun.  Go ahead, sign up, it just takes a few minutes.  You don't have to know that much about basketball -- last year our family's tournament was won by an 11-year-old girl.

The Danger of Government-Owned Commercial Enterprises

I am always flabbergasted by folks who support government ownership of commercial assets based on the idea that the government is somehow more accountable than private enterprise.  This argument is, frankly, insane.  Commercial entities are held accountable by two things:  1) the ability of a customer not to purchase their product or service and 2) the ability of new competitors to enter the market and take away their customers with a better price-product package.

All enterprises naturally try to resist these pressures.  In the long run, there is not much a private company can do to evade these pressures.  Even bald attempts to monopolize the market have always failed (at least without the support of the government for that monopoly, as in certain utilities).

But government enterprises are entirely different.  The government has the legislative and regulatory power** to stifle competitors to themselves and to compel consumers to use only their product or service.  In other words, the government, uniquely, has the power to totally void the two sources of accountability in the market.

And the government uses this power all the time.  They use it to protect favored airports, to protect cigarette makers who pay them loads of settlement money, to protect wi-fi revenue, and of course to protect the good-old US Post Office. Via Reason, comes this story of the government even making life worse for drivers in order to protect their toll revenues:

When E-470 opened in 2002, some people thought it was a strange
coincidence that, about the same time, the speed limit on nearby Tower Road, a
paved, 2-lane, rural highway, dropped from 55 MPH to 40 MPH. Several apparently
unnecessary traffic signals also appeared. This, in spite of the fact that after
the toll road opened, Tower Road would have even less traffic than it did

Well, it was no coincidence.

The lower speed limit and extra traffic signals, which make Tower Road slower
and less convenient to use, are required by a "non-compete" clause in an
agreement between the E-470 Public Highway Authority and nearby Commerce

The goal is to impede traffic on Tower Road so drivers will decide they are
better off using the toll road. This protects the revenue stream from the tolls,
thereby protecting the interests of the toll road's investors.

Once government gets into a particular sphere, they are never ever going to voluntarily let anyone in, no matter how bad their product or service becomes.

** This power is not really constitutional, and has only emerged post-1930's, but that is another topic.

Update:  Just to anticipate the argument, observant readers will note that several of these examples represent "public-private" partnerships that split returns between private investors and the state.  The wi-fi example and the toll road example are of this type.  The fact that these government endeavors include private money does not change the problem one bit.  The problem is the government using its unique legislative authority to intervene in an industry to protect its own rents, which can occur with the government as a 100% investor or as a minority investor.

Worlds Most Expensive Printer Ink

Today I bought what may be the most expensive consumer printer ink available.  We have a small Pitney-Bowes postage meter that has a little built in ink-jet printer to print out the metered postage symbol (that sort of red looking stuff that replaces the stamp).  One of their little print cartridges doesn't last more than at most a thousand envelopes, which represents at most the equivalent of 50 pages of text for a normal printer.  For this little cartridge with its smidgen of ink, I paid $39.99.  At the same time, I bought two-paks of the HP cartridges I needed (no bargain themselves) for $25 per cartridge, and these cartridges last for hundreds of pages.  I can't directly compare the volume of ink, but my sense is that the P-B cartridge is priced such that it would be over $500 with an equivalent amount of ink to an HP cartridge.  Insane.  And its worse because the P-B postage meter has this annoying tendency to announce the cartridge is almost out of ink before it is even half empty.  We have gone weeks with the meter telling us the cartridge had to be replaced soon.

I am not sure I fully understand the relationship Pitney-Bowes has to the US Postal Service, but to all appearances, they have been handed a virtual monopoly for decades.  For years business have been forced to pay egregious rental rates for P-B equipment with long, long minimum lease periods because the USPS does not seem to be comfortable with competition.  Only the advent of Internet postage in the late 1990's forced P-B to come out with a small business postage meter that you could purchase at relatively low cost.  I am flabbergasted that the US government continues to give them this monopoly.  It is ironic to me that several of the abusive monopolistic practices used by Pitney-Bowes and encouraged by the US government are the same practices Xerox got busted (under anti-trust litigation) years ago by... the US Government.

More on Wealth and Poverty

A few days ago, I spilled a lot of electrons discussing the sources of wealth and poverty. This week, Arnold Kling has a great article applying many of the same concepts to give advice to Live8 and others who want to eliminate poverty.  While I droned on for about 30 inches of computer monitor space, Robert Lucas's quote in Kling's article gets to the heart of the issue in just a few lines:

"of the vast increase in the well-being of hundreds
of millions of people that has occurred in the 200-year course of the industrial
revolution to date, virtually none of it can be attributed to the direct
redistribution of resources from rich to poor. The potential for improving the
lives of poor people by finding different ways of distributing current
production is nothing compared to the apparently limitless potential of
increasing production."

He concludes with some advice for protestors:

1. The world is a complex place. The farther you are
removed from a situation, the less likely that your intervention there will do
good and the greater risk that it will cause harm. No matter how thoughtfully it
is administered, long-distance aid will tend to be


2. The easiest poverty to prevent is poverty that is
close by. By developing useful skills and remaining employed, you can help keep
yourself and your family out of poverty. That makes you less of a burden on the
world than if you fly half way around the world to stage


3. Learn to distinguish motives from consequences. A
well-meaning policy can backfire. The seemingly cold-hearted impersonal market
is enormously beneficial.


4. Poverty is not a simple problem. See What Causes


5. Remember that unlike the Folk Song Army of Tom
Lehrer's song, you have no monopoly on good intentions. A morality play in which
those who care crusade against those who are square makes for great theater.
However, it is not a realistic basis for economic policy.


As a parting shot, I noted previously the odd contradiction that is inherent in many G8 and similar protestors who purport to want to eliminate poverty:

In a nutshell, they want to fix poverty in the third world by
disavowing everything -- private property rights, individual
enterprise, free commerce, entrepreneurship, individual freedoms, etc.
-- that made the G8 not impoverished.  Rich nations, you have to help
the poor nations, but whatever you do, don't allow they to emulate what
you did to get rich. 

This is so nutty its unbelievable.  If they were camping outside of
the G8's door and saying that we want you to drop trade barriers on our
goods and help us foster entrepreneurship and we want your help
promoting private investment in our economy and infrastructure, I could
understand perfectly.  This is like activists camping outside of Jack
Welch's door looking for him to help the poor by funding programs to
teach children to drop out of school and avoid getting a jobs.

Great Economic Analysis of Kelo and Takings

I am weeks late finding this article, but Todd Zywicki at Volokh posts what may be the definitive economic analysis of Kelo.  He talks about not only the issue of subjective value that leaves homeowners undercompensated for the taking, but about the deceitful game local governments are playing:

Second, focusing on the holdout problem in the Kelo context is to focus on
the wrong issue. The scenario here is different from when a government wants to
build a school or post office, traditional public use purposes. Schools and post
offices have to go in a particular geographic area (that's why they are being
built), and thus strategic bargaining may be plausible because it is similar to
a bilateral monopoly situation. The small group of landowners in the relevant
area can act strategically and try to extract a high price for its sale.

In Kelo, however, there is no obvious holdout power because Pfizer could put
its building in any city in America. So its not like a neighborhood school,
road, or post office. In Kelo, the holdout power is created artificially
by the city's desire to give Pfizer a sweetheart deal to bring it to town.

So ex ante, there is no viable holdout power in this situation because
there are an infinite number of close substitute sites for the building. The
building is going to be built somewhere, the only question is what city--New
London, Hartford, Bridgeport, Boston, New York, Chicago, etc. The artificial
scarcity that says the building has to be built in New London was created by the
city's other subsidies to attract Pfizer to town (the obscenely low rent,

So if one is truly concerned about the holdout power problem, then the
correct solution is to require the city to eliminate the artificial scarcity
that "requires" the building to be built in New London rather than some other
city, the same way that a new school would have to be built in New London. If we
allow both the subsidies and the Taking for the benefit of the private party, we
are allowing the distribution tail of what city the Pfizer headquarters will be
built to wag the efficiency dog of whether the homeowner is holding out versus
having subjective value. Instead, we want to have the parties bargain ex ante
before they finally select the city--i.e., choose the city and the plot of
land at the same time--not bargain ex post after the city is selected.
Forcing an ex ante bargain when there are still many substitutes for the
proposed site would eliminate the holdout problem and allow us to determine the
extent of parties' subjective value, because the negotiations would be conducted
against the backdrop of a competitive market, rather than a bilateral monopoly.
The bilateral monopoly is thrust upon the city in the road or post office
scenario; it is freely-chosen in the Kelo situation.

Instead, the ruling in Kelo enables the worst possible economic
outcome--it permits cities to create artificial scarcity just to get a larger
piece of a stable-sized pie (getting Pfizer to New London rather than Hartford),
while then permitting cities on the back end to take land from private
landowners who may or may not be losing subjective value and being
undercompensated in the process.

And the incentive effect of Kelo is obvious--it now enables corporations to
extract both subsidies and takings as the price for locating in city A rather
than city B.

I have written about my frustrations with local governments subsidizing business relocations here and here.

Anyone Remember the Eighties?

One of the worst parts about living through the eighties was listening to all the angst about Japanese companies "buying America".  I never really understood the issue that people had with foreigners buying American assets (beyond pure xenophobia).  It was all especially puzzling because most of the wailing came from people who are today wailing about American outsourcing.  So its bad when American companies buy productive assets in other countries AND its bad when foreigners buy productive assets in this country?

Anyway, I missed it the first time around, but apparently Paul Krugman is upset that a Chinese company might buy Unocal.  Here are his reasons for concern:

Yet there are two reasons that Chinese investment in America seems different
from Japanese investment 15 years ago.

One difference is that, judging from early indications, the Chinese won't
squander their money as badly as the Japanese did....

The more important difference from Japan's investment is that China, unlike
Japan, really does seem to be emerging as America's strategic rival and a
competitor for scarce resources - which makes last week's other big Chinese
offer more than just a business proposition.

His first is just laugh out loud funny.  We actually have an economist claiming that the world was better in the 1980's because there was a huge market inefficiency (ie, the Japanese overpaid for unproductive assets). 

His second argument seems to be that US supplies of oil are more secure if American companies own them.  This is stupid.  If he means that it is more secure economically, then he should have his economist merit badge taken away for life.  Even he must know that oil is a fungible commodity, and as such trades world wide at a price set by supply and demand.  If more of Unocal's oil goes to China, this replaces other oil coming from somewhere else that is now available on the market.  And, if he means it is safer politically, he forgot to study the last 50 years of history.  Every major oil producer of the world - Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, etc are pumping oil that used to belong to American oil companies, but was nationalized and taken from them.  Does Mr. Krugman's statement mean that the left and the NY Times are suddenly more ready to support the property rights of American oil companies overseas? I doubt it.  It is actually an improvement over history that a totalitarian state like China is actually buying American oil assets rather than just expropriating them.

By the way, I call Mr. Krugman's view of national economic success the "monopoly board" view of the world.  In his mind, America and China are playing monopoly, and once China gets St. James Place, America can never own all the oranges.  This is not the way the world works.  When America grew economically in the last century, it did not mean that all the other countries had less opportunity to grow.  In fact, we pulled many countries along with us.  His zero-sum view is just the macroscopic counterpart to the zero-sum based worry about rich people getting richer in this country.

Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek both have good analyses of Paul Krugman's neo-mercantilism.

Postscript:  Gee, I hate to play the race card, but why is it we always get a national panic when it is China or Japan buying US assets and not when it is the Dutch, the English or the Canadians (who are far larger investors in US assets and companies than the Chinese)?

In Praise of "Robber Barons"

After seeing a piece of my son's history curriculum at school, I realized for about the hundredth time just how poor an understanding most people have about the great industrialists of the 19th century, so unfairly painted as "robber barons".  While it is said that "history is written by the victors", I would observe that despite the fact that socialism and communism have been given a pretty good drubbing over the last 20 years, these statists still seem to be writing history.  How else to explain the fact that men who made fortunes through free, voluntary exchange of products can be called "robber barons"; while politicians who expropriate billions by force without permission from the most productive in society are called "progressive".

To be sure, capitalists of the 19th century sometimes played by rules very different from ours today, but in most cases those were the rules of the day and most of what they did was entirely legal.  Also to be sure, there were a number of men who were fat ticks on society, making money through fraud and manipulation rather than real wealth creation (Daniel Drew comes to mind).  However, most of the great industrialists of the 19th century made money by providing customers with a better, cheaper product.  In the rest of this post, I will look at two examples.

The first is Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, the person to whom the term robber baron was originally applied (by the New York Times, interestingly enough - some things never change).  While Vanderbilt is perhaps best known for his New York Central railroad, the term was actually applied to him earlier in life in his shipping days, where he made a fortune running steamships in and out of New York City.  Vanderbilt stood accused of overly predatory tactics in moving into rivals territories.  However, in 1859 Harpers Weekly observed (via An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon):

...the results in every case of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt has been the permanent reduction of fares.  Wherever he 'laid on' an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced, and however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raise to the old standard.  This great boon -- cheap travel-- this community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt". (sorry, no link available -- I guess they weren't putting their articles online in 1859)

In many ways, Vanderbilt was the Southwest Airlines of his day, and, just like with Southwest today, towns begged for him to serve them because they knew he would bring down rates.  In fact, there is actually another parallel with Southwest Airlines.  In the early days of Southwest, most of the airline industry was regulated such that new entrants competing at lower prices were pretty much excluded by government rules.  Southwest got around these rules by flying only in Texas, where interstate rules did not apply.  Their success in Texas was a large reason for the eventual demise of government regulation that effectively protected fat and inefficient incumbent airlines, with drastically lower fairs the result.

When Vanderbilt first entered the steamship business, most routes were given as exclusive charters to protected monopoly companies, most run by men with friends in the state government.  Vanderbilt took on the constitutionality of these government enforced monopolies and, with the help of Daniel Webster, won their case in the Supreme Court.  Within a decade, the horrible experiment with government monopoly charters was mostly over, much to the benefit of everyone.  While private monopolies have always proved themselves to be unstable and last only as long as the company provides top value to customers, publicly enforced monopolies can survive for years, despite any amount of corruption and incompetence.  Vanderbilt, by helping to kill these publicly enforced monopolies, did more than perhaps any other man in US history to help defeat entrenched monopolies, yet today most would call him a monopolist. 

By the way, there are two charges against Vanderbilt that partially stick.   Those are that he bribed legislators and that he sought out price fixing agreements with his competitors.  Both are true, but both need context. 

To understand the bribery, one has to recognize that NY state passed a law that you could not be convicted of bribery solely on the evidence of the other party involved in the bribe.  In other words, they effectively made bribery legal as long as you were smart enough to do it without witnesses.  The real corruption was in the NY legislature at the time.  While Vanderbilt's motives were likely not always pure, no one who understands the state of NY at the time would deny that Vanderbilt would have been gutted had he not pro-actively played the bribery game himself in Albany in self-defense.

The price-fixing charge is even easier to deal with in context - basically price fixing agreements were entirely legal at the time.  In fact, price-fixing has been thought necessary, particularly in transportation, by politicians of all stripes for centuries - remember as late as the 1970's we had government enforced price-fixing in railroads and airlines.  In the 1930's, FDR via the NRA briefly instituted a government price-collusion scheme on the entire economy.

My other featured industrialist here on hug-a-robber-baron day here at Coyote Blog is John D. Rockefeller.  At one point of time, Rockefeller controlled 90% of the refining capacity in the country via his Standard Oil trust.  He was and is often excoriated for his accumulation of wealth and market share in the oil business, but critics are hard-pressed to point to specifics of where his consumers were hurt.  Here are the facts, via Reason

Standard Oil began in 1870, when kerosene cost 30 cents a gallon. By 1897, Rockefeller's scientists and managers had driven the price to under 6 cents per gallon, and many of his less-efficient competitors were out of business--including companies whose inferior grades of kerosene were prone to explosion and whose dangerous wares had depressed the demand for the product. Standard Oil did the same for petroleum: In a single decade, from 1880 to 1890, Rockefeller's consolidations helped drive petroleum prices down 61 percent while increasing output 393 percent.

By the way, Greenpeace should have a picture of John D. Rockefeller on the wall of every office.  Rockefeller, by driving down the cost of Kerosene as an illuminant, did more than any other person in the history to save the whales.  By making Kerosene cheap, people were willing to give up whale oil, dealing a mortal blow to the whaling industry (perhaps just in time for the Sperm Whale).

So Rockefeller grew because he had the lowest cost position in the industry, and was able to offer the lowest prices, and the country was hurt, how?  Sure, he drove competitors out of business at times through harsh tactics, but most of these folks were big boys who knew the rules and engaged in most of the same practices.  In fact, Rockefeller seldom ran competitors entirely out of business but rather put pressured on them until they sold out, usually on very fair terms.

From "Money, Greed, and Risk," author Charles Morris

An extraordinary combination of piratical entrepreneur and steady-handed corporate administrator, he achieved dominance primarily by being more farsighted, more technologically advanced, more ruthlessly focused on costs and efficiency than anyone else. When Rockefeller was consolidating the refining industry in the 1870s, for example, he simply invited competitors to his office and showed them his books. One refiner - who quickly sold out on favorable terms - was 'astounded' that Rockefeller could profitably sell kerosene at a price far below his own cost of production.   

More here. In fact, many, many of these defeated competitors became millionaires in their own right with the appreciation of the Standard Oil stock they got in the merger.

Eventually the Standard Oil monopoly weakened as most private monopolies do.  Monopolies seldom if ever engage in the price-increase games everyone expects them to, but they do get risk averse and lose vitality over time without serious competition.  This indeed did happen to Standard Oil, and it missed a number of key market turns, such as the Texas oil boom.  By the time is was broken up under the Sherman anti-trust act, Standard's market share had already fallen to 60%.  As would be the case many times in history, the government acted on the economic "threat" of Standard Oil at the very time the market was already doing the job.

Ever since, people have expended a lot of unnecessary energy getting worried about bigness and monopolies in industry.  I always laugh when "progressives" decry the monopoly power of the oil industry to manage prices.  I worked for the oil industry in the 80s, and if they had the power to manage prices they sure were doing a crappy job of it.  If someone thinks that oil companies have been manipulating prices, they have to explain this chart to me.  If prices are manipulated at all, they look like they are being kept low and stable.

Another great example of monopoly paranoia is the near continuous Microsoft-bashing in the courts.  The most famous anti-trust case was the successful case by Netscape and numerous other Microsoft competitors attempting to kneecap Microsoft, nominally for monopolizing the browser market.  Now lets leave aside the obvious issue of just how consumers are getting hurt by being given a free browser by Microsoft.  The plaintiffs apparently successful argument (incredibly) was that through a series of technology and marketing moves, Microsoft prevented competition.  If that is so, if competing with Microsoft is so hard, then why are 30% of my visitors using Firefox when none used it a year ago.  I use Firefox, and you know what, it took me about 5 minutes to download, install it and start running it.  Boom, monopoly gone.  Lots more on anti-trust here.

UPDATE:  Welcome to the Greenwich Public Schools.  Thanks for linking me from your web site.  Despite my Arizona home today, I actually lived in Greenwich for a while growing up.  You can find other essays on capitalism and individual freedoms here and here, or you can check out Dave Berry, who is much funnier than I am.  If you are looking for a stronger defense of free markets than you can find in most public schools, a good place to start is at the Cato Institute.

Pricing and Marginal Cost

Café Hayek has a good post on pricing and marginal cost:

Economists: loose your devotion to marginal-cost pricing. The best prices are not necessarily those that equal marginal cost. Prices above marginal cost help convey important information "“ namely, information about the value of the capital invested that makes provision of the good or service possible in the first place. This information, in turn, is important to entrepreneurs searching for profitable places to invest their money and energies.

This article is particularly helpful in the context of pharmaceutical cost regulation.  Activists of the socialist/progressive bent consider any pricing above marginal cost to be evidence of monopoly, market failure, rapacious greed or all of the above -- but in any case a call for government action.  This article helps reinforce the case of why pricing above marginal cost is not necessarily a market "failure".  In the case of US Pharmaceutical pricing, drug pricing today is evidence of market failure only if one wishes to see the market fail to develop any new drugs in the future.

Gun Quiz

Unlike many libertarians, I am not particularly rabid about gun rights.  It's just not an issue I am that passionate about one way or another.   I have always thought that the one monopoly the government rightly should have is on the use of force for anything other than self-defense (e.g. military, police & law enforcement, incarceration, etc.)  Given this one monopoly, it makes sense that the government should have some interest in regulating private weapons ownership.  However, we can theorize all day but as long as the Second Amendment exists, the government may wish to limit gun ownership but its ability to do so is severely restricted.

Anyway, the point of this post was really just fun and not philosophy.  Take four states:

  • Connecticut
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Florida

Two of these states have concealed handgun carry rates by private citizens 3x higher than the other two.  Guess which.