Articles by Eli Dourado

Eli is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University with the Technology Policy Program. His research focuses on Internet governance, the economics of technology, and political economy. His personal site is elidourado.com.


It seems to me that a lot of the angst about the Comcast-Netflix paid transit deal results from a general discomfort with two-sided markets rather than any specific harm caused by the deal. But is there any reason to be suspicious of two-sided markets per se?

Consider a (straight) singles bar. Men and women come to the singles bar to meet each other. On some nights, it’s ladies’ night, and women get in free and get a free drink. On other nights, it’s not ladies’ night, and both men and women have to pay to get in and buy drinks.

There is no a priori reason to believe that ladies’ night is more just or efficient than other nights. The owner of the bar will benefit if the bar is a good place for social congress, and she will price accordingly. If men in the area are particularly shy, she may have to institute a “mens’ night” to get them to come out. If women start demanding too many free drinks, she may have to put an end to ladies’ night (even if some men benefit from the presence of tipsy women, they may not be as willing as the women to pay the full cost of all of the drinks). Whether a market should be two-sided or one-sided is an empirical question, and the answer can change over time depending on circumstances.

Some commentators seem to be arguing that two-sided markets are fine as long as the market is competitive. Well, OK, suppose the singles bar is the only singles bar in a 100-mile radius? How does that change the analysis above? Not at all, I say.

Analysis of two-sided markets can get very complex, but we shouldn’t let that complexity turn into reflexive opposition.

The volatility of Bitcoin prices is one of the strongest headwinds the currency faces. Unfortunately, until my quantitative analysis last month, most of the discussion surrounding Bitcoin volatility so far has been anecdotal. I want to make it easier for people to move beyond anecdotes, so I have created a Bitcoin volatility index at btcvol.info, which I’m hoping can become or inspire a standard metric that people can agree on.

The volatility index at btcvol.info is based on daily closing prices for Bitcoin as reported by CoinDesk. I calculate the difference in daily log prices for each day in the dataset, and then calculate the sample standard deviation of those daily returns for the preceding 30 days. The result is an estimate of how spread out daily price fluctuations are—volatility.

The site also includes a basic API, so feel free to integrate this volatility measure into your site or use it for data analysis.

I of course hope that Bitcoin volatility becomes much lower over time. I expect both the maturing of the ecosystem as well as the introduction of a Bitcoin derivatives market will cause volatility to decrease. Having one or more volatility metrics will help us determine whether these or other factors make a difference.

You can support btcvol.info by spreading the word or of course by donating via Bitcoin to the address at the bottom of the site.

I am speaking on a panel tomorrow at the Dirksen Senate Office Building at an R Street Institute event on patent reform. Here’s R Street’s description:

The patent reform debate has been painted as one of inventors vs. patent troll victims. Yet these two don’t have to be enemies. We can protect intellectual property, and stomp out patent trolls.

If you’re just tuning in, patent trolls are entities that hoard overly broad patents, but do not use them to make goods or services, or advance a useful secondary market. While there’s a place for patent enforcement, these guys take it way too far.

These entities maliciously threaten small businesses, inventors, and consumers, causing tens of billions in economic damage each year. Since litigation costs millions of dollars, businesses are forced to settle even when the claim against them is spurious.

Fortunately, with growing awareness and support, the patent trolls’ lucrative racket is in jeopardy. With Obama’s patent troll task force, the passage of the Innovation Act in the House, state legislation tackling demand letters, and further action in the courts, we appear to be closer than ever to achieving real reform.

Please join us for a lunch and panel discussion of the nature of the patent troll problem, the industries it affects, and the policy solutions being considered.

Featuring:

Zach Graves, Director of Digital Marketing & Policy Analyst, R Street Institute (Moderator)

Eli Dourado, Research Fellow, Mercatus Center

Whitaker L. Askew, Vice President, American Gaming Association

Robin Cook, Assistant General Counsel for Special Projects, Credit Union National Association

Julie Hopkins, Partner, Tydings & Rosenberg LLP

The festivities begin at noon. The event is open to the public, and you can register here.

In an op-ed at CNN, Ryan Calo argues that the real drone revolution will arrive when ordinary people can own and operate app-enabled drones. Rather than being dominated by a few large tech companies, drones should develop along the lines of the PC model: they should be purchasable by consumers and they should run third-party software or apps.

The real explosion of innovation in computing occurred when devices got into the hands of regular people. Suddenly consumers did not have to wait for IBM or Apple to write every software program they might want to use. Other companies and individuals could also write a “killer app.” Much of the software that makes personal computers, tablets and smartphones such an essential part of daily life now have been written by third-party developers.

[...]

Once companies such as Google, Amazon or Apple create a personal drone that is app-enabled, we will begin to see the true promise of this technology. This is still a ways off. There are certainly many technical, regulatory and social hurdles to overcome. But I would think that within 10 to 15 years, we will see robust, multipurpose robots in the hands of consumers.

I agree with Ryan that a world where only big companies can operate drones is undesirable. His vision of personal drones meshes well with my argument in Wired that we should see airspace as a platform for innovation.

This is why I am concerned about the overregulation of drones. Big companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google will always have legal departments that will enable them to comply with drone regulations. But will all of us? There are economies of scale in regulatory compliance. If we’re not careful, we could regulate the little guy out of drones entirely—and then only big companies will be able to own and operate them. This is something I’m looking at closely in advance of the FAA proceedings on drones in 2014.

Everyone seems to be worried about Bitcoin’s carbon footprint lately. Last week, an article on Quartz claimed that Bitcoin miners are spending $17 million per day on electricity in order to reap $4.4 million worth of bitcoins. And Yesterday, Pando Daily ran a piece that ominously warned about Bitcoin’s carbon footprint.

One problem with both of these pieces is that they seem to rely on electricity consumption estimates from blockchain.info. While this site is great for getting stats about the Bitcoin network, it’s not such a great site for estimating electricity consumption. Blockchain.info clearly states that it is using an estimate of 650 Watts per gigahash [per second, I assume] in its electricity calculations. While this may have been a good estimate of the efficiency of the Bitcoin network when the page was first created, the network has become much more efficient since then. Archive.org shows that the 650W/GH/s figure was used on the earliest cached copy of the page, from December 2, 2011; yes, that is over two years ago. Continue reading →

Gordon Crovitz has an excellent column in today’s Wall Street Journal in which he accurately diagnoses the root cause of our patent litigation problem: the Federal Circuit’s support for extensive patenting in software.

Today’s patent mess can be traced to a miscalculation by Jimmy Carter, who thought granting more patents would help overcome economic stagnation. In 1979, his Domestic Policy Review on Industrial Innovation proposed a new Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which Congress created in 1982. Its first judge explained: “The court was formed for one need, to recover the value of the patent system as an incentive to industry.”

The country got more patents—at what has turned out to be a huge cost. The number of patents has quadrupled, to more than 275,000 a year. But the Federal Circuit approved patents for software, which now account for most of the patents granted in the U.S.—and for most of the litigation. Patent trolls buy up vague software patents and demand legal settlements from technology companies. Instead of encouraging innovation, patent law has become a burden on entrepreneurs, especially startups without teams of patent lawyers.

I was pleased that Crovitz cites my new paper with Alex Tabarrok:

A system of property rights is flawed if no one can know what’s protected. That’s what happens when the government grants 20-year patents for vague software ideas in exchange for making the innovation public. In a recent academic paper, George Mason researchers Eli Dourado and Alex Tabarrok argued that the system of “broad and fuzzy” software patents “reduces the potency of search and defeats one of the key arguments for patents, the dissemination of information about innovation.”

Current legislation in Congress makes changes to patent trial procedure in an effort to reduce the harm caused by patent trolling. But if we really want to solve the trolling problem once and for all, and to generally have a healthy and innovative patent system, we need to get at the problem of low-quality patents, especially in software. The best way to do that is to abolish the Federal Circuit, which has consistently undermined limits on patentable subject matter.

Is there a Bitcoin bubble? Jason Kuznicki thinks so and believes that he has conclusive proof. He blogs three graphs that show more or less that there is a lot of speculation in Bitcoin. But does speculation prove that there’s a bubble? Let’s use Bayes’s rule to think about this carefully.

Bayes’s rule is a mathematical tool for thinking about the incorporation of new evidence into subjective probabilities. Let’s suppose that there is some proposition A for which you have a prior belief. Somebody offers evidence B for or against A. How much should you change your belief in A based on evidence B?

Bayes’s rule boils the answer down to a simple mathematical form: Continue reading →

One of the criticisms leveled at Bitcoin by those people determined to hate it is that Bitcoin transactions are irreversible. If I buy goods from an anonymous counterparty online, what’s to stop them from taking my bitcoins and simply not sending me the goods? When I buy goods online using Visa or American Express, if the goods never arrive, or if they aren’t what was advertised, I can complain to the credit card company. The company will do a cursory investigation, and if they find that I was indeed likely ripped off, they will refund me my money. Credit card transactions are reversible, Bitcoin transactions are not. For this service (among others), credit card companies charge merchants a few percentage points on the transaction.

The problem with this account is that it’s not true: Baked into the Bitcoin protocol, there is support for what are known as “m-of-n” or “multisignature” transactions, transactions that require some number m out of some higher number n parties to sign off. Continue reading →

Yesterday at Forbes, William Pentland had an interesting piece on possible disintermediation in the electricity market.

In New York and New England, the price of electricity is a function of the cost of natural gas plus the cost of the poles and wires that carry electrons from remotely-sited power plants to end users. It is not unusual for customers to spend two dollars on poles and wires for every dollar they spend on electrons.

The poles and wires that once reduced the price of electricity for end users are now doing the opposite. To make matters worse, electricity supplied through the power grid is frequently less reliable than electricity generated onsite. In other words, rather than adding value in the form of enhanced reliability, the poles and wires diminish the reliability of electricity.

If two thirds of the cost of electricity is the distribution mechanism, then, as Pentland notes, there is a palpable opportunity to switch to at-home electricity generation. Some combination of solar power, batteries, and natural gas-fired backup generators could displace the grid entirely for some customers. And if I understand my electricity economics correctly, if a significant fraction of customers go off-grid, the fixed cost of maintaining the grid will be split over fewer remaining customers, making centrally-generated electricity even more expensive. The market for such electricity could quickly unravel. Continue reading →

I’m pleased to announce that Alex Tabarrok and I have a new working paper out from the Mercatus Center today, “Public Choice and Bloomington School Perspectives on Intellectual Property.” The paper will appear in Public Choice in 2014.

Here’s the abstract:

We mine two underexplored traditions for insights into intellectual property: the public choice or Virginia school, centered on James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, and the Bloomington or Institutional Analysis and Development school, centered on Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. We apply the perspectives of each school to issues of intellectual property and develop new insights, questions, and focuses of attention. We also explore tensions and synergies between the two schools on issues of intellectual property.

The gist of the paper is that the standard case for intellectual property—that a temporary monopoly is needed in order to recoup the sunk costs of innovation or creation—ignores issues raised by the two schools we investigate.

From a public choice perspective, a temporary monopoly provides enormous opportunities for rent seeking. Copyright and patent owners are constantly manipulating the political environment to expand either the duration of the monopoly or the scope of what can be monopolized. We document the evolution of intellectual property in the United States from its modest origins to its current strong and expansive state.

From a Bloomington perspective, the standard case for IP wrongly treats the commons as a kind of wasteland. In fact, numerous innovations and sprawling creative works occur without monopolization—just look at Wikipedia. Innovation occurs when the right institutional structures are in place, and intellectual property that is too severe can hamper the smooth operation of these institutions. Too much IP can harm as much as too little.

Read the whole thing, cite it copiously, etc.