– Coauthored with Mercatus MA Fellow Walter Stover

The advent of artificial intelligence technology use in dynamic pricing has given rise to fears of ‘digital market manipulation.’ Proponents of this claim argue that companies leverage artificial intelligence (AI) technology to obtain greater information about people’s biases and then exploit them for profit through personalized pricing. Those that advance these arguments often support regulation to protect consumers against information asymmetries and subsequent coercive market practices; however, such fears ignore the importance of the institutional context. These market manipulation tactics will not have a great effect precisely because they lack coercive power to force people to open their wallets. Such coercive power is a function of social and political institutions, not of the knowledge of people’s biases and preferences that could be gathered from algorithms.

As long as companies such as Amazon operate in a competitive market setting, they are constrained in their ability to coerce customers who can vote with their feet, regardless of how much knowledge they actually gather about those customers’ preferences through AI technology. Continue reading →

A decade ago, a heated debate raged over the benefits of “a la carte” (or “unbundling”) mandates for cable and satellite TV operators. Regulatory advocates said consumers wanted to buy all TV channels individually to lower costs. The FCC under former Republican Chairman Kevin Martin got close to mandating a la carte regulation.

But the math just didn’t add up. A la carte mandates, many economists noted, would actually cost consumers just as much (or even more) once they repurchased all the individual channels they desired. And it wasn’t clear people really wanted a completely atomized one-by-one content shopping experience anyway.

Throughout media history, bundles of all different sorts had been used across many different sectors (books, newspapers, music, etc.). This was because consumers often enjoyed the benefits of getting a package of diverse content delivered to them in an all-in-one package. Bundling also helped media operators create and sustain a diversity of content using creative cross-subsidization schemes. The traditional newspaper format and business is perhaps the greatest example of media bundling. The classifieds and sports sections helped cross-subsidize hard news (especially local reporting). See this 2008 essay by Jeff Eisenach and me for details for more details on the economics of a la carte.

Yet, with the rise of cable and satellite television, some critics protested the use of bundles for delivering content. Even though it was clear that the incredible diversity of 500+ channels on pay TV was directly attributable to strong channels cross-subsidizing weaker ones, many regulatory advocates said we would be better off without bundles. Moreover, they said, online video markets could show us the path forward in the form of radically atomized content options and cheaper prices.

Flash-forward to today. Continue reading →

Why should we really care about technological innovation? My Mercatus Center colleague James Broughel and I have just published a paper answering that question. In “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth: A Brief Report on the Evidence,” we summarize the extensive body of evidence that discusses the relationship between innovation, growth, and human prosperity. We note that while economists, political scientists, and historians don’t agree on much, there exists widespread consensus among them that there is a symbiotic relationship between the pace of innovation and the progress of civilization. Our 27-page paper documenting the academic evidence on this issue can be downloaded on SSRN or from the Mercatus website. Here’s the abstract:

Technological innovation is a fundamental driver of economic growth and human progress. Yet some critics want to deny the vast benefits that innovation has bestowed and continues to bestow on mankind. To inform policy discussions and address the technology critics’ concerns, this paper summarizes relevant literature documenting the impact of technological innovation on economic growth and, more broadly, on living standards and human well-being. The historical record is unambiguous regarding how ongoing innovation has improved the way we live; however, the short-term disruptive aspects of technological change are real and deserve attention as well. The paper concludes with an extended discussion about the relevance of these findings for shaping cultural attitudes toward technology and the role that public policy can play in fostering innovation, growth, and ongoing improvements in the quality of life of citizens.

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

Over at the Mercatus Center Bridge blog, Trace Mitchell and I just posted an essay entitled, “A Non-Partisan Way to Help Workers and Consumers,” which discusses the new Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Economic Liberty Task Force report on occupational licensing.

We applaud the FTC’s calls for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, but regret the missed opportunity to address root problem of excessive licensing more generally. But while FTC is right to push for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, policymakers need to confront the sheer absurdity of licensing so many jobs that pose zero risk to public health & safety. Licensing has become completely detached from risk realities and actual public needs.

As the FTC notes, excessive licensing limits employment opportunities, worker mobility, and competition while also “resulting in higher prices, reduced quality, and less convenience for consumers.” These are unambiguous facts that are widely accepted by experts of all stripes. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations, for example, have been completely in league on the need for comprehensive  licensing reforms. Continue reading →

In recent essays and papers, I have discussed the growth of “innovation arbitrage,” which I defined as, “The movement of ideas, innovations, or operations to those jurisdictions that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” A new Economist article about “Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley,” discusses innovation arbitrage without calling it such. The article notes that, for a variety of reasons, Valley innovators and investors are looking elsewhere to set up shop or put money into new ventures. The article continues:

Other cities are rising in relative importance as a result. The Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit group that tracks entrepreneurship, now ranks the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area first for startup activity in America, based on the density of startups and new entrepreneurs. Mr Thiel is moving to Los Angeles, which has a vibrant tech scene. Phoenix and Pittsburgh have become hubs for autonomous vehicles; New York for media startups; London for fintech; Shenzhen for hardware. None of these places can match the Valley on its own; between them, they point to a world in which innovation is more distributed.

If great ideas can bubble up in more places, that has to be welcome. There are some reasons to think the playing-field for innovation is indeed being levelled up. Capital is becoming more widely available to bright sparks everywhere: tech investors increasingly trawl the world, not just California, for hot ideas. There is less reason than ever for a single region to be the epicentre of technology. Thanks to the tools that the Valley’s own firms have produced, from smartphones to video calls to messaging apps, teams can work effectively from different offices and places.

That’s the power of innovation arbitrage at work.  Continue reading →

A curious thing happened last week. Facebook’s stock, which had seem to have weathered the 2018 controversies, took a beating.

In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin explained that the stock market drop was representative of a larger wave:

The cost of years of privacy missteps finally caught up with Facebook this week, sending its market value down more than $100 billion Thursday in the largest single-day drop in value in Wall Street history.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy piled on, describing the drop as “a privacy wake-up call that the markets are delivering to Mark Zuckerberg.”

But the downward pressure was driven by more fundamental changes. Simply put, Facebook missed its earnings target. But it is important to peer into why the company didn’t meet those targets. Continue reading →

The White House has announced a new effort to help prepare workers for the challenges they will face in the future. While it’s a well-intentioned effort, and one that I hope succeeds, I’m skeptical about it for a simple reason: It’s just really hard to plan for the workforce needs of the future and train people for jobs that we cannot possibly envision today.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to the president, outlines the elements of new Executive Order that President Trump is issuing “to prioritize and expand workforce development so that we can create and fill American jobs with American workers.” Toward that end, the Administration plans on:

  • establishing a National Council for the American Worker, “composed of senior administration officials, who will develop a national strategy for training and retraining workers for high-demand industries.” This is meant to bring more efficiency and effectiveness to the “more than 40 workforce-training programs in more than a dozen agencies, and too many have produced meager results.”
  • “facilitat[ing] the use of data to connect American businesses, workers and educational institutions.” This is meant to help workers find “what jobs are available, where they are, what skills are required to fill them, and where the best training is available.”
  • launching a nationwide campaign “to highlight the growing vocational crisis and promote careers in the skilled trades, technology and manufacturing.”

The Administration also plans on creating a new advisory board of experts to address these issues, and the administration is also “asking companies and trade groups throughout the country to sign our new Pledge to America’s Workers—a commitment to invest in the current and future workforce.” They hope to encourage companies to take additional steps “to educate, train and reskill American students and workers.”

Perhaps some of these steps make sense, and perhaps a few will even help workers deal with the challenges of our more complex, fast-evolving, global economy. But I doubt it.

Continue reading →

Expanding rural broadband has generated significant interest in recent years. However, the current subsidy programs are often mismanaged and impose little accountability. It’s not clear what effect rural broadband subsidies have had, despite the amount of money spent on it. As economist Scott Wallsten has pointed out, the US government has spent around $100 billion on rural telecommunications and broadband since 1995 “without evidence that it has improved adoption.”

So I was pleased to hear a few months ago that the Montana Public Service Commission was making an inquiry into how to improve rural broadband subsidy programs. Montana looms large in rural broadband discussions because Montana telecommunications providers face some of the most challenging terrain the US–mountainous, vast, and lightly-populated. (In fact, “no bars on your phone” in rural Montana is a major plot element in the popular videogame Far Cry 5. HT Rob Jackson.)

I submitted comments in the Montana PSC proceeding and received an invitation to testify at a hearing on the subject. So last week I flew to Helena to discuss rural broadband programs with the PSC and panelists. I emphasized three points.

  • Federal broadband subsidy programs are facing higher costs and fewer beneficiaries.

Using FCC data, I calculated that since 1998, USF high-cost subsidies to Montana telecom companies have risen by about 40% while the number of rural customers served by those companies have decreased by over 50%. I suspect these trends are common nationally, and that USF subsidies are increasing while fewer people are benefiting.

  • Wireless broadband is the future, especially in rural areas.

“Fiber everywhere” is not a wise use of taxpayer funds and exurban and rural households are increasingly relying on wireless–from satellite, WISPs, and mobile. In 2016, the CDC reported that more households had wireless phone than landline phone service. You’re starting to see “cord cutting” pick up for broadband as well. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, that percentage had doubled, and about 20% of households were mobile-only. The percentage is likely even higher today now that unlimited data plans are common. Someday soon the FCC will have to conclude that mobile broadband is a substitute for fixed broadband, and subsidy programs should reflect that.

  • Consumer-focused “tech vouchers” would be a huge improvement over current broadband programs.

Current programs subsidize the construction of networks even where there’s no demand. The main reason the vast majority of non-Internet users don’t subscribe to broadband is that they are uninterested in subscribing, according to surveys from the NTIA (55% are uninterested), Pew (70% are uninterested), and FCC and Connected Nation experts (63% are uninterested). With rising costs and diminishing returns to rural fiber construction, the FCC needs to reevaluate USF and make subsidies more consumer-focused. The UK for a couple years has pursued another model for rural broadband: consumer broadband vouchers. Since most people who don’t subscribe to broadband don’t want it, vouchers protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense and paying for gold-plated services.

For years, economists and the GAO have criticized the structure, complexity, and inefficiency of the USF programs, and particularly the rural program. The FCC is constantly changing the programs because of real and perceived deficiencies, but this has made the USF unwieldy. Montana providers participate in at least seven different rural USF programs alone (that doesn’t include the other USF programs and subprograms or other federal help, like RUS grants).

Unfortunately, most analysis and reporting on US broadband programs can be summed up as “don’t touch the existing programs–just send more money.” (There are some exceptions and scrutiny of the programs, like Tony Romm’s 2015 Politico investigation into the mismanagement of stimulus-funded Ag Department broadband projects.)

“Journalism as advocacy” is unfortunately the norm when it comes to broadband policy. Take, for instance, this article about the digital divide that omits mention of the $100 billion spent in rural areas alone, only to conclude that “small [broadband] companies and cooperatives are going it more or less alone, without much help yet from the federal government.”

(That story and another digital divide story had other problems, namely, a reliance on an academic study using faulty data purchased from a partisan campaign firm. FiveThirtyEight deserves credit for acknowledging the data’s flaws but that should have alerted the editors on the need for still more fact-checking.) 

States can’t rewrite federal statutes and regulations but it’s to the Montana PSC’s great credit that they sensed that all is not well. Current trends will only put more stress on the programs. Hopefully other state PUCs will see that the current programs do a disservice for universal service objectives and consumers.

Last week the FCC commissioners voted to restructure the agency and create an Office of Economics and Analytics. Hopefully the new Office will give some rigor to the “public interest standard” that guides most FCC decisions. It’s important the FCC formally inject economics in to public interest determinations, perhaps much like the Australian telecom regulator’s “total welfare standard,” which is basically a social welfare calculation plus consideration of “broader social impacts.”

In contrast, the existing “standard” has several components and subcomponents (some of them contradictory) depending on the circumstances; that is, it’s no standard at all. As the first general counsel of the Federal Radio Commission, Louis Caldwell, said of the public interest standard, it means

as little as any phrase that the drafters of the Act could have used and still comply with the constitutional requirement that there be some standard to guide the administrative wisdom of the licensing authority.

Unfortunately, this means public interest determinations are largely shielded from serious court scrutiny. As Judge Posner said of the standard in Schurz Communications v. FCC,

So nebulous a mandate invests the Commission with an enormous discretion and correspondingly limits the practical scope of responsible judicial review.

Posner colorfully characterized FCC public interest analysis in that case:

The Commission’s majority opinion … is long, but much of it consists of boilerplate, the recitation of the multitudinous parties’ multifarious contentions, and self-congratulatory rhetoric about how careful and thoughtful and measured and balanced the majority has been in evaluating those contentions and carrying out its responsibilities. Stripped of verbiage, the opinion, like a Persian cat with its fur shaved, is alarmingly pale and thin.

Every party who does significant work before the FCC has agreed with Judge Posner’s sentiments at one time or another.

Which brings us to the Office of Economics and Analytics. Cost-benefit analysis has its limits, but economic rigor is increasingly important as the FCC turns its attention away from media regulation and towards spectrum assignment and broadband subsidies.

The worst excesses of FCC regulation are in the past where, for instance, one broadcaster’s staff in 1989 “was required to review 14,000 pages of records to compile information for one [FCC] interrogatory alone out of 299.” Or when, say, FCC staff had to sift through and consider 60,000 TV and radio “fairness” complaints in 1970. These regulatory excesses were corrected by economists (namely, Ronald Coase’s recommendation that spectrum licenses be auctioned, rather than given away for free by the FCC after a broadcast “beauty contest” hearing), but history shows that FCC proceedings spiral out of control without the agency intending it.

Since Congress gave such a nebulous standard, the FCC is always at risk of regressing. Look no further than the FCC’s meaningless “Internet conduct standard” from its 2015 Open Internet Order. This “net neutrality” regulation is a throwback to the bad old days, an unpredictable conduct standard that–like the Fairness Doctrine–would constantly draw the FCC into social policy activism and distract companies with interminable FCC investigations and unknowable compliance requirements.

In the OIO’s mercifully short life, we saw glimpses of the disputes that would’ve distracted the agency and regulated companies. For instance, prominent net neutrality supporters had wildly different views about whether a common practice, “zero rating” of IP content, by T-Mobile violated the Internet conduct standard. Chairman Tom Wheeler initially called it “highly innovative and highly competitive” while Harvard professor Susan Crawford said it was “dangerous” and “malignant” and should be outlawed “immediately.” The nearly year-long FCC investigations into zero rating and the equivocal report sent a clear, chilling message to ISPs and app companies: 20 years of permissionless innovation for the Internet was long enough. Submit your new technologies and business plans to us or face the consequences.

Fortunately, by rescinding the 2015 Order and creating the new economics Office, Chairman Pai and his Republican colleagues are improving the outlook for the development of the Internet. Hopefully the Office will make social welfare calculations a critical part of the public interest standard.