Uber forms of governance

A few weeks ago Samuel Hammond posted some interesting thoughts on multi-sided platform (MSP) technologies like Uber and PayPal, and the role they play in providing forms of governance. You can read the whole thing here, but the outline is as follows:

Governance—that is, things like rational planning to solve co-ordination problems, the setting of rules and assigning of rights, etc—is done not just by states but by private companies, too. Platform technologies (essentially those which enable interaction between different groups of people) are a good example of this. Amazon and Ebay, for example, are virtual marketplaces which connect disparate buyers and vendors from across the world, whilst PayPal is not only a payments processor but an arbiter of commercial disputes, with procedures to file a complaint and rules on when compensation is entitled.

‘Good’ governance occurs when the rules set and rights assigned are reasonable to both sides of a transaction, and when the total societal cost of any regulation is kept to a minimum.

State governance schemes are well-intentioned, but can be rather crude and inefficient in their execution. Take taxi-regulation for example: licenses guarantee a certain level of quality and safety for consumers, whilst regulated fares remove the cost and risk of having to haggle for every journey. At the same time, though, these regulations result in high prices, inflated barriers to entry, a lack of competition and little reason for incumbents to innovate or improve their service. Whilst the state tries to efficiently balance the costs regulation imposes on each party it often falls short, both because of the grand Economic Calculation Problem, and things like capture of the regulatory process by special interest groups.

In contrast, Hammond argues, MSP technologies are very good at being governance institutions. For example, Uber has ruffled so many feathers because its popular service is arguably a superior system of taxi regulation, thanks to its use of participant rating systems, safety features, an algorithmic pricing structure and so on. And, by controlling a bottleneck to market access, Uber to some extent acts as a de facto private licensing authority.

These ‘market regulators’ tend to be good at governance for a couple of reasons. One is that they’re free to harness new technology and experiment with different setups, driving down transaction costs. Another is the fact that a rival platform may always come along an offer an alternative service— and, as Hammond notes, “the only way to supplant an incumbent platform is to adjust the governance structure in a way that social costs are better compensated by maximising the bargaining surplus”. This ensures that even when a market regulator looks like a natural monopoly, so long as there is the possibility of exit, the cost of regulation will tend towards the social minimum.

Hammond argues that this means that MSP technologies are not just a bit better at governance than state institutions, but that “they potentially meet the economic definition of an ideal ‘public interest’ regulator”. And, just as Uber challenges traditional taxi governance models, we can imagine a future where all property rentals are listed on something like Air BnB, with tenancy acts and local regulation displaced by market-set rules and regulations which efficiently balance the interests of renter and landlord.

Such a situation should perhaps not be understood as ‘deregulation’, but a shift in the act of governance from the state to the firm, resulting, we assume, in reduced costs to society as a whole.

I particularly liked this post because it complemented some thoughts (and assuaged some fears) I’d had about the state harnessing new technology and commercial consumer insights to better perform its functions. In November I wrote a rather gloomy piece on ‘algorithmic regulation‘ and the government’s use of things like ‘big data’ and behaviour prediction to create more efficient, streamlined, and reflexive regulation, which, like the google search algorithm, would be constantly reviewed and updated according to insights generated into ‘what works’.

Such algorithmic regulation, I thought, could make government regulation more efficient, less irrational and less intrusive—but it could also open the doors to forms of dystopic technocracy. Once governments have the ability to create, access, and utilise vast swathes of information on their citizens, they’re likely to want to expand their scope of operations. Perhaps they’ll be tempted to ‘connect the dots’ between different types of lifestyles and tax income, health outcomes and the like. The opportunities for Nudge-on-crack policies could be everywhere. In addition, behind the seemingly apolitical goal of ‘rule by algorithm’ it’s easy to smuggle in hidden political assumptions, and use questionable or untrue assumptions to dictate what our government supercomputers do. Nonetheless I felt I was being an unwarranted techno-pessimist, so I filed it away my wonderings before resurrecting them recently on my tumblr.

However, Hammond’s post sketches out an alternative governance system I’m much more of a fan of. Instead of harnessing private sector insights and using them to aid an intrusive and bloated state, he imagines a situation where government effectively outsources certain functions to private bodies (Uber as a private licensing authority, etc). And, because these bodies have to respond to market pressures, if they do a bad job or overstep the mark parties can vote with their feet. These alternative governance systems are less likely to cater to special interests, and don’t require the state to handle so many terabytes of personal data. We still have algorithmic regulation, but done more on the terms of the parties affected instead of the state.

To me, neither of these two futures of regulation seem implausible. But I certainly know which one I’d prefer.

Well done to The Guardian for joining the dots here

It is, of course, possible that we’re all being mugged by the retailers and supermarkets. In the absence of sufficient market competition that’s actually what we’d expect in fact, for capitalists are greedy for profit. That’s why we like markets. It’s also possible that the retailing business has intensive competition meaning that vast pressure is being put upon those suppliers and retailers to deliver the lowest possible prices to us, the consumers. Either story is possible but it’s really most unlikely that both are true. So, well done to The Guardian here:

The competition regulator is to scrutinise allegations that UK supermarkets have duped shoppers out of hundreds of millions of pounds through misleading pricing tactics.

Which? has lodged the first ever super-complaint against the grocery sector after compiling a dossier of “dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products and baffling sales offers” and sending it to the Competition and Markets Authority.

That’s a version of the first story. That there’s insufficient competition, we cannot take our trade elsewhere and so we’re being rooked by the capitalists.

Meanwhile, new research suggests that more than 1,400 suppliers to Britain’s supermarkets are facing collapse as the cut-throat price war takes its toll on the industry.

The number of food and beverage makers in significant financial distress has nearly doubled to 1,414 in the last year, according to insolvency practitioner Begbies Traynor.

That’s a version of the second story, that there’s intensive competition to the benefit of us consumers. And it is entirely contradictory to the tale of the first story.

We really cannot have both happening in he same market at the same time. But according to The Guardian we do because both examples are from the same article. Without their being able to connect the dots between the two that show that one or other of the stories must be wrong.

We might be at the right level of smoking regulation

Usually the costs of something rise as you do or have more of it, while its benefits fall. So unless the cost of the first unit is already very high or the benefits of the first unit are already very low there is some amount greater than zero that it is optimal to have or do.

This is true for an individual and for a society. The first car you have massively changes your life. The second one adds pleasure, variety, and a good deal of practicality in some situations, but it’s much less useful than the first. Nearly no one has three cars to themselves because the benefits are vanishingly small and the cost is rising for storage, upkeep reasons.

The first few million cars in a society the size of the UK are amazingly useful, the next million go to people who don’t need them as much but do add to congestion, pollution and so on. The forty-millionth or sixty-millionth car starts taking up way more space than it’s worth.

Well as the title suggests I think it’s possible we might be approaching (or already have gone past) this point when it comes to smoking regulation. I wrote before about how plain packaging was probably a mirage (incidentally I learned today that the UK would drop three whole places, from 2nd to 5th on the GIPC’s index of intellectual property rights protections if it passed it; though many of this blog’s readers probably wouldn’t mind that).

We may have needed very activist laws in the past because it really is quite difficult to inform people about anything really, and smoking is dangerous in important ways such that if you don’t understand the decision you’re taking you really could make your life a lot worse. But nowadays people may well even overestimate the costs and people are thus taking the right decisions to maximise social utility. It isn’t a question of externalities because smokers actually cost the state less by dying earlier (a bad thing!)

This isn’t just a musing. A new paper in the Journal of Cost-Benefit Analysis (“Retrospective and Prospective Cost-Benefit Analysis of US Anti-Smoking Policies” (pdf) by Lawrence Jin, Donald S. Kenkel, Feng Liu & Hua Wang) says roughly the same.

We use a dynamic population model to make counterfactual simulations of smoking prevalence rates and cigarette demand over time. In our retrospective BCA (Benefit-Cost Analysis) the simulation results imply that the overall impact of antismoking policies from 1964 – 2010 is to reduce total cigarette consumption by 28 percent.

At a discount rate of 3 percent the 1964-present value of the consumer benefits from anti-smoking policies through 2010 is estimated to be $573 billion ($2010). Although we are unable to develop a hard estimate of the policies’ costs, we discuss evidence that suggests the consumer benefits substantially outweigh the costs.

We then turn to a prospective BCA of future anti-smoking FDA regulations. At a discount rate of 3 percent the 2010-present value of the consumer benefits 30 years into the future from a simulated FDA tobacco regulation is estimated to be $100 billion. However, the nature of potential FDA tobacco regulations suggests that they might impose additional costs on consumers that make it less clear that the net benefits of the regulations will be positive.

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Especially cool is the chart of a rational level of cigarette smoking, based on the benefits to the smoker of fulfilling their preferences vs the costs of frustrating their preferences for better health and a longer life.

I’m not saying that this research is conclusive. One paper is one paper. But I think it’s getting to the point where further cigarette regulation is becoming intrusive and costly without necessarily producing large benefits to its purported targets. We should consider if we’ve maybe hit the cigarette regulation sweet spot.

Who rules Britain: how much of our law comes from Brussels?

Business for Britain was right, on 2nd March, to question the proportion of our laws that comes from Brussels. Nigel Farage says it is 78%, Nick Clegg 7% and the House of Commons Library 13.2% but that is also an understatement due to the Library’s omission of no less than 49,699 EU Regulations, during the same 21 years to 2014. EU Regulations are not approved by Parliament and thereby escape the Library’s attention. From that, Business for Britain concluded that 65.7% of our legislation comes from Brussels.

The figures, in fact, get murkier because the Library also seems to have omitted up to 2,000 statutory instruments a year, which would offset most of the swing. SIs are the UK equivalents of EU regulations: both are secondary or “delegated” legislation and cover a broad range of rules from laws in the full sense to temporary road closures. SIs can even be used to repeal primary legislation.

The proportion from Brussels is really beside the point, namely the total number of rules both from Brussels and Whitehall. Governments claim they will staunch the flow but little is done. Surely by now we must have enough laws?

Curiously, so far as business regulation is concerned, Whitehall is the bigger offender. In 1972 we signed up to a Common Market. That is the one bit of the EU we all like and let us hope that, and not much else, survives the EU renegotiation. A single market must have a single set of rules governing that market. You cannot have a single market if everyone makes their own. The market-maker is the EU and it is no more a loss of sovereignty to conform to their rules than, say, playing by the club’s rules when one joins a poker club. Sovereignty is being able to opt out.

Business, like poker, is competitive so it is crazy to add ones own rules, hobbling one’s own business, to those required by the club. Telling the others at the table that you will never raise on, say, two pairs, stacks the odds against you. For this reason, counter-intuitively, it would be best if 100% of business regulation came from Brussels.

If a regulation is needed in the UK then we should ensure Brussels adopts it for the rest of the single market. If the others think it is unnecessary, we should think again. Rather than dreaming up its own business regulations, Whitehall should be staunching the 4,000 a year flow from Brussels and ensure that what does get through will deliver the open, fair and competitive single market we need.

Not only can we ditch all UK business regulations not required by the EU, but, with all that new free time at their disposal, our civil servants can be out and about in the capitals of Europe developing best practice, closer working relationships and, in consequence the simplest and best set of rules. In this game, fewer is better as anyone who witnessed the FSA contribution to the banking crisis can testify. Indeed, they will not need desk space in Whitehall, probably the most expensive in Europe, any longer.

There is little truth in widespread view that we must accept EU legislation without demur, beyond fine tuning directive-based legislation a bit. The European Scrutiny Committee of MPs “assesses the legal/political importance of EU documents, deciding which are debated, monitoring the activities of UK Ministers in the Council and keeping developments in the EU under review.” In other words, it is supposed to be briefed with EU Regulations in draft and seek to amend those not in the UK interest. How often does it do that? Hardly ever is probably a generous estimate. When that doughty EU fighter, Sir William Cash, became chairman, some of us hoped for action, but no, he was overcome by the same torpor as overwhelmed his predecessors.

In short, Business for Britain are right to complaint about the excess of regulation from Brussels but we should complain even louder about the excess from Whitehall and Parliament’s spineless defence of British business.

Why we shouldn’t clamp down on zero-hour contracts

The Office for National Statistics has revealed that 697,000 people (about 2.26% of employees) are on zero-hours contracts in their main job, up more than 100,000 on a year ago. Such contracts make life uncertain for the employees concerned, who may not know from week to week, or even from day to day, whether they have paying work. Some 33% of those on zero-hours contracts say they would like to work more.

So should we be clamping down on zero-hours contracts? No, we should not.

First, it is absolutely correct that zero-hours contracts have become far more common in the last two or three years. They hovered at about 0.5% for most of the period since 2000. They rose in use quite slowly between 2005 and 2012, then shot up to just under 2% in 2013 and to that 2.26% figure in 2014.

However, the unemployment rate has also come down in the last two or three years as well. In 2011 it stood at over 8%. Now it is less than 6%, and seemingly headed steadily down. Even though zero-hours contracts represent only a very small part of the labour force, it seems reasonable to argue that the two trends are related. The economic outlook is brighter, but is still uncertain; businesses remain unsure about the future, unsure about their markets, unsure of how much they should invest, unsure of how many workers they can justify taking on. A bust-up in the eurozone, for example, or a general election that delivers an unfavourable or unworkable government. might change the outlook completely for many UK businesses. So the only way that they can rationally expand their production, and be ready if things really do boom, it so cut their employment risk. Hence zero-hours contracts.

Remember too that even though the ONS talks about people’s ‘main’ job, they might not be the only income earners in a household. The same is true of those on the minimum wage: many of them will be secondary earners. In fact, 34% of those on zero-hours contracts are aged 16-24 and half of those are in full time education. To them, a minimum wage job or a zero-hours contract, while frustrating, is not a disaster, and the extra income, however low or intermittent, is welcome.

Critics – you know who – say that the government has allowed a ‘low-pay culture’ to go ‘unchecked’. So what would be their solution? Ban zero-hours contracts? Raise the minimum wage yet further? The inevitable result would be that employers would no longer be willing to take the risk of employing so many people. And first to go would be young people, with fewer skills and less understanding of workplace culture than more experienced employees, and secondary earners, often women. There would be fewer ‘starter’ jobs through which young and unskilled people could gain experience, more young people trapped in benefits, and a rise in unemployment more generally.

What will do in zero-hours contracts, of course, is continuing economic growth. As unemployment falls, businesses will find it harder to attract employees, and workers and potential workers can become more choosy about the jobs they take. Zero-hours contracts will once again become a very small part of the employment market. Growth, employment, greater security. Job done, and not a politician in sight.