Switching mobile networks is easier than switching governments

Unlike lots of people on the right, I like Owen Jones. He’s good natured and often challenges orthodoxy on his own side, and he’s a thought-provoking writer. 

Having said that, I usually disagree with what he writes on economics. His Guardian piece this week, which called for the nationalisation of the UK’s mobile network operators, was a good example. It’s tempting to dismiss it as clickbait, but it represents a train of thought that is increasing in popularity. And if nothing else it may shift the Overton Window.

Jones starts by pointing out that nationalisation of big industries is very popular among the public at large. “While our political overlords are besotted with Milton Friedman, the public seem to be lodged somewhere between John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx.” 

A fair point. He might also have noted that the public disagrees with him about lots of other things: the obvious example is hanging, where the public is somewhere between Roger Helmer and Oswald Mosley, but there’s also immigration, which 55% of people want reduced ‘a lot’ (and another 21% want reduced ‘a little’). The Great British public thinks the benefits system is too generous by a 2-to-1 margin, and think that ‘politicians need to do more to reduce the amount of money paid out in benefits’ by a 3-to-1 margin. And so on. On these issues, and presumably many others, I assume Jones thinks the public needs further persuasion.

It isn’t necessarily that the public really is bloodthirsty or xenophobic or anti-poor or quasi-Marxist; it’s that the public is extremely uninformed about most things. How could you judge whether we needed more or less immigration if you thought we had more than twice as much immigration as we actually do? How could you judge whether the railroads should be nationalised or not if you did not know that passenger numbers had doubled since privatization, after decades of decline under the state?

Jones claims that mobile phone networks are an inefficient natural monopoly, without any real reasons given. This claim is untrue. The UK has four competing mobile networks (Vodafone, O2, Three and EE, which was formed by a merger by T-Mobile and Orange) and dozens of aftermarket “mobile virtual network operators” that lease wireless spectrum from those four networks (GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile are two popular examples). None of these networks are unusually profitable and all spend enormous amounts on marketing. Try spending a day in a city without seeing at least one advert for each company. This is not the behaviour of monopolistic industry!

(There are a couple of other frustrating errors in the piece. For instance, a typical £32-a-month 24-month contract can get you an iPhone worth £550, not a device worth £200 as Jones claims.)

Yes, signal blackspots are annoying. (Take it from someone who spent his teenage life having to walk into the garden to send a text message.) And mobile networks’ customer service really does suck sometimes! But Jones is comparing reality with an ideal where resources are infinite. Since resources are not infinite, we have to have some way of deciding what imperfections are tolerable. 

For example, as annoying as blackspots are, the optimal amount of coverage is obviously less than 100%. The phone networks reckon they cover around 99% of the population, and as frustrating as it is when you’re in that last 1%, the marginal costs rise dramatically when you try to cover that last 1%. We could cover them at great cost, meaning that we have less money to spend on other important things elsewhere. The question is one of priorities.

Ultimately, the important question that Jones does not answer (or ask) is, compared to what? Private sector firms might be irritating sometimes. Unless you can show that nationalised firms would be less irritating and better overall, that doesn’t tell us anything about what we should do. 

There are lots of examples of nationalised firms that were absolutely terrible. Tim remembers waiting three months for a landline when the GPO ran the phones; and then there is the huge drop-off in rail passenger numbers under British Rail, followed by an equally huge recovery after privatisation:

GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year

The fact that the state funded some of the scientific research that led to the iPhone doesn’t mean that we’d have better phones if we nationalised Apple. (It might be a case for state funding for scientific research that is released into the public domain, though.) As Tim says, “The State can be just as good as the market at invention, the creation of really cool new technologies. But it’s terrible compared to the market at innovation, the getting of that new technology into peoples’ hands so that they can do cool and interesting new things with it.” 

Economies of scale exist, as Jones suggests, but so do diseconomies of scale. Firms can be too big. And when you have a single network (whether it’s privately or publicly owned), customers lose all ability to ‘exit’ a firm that is giving them a bad service, so the only recourse they have is at the ballot box. 

Which brings us back to the first problem with Jones’s piece: politics is a complicated business about which we know little. If we don’t like what we’ve got, we have to hope that a majority of other voters agrees with us – and even if we’re right, they may not be informed enough to agree with us. 

It’s a lot easier to switch mobile phone providers than it is to switch governments. Ultimately, it’s that pluralism and freedom of exit that drives improvements in markets, and tends to make governments relatively bad at doing things. For all the mobile network industry’s problems, the question is: compared to what?

Is Uber worth $18bn?

James Ball, at The Guardian, thinks that Uber’s implicit $18bn valuation is “a nadir in tech insanity”. His case is that tech firms are overvalued because although investors know this, they always assume there are other “suckers” they can palm their securities off on. That is, they think the other guys are “behavioural” (falling prey to the sorts of biases detailed in behavioural economics and behavioural finance) but they themselves are rational. Ball is responsible for some very good and important work, but I think this particular piece would benefit from the application of some financial economics.

It’s always possible that prices are irrational. And because we can never test investors risk preference separately from the efficient markets hypothesis (the idea that markets accurately reflect preferences and expected outcomes) it’s very hard to work out if prices are off, or just incorporating some other factor (usually risk). This is called the joint hypothesis problem. But when there are two alternatives, there is a reason economists put rational expectations in their models—it’s a simpler, better explanation. Finding truly suggestive evidence of irrational price bubbles is the sort of thing that wins you a Nobel Prize not something that a casual onlooker could easily and confidently observe.

Ball might say that even if irrational pricing is rare because of the strong incentives against it in a normal market, there have certainly been episodes of it in the past. Quoting J.M. Keynes, he might say “markets can remain irrational much longer than you or I can remain liquid”. He might point to the 1999-2000 peak of what’s commonly described as the “dot com bubble”. But I urge Ball to consider a point raised in this email exchange between Ivo Welch and Eugene Fama:

How many Microsofts among Internet firms would it have taken to justify the high prices of 1999-2000?  I think there were reasonable beliefs at the time that the internet would revolutionize business and there would be many Microsoft-like success stories based on first-mover advantages in different industries.

Loughran and Ritter (2002, Why has IPO pricing changed over time) report that during 1999-2000 there are 803 IPOs with an average market cap of $1.46bn (Table 1).  576 of the IPOs are tech and internet-related (Table 2). I infer that their total market cap is about $840 billion, or about twice Microsoft’s valuation at that time.  Given expectations at that time about high tech and the business revolution to be generated by the internet, is it unreasonable that the equivalent of two Microsofts would eventually emerge from the tech and internet-related IPOs?

Has not the second wave of cyber firm success (FacebookGoogle, arguably Apple) been even more impressive than the first wave? It may well be only 25% or 10% likely that Uber turns out to be one of these behemoth firms, through network effects, first mover advantages, name-recognition or whatever—but even if the chance is small the potential rewards are huge.

But Ball may point out that even if this is true, in the (putatively) 90% likely scenario, of Uber being a failure, then all this capital is being wasted. It could be put in the projects he prefers: “green energy, modern manufacturing, or even staid-but-solid sectors like retail”. Even if rational expectations—the idea outcomes do not differ systematically (i.e. predictably) from predictions—and the efficient markets hypothesis are not violated, and risk-adjusted expected (private) returns are equal across industries, it might be that social returns from these staid-but-solid sectors are higher—after all, lots of capital is being apparently wasted when so much goes to Uber.

This does not obtain—from the prospects of society, Uber could deliver huge welfare gains. If it does turn out that Uber has enough in the way of network effects to generate returns justifying its price tag (or more) then it would have to create lots of value, by saving taxi-consumers serious money. If they are using less resources to create the same amount of goods, then they are making society better off. Since society is big and diversified, it can afford to be relatively risk neutral (at least compared to an individual), and take even 9-1 punts on the chance that one memorable, semi-established network might be a particularly good way of running a taxi market.

Unfare Competition

It’s not really a huge surprise that Brussels, the home of EU bureaucracy, has recently banned ‘cab app’ service Uber from the city. The Brussels court unashamedly declared the company “unfair market competition” to the town’s two (yes, two…) taxi companies, and drivers face a €100,000 fine if they use the app to pick up customers.

This isn’t a one-off, either; Uber’s had a bumpy ride from the start. Across the USA and Canada they’ve endured cease-and-desist letters, impounded cars, sting operations and suspended trading. Taxi drivers in Chicago are suing the city itself over them,  Berlin’s slapped on an injunction, and in France enraged taxi drivers are getting physical.

Uber hit London in Summer 2012. Given the range of ventures on the scene- Black cabs, mini cabs and fleets of Addison Lee, as well as apps like Kabee and Hailo – Uber’s operation should be uncontroversial. Not so. Instead, the Licensed Private Hire Car Association (LPCHA) has called upon TfL to ban cab app services for failing to conform to relevant legislation, citing , uninventively, public safety concerns.

Reading all of this Uber come across as renegade cowboys, tearing through cities kidnapping passengers. Reality is far more boring.

Uber’s critics deem them an unlicensed taxi company (or as per the Chicago lawsuit, an ‘unlawful transportation provider’), who blatantly violate regulations. In actual fact, Uber are a new kind of entity: an app-based, ‘logistical’ intermediary. They use GPS to connect passengers with self-employed (and in the UK, licensed) drivers, and handle payment through a registered card. Their trick is that in only ‘matching up’ independent drivers with riders, they don’t count as a taxi operator.

Additionally, in the UK private hire vehicles can’t ply for trade like registered taxis and must be booked in advance. It seems that a rider requesting a pickup through Uber counts as a booking, allowing a nearby driver to accept a request and be there in minutes. In these ways it does seem that Uber and other like it have thrown away the rulebook, but only because they’ve been ingenious enough to innovate around it. Uber’s model also brings other innovations too, such as price discrimination through ‘surge’ pricing, truly flexible work for drivers, and a highly responsive rating system of both drivers and passengers.

There’s no wonder that incumbent players are worried. But it’s sad, if not surprising, that anti-Uber sentiment comes not from governments angry at rulebreaking but businesses threatened by fresh thinking.

State intervention imposes huge costs and barriers to entry on the taxi industry (think of London cabbie’s ‘The Knowledge’, fixed taxi fares, and America, where taxi medallions have sold for over $1m) - scuppering competition and innovation. Reform of the industry with its often cozy cartels is long overdue.

Companies like Uber show other firms how they can improve their game. In fairness there is an argument for ‘leveling the playing field’; it’s not one actors want to use. When Uber works around (or even flouts) a jurisdiction’s regulation, other players can use Uber’s success as evidence that restrictions are superfluous to providing a good service, and therefore unfair on them.

Instead of demanding more relaxed regulation, however, incumbent actors have decided which side their bread is buttered, and would rather keep the status quo than improve their service. Instead of competing, they cling to the regulatory chains binding them and wail for others to be shackled by them too. They might cry the cry of public safety, but it’s the safety of their market share which they’re really concerned about.

Sadly, vested interests have had far too much success in this area. Where Uber hasn’t been banned completely, lawmakers have often caved in and introduced new restrictions. Frequently, this doesn’t stop protestors. And it isn’t just Uber who has such woes. Companies with similarly innovative models such as AirBnb and Aereo have also faced an uphill struggle of acceptance.

TfL should disregard LPCHA’s demands. It certainly isn’t up to the government to protect old industries and vested interests, but sadly so many other cities clamping down on Uber adds false weight to their claims. It’s beyond obvious that consumers, not regulators, and certainly not business rivals should be the judge of an effective (and safe) service. That said, the fact that cab app services are making so many competitors uncomfortable is a pretty good indicator that they’re doing something right.

Edapt in Education

Michael Gove’s battle against  “the blob” rumbles on. Not only is he in the firing line over Ofsted appointments, but the NUT is set to announce the date for more teaching strikes on Friday. Cue the cheers of solidarity from some sources, and lofty dismissals of leftist militarism from others.

Though the saint-sinner dichotomy makes for easy reporting, the real relationship between teachers, politics and the unions is more interesting. Despite falling membership across other sectors, teaching remains a highly unionized profession. Teachers also report high levels of satisfaction with their union experience. Despite this, turnout for voting on industrial action is often low, and 44% teachers told a LKMco study that the right to strike isn’t important to them.

Instead, the most frequently-given reason by teachers for union membership is access to legal advice and support. With 1 in 4 teachers experiencing a false allegation at some point in their career, the expertise and advice a union offers in times of dispute is also cited as the most valuable service they provide.

Given the structure of employment law and the difficult nature of dealing with children, it is no wonder that teachers value this support. However, there’s no reason why affordable expert advice should have to be bundled with a political agenda. Indeed, a quarter of teachers said that they’d rather not belong to a union if a good alternative existed. At a CMRE seminar last week John Roberts outlined the model of his company Edapt, a for-profit, teaching union alternative established in 2011. Edapt offers the legal advice and representation teachers seek, without engagement in political bargaining and lobbying. Instead of trading blows with governments they can focus on delivering quality employment support to their members. Many members approached Edpat with a pre-existing issue and unsatisfied with their union’s response, whilst Roberts boasts of Edapt’s 99% satisfaction rate.

Obvioulsly, this model would not be for everyone. Many teachers still consider collective bargaining an essential tool, and Edapt is small fry compared to the unions. Not all teachers are comfortable playing politics, however, and inter-union competition for members can encourage more politically aggressive strategies. Recent strikes have polarised teachers, with Edapt growing most quickly around times of industrial action. Further strike action could lead to another surge of teachers uncomfortable or simply exasperated with their union’s actions.

No matter what causes people to join Edapt, political neutrality is crucial for its long-term success. It’s ironic that eschewing sector politics can look ideological, but a ‘non-union’ is easily seen as an ‘anti-union’. Gove might have made this mistake himself in inviting Edapt to reform discussions last year. And, tellingly, his endorsement of the Edapt as a ‘wonderful organization’ actively lost them members.

Time will tell just how successful union alternatives can be. If Edapt can prove that it isn’t ideologically driven and its focus is right, the model might have relevance in other sectors and across countries. With only 25% UK workforce unionised, there might be scope to offer services to people who wouldn’t have considered joining a union. Either way, with 48 hours of tube strikes starting tonight, I bet TfL wishes that there were more union alternatives within public transport.

strike.jpg

Technology, Privacy and Innovation in 2014

Prediction lists for the coming year are always revealing, though perhaps more of the current public mood than the future. A write-up of the tech trends for 2014 by Fast Company’s design blog is hardly controversial, but what is interesting is how the areas they’ve chosen highlight the existence of two wider and seemingly divergent technological trends. This apparent conflict in the way technology is heading is far from problematic. On the contrary, it shows our success in adapting and experimenting with new ideas and in response to shifts in the social and political context, without the need for any central guidance.

One thing clear from Fast Company’s list is that 2014 will bring a continued increase in the volume and depth of the personal data we create. Things like Google Glass, the ‘quantified self’, hyperpersonalised online experiences and the interconnectivity of theInternet of Things all create new reasons and mechanisms for data capture. This in turn increases the value of our data to ourselves, the companies with access to it and, in some situations, the state.

However, the article also predicts that 2014 will see increasing concerns over cyber-privacy and a movement towards greater digital anonymity. Users will increasingly chose to control their own data and how this is profited from, whilst we will begin to discover the joy of ‘disconnecting’ from the digital world and see the creation of intentional blackspots.

The fact that we seem to be embracing deeper technological integration yet simultaneously finding ways to mitigate and avoid its consequences is certainly interesting. Does this show that we’ve raced forward too fast and are trying to claw back a space we’re realising we’ve lost? It’s perhaps possible that this is the case, but far from giving us cause for concern the two-track path we’re seeing shows the ability of consumers and the tech sector to adapt over time, and in turn gives some hints on the optimal tech policy.

Continue Reading…

insight.png