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.

Economic Nonsense: 39. Only strong government regulation can hold big business in check

It isn’t strong government that causes concern for big business.  They are more worried about the smaller, newer businesses that might take away their trade.  It is competition, not government that they worry about.  Big business often cozies up to big government.  It employs lobbyists to negotiate with civil servants and ministers, and hammers out agreements on what types of regulations should be introduced, and how they should be implemented.

Big business can cope with regulation.  It can afford the staff to deal with compliance.  Small businesses, especially start-ups, find it more difficult to afford the money or the staff time that regulatory compliance takes up.  Big business knows this, and often strikes deals with lawmakers to impose regulation that will deter newcomers from entering the market.  Far from it being used to control big business, regulation often helps big business by imposing unacceptable costs on its real or would-be competitors.  People speak of “regulatory capture” when the industry works with government to secure helpful regulation.

Some regulation is needed to reassure the public that it will not fall victim to sharp practice or shady dealing, but five words should be engraved above the door of every legislator: “Competition is the best regulator.”  It is competition that keeps firms striving to deliver high quality and keen prices.  The fear of losing trade is more powerful than the fear of incurring the displeasure of government.

Regulation is commonly used to protect those in the market from competition by those who might enter it.  If no-one can trim hair without training and a certificate, the prices charged by existing hairdressers will not be undercut.  If no one can enter the taxi trade without a medallion or a two-year training course, the fares charged by existing cabbies will be protected.  All rules like these are done in the name of protecting the public, but in reality it is the established operators that they most commonly protect.

To control big business government should pursue a policy of promoting competition.  It should make it easier, not harder, to enter established markets.  This, more than regulation, will keep firms attentive to their customers.

Economic Nonsense: 24. Strong laws are needed to curb the activity of speculators

The villains of the piece change as the economy changes. At one time it was money-lenders, then corn merchants. In modern times speculators are up there with bankers in popular dislike. Speculators are commonly perceived as people who add nothing to a product, and often as people who profit from the hardships endured by others. They are seen to buy cheap in the hope that the price will rise, then sell at a profit without having added to or improved whatever it was they speculated on.

In fact speculators often provide a useful service. They can take the burden of risk that others might find difficult to deal with. The speculator who buys a farmer’s crop in advance gives the farmer the certainty of a price. Farming is an unpredictable activity, and the market price when the crop I harvested might be higher or lower than that agreed price. The speculator hopes it will be higher and takes the chance, but the farmer prefers the certainty of a known price that enables him to plan his affairs.

When speculators buy or sell commodities hoping to profit from price changes, they dampen some of the fluctuations. If they bet on a future shortage, they will buy now in the hope of selling for a higher price. If enough of them do it, the effect of buying now is to raise the price now, signalling to users to curtail their use, and to producers to bring out more supply. The same happens in reverse if they bet on a future glut by selling.

Businesses that sell to other countries face the uncertainty of not knowing what their goods might fetch in foreign currencies at the time of their delivery. They can smooth this by buying or selling currencies in advance from speculators prepared to take a punt on future changes in exchange rates.

The invisible service that speculation adds to goods is risk management. It is a valuable service, but because people cannot see it, they see it as money for nothing. Always there will be populist politicians prepared to trade on their resentment and propose tough laws to curb an essential service that helps markets to work more efficiently.

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.

Enemy of the steak: what’s wrong with government diet guidelines

As an amateur chef I have become increasingly interested in the government’s guidelines and regulations around food. For something so central to our lives, the advice and rules the government makes to do with what we eat are usually overlooked. Two developments this week suggest that this is a mistake.

I have previously argued that government regulation is often bad because, if it turns out to be bad regulation, it imposes a single error across an entire group of people or firms. That view may explain the financial crisis, where banks were required to hold lots of mortgage debt by regulators who thought they were forcing banks to be sensible.

Now, it looks as if it might also apply to diet guidelines. This week a new paper has been published that argues quite convincingly that, not only does modern evidence show that government guidelines to reduce dietary fat intake were a bad idea, they were even against the bulk of the evidence available at the time.

Today, it’s being reported that the US will stop advising people to avoid dietary cholesterol, because of a change in nutritionists’ view of how our diet affects our bodily cholesterol levels.

The Verge says that ‘The DGAC is more concerned about the chronic under-consumption of good nutrients, noting that Vitamin D, Vitamin E, potassium, calcium, and fiber are under-consumed across the entire US population.’ Interestingly, high-cholesterol foods like eggs, offal and seafood are very high in some of those vitamins.

It’s tempting to suggest a connection there – that vitamin deficiencies may be a direct cause of misguided government diet advice. And this may be the case. But, having looked around and spoken to the British Nutrition Foundation, I can’t find any work by either the government or independent academics on how much impact these guidelines have on what we eat, let alone on our health. (The exception is the five-a-day campaign, which has been fairly successful.)

If it turns out that diet guidelines have been wrong on things like fat and cholesterol, and maybe things like salt as well, what are the costs? I see there being two potential downsides to bad advice. The first is that the advice is actually dead wrong and drives people to eat in ways that ends up being worse for their health. Perhaps this is true of the cholesterol advice.

The second, which is more ambiguous, is the welfare cost. We eat not just for sustenance but because it gives us pleasure – a steak done well is much better for me than a well-done steak, because, even though the nutritional content is basically the same, it makes me happier. If government guidelines have been mistakenly putting people off eating foods they enjoy then they have been costly in welfare terms even if the health impact is not significant.

Of course people may need to get advice from somewhere, and I don’t see any reason to believe that government advice is worse than, say, the stuff you get in the Femail section of the Mail Online website. But if government diet regulations are still likely to be mistaken, and they influence people much more than any single bit of diet advice from an independent source, then they may end up holding back a process of private trial and error that would give us better information about what’s good to eat over time.