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:
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?