Archives: January, 2012

Today, at Least, Britannica Rules the Web

Congratulations to Wikipedia for going dark for a day in protest of the “online piracy” bills being considered in Congress.

But what do we do for information today? You know, we’ve gotten used to being able to find information now. So here’s an idea: Try the original encyclopedia, the one written (in most cases, ahem) by scholars and experts, Britannica.

You could start with their article on libertarianism. Or indeed their article on censorship. And then move on to the columns that I wrote there for most of 2011, on such topics as the debt ceiling crisis, the French Revolution, the founding documents of the United States and the Communist Party of China, the false charge of isolationism, marriage equality in 1967 and 2011,  government waste (“this is the business you have chosen”), the Stonewall protests, the triumph of feminism, and why Keynes threw towels on the floor. Good heavens – that ought to keep you busy on Wednesday.

And then Thursday at noon, as Wikipedia and other sites reopen, you can go down to Capitol Hill at noon to see a panel of experts explain what’s wrong with the bills that the websites are protesting.

U.S. Postal Service Fares Worse in Recession than Foreign Posts

A new paper from postal expert Michael Schuyler compares the financial performance of the U.S. Postal Service to foreign postal service providers. Not surprisingly, the USPS, which has lost over $25 billion since 2006 and ranks near the bottom of the Postal Index of Freedom, doesn’t fare too well.

From the paper:

[Universal Postal Union] data indicate that, in each year, the majority of posts in high-income jurisdictions were profitable. Declining mail demand was stressful, though: the share of posts reporting losses increased from less than one in ten in 2007 to more than one in three in 2010. Nevertheless, few posts lost money consistently: under 20% over the period 2008-2010 and under 10% over the period 2007-2008, which suggests most foreign posts reacted quickly and effectively to financial setbacks. The good news is that posts can adjust to change and remain financially viable. Unfortunately, USPS is among the posts with consistent losses. Further, UPU data show that, in each year, more than half the reporting posts in medium-income jurisdictions were profitable. Few spilled red ink year after year.

Schuyler says that he will explore the reasons for the USPS’s comparatively poor performance in a future paper, but notes that “A key finding will be that Congressional restrictions and pressure often deny the Postal Service the operational flexibility needed to manage its costs properly.” In a Cato essay, I discuss the problems with Congress’s micromanagement of the U.S. Postal Service and conclude that it should be placed on the path to privatization.

Another postal expert, Alan Robinson, notes Schuyler’s piece and offers additional commentary on the need for policymakers to figure out what to do with the flailing postal service. Should the USPS go back to being subsidized by taxpayers?  Or should the USPS remain a part of the federal government at all? Robinson concludes that “it is time for postal service stakeholders, and in particular its labor unions, to develop an acceptable path toward privatization.”

The New Yorker Misunderstands Ron Paul (Again)

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann frets over Ron Paul’s “hostility to government” in an article titled “Enemy of the State.” I wonder if Lemann, who is both a long-time writer at a great magazine and the dean of a great school of journalism, would think “Enemy of the State” was red-baiting or otherwise inappropriate language if it was applied to some other candidate.

But I was especially struck by this comment in Lemann’s lament about all the government programs Paul would repeal:

As for the financial crisis, Paul would have countenanced no regulation that might have prevented it, no government stabilization of the financial system after it happened, and no special help for working people hurt by it. This is where the logic of government-shrinking leads.

The famous New Yorker editing process seems to have broken down here. Here’s how the paragraph should have read:

As for the financial crisis, Paul would have countenanced none of the regulation that helped to cause it, no government creation of cheap money that created the unsustainable boom, and no special help for Wall Street banks when the bubble collapsed. He would have seen that that was where the logic of government-expanding leads.

Is California High-Speed Rail Dead?

The CEO and board chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority have resigned in disgrace over erroneous cost projections. A peer-review commission created by the California legislature says the authority’s high-speed rail plan is “not financially feasible.” Surveys show a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in the state all oppose construction.

Yet the authority’s scheme to build a new rail line capable of moving trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes won’t die unless the state legislature kills it. Officially, the authority plans to begin construction by September 2012, despite the fact that it has less than 10 percent of the money it needs to complete the project.

The tide definitely turned against the plan when the authority published a new business plan admitting that estimated inflation-adjusted construction costs had more than doubled from $43 billion to $98.5 billion. Moreover, under the new plan the promised 220-mph trains would not roll until 2033, more than a decade later than voters were promised in 2008.

The authority’s credibility was further reduced when it admitted that the million jobs it promised were really job-years, and that no more than 60,000 jobs would be created at any given time (and even that was probably an exaggeration). These revelations cost the project the editorial support of a number of major papers that had previously endorsed the project.

The 2008 ballot measure that voters narrowly approved authorized the sale of $9 billion in bonds that would eventually have to be repaid by state taxpayers. But those bonds could only be sold if they were matched by funds from federal or other sources. The Obama administration has given the state about $3.5 billion (giving the authority a total of $7 billion) on the condition that construction begin by September 30 and that the first segment constructed be in the Central Valley. The latter condition was made just before the 2010 election in a blatant effort to assist the election campaign of Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) of Fresno (who subsequently won re-election by a mere 3,000 votes).

Journalists are now questioning every aspect of the project. The latest story is that “doubts [are being] cast on cost estimates” for the alternative to high-speed rail, which is better highways and airports. I pointed this out back in 2008 in a Cato report showing that the highway-airport alternative did far more to reduce congestion than the high-speed rail line, suggesting that a highway-airport alternative that accomplished the same congestion reduction as the rail line would have cost much less.

What raises doubts now is the way the cost of the alternative has crept up. When the authority was insisting that the rail line could be built for $43 billion, its highway-airport alternative was estimated to cost $100 billion. When the rail cost jumped to nearly $100 billion, the highway-airport cost mysteriously increased to $171 billion. “There is some dishonesty in the methodology,” says a University of California, Berkeley transportation engineer. “I don’t trust an estimate like this.”

California Republicans have introduced a bill in the state legislature to prevent any bond sales that would fund the initial construction out of Fresno. Some Democratic legislators question the project, but it retains the endorsement of Governor Jerry Brown, and since Democrats have majorities of both houses of the legislature, anything could happen.

If the legislature doesn’t kill the project, the authority will spend the money it has available to build track capable of moving trains at 220 mph from somewhere south of Fresno to somewhere north of Fresno (though probably not all the way from Bakersfield to Merced). A handful of daily Amtrak trains might use those tracks, probably at no more than 110 mph, to save their passengers a few minutes on their trips from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The authority will be betting that someone will come up with the other $92 billion, but at the present time neither the federal government nor the state government has the cash.

All this has made rail advocates increasingly desperate. While supporters hysterically talk about California’s population growing to 50 million people, the truth is that, by the time the state could ever finish a high-speed rail line, the technology will have been completely superseded by such things as driverless cars and improved air service. Although the failure of the California scheme will end Obama’s dream of a national high-speed rail system, California needs high-speed rail like it needs a $100 billion hole in its budget.

Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion Violates Federalism

Today Cato filed its second Supreme Court amicus brief in the Obamacare litigation, on the issue of whether the health care law’s Medicaid expansion is a proper exercise of the Constitution’s Spending Clause.

That is, states must now accept a comprehensive reorganization of Medicaid or forfeit all federal Medicaid funding—even though the spending power is circumscribed to preserve a distinction between what is local and what is national. If Congress is allowed to attach conditions to spending that the states cannot refuse in order to achieve an objective it could not outright mandate, the local/national distinction that is so central to federalism will be erased.

Joining the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, Pacific Legal Foundation, Rep. Denny Rehberg (chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies), and Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeffrey Colyer (also a practicing physician) we argue that, in requiring states to accept onerous conditions on federal funds that it could not impose directly, the government has exceeded its enumerated powers and violated basic principles of federalism.

California is at risk of losing $25.6 billion in annual federal funding, for example, and together the states stand to lose more than a quarter trillion dollars annually. On average, states would have to increase their general revenue budgets by almost 40% in order to maintain their current level of Medicaid funding.

The 1987 case of South Dakota v. Dole, however, prohibits such a coercive use of the spending power and recognizes that “in some circumstances the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which ‘pressure turns into compulsion.’” Indeed, the states’ obligations, should they “choose” to accept federal funding and thus commit themselves to doing the government’s bidding, are far more substantial than those the Supreme Court invalidated in New York v. United States and Printz v. United States (which prohibit federal “commandeering” of state officials).

Moreover, the Congress that enacted the original Social Security Act, to which Medicare and Medicaid were added in the 1960s, recognized that social safety has always been the prerogative of the states and should continue to be done under state discretion. Medicaid itself was narrowly tailored to serve particularly needy groups.

In short, if Obamacare does not cross the line from valid “inducement” to unconstitutional “coercion,” nothing ever will. Just as the Commerce Clause is not an open-ended grant of power, the Spending Clause too has limits that must be enforced.

If the ‘Volcker Rule’ Is So Great, Why Exempt Treasuries and Agencies?

One of the more controversial provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act is its restrictions on proprietary trading, contained in Section 619. Setting aside the fact that even Paul Volcker has said the provision would have done little to avoid to the recent crisis, the Act’s various exemptions illustrate the confusion and hypocrisy underlying the rule.

Foremost among these exemptions is the allowance of proprietary trading when the financial instrument in question is either a U.S. Treasury bill/bond or a security issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These instruments are actually the bulk of proprietary trading. Remember the failed hedge fund Long Term Capital Management? Their signature trade was arbitraging on-the-run and off-the-run Treasuries. Ever hear of Bear Stearns? The largest single asset in Maiden Lane I, those Bear Stearn assets guaranteed by the New York Federal Reserve, were Fannie and Freddie securities.

Countries around the World, such as Japan and Canada, have already raised concerns that if their government debt is subject to the Volcker rule, the result will be less liquidity and higher funding costs. But then one has to suspect that former senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) understood this, as they allowed an exemption for Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie). While I’m no expert on trade policy, this may very well raise World Trade Organization questions since the Volcker rule, as proposed, favors U.S. debt over foreign debt. Of greater concern should be that the Volcker rule favors non-productive investment, that of the U.S. government and Fannie/Freddie, over productive investment, such as corporate paper.

As in so many other areas, Dodd-Frank does leave the actual decision-making to the bank regulators. (Is it too much to ask Congress to actually legislate?) Section 619 is very clear that regulators may exempt Treasuries and Agencies, which implies they also may not. The first best solution would be to just scrap the Volcker rule, but if we are going to have it, then apply it to everyone and all asset classes. Otherwise, one is just introducing additional distortions into our financial markets, some of the same distortions that actually lead to the financial crisis.

Internet Regulation & the Economics of Piracy

Earlier this month, I detailed at some length why claims about the purported economic harms of piracy, offered by supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), ought to be treated with much more skepticism than they generally get from journalists and policymakers.  My own view is that this ought to be rather secondary to the policy discussion: SOPA and PIPA would be ineffective mechanisms for addressing the problem, and a terrible idea for many other reasons, even if the numbers were exactly right. No matter how bad last season’s crops were, witch burnings are a poor policy response.  Fortunately, legislators finally seem to be cottoning on to this: SOPA now appears to be on ice for the time being, and PIPA’s own sponsors are having second thoughts about mucking with the Internet’s Domain Name System.

That said, I remain a bit amazed that it’s become an indisputable premise in Washington that there’s an enormous piracy problem, that it’s having a devastating  impact on U.S. content industries, and that some kind of aggressive new legislation is needed tout suite to stanch the bleeding. Despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office recently concluded that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole,” our legislative class has somehow determined that—among all the dire challenges now facing the United States—this is an urgent priority. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of copyrighted material circulating on the Internet without authorization, and other things equal, one would like to see less of it. But does the best available evidence show that this is inflicting such catastrophic economic harm—that it is depressing so much output, and destroying so many jobs—that Congress has no option but to Do Something immediately? Bearing the GAO’s warning in mind, the data we do have doesn’t remotely seem to justify the DEFCON One rhetoric that now appears to be obligatory on the Hill.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance—a kind of meta-trade association for all the content industries, and a zealous prophet of the piracy apocalypse, released a report back in November meant to establish that copyright industries are so economically valuable that they merit more vigorous government protection. But it actually paints a picture of industries that, far from being “killed” by piracy, are already weathering a harsh economic climate better than most, and have far outperformed the overall U.S. economy through the current recession.  The “core copyright industries” have, unsurprisingly, shed some jobs over the past few years, but again, compared with the rest of the economy, employment seems to have held relatively stable at a time when you might expect cash-strapped consumers to be turning to piracy to save money.

Since the core function of copyright is to incentivize the production of creative works, it’s also worth looking for signs of declining output associated with filesharing. Empirically, it’s surprisingly hard to find an effect. Rather, a recent survey study by Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School concluded that “data on the supply of new works are consistent with the argument that file sharing did not discourage authors and publishers” from producing more works, at least in the U.S. market.

So, for instance, Nielsen SoundScan data shows new album releases stood at 35,516 in 2000, peaked at 106,000 in 2008, and (amidst a general recession) fell back to mid-decade levels of about 75,000 for 2010. That’s against a general background of falling sales since 2004—mostly explained by factors unrelated to piracy—which finally seems to have reversed in 2011. The actual picture is probably somewhat better than that, because SoundScan data are markedly incomplete when it comes to the releases by indie artists who’ve benefited most from the rise of digital distribution.

If we look at movies, the numbers compiled by the industry statistics site Box Office Mojo show an average of 558 releases from American studios over the past decade, which rises to 578 if you focus on just the past five years. The average for the previous decade—before illicit movie downloads were even an option on most people’s radar—is 472 releases per year. (As we learn from a recent Congressional Research Service report, it’s weirdly hard to detect a strong overall correlation between output and employment in the motion picture industry, which actually fell slightly from 1998 to 2008, even as profits and CEO pay soared. One reason the growing trend in recent decades for “Hollywood” features to actually be produced in Canada or Australia.)

That’s all very nice, one might object, but wouldn’t these heartening numbers be even higher if labels and studios could recapture some of the revenue lost to illicit downloads? Well, they surely might—but it’s not nearly as clear as you’d think.

One reason is that they already are recapturing much of that revenue through “complementary” purchases. As Oberholzer-Gee observes, recording industry numbers show large increases in concert revenues corresponding to the drop in recorded music sales. That suggests that, as people discover new artists by sampling downloaded albums online, they’re shifting consumption within the sector to live performances. In other words, people have a roughly constant “music budget,” and what they don’t spend on the albums they’ve downloaded gets spent on seeing that new band they discovered.  For the firms that specifically make their money from the sale of recordings, that may seem like cold comfort, but if we’re concerned with the music industry as a whole, it’s a wash. Something similar might occur with respect to purchases of merchandise based on licensed film properties.

Another factor is that, notwithstanding projections of a “long tail” effect resulting from lower search and distribution costs in the digital era, most entertainment industries continue to operate on a “tournament” or “lottery” model, where a few hits generate jackpot revenues, sufficient to make up for losses on the majority of new products.  Unsurprisingly, the most heavily pirated movies each year tend to be the ones that are also highly successful at the box office and in DVD sales, with similar patterns in album downloads. In other words, bleeding revenue to piracy is going to be a problem to the extent that your product is a hit, in a market where the core uncertainty about this crucial fact (at the time when the decision whether to greenlight production is made) looms a lot larger than the marginal loss from illicit downloads if you are successful.

It’s a tricky but more or less tractable problem to estimate roughly how many full-time jobs you’ll need regionally to support one additional $150 million movie production next year. It’s a totally different question how aggregate sectoral employment in a volatile and evolving industry changes based on investor responses to a $150 million across-the-board drop in the size of the total film jackpot, especially given that arcane financial arrangements are one place Hollywood does show a genius for constantly adapting its business model. If you want to know how many people are getting laid off when McDonald’s revenues drop, it makes a difference whether it’s each of 13,000 franchises earning $100 less per year, or one franchise earning $1.3 million less, even though the total reduction is the same.

Finally, more demand for content being captured by the content industries is not always the same thing as demand for more content, in the sense of “a greater variety of output.” I noted earlier that the past few years have seen a significant spike in the number of movie titles released annually. But as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2008, studio executives soon began complaining about a “glut” of new movies, many of which were targeted at the same demographics, and therefore cannibalizing their own audiences. As one executive suggested, that meant that (at least in a market dominated by a few huge distributors) releasing fewer titles could yield higher profits—and, indeed, the number of titles released in the following two years dropped back to mid-decade levels. The key point here is that shifting some portion of the pirate audience to some form of legal viewing doesn’t necessarily change this basic calculus, because there’s an upper bound to the number of hours most people are going to spend watching (say) racing movies, whether they’re paying for the privilege or not. Rising demand can just as easily, for instance, bid up star salaries for a fixed number of films.

The point here isn’t that piracy by American consumers is somehow completely independent from output or employment rates in the content industries—though, again, that’s not at all the same thing as the overall U.S. employment rate. Obviously, at some level it has to have some effect. But the link is, to use the technical economic term, weirder than in many other sectors of the economy. In many industries, the relationship between consumer spending and job creation is relatively straightforward. If demand for widgets or restaurant meals rises, satisfying that demand requires a roughly linear increase in widget factories and restaurants, in hiring of widget-makers and cooks and waiters, and in purchases of the raw material inputs for those goods. Distribution of copyrighted content—and in particular digital distribution over the Internet—is a bit more complicated, for precisely the same reason piracy is an issue: once the first copy of a work has been created, an unlimited number of additional units (of the digital product) can be produced at effectively zero cost.

Let’s imagine, implausibly, that a measure  like SOPA did manage to reduce online piracy by U.S. consumers by some meaningful amount. A small potion of that reduction, the minority of downloads representing legal purchases displaced by file sharing, would translate into sales for the content industries. What form would these take? It seems reasonable to suppose that the majority of people who were previously getting their music and movies from The Pirate Bay are not typically lining up to buy shiny plastic discs at Wal-Mart. Rather, they’re probably disproportionately displacing legal digital downloads from venues like iTunes and Amazon, or subscription services like Netflix and Spotify, which are pretty clearly where the overall market is quickly going anyway.  (Apparently, literal thieves don’t even bother stealing physical media anymore.) For movies, there’s probably also some displacement of theatrical ticket sales, though as the theatrical experience is in many ways a distinct good, it’s hard to say how much substitution it’s reasonable to expect.

In the very short term, increased legal purchases of digital content wouldn’t seem likely to generate many additional jobs. If spending in the physical retail sector jumps 20 percent, shops need to hire more clerks, and their suppliers more manufacturing workers, to meet the increased demand. If spending in the iTunes store jumps 20 percent, Apple probably needs to pay a few bucks more for bandwidth and electricity, but basically everyone just gets to smile and pocket the extra profit. The jobs effects estimates we’re seeing tossed around, however, are coming from a 2007 study that would have had to employ, at the most recent, adjustments made several years before that to the benchmark multipliers the Bureau of Economic Analysis developed in 2002. Even leaving aside its many other problems, then, the job impact estimates in that study would have been largely based on legacy assumptions from a brick-and-mortar economy. (The loss estimates relied on would also, necessarily, fail to account for the recent rise of popular, legal streaming services that have likely lured many consumers back from the pirate market. There is, alas, no very good data here, but I’d wager Hulu and Netflix have done exponentially more to reduce piracy losses than enforcement crackdowns ever will.) In any event, you’d expect the most immediate effect of consumer spending shifts from widgets and restaurants to digital downloads would be, if anything, fewer net jobs.  The output and employment effects, rather, would show up in the longer term as lower returns reduce incentives to produce new content—and hire the workers needed to support that production.  For some of the reasons discussed above, though, empirically there’s just not much evidence for a dramatic effect of this kind.

No doubt piracy is costing the content industries something—or they wouldn’t be throwing so much money at Congress in support of this kind of legislation. If we could wave a magic wand and have less piracy, obviously that would be good.  But in the real world, where enforcement has direct costs to the taxpayer, regulation has costs on the industries it burdens, and the reduction in piracy they’re likely to produce is very small, it seems important to point out that the credible evidence for the magnitude of the harm is fairly thin. As a rough analogy, since antipiracy crusaders are fond of equating filesharing with shoplifting: suppose the CEO of Wal-Mart came to Congress demanding a $50 million program to deploy FBI agents to frisk suspicious-looking teens in towns near Wal-Marts. A lawmaker might, without for one instant doubting that shoplifiting is a bad thing, question whether this is really the optimal use of federal law enforcement resources. The CEO indignantly points out that shoplifting kills one million adorable towheaded orphans each year. The proof is right here in this study by the Wal-Mart Institute for Anti-Shoplifting Studies. The study sources this dramatic claim to a newspaper article, which quotes the CEO of Wal-Mart asserting (on the basis of private data you can’t see) that shoplifting kills hundreds of orphans annually. And as a footnote explains, it seemed prudent to round up to a million. I wish this were just a joke, but as readers of my previous post will recognize, that’s literally about the level of evidence we’re dealing with here.

In short, piracy is certainly one problem in a world filled with problems. But politicians and journalists seem to have been persuaded to take it largely on faith that it’s a uniquely dire and pressing problem that demands dramatic remedies with little time for deliberation.  On the data available so far, though, reports of the death of the industry seem much exaggerated.