Archives: January, 2012

How Copyright Industries Con Congress

I’ve yet to encounter a technically clueful person who believes the Stop Online Piracy Act will actually do anything to meaningfully reduce—let alone “stop”—online piracy, and so I haven’t bothered writing much about the absurd numbers the bill’s supporters routinely bandy about in hopes of persuading lawmakers that SOPA will be an economic boon and create zillions of jobs. If the proposed solution just won’t work, after all, why bother quibbling about the magnitude of the problem? But then I saw the very astute David Carr’s otherwise excellent column on SOPA’s pitfalls, which took those inflated numbers more or less as gospel. If only because I’m offended to see bad data invoked so routinely and brazenly, on general principle, it’s important to try to set the record straight. The movie and music recording industry have gotten away with using statistics that don’t stand up to the most minimal scrutiny, over and over, for years, to hoodwink both Congress and the general public. Wherever you come down on any particular piece of legislation, this is not how policy should get made in a democracy, and it’s high time they were shamed into cutting it out.

The bogus numbers Carr cites—which I’ll get to in a moment—actually represent a substantial retreat from even more ludicrous statistics the copyright industries long peddled. In my previous life as the Washington editor for the technology news site Ars Technica, I became curious about two implausible sounding claims I kept seeing made over and over—and repeated by prominent U.S. Senators!—in support of more aggressive antipiracy efforts.  Intellectual property infringement was supposedly costing the U.S. economy $200–250 billion per year, and had killed 750,000 American jobs. That certainly sounded dire, but those numbers looked suspiciously high, and I was having trouble figuring out exactly where they had originated. I did finally run them down, and wrote up the results of my investigation in a long piece for Ars. Read the whole thing for the full, farcical story, but here’s the upshot: The $200–250 billion number had originated in a 1991 sidebar in Forbes, but it was not a measurement of the cost of “piracy” to the U.S. economy. It was an unsourced estimate of the total size of the global market in counterfeit goods. Beyond the obvious fact that these numbers are decades old, counterfeiting of physical goods imported in bulk and sold by domestic retail distributors is, rather obviously, a totally different phenomenon with different policy implications from the problem of illicit individual consumer downloads of movies, music, and software. The 750,000 jobs number had originated in a 1986 speech (yes, 1986) by the secretary of commerce estimating that counterfeiting could cost the United States “anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000” jobs. Nobody in the Commerce Department was able to identify where those figures had come from.

These are the numbers that were driving U.S. copyright policy as recently as 2008—and I’m still seeing them repeated in “fact sheets” circulated by SOPA boosters.  Finally, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report noting that these figures “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology.” Now, if a single journalist could discover as much with a few days work, minimal due diligence should have enabled highly paid lobbyists to arrive at the same conclusion. The only way to explain the longevity of these figures, if we charitably rule out deliberate deception, is to infer that the people repeating them simply did not care whether what they were saying was true. If I were a legislator, I would find this more than a little insulting

As Carr’s piece suggests, SOPA’s corporate backers have fallen back on new numbers, but they’re still entirely bogus:

The Motion Picture Association of America cites figures saying that piracy costs the United States $58 billion annually. Mark Elliot, an executive from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to The New York Times that such piracy threatened 19 million American jobs

Only $58 billion! We’re making progress! So where does that figure come from? The source here is a paper released by the Institute for Policy Innovation, and authored by one Stephen Siwek, an MBA and principal of a consulting firm called Economists Incorporated that produces economic analysis for hire on behalf of (among others) businesses seeking to influence policy makers. That does not, in itself, invalidate the research, but we should at least begin with the recognition that we are not dealing here with impartial academic studies produced by a university or government research agency.

What does invalidate the “research” is the inappropriate use of “multiplier” effects to double—and triple—count loss estimates that were dubious to begin with. As the GAO report notes in its typically understated fashion:

Most of the experts we interviewed were reluctant to use economic multipliers to calculate losses from counterfeiting because this methodology was developed to look at a one-time change in output and employment.

In other words, Siwek is taking a method that’s useful for analyzing where in the economy we will likely see the effects of demand shifts, and pretending that it somehow reflects aggregate economic losses. As my colleague Tim Lee has pointed out, this is Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy on steroids:

[I]n IPI-land, when a movie studio makes $10 selling a DVD to a Canadian, and then gives $7 to the company that manufactured the DVD and $2 to the guy who shipped it to Canada, society has benefited by $10+$7+$2=$19. Yet some simple math shows that this is nonsense: the studio is $1 richer, the trucker is $2, and the manufacturer is $7. Shockingly enough, that adds up to $10. What each participant cares about is his profits, not his revenues.

So, to stay focused on movies, Siwek takes an estimate of $6.1 billion in piracy losses to the U.S. movie industry, and through the magic of multipliers gets us to a more impressive sounding $20.5 billion. That original $6.1 billion figure, by the way, was produced by a study commissioned from LEK Consulting by the Motion Picture Association of America. Since even the GAO was unable to get at the underlying research or evaluate its methodology, it’s impossible to know how reliable that figure is, but given that MPAA has already had to admit significant errors in the numbers LEK generated, I’d take it with a grain of salt.

Believe it or not, though, it’s actually even worse than that. SOPA, recall, does not actually shut down foreign sites. It only requires (ineffective) blocking of foreign “rogue sites” for U.S. Internet users. It doesn’t do anything to prevent users in (say) China from downloading illicit content on a Chinese site. If we’re interested in the magnitude of the piracy harm that SOPA is aimed at addressing, then, the only relevant number is the loss attributable specifically to Internet piracy by U.S. users.

Again, we don’t have the full LEK study, but one of Siwek’s early papers does conveniently reproduce some of LEK’s PowerPoint slides, which attempt to break the data down a bit. Of the total $6.1 billion in annual losses LEK estimated to MPAA studios, the amount attributable to online piracy by users in the United States was $446 million—which, by coincidence, is roughly the amount grossed globally by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

So in a fantasy world where U.S. movie pirates don’t just circumvent blockage with a browser plugin, and SOPA actually stops all online movie piracy by American users, we get a $446 million economic benefit to the United States in the form of movie revenues, and presumably comparable benefits in music and software revenues? Well, no. Remember our old friend the Broken Window Fallacy. It’s true that some illicit U.S. downloads displace sales of legal products. But what happens to the money the pirates would have otherwise spent on those legal copies? They don’t eat it! As that same GAO report helpfully points out:

(1) in the case that the counterfeit good has similar quality to the original, consumers have extra disposable income from purchasing a less expensive good, and (2) the extra disposable income goes back to the U.S. economy, as consumers can spend it on other goods and services.

As one expert consulted by GAO put it, “effects of piracy within the United States are mainly redistributions within the economy for other purposes and that they should not be considered as a loss to the overall economy.” In many cases—I’ve seen research suggesting it’s about 80 percent for music—a U.S. consumer would not have otherwise purchased an illicitly downloaded song or movie if piracy were not an option. Here, the result is actually pure consumer surplus: The downloader enjoys the benefit, and the producer loses nothing. In the other 20 percent of cases, the result is a loss to the content industry, but not a let loss to the economy, since the money just ends up being spent elsewhere. If you’re concerned about the overall jobs picture, as opposed to the fortunes of a specific industry, there is no good reason to think eliminating piracy by U.S. users would yield any jobs on net, though it might help boost employment in copyright-intensive sectors. (Oh, and that business about 19 million jobs? Also bogus.)

Does that mean online piracy is harmless? Of course not. But the harm is a dynamic loss in allocative efficiency, which is much harder to quantify. That is, in the cases where a consumer would have been willing to buy an illicitly downloaded movie, album, or software program, we want the market to be accurately signalling demand for the products people value, rather than whatever less-valued use that money gets spent on instead. This is, in fact, very important! It’s a good reason to look for appropriately tailored ways to reduce piracy, so that the market devotes resources to production of new creativity and innovation valued by consumers, rather than to other, less efficient purposes. Indeed, it’s a good reason to look for ways of doing this that, unlike SOPA, might actually work.

It is not, however, a good reason to spend $47 million in taxpayer dollars—plus untold millions more in ISP compliance costs—turning the Justice Department into a pro bono litigation service for Hollywood in hopes of generating a jobs and a revenue bonanza for the U.S. economy. Any “research” suggesting we can expect that kind of result from Internet censorship is a fiction more fanciful than singing chipmunks.

Do Free Markets Tend Toward Concentration? The Case of Banking

Perhaps the most significant difference between my own views and those of my progressive friends is on the relationship between business and government, especially “big business”. I’ve on more than one occasion heard that government needs to be there to off-set the power of big business. That without government, corporations would just continue to grow. Well to me that sounds like an empirical question.

Thanks to the Economic Freedom of the World report, we have some good indicators of just how free-market oriented a country is. What we need are measures of concentration. Unfortunately, these are a little harder to come by. Fortunately, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) did a survey about a decade ago (1999), the data for which are reported in Barth, Caprio, and Levine’s Rethinking Bank Regulation. The measure of concentration is the percent of deposits accounted for by the five largest banks. One could argue for a better measure, but it’s all we have.

The results? It would appear that the freer an economy, the less concentrated its banking system. The chart below offers a scatter diagram, along with a regression line. The vertical Y axis measures concentration and the X axis economic freedom (the higher the number, the freer the economy). Admittedly, the relationship is not a strong one, with a correlation of only -0.11, but it is negative. If anyone knows of comparable measures for other industries, I would encourage them to either send me the data or reproduce this analysis for other industries.

Is Income Inequality Increasing? Only If You Don’t Count Health Benefits

Income inequality is not so much a problem as income opacity.

In the latest issue of Regulation magazine, editor Peter Van Doren reviews two recent studies that find income inequality is not increasing:

While it is true that the cash explicitly paid to employees has become more unequal over the last generation, the implication that labor markets are not working well and that government should alter labor market outcomes does not necessarily follow. A more benign explanation for the change in cash compensation over a generation is the dramatic increase in health insurance costs. Employers may be paying all their employees a more or less equivalent increase on a percentage basis, but for lower-paid workers much of that pay is not showing up in cash. Thus, if this view is correct, inequality in the cash component of compensation has increased while inequality in total compensation has not increased because the fixed costs of health insurance are a much larger percentage of the total compensation of lower-earnings workers…

If one analyzes data on only working-age individuals (age 25–61), inflation-adjusted real pre-tax, post-cash-transfer money income grew 1.9 percent and 10.5 percent respectively for the first (poorest) and 10th (richest) deciles from 1995 to 2008. But if one adds the value of health insurance, the first (poorest) decile grew 12.3 percent while the top decile grew 11.7 percent.

[T]he growth in compensation by earnings decile (from the 30th to the 99th) averages 35 percent [from 1999 to 2006], with 41 percent growth at the 30th percentile (workers earning $10–$14 an hour) and only 35.8 percent growth at the 99th percentile (workers earning $59–$80 an hour).

Because expenditures on health care are increasing so rapidly and because so much of the cost of health care is paid for by employers or government, discussions about rising inequality that only consider cash income provide a misleading view of trends in inequality. When health insurance expenditures are added to household cash income, the increases in inequality from 1995 to 2008 are completely offset.

In brief: government intervenes in labor and health care markets; advocates of those interventions use the resulting income opacity to argue that markets are defective.

‘The Moment It Produces Useful CER, PCORI Is Toast.’

An excerpt from a Politico Pro article (paywall) on the “Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute,” President Obama’s comparative-effectiveness research agency:

The point of comparative effectiveness research is to compare two or more different ways of treating the same condition to see which one works best. The idea is that if definitive best practices can be established, they will be widely adopted by providers and may be preferentially reimbursed by payers. Cheaper treatments that are effective would be favored.

It may sound harmless — like common sense, even, to the uninitiated — but it’s a menacing prospect to some pharmaceutical companies and medical device-makers who are concerned that their products may wind up on the wrong side of the ledger.

For this reason, Michael Cannon, director of health care studies at the Cato Institute, says good comparative effectiveness research is almost suicidal.

“The whole point of [comparative effectiveness research] is to find out what doesn’t work,” Cannon said in an email. “Every time the government has tried to do CER, the guys who provide the stuff found not to work successfully lobby to have the offending agency defunded. I see no reason to think this time will be any different. The moment it produces useful CER, PCORI is toast.”

And that’s just one source of opposition.

Other sources of opposition include patients who don’t like restrictions on their health care subsidies, thank you very much.

(The “suicidal” bit is confusing, and wasn’t my language. So to clear up any misunderstandings: comparative-effectiveness research is good. Markets both produce and employ it. Government is so incompetent that it cannot reliably produce CER, much less make use of it. Markets are smart. Government is stupid.)

Solyndra: A Political-Energy Company

Good reporting shouldn’t go unnoticed just because it appeared during the week after Christmas, so let me draw your attention to a comprehensive article on the front page of the December 26 Washington Post by Joe Stephens and Carol Leonnig:

Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama’s green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal ­e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials….

The documents reviewed by The Post … show that as Solyndra tottered, officials discussed the political fallout from its troubles, the “optics” in Washington and the impact that the company’s failure could have on the president’s prospects for a second term. Rarely, if ever, was there discussion of the impact that Solyndra’s collapse would have on laid-off workers or on the development of clean-energy technology.

Did you know that when the president visits a factory, his aides tell the workers what to wear? Keep digging in the documents:

Like most presidential appearances, Obama’s May 2010 stop at Solyndra’s headquarters was closely managed political theater.

Obama’s handlers had lengthy e-mail discussions about how solar panels should be displayed (from a robotic arm, it was decided). They cautioned the company’s chief executive against wearing a suit (he opted for an open-neck shirt and black slacks) and asked another executive to wear a hard hat and white smock. They instructed blue-collar employees to wear everyday work clothes, to preserve what they called “the construction-worker feel.”

This story has all the hallmarks of government decision making: officials spending other people’s money with little incentive to spend it prudently, political pressure to make decisions without proper vetting, the substitution of political judgment for the judgments of millions of investors, the enthusiastic embrace of fads like “green energy,” political officials ignoring warnings from civil servants, crony capitalism, close connections between politicians and the companies that benefit from government allocation of capital, the appearance—at least—of favors for political supporters, and the kind of promiscuous spending that has delivered us $15 trillion in national debt. It may end up being a case study in political economy. And if you want government to guide the economy, to pick winners, to override market investments, then this is what you want.

More on Solyndra here and here.

GOP the Loser in Primary Fight over Immigration

Over at National Review Online this morning, I ask how the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would have fared in today’s Iowa caucuses given his views on how to tackle illegal immigration (“GOP Candidates Betray the Spirit of Reagan on Immigration”). My conclusion, based on the current mood of many Republicans, is that Reagan would have been the target of a barrage of attack ads:

In April 1980, when Ronald Reagan was competing in the presidential primaries, he rejected the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit — and then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. And open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”

If a Republican presidential candidate said such a thing today, he or she would suffer withering criticism for being soft on illegal immigration. Instead, we hear Reagan’s successors talk about implementing national ID cards, imposing intrusive regulations on the labor market, raiding farms, factories, and restaurants, and harassing small-business owners trying to survive in this tough economy, all in the name of chasing away hard-working immigrants.

The unhealthy competition among the current Republican candidates to sound tough on immigration also risks alienating millions of Hispanic voters who could otherwise be persuaded to support the party. If conservatives want to rediscover the more optimistic, inclusive, reform-minded spirit of Reagan, they should be talking about real immigration reform, not about spending more money and enacting more sweeping regulations to enforce a fundamentally flawed system.

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cutting the Military Budget

The New York Times has posted a handy tool for calculating savings from the Pentagon’s budget over the next ten years. I went through the exercise, and my plan resulted in cuts of $1.144 trillion over ten years. Had I checked all of the boxes in the Times’s calculator, it would have generated savings of up to $1.4 trillion.

Though I support reform of the the military retirement system, I think some of these proposals go too far (they would have saved up to $86.5 billion). We should continue to spend money recruiting the very best force, comprised of the most-qualified men and women ($5 billion), and we might find it hard to do that if/when the economy improves. Tuition assistance is a key factor driving recruitment, and I wouldn’t scale that back ($5 billion). (Full disclosure: I attended college on an NROTC scholarship.) We need the best possible services for families, and I could foresee problems with closing elementary and secondary schools on bases ($10 billion). And I have no particular quarrel with military bands ($0.2 billion). My ideal military will be smaller and more elite, but likely better compensated than today’s force. And retirees would continue to receive many benefits not enjoyed by their fellows who never served, but we should experiment with ways to control costs. The key take-away, and the one stressed in the accompanying story by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, is that it is possible to reduce military spending, and the resulting force will still be larger and more capable than any conceivable combination of rivals.

A few additional observations:

1) The Times’s calculator cites my and Ben Friedman’s contribution to the Sustainable Defense Task Force report, “Debts, Deficits, and Defense,” but the main part of the report was the work of the entire task force, and they deserve proper credit. I am particularly grateful to Carl Conetta and Charles Knight of the Project for Defense Alternatives.

2) Ben and I published a stand-alone report a few months later with some numbers drawn from the SDTF report, and with some additional detail surrounding our proposals that were not endorsed by all SDTF members. Our savings were calculated against the baseline from fiscal year 2010, and these numbers are now a bit dated.

3) When I hit the submit button comparing my choices with others who participated in the exercise, I discovered 80 percent of respondents supported the plan to reduce forces in Europe and Asia. That sort of systematic restructuring is necessary to ensure that we don’t impose undue burdens on what will necessarily be a smaller force. As I have said repeatedly, if we are going to spend less, we must expect our troops to do less, and expect other countries to do more.