Topic: Regulatory Studies

Sexist Price Discrimination?

“Are Shoe Brands Charging You More Based On Your Gender?” asks Footwear News. The website cites data compiled by Datafiniti showing that high-end footwear brands tend to price women’s shoes higher than men’s. As examples, the median price of a Gianvito Rossi pair of women’s shoes was $750 versus $469 for the gent’s.

Such data has become increasingly of interest following the New York City study entitled “From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer,” which was then replicated by The Times newspaper in London, both purporting to show that women were discriminated against in pricing terms for a range of everyday products. Particular examples in the surveys included children’s scooters, women’s hair products and razors. This comes alongside previous studies from the University of Central Florida and Consumer Reports, which found that women tended to pay significantly more for deodorant, haircuts, and dry cleaning.

Does all this show “sexist” pricing and discrimination against women?

Here’s some economics to bear in mind which might explain why the prices of goods might differ in these types of surveys:

  1. There can be cost of production differences in some cases: often men’s clothes and shoes tend to be more standardized than those targeted at, and bought by, women. This explains why both women’s clothing and dry cleaning of that clothing can be more expensive too, given the clothes cannot be handled in the same way. It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to suggest that women’s hair cuts tend to be more expensive as a function of length, time, and the variety of tastes as well.
  2. Though things like different colored razors have the same functional uses, the branding and designs are themselves part of the product. It might be that many women place inherent value on some products being branded as “for women” or else enjoy the scent, colors etc. Indeed, there is nothing to stop women buying male or unisex branded products (some women I know do), suggesting the continued existence of gendered variants is evidence of demand. Prices that maximize profits will be higher for women than men if women are less responsive to price (i.e. have more inelastic demand). This might be because of greater attachment to brand, or because women perceive products tailored to women as being of higher quality.
  3. For some products targeted at women, women may buy fewer units of any given brand relative to men (on products where women prefer variety), which would (other things given) lead to higher prices too.
  4. The surveys themselves may be biased towards standardized products with male and female versions. Tyler Cowen speculates, for example, that women might (on average) have a relative taste for variety and quality on these type of low value products, whereas men tend to spend more cheaply on these but more on products not differentiated by gender (such as automobiles, electronic sound systems etc).
  5. The example of nightclub cover charges, where women frequently obtain “free” entry, shows that for some goods and services men tend to pay more than women. Even in the shoe study, the data shows that the median price for moderately priced sneakers tends to be higher for men than women’s shoes. A pair of Nike women’s shoes was $80 vs. $85 for men. Some of the above economics might explain this (particularly the elasticity explanation), but with things such as nightclub nights the charge may help cover for probability of externalities – i.e. drunken violent behavior. Another example of this is vehicle insurance, where men tend to pay more than women for near identical products due to higher costs associated with a tendency towards more risky behaviors for men.

As seen then, there are many different rational explanations for why different prices might be charged for products targeted at different genders. This is certainly not an area where there are obvious “market failures” which justify government intervention.

The implicit criticism by some of this practice seems to be opposition to the mere existence of “gendered” products at all. Indeed, in a debate I had on the subject in the UK, my female opponent claimed that women did not want products to be “gendered.” If this is true, it suggests there is an exceptional entrepreneurial opportunity for companies to develop more unisex products. 

New Poll On Dodd-Frank and CFPB Tells Us Poll’s Creators Like Dodd-Frank and the CFPB

There’s been some buzz this week about a new poll that, according to its creators, shows overwhelming support for Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). A stunning 74 percent of respondents, the creators claim, support Dodd-Frank while 77 percent support the CFPB.

But what has not been as widely reported is how skewed the questions were. Given the questions, it’s surprising there was not more support for Dodd-Frank and the CFPB. 

Consider the question that resulted in the 74 percent support Dodd-Frank figure:

Now please listen to this description of the Wall Street Reform law that was passed after the financial crisis. In addition to requiring federal oversight of a larger range of financial companies, this law also prohibits banks from certain risky practices, and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to fight against abusive financial practices that hurt consumers. It also bans taxpayer-funded bailouts of large banks and financial companies and, instead, sets up a system where investors rather than taxpayers bear the losses of bank failures. Please tell me whether, overall, you favor or oppose this law.

No more taxpayer-funded bailouts? No more socialized losses and privatized gains? Sign me up! I would love a law that does this. Except the very reason that many people, including me, oppose Dodd-Frank is because of the belief that it does just the opposite, that it entrenches the too big to fail concept and makes bailouts more likely down the road. The debate over Dodd-Frank is not pro-bailouts versus anti-bailouts, or pro-accountability for bad business choices versus anti-accountability. No one is advocating for bailouts or taxpayer-funded losses. The debate is over whether the particular provisions in Dodd-Frank are likely to lead to more bailouts or fewer, whether the law increases the chances of another crisis or decreases it. 

This question also lobs a number of very nuanced and deeply controversial terms at the respondent – words like “risky” and “abusive” – with almost no context.  What is the optimal level of “risk” for financial institutions, who should assess “riskiness” and how risk can be adequately hedged are questions at the core of ongoing debates over the cause of the 2009 financial crisis and future policy considerations. Labeling a set of practices as “risky” is conclusory and deliberately ignores any existing controversy.

ObamaCare: What Trump Should Do Now

With President Donald Trump frustrated all over again with congressional Republicans’ inability to coalesce around a bill repealing and replacing ObamaCare, it seems like a good time to dust off this National Review Online column where I offer 14 ways Trump can pressure Congress and build public support for legislation:

1. End Congress’s illegal ObamaCare exemption.

2. End ObamaCare’s unconstitutional cost-sharing subsidies.

3. End ObamaCare’s illegal “reinsurance” payments.

4. Block Big Insurance’s “risk-corridor” raid on the Treasury.

5. Investigate the Obama administration’s illegal spending.

6. Allow freedom of conscience and choice in contraceptives coverage.

7. Illustrate how Americans can avoid ObamaCare penalties.

8. Illustrate how ObamaCare makes it easier than ever for people to wait until they are sick to purchase coverage.

9. Publish ObamaCare’s vital signs.

10. Release the documents.

11. Praise states that refused to implement ObamaCare.

12. Direct states to prepare for ObamaCare repeal.

13. Renounce IPAB.

14. Let seniors opt out of Medicare without losing Social Security benefits.

To its credit, the Trump administration has been doing some of #9. But not enough. Read here for more.

The Blurred Lines of Copyright Infringement

It’s been two years since the “Blurred Lines” verdict, but the daze has just begun. According to a BBC report last week, recording artists are now being instructed not to talk publicly about their musical influences for fear of exposure to copyright infringement claims.

“Blurred Lines” was a chart-topping 2013 pop song by Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Calvin “T.I.” Harris. Marvin Gaye’s family successfully claimed that the track infringed on Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got To Give It Up,” winning $5.3 million in damages and 50 percent running royalties. The case is now on appeal at the Ninth Circuit.

If copyright law was focused on actual, you know, copying, this case would have never gone to the jury. The Gaye family holds the copyright to the sheet music, not the actual recording, so its claim should stand or fall based on the notes on the page. Which is to say, it should fall: the two songs are set in different keys and use different sets of chords (see good analyses here and here). Accordingly, “they sound similar” shouldn’t even be a relevant argument, much less a winning one.  

The Gaye family based its case on shared “elements” in both songs, as well as Pharrell Williams’ admissions that he was inspired by Gaye and that the song captured the “feel” of Gaye’s earlier tune. The trial court allowed the case to go to the jury and included an instruction that “substantial similarities” between elements of the two songs was evidence of infringement.

This way lies mayhem. If the liability standard set in this case were generally followed, the normal processes of musical creation—and artistic creation more generally—would be illegal. Artistic creation is inherently a social endeavor, each new work part of an ongoing conversation with other artists and the audience. Artists naturally pick up on what has been said previously in that conversation, borrowing elements from the past and rearranging them and adding to them to create something new. The existence of distinctive styles, genres, and movements in the arts is possible precisely because of the ubiquity of artists’ drawing on what has come before.

This unfortunate case demonstrates how copyright’s expansive coverage of “derivative works” is antithetical to the stated purposes of the law. Copyright is supposed to incentivize artistic expression, but now we have come to the point where artists are being urged to muzzle themselves to keep themselves away from the law’s reach. A decision by the Ninth Circuit to toss out the verdict would be welcome news—but only a small, first step toward reining in a law run amok.

This post was coauthored with Rachel Chiu.

Air Traffic Control: Remote Towers

Momentum is building for air traffic control (ATC) reform. With health care reform prospects dashed for now, and tax reform facing a difficult path, ATC reform could be an area for legislative progress in coming months. The Trump administration and House leadership are on-board with an ATC privatization plan passed through the lower chamber’s transportation committee. And while the Senate is always a hurdle for fiscally conservative reforms, privatization supporters have leverage because current funding for the ATC system runs out at the end of September.

Why do we need major ATC reform? This is a high-tech industry that is rapidly evolving, yet our system is trapped inside of the hopelessly sluggish Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In other countries, independent ATC systems are moving ahead with an array of innovations. We are falling behind in a very real way, which has important ramifications for airport congestion, flight delays, and aviation safety.

Consider one cool new ATC technology: “remote” or “virtual” control towers. The iconic airport towers that have the big windows for controllers to see runways are likely on the way out. They will be replaced by visual and infrared cameras on runways able to pan and zoom, with the electronic feed going to control centers either nearby or hundreds of miles away. The feed will be displayed on wall-sized high-definition monitors that will be overlaid with electronic flight and sensor information.

The United States is behind on remote towers, as we are on many ATC technologies. The first remote tower was built by Saab and put in operation in Sweden in 2015, as shown in the photo. The company describes some of the advantages of remote towers here, including superior performance at nighttime and during bad weather. 

Locking Up Kingpins Causes Violence

This story from the WSJ claims that 

the extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s long-dominant drug lord, has led to an explosion of violence in his home state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of the country’s narcotics industry.

Rival factions are fighting over Mr. Guzmán’s billion-dollar empire as he awaits trial in solitary confinement inside a high-security prison in New York. He was extradited to the U.S. in January on drug-trafficking and murder charges.

This explanation for increased violence in Mexico is exactly what one would predict from this Cato Research Brief, by economists Jason Lindo and Maria Padilla-Romo:

We find that the capture of a [Drug Trafficking Organization] (DTO) leader in a municipality increases its homicide rate by 80 percent, and this effect persists for at least 12 months. Consistent with the notion that the kingpin strategy destabilizes an organization, we also find that these captures significantly increase homicides in other municipalities with the same DTO presence. In particular, we find that homicide rates in neighboring municipalities with the same DTO presence rise 30 percent in the six months after a kingpin capture before returning to expected levels. Further, kingpin captures cause homicide rates to grow over time (to 18 percent above expected levels 12 or more months after a capture) for more-distant municipalities with the same DTO presence. We find little evidence of increased homicide in neighboring municipalities where the captured leader’s DTO did not have a presence.

Disputes between rival suppliers occur in all industries; but in legal ones, the disputes take the form of advertising wars and lawsuits, not violence. See also this old paper of mine on the same subject.

No ‘Freedom Option’ in the Revised Senate Health Care Bill

The other day, I wrote a piece lauding an amendment Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was proposing to add to the Senate GOP’s health care bill. Cruz called it the Consumer Freedom Amendment. If insurers offered two ObamaCare-compliant plans to all comers, the Cruz amendment would have freed them to sell–and freed consumers to purchase–health-insurance plans that did not comply with those regulations. The legislative language I saw appeared to free consumers, not from all the regulations I would like, but from enough that it would have made the Senate bill a step in the right direction. It also included more restrictions on the use of this “freedom option” than I would like, but same thing. The changes would have dramatically reduced premiums for consumers. Perhaps more important, it would have offered more comprehensive and more secure coverage to people who develop expensive illnesses than ObamaCare does.

Today, Senate GOP leaders released an updated draft of their health care bill. 

This draft imposes ObamaCare’s “single risk pool” price controls on “freedom option” plans. Long story short, that means there is no “freedom option” in this bill. Insurers probably would not even offer non-compliant plans. If they did, ObamaCare’s “single risk pool” price controls would make secure, guaranteed-renewable health insurance impossible by taxing such plans to death. Here’s how.

  • The “single risk pool” price controls would require insurers to increase premiums for both ObamaCare-compliant plans and non-compliant plans by the same percentage. If claims in the compliant market necessitate a 10 percent increase, while claims in the non-compliant market necessitate only a 6 percent increase, the insurer would have to increase premiums in the former market by too little and/or increase premiums in the latter market by too much.
  • Let’s say insurers split the difference by increasing premiums in both markets by 8 percent. In the second year, insurers would be over-charging consumers in the non-compliant market. The problem would only get worse with time. By year five, the insurer would be overcharging consumers in the non-compliant plans by almost 10 percent. That creates an incentive for the insurer or a competitor to issue new, appropriately priced non-compliant plans that lure the healthy people out of the old non-compliant plans.
  • Consumers who developed expensive illnesses in the first year could not switch to the new non-compliant plans, because insurers would underwrite them and charge them an even higher premium. So those folks would stay in the old non-compliant plans until the hidden tax imposed by the “single risk pool” price controls made those plans a worse deal than the heavily subsidized ObamaCare-compliant plans. At that point, those consumers would switch to the ObamaCare-compliant plans. Actually, the effect would be a lot like that of the MacArthur waivers in the House’s health care bill. [Update: Astute reader Doug Badger notes that because the non-compliant plans do not qualify as creditable coverage, people in those plans could not automatically switch to ObamaCare-compliant plans. “They would either have to renew their existing policy, buy another non-ACA-compliant policy, or remain uninsured for a period of six months before enrolling in a policy sold through the Exchange,” he writes. Another option would be for the enrollee (or a parent or spouse) to take a job with health benefits for twelve months and then switch to an ObamaCare-compliant plan. Since employer-sponsored insurance would count as creditable coverage, there would be no waiting period, and while employers may impose waiting periods of up to 90 days for health benefits, the enrollee could keep her non-compliant plan until she is eligible to enroll in the employer plan. To the extent these strategies are feasible, newly sick enrollees in old non-compliant plans would and could migrate to compliant plans. To the extent such strategies are infeasible, the “single risk pool” price controls would create a trifurcated market of (1) healthy people hopping among non-compliant plans and (2) newly sick people stuck in increasingly overpriced non-compliant plans that subsidize (3) people with preexisting conditions in ObamaCare plans. Presumably, however, at a certain point, the costs of remaining in increasingly overpriced non-compliant plans would exceed the costs of those switching strategies.]
  • In other words, secure, long-term, guaranteed-renewable coverage would be impossible, because the “single risk pool” price controls would tax those plans to death.
  • This dynamic would happen even faster if insurers increase both the compliant and noncompliant plan premiums by 10 percent, which they probably would.

I’m not saying there’s no way Senate Republicans can redeem their bill. I have offered ideas that might. But at this point, the Cruz amendment does not redeem or even add to the bill.

I don’t get Republicans’ sudden infatuation with price controls

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