A win for the auto cartel, a loss for Missourians

The Missouri Auto Dealer Association (MADA) has been exercising its political muscle for at least a couple years to protect its antiquated state-supported cartel over new car sales. It seems they have finally succeeded in court where their lobbying efforts have failed. In an opinion  last week by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, the court ruled that Missouri state statutes governing automobile distribution prohibit Tesla from operating its own retail stores in the state.

The case, which the MADA filed against the Missouri Department of Revenue, contested the State’s issuance of two franchise dealer licenses to Tesla for Tesla to open its own “franchise” retail stores. Basically, Missouri statutes have implemented a circular argument that prohibits auto manufacturers from owning new vehicle dealerships. § 301.550.3 RSMo specifically limits new car dealers to being franchises, statutorily side-stepping the possibility of a non-franchise new car dealer. The court essentially argued (perhaps rightly) that Tesla’s self-dealing of the franchise to itself was merely a rhetorical ploy to circumvent this failure of the statutes to allow for non-franchise dealers. However, even if that side-step were permissible, § 407.826.1 RSMo specifically prohibits auto industry franchisors from “owning or operating a new motor vehicle dealership in this state.”

Judge Green’s opinion basically means the laws of the state of Missouri preclude the possibility of any auto manufacturer selling its cars in Missouri directly to consumers. While Tesla can continue to operate its two service centers in the state, it cannot make car sales there. Instead, the company must continue to sell to Missourians over the internet with a point-of-sale in another state. (So much for more sales jobs.)

I and others have written previously (here, here, and here) why bans on Tesla’s direct-to-consumer sales model are bad for consumers and for society in general. This most recent ruling in Missouri just highlights how fundamentally flawed the regulation of commerce can be. Missouri’s laws, to the extent they ever made sense, are rooted in an antiquated industry and technological setting. Advancements in information technology alone have undercut many, if not all, of the economic justifications for an auto manufacturer to use a franchised distribution system. Laws that were written to protect franchisees in a 1950s-era distribution system do nothing now but raise consumers’ costs and thwart technological and organizational innovation that make everyone better off. Everyone, that is, except the franchised auto dealer cartel that sees all too clearly how little value it now adds in the sale and distribution of new cars.

Hopefully Missouri’s legislature will have the gumption to fix the flaws in its statutes that limit all new car retailers to “franchises” and instead let auto manufacturers (or any other manufacturer) choose the model they find best for themselves and their customers.

 

Douglass C. North, 1920-2015

I received word today that Douglass North passed away yesterday at the age of 95 (obit here). Professor North shared the Nobel Prize in Economic with Robert Fogel in 1993 for his work in economic history on the role of institutions in shaping economic development and performance.DoughNorth_color_300-doc

Doug was one of my first professors in graduate school at Washington University. Many of us in our first year crammed into Doug’s economic history class for fear that he might retire and we not get the chance to study under him. Little did we expect that he would continue teaching into his 80s. The text for our class was the pre-publication manuscript of his book, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Doug’s course offered an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional neoclassical microeconomics course for first-year PhD students. His work challenged the simplifying assumptions of the neoclassical system and shed a whole new light on understanding economic history, development and performance. I still remember that day in October 1993 when the department was abuzz with the announcement that Doug had received the Nobel Prize. It was affirming and inspiring.

As I started work on my dissertation, I had hoped to incorporate a historical component on the early development of crude oil futures trading in the 1930s so I could get Doug involved on my committee. Unfortunately, there was not enough information still available to provide any analysis (there was one news reference to a new crude futures exchange, but nothing more–and the historical records of the NY Mercantile Exchange had been lost in a fire).and I had to focus solely on the deregulatory period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember joking at one of our economic history workshops that I wasn’t sure if it counted as economic history since it happened during Doug’s lifetime.

Doug was one of the founding conspirators for the International Society for New Institutional Economics (now the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics) in 1997, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson. Although the three had strong differences of opinions concerning certain aspects of their respective theoretical approaches, they understood the generally complementary nature of their work and its importance not just for the economic profession, but for understanding how societies and organizations perform and evolve and the role institutions play in that process.

The opportunity to work around these individuals, particularly with North and Coase, strongly shaped and influenced my understanding not only of economics, but of why a broader perspective of economics is so important for understanding the world around us. That experience profoundly affected my own research interests and my teaching of economics. Some of Doug’s papers continue to play an important role in courses I teach on economic policy. Students, especially international students, continue to be inspired by his explanation of the roles of institutions, how they affect markets and societies, and the forces that lead to institutional change.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the States, Doug’s passing is a reminder of how much I have to be thankful for over my career. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to know and to work with Doug. I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to bring him to Mizzou in 2003 for our CORI Seminar series, at which he spoke on Understanding the Process of Economic Change (the title of his next book at the time). And I’m especially thankful for the influence he had on my understanding of economics and that his ideas will continue to shape economic thinking and economic policy for years to come.

Tesla, Dealer Franchise Laws, and the Politics of Crony Capitalism

About a year ago I posted a couple of pieces (here and here) related to auto dealers’ attempts in various states to shut down Tesla’s direct-to-consumer distribution system. Dan Crane (Michigan Law) has a recent paper on the issue available at SSRN. Below is the abstract:

Tesla Motors is fighting the car dealers’ lobby, aided and abetted by the legacy Detroit manufacturers, on a state by state basis for the right to distribute its innovative electrical automobiles directly to consumers. The Tesla wars showcase the important relationship between product innovation and innovation in distribution methods. Incumbent technologies may block competition by new technologies by creating legal barriers to innovative distribution methods necessary to secure market acceptance of the new technologies. While judicial review of such special interest capture is generally weak in the post-Lochner era, the Tesla wars are creating new alliances in the political struggle against crony capitalism that could contribute to a significant re-telling of the conventional public choice story.

Bye-Bye Bookstores

When you read a story about a local bookstore going out of business, you kind of expect the culprit to be lost business to on-line retailers (e.g., Amazon), e-book sellers (e.g., Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iBooks), or maybe, just maybe, a large brick-and-mortar bookstore (e.g., Barnes & Noble ). And while it may make one sad, at least one can understand the consequences of competition.

What you wouldn’t normally expect is that the store’s loyal customers and local citizens voted to shut it down–without even knowing it. But apparently that’s exactly what happened to the beloved Borderlands Bookstore in the Mission District of San Francisco according to the Bay Area’s ABC 7 News. As a result of the voter-approved increase in minimum wage, the bookstore can’t afford to remain open and has announced it will close at the end of March.

“You know, I voted for the measure as well, the minimum wage measure,” customer Edward Vallecillo said. “It’s not something that I thought would affect certain specific small businesses. I feel sad.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors seemed to have expected it though, but they forwarded the initiative to the voters nonetheless:

“I know that bookstores are in a tough position, and this did come up in the discussions on minimum wage,” San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener said.

Apparently Wiener takes comfort that it was the will of the people, with 77% voting in favor of the increase. But this just really points out a problem in what is often a democratic-wannabe, spineless-republican form of government. Legislators pander to interests and ideas they know are bad for the economy, but pass the buck on responsibility by “letting the voters decide”.

And while Jonathan Gruber was mocked for saying Obamacare supporters had to hide the details because of the stupidity of the American voters, time and again local (and state-wide) referenda on things like minimum wage give credence to his claim. The average voter either has no clue about how markets really work or is tremendously myopic in thinking through the consequences of the policies they support…most likely, both. (Although, if voters were more economically competent, Obamacare supports would have had even more reason to hide the details.)

So the chickens have come home to roost in San Francisco. If you go there, plan to leave your heart…and your money…but don’t plan on enjoying the beloved local bookstores. Or the many other small, local businesses that can ill-afford an arbitrary (in this case, 50%) increase in their labor costs. Because that’s what minimum wage laws do.

A Tilted Level Playing Field For Farmers

Yesterday, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of the United States on claims that India had violated trade rules by prohibiting imports of US poultry, meat, eggs, and live pigs on “phytosanitary” (i.e., food safety) grounds. The WTO ruling is available here.

US farmer organizations were predictably thrilled by the ruling, since it may force India to open up it’s market to the tune of $300 million a year. I was particularly taken by this quote in the Des Moines Register by David Miller, director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation:

“Iowa and U.S. farmers want a level playing field for international trade and we are confident that the WTO dispute resolution process provides an avenue for that to happen.”

I can only assume, then, that the Iowa Farm Bureau will also support removing the protectionist US sugar program, which restricts sugar imports and causes the price of sugar in the US to be 2 to 3 times higher than the world price of sugar. A recent study by Beghin and Elobeid published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy suggests that eliminating the sugar quota would make US consumers better off to the tune of $2.9 to $3.5 billion per year and create as many as 20,000 new jobs.

Of course, that would come at a cost to Iowa corn farmers, who benefit greatly from inflated sugar prices that create a market opportunity for high-fructose corn syrup. Or perhaps what Mr. Miller meant is that Iowa and US farmers want a level playing field for international trade, as long as it tilts in their favor.

Incentives and the SCOTUS Surprise on Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) surprised even veteran court watchers this week by refusing to hear a set of cases involving state-level bans (and reversals of those bans) of same-sex marriage. One lawyer offers a pretty convincing argument on why the Court decided not to weigh in on an issue that has such important consequences for large groups of people (and employers). At its heart, it’s all about individual justices’ incentives and the cost-benefit calculation justices had to make in the face of an uncertain outcome:

So why is the Roberts Court, not normally shy in jumping into controversial issues such as affirmative action or campaign finance law, ducking this one?

The answer may lie in the incentives facing the individual Justices rather than the approach of the Court as a whole. When you look at the choices available from the three different perspectives on this issue – liberals, swing votes, and conservatives – it becomes much easier to see why there weren’t the four votes required (out of the nine Justices) to hear this issue now. With no camp assured of victory if the court decided to hear the cases, the uncertainty may hold the key to the Justices’ thinking.

You can read the full blog post with the details of the explanation here. Regardless your position on the issue, this analysis of the justices’ likely reasoning in passing on the opportunity to settle the issue (at least for a period of time) illustrates how understanding individuals’ incentives helps to explain the expected–and not-so-expected–outcomes that shape the laws and institutions that help structure society at-large.

 

Getting Drunk Rationally–College Life Edition

Let’s just put this up front: Excessive consumption of alcohol and alcohol addiction are bad. It’s even more bad when those involved are underage college students (or even younger). Okay? Okay.

Now, we can debate what the threshold of “underage” is (currently, 21 years in the United States) versus what it could be (18 in most of the rest of the world). If we adopted the global standard, there would be very few US college students who are underage. Problem solved, right? I doubt college administrators would agree (but maybe they should…see below).

While drinking is a hallmark of the US college experience, it is a problem–whether students are underage or not. According to a recent survey of students here at the University of Missouri (MU), 86% drink alcohol regularly; 38% of underage drinkers drink to get drunk, and 68% of Greek students binge drink (ban the Greeks! no, not those Greeks). Binge drinking is defined as 5+ drinks in two hours for men, 4+ for women. Despite these numbers, fewer than 1% of students were arrested for a DUI and almost no students ran afoul of campus administration. But the numbers reflect a lot of irresponsible and illegal drinking, so the University has launched an effort to reduce the incidence of underage drinking and high-risk drinking.

One of the proposals, which has been embraced by other universities, is to increase the number of Friday morning classes. A 2007 study showed MU students with no Friday morning classes drank twice as much on Thursdays as those who had classes. Now, this fact doesn’t take into account the self-selection by students to take Friday morning courses–presumably, those who are less worried about drinking are more likely to choose the Friday courses. But if we take it at face value (as the administration would have us do), it means students are drinking responsibly when they have incentive to do so. Students rationally respond to the expected consequences of getting hammered on Thursday morning and having to be up early (and hung over) for classes on Friday.

I believe the proposal for Friday classes, while it might have some effect, is actually a pretty bad idea. And it’s not because I prefer to teach Tuesday/Thursdays so that I have longer weekends (though it is nice to have the flexibility for traveling and not missing class). Continue reading Getting Drunk Rationally–College Life Edition