Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Competition is a wonderful thing - up to a point

The older I get the more sceptical I become. Goes with being a journo, I guess. I've become ever-more aware that no one and nothing is perfect. Not political leaders, not parties, not any -isms, not even motherhood.

Take competition. Economists portray it as the magic answer to almost everything, but the more I see of it, the more conscious I become of its drawbacks and limitations.

Which is not to say I don't believe in it. Far from it. We could use a lot more competition than we've got. But only in the right places and for the right reasons.

The recent draft report of the review of competition policy, chaired by emeritus professor Ian Harper, argues that we need to step up the degree of competition in the economy if we're to cope with three big sets of challenges and opportunities that we face: the rise of Asia, our ageing population and the advent of disruptive digital technologies.

Dead right - up to a point.

We need more competition in the economy because it's what keeps the capitalist system working in the interests of the populace, not the capitalists. But that doesn't mean it makes obvious sense to take areas of our lives that have been outside the realm of the market and turn them over to the capitalists.

Economics is about efficient materialism; making sure the natural, man-made and human resources available to us are used in ways that yield maximum satisfaction of our material wants. It argues that economies based on private ownership and freely operating markets - "capitalist" economies - are the most efficient.

What's to stop the capitalists using markets to exploit us and further aggrandise themselves? Competition. Competition between themselves, but also between us (the consumers) and them (the producers).

Get this: the ideology of conventional economics holds that the chief beneficiaries of market economies should be, and will be, the consumers, not the capitalists.

Market economies are seen as almost a con trick on capitalists: they scheme away trying to maximise their profits at our expense, but the system always defeats them, shifting the benefits to consumers (in the form of better products and lower prices) and leaving the capitalists with profits no higher than is necessary to keep them in the game.

What it is that performs this miracle? Competition. It's not nearly as fanciful as it sounds. Since the industrial revolution, the history of capitalism is the history of capitalists latching on to one new technology after another, hoping for the killing that never materialises.

Take the latest, digital technology and its effect on my industry, news. Who's losing? The formerly mighty producers of the soon to be superseded newspaper technology, including many of their journalists and other workers. Who's winning? People wanting access to as much news as possible as cheaply as possible.

For good measure, the cost of advertising - reflected in the prices of most things we buy - is now a fraction of what it was. Tough luck for producers, good luck for consumers. Competition at work.

But, amazing though this process is, it's far from perfect. Competition doesn't work as well in practice as it does in theory, for many reasons. A big one is "information asymmetry" - producers know far more about products than consumers do. Another is the presence of economies of scale, which has led to most markets being dominated by a handful of big companies.

Perhaps most pernicious, however, is the success of some producers in persuading governments to protect them from the full rigours of competition. Some industry lobbies are particularly powerful, and the ever-rising cost of the election arms race has made the two big parties susceptible to the viewpoints of generous donors.

The report produced by Harper, a former economics professor, emphasises that competitive pressure needs to be enhanced for the ultimate benefit of consumers. With so many big companies enjoying so much power in their markets, we need laws against anti-competitive practices. He proposes refinements to make these laws more effective.

He points to industries where governments need to reform laws that limit competition at the expense of customers: retail pharmacies, taxis and coastal shipping. He advocates "cost-reflective road pricing" and an end to restrictions on "parallel imports" of books, recordings, software and so on (fear not, the internet's doing it for us) and local zoning laws that implicitly favour incumbents (Woolies and Coles, for instance) at the expense of new entrants (Aldi and Costco).

But, predictably, there's little acknowledgement that competition has costs as well as benefits. It's assumed that if some choice is good, more must be better. And competition-caused efficiency outweighs all social considerations.

So the report advocates liberalising liquor licensing, and deregulation of shopping hours on all but three holy days a year (the holiest being Anzac Day), without any serious consideration of the effects on sobriety and crime in the first case or family life, relationships and what I like to call re-creation in the second.

Similarly, it sees nothing but benefit in maximising choice and competition between schools, and wants much more outsourcing of the delivery of government-funded services to profit-motivated providers.

The inquiry we need is one to check how well previous experiments in mixing government funding with the profit motive - in childcare, for instance, or training courses for international students - have worked in practice. We need more evaluation and fewer happy economist assumptions.