An Access Advertising EconBrief:
George Orwell, Call Your Office – The FCC Curtails Internet Freedom In Order to Save It
February 26, 2015 is a date that will live in regulatory infamy. That assertion is subject to revision by the courts, as is nearly everything undertaken these days by the Obama administration. As this is written, the Supreme Court hears yet another challenge to “ObamaCare,” the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s initiative to achieve a single-payer system of national health care in the U.S. is rife with Orwellian irony, since it cannot help but make health care unaffordable for everybody by further removing the consumer of health care from every exposure to the price of health care. Similarly, the latest administration initiative is the February 26 approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the so-called “Net Neutrality” doctrine in regulatory form. Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler’s summary of his regulatory proposal – consisting of 332 pages that were withheld from the public – has been widely characterized as a proposal to “regulate the Internet like a public utility.”
This episode is riven with a totalitarian irony that only George Orwell could fully savor. The FCC is ostensibly an independent regulatory body, free of political control. In fact, Chairman Wheeler long resisted the “net neutrality” doctrine (hereinafter, shortened to “NN” for convenience). The FCC’s decision was a response to pressure from President Obama, which made a mockery of the agency’s independence. The alleged necessity for NN arises from the “local monopoly” over “high-speed” broadband exerted by Internet service providers (again, hereinafter abbreviated as “ISPs”) – but a “public utility” was, and is, by definition a regulated monopoly. Since the alleged local monopoly held by ISPs is itself fictitious, the FCC is in fact proposing to replace competition with monopoly.
To be sure, the particulars of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal are still open to conjecture. And the enterprise is wildly illogical on its face. The idea of “regulating the Internet like a public utility” treats those two things as equivalent entities. A public utility is a business firm. But the Internet is not a single business firm; indeed, it is not a single entity at all in the concrete sense. In the business sense, “the Internet” is shorthand for an infinite number of existing and potential business firms serving the world’s consumers in countless ways. The clause “regulate the Internet like a public utility” is quite literally meaningless – laughably indefinite, overweening in its hubris, frightening in its totalitarian implications.
It falls to an economist, former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett of Clemson University, to sculpt this philosophy into its practical form. He defines NN as “a set of rules… regulating the business model of your local ISP.” In short, it is a political proposal that uses economic language to prettify and conceal its real intentions. NN websites are emblazoned with rhetoric about “protecting the Open Internet” – but the Internet has thrived on openness for over 20 years under the benign neglect of government regulators. This proposal would end that era.
There is no way on God’s green earth to equate a regulated Internet with an open Internet; the very word “regulated” is the antithesis of “open.” NN proponents paint scary scenarios about ISPs “blocking or interfering with traffic on the Internet,” but their language is always conditional and hypothetical. They are posing scenarios that might happen in the future, not ones that threaten us today. Why? Because competition and innovation protected consumers up to now and continue to do so. NN will make its proponents’ scary predictions more likely, not less, because it will restrict competition. That is what regulation does in general; that is what public-utility regulation specifically does. For over a century, public-utility regulation has installed a single firm as a regulated monopoly in a particular market and has forcefully suppressed all attempts to compete with that firm.
Of course, that is not what President Obama, Chairman Wheeler and NN proponents want us to envision when we hear the words “regulate the Internet like a public utility.” They want us to envision a lovely, healthy flock of sheep grazing peacefully in a beautiful meadow, supervised by a benevolent, powerful Shepherd with a herd of well-trained, affectionate shepherd dogs at his command. Soothing music is piped down from heaven and love and tranquility reign. At the far edges of the meadow, there is a forest. Hungry wolves dwell within, eyeing the sheep covetously. But they dare not approach, for they fear the power of the Shepherd and his dogs.
In other words, the Obama administration is trying to manipulate the emotions of the electorate by creating an imaginary vision of public-utility regulation. The reality of public-utility regulation was, and is, entirely different.
The Natural-Monopoly Theory of Public-Utility Regulation
The history of public-utility regulation is almost, but not quite, co-synchronous with that of government regulation of business in the United States. Regulation began at the state level with Munn vs. Illinois, which paved the way for state government of the grain business in the 1870s. The Interstate Commerce Commission’s inaugural voyage with railroad regulation followed in the late 1880s. With the commercial introduction of electric lighting and the telephone came business firms tailored to those ends. And in their wake came the theory of natural monopoly.
Both electric power and telephones came to be known as “natural monopoly” industries; that is, industries in which both economic efficiency and commercial viability chose one single firm to serve the entire market. This was the outgrowth of economies of scale in production, owing to decreasing long-run average cost of production. This decidedly unusual state of affairs is a technological anomaly. Engineers recognize it in conjunction with the “two-thirds rule.” There are certain cases in which cost increases as the two-thirds power of output, which implies that cost decreases steadily as output rises. (The thru-put of pipes and cables and the capacity of cargo holds are examples.) In turn, this implies that the firm that grows the fastest will undersell all others while still covering all its costs. The further implication is that consumers will receive the most output at the lowest price if one monopoly firm serves everybody – if, and only if, the firm’s price can be constrained equal to its long-run average cost at the rate of output necessary to meet market demand. An unconstrained monopoly would produce less than this optimal rate of output and charge a higher price, in order to maximize its profit. But the theoretical outcome under regulated monopoly equates price with long-run average cost, which provides the utility with a rate of return equal to what it could get in the best alternative use for its financial capital, given its business risk.
In the U.S. and Canada, this regulated outcome is sought by a public-utility commission via the medium of periodic hearings staged by the public-utility regulatory commission (PUC for short). The utility is privately owned by shareholders. In Europe, utilities are not privately owned. Instead, their prices are (in principle) set equal to long-run marginal cost, which is below the level of average cost and thus constitutes a loss in accounting terms. Taxpayers subsidize this loss – these subsidies are the alternative to the profits earned by regulated public-utility firms in the U.S. and Canada.
These regulatory schemes represent the epitome of what the Nobel laureate Ronald Coase called “blackboard economics” – economists micro-managing reality as if they possessed all the information and control over reality that they do when drawing diagrams on a classroom blackboard. In practice, things did not work out as neatly as the foregoing summary would lead us to believe. Not even remotely close, in fact.
The Myriad Slips Twixt Theoretical Cup and Regulatory Lip
What went wrong with this theoretical set-up, seemingly so pat when viewed in a textbook or on a classroom blackboard? Just about everything, to some degree or other. Today, we assume that the institution of regulated monopoly came in response to market monopolies achieved and abuses perpetrated by electric and telephone companies. What mostly happened, though, was different. There were multiple providers of electricity and telephone service in the early days. In exchange for submitting to rate-of-return regulation, though, one firm was extended a grant of monopoly and other firms were excluded. Only in very rare cases did competition exist for local electric service – and curiously, this rate competition actually produced lower electric rates than did public-utility regulation.
This result was not the anomaly it seemed, since the supposed economies of scale were present only in the distribution of electric power, not in power generation. So the cost superiority of a single firm producing for the whole market turned out to be not the slam-dunk that was advertised. That was just one of many cracks in the façade of public-utility regulation. Over the course of the 20th century, the evolution of public-utility regulation in telecommunications proved to be paradigmatic for the failures and inherent shortcomings of the form.
Throughout the country, the Bell system were handed a monopoly on the provision of local service. Its local service companies – the analogues to today’s ISPs – gradually acquired reputations as the heaviest political hitters in state-government politics. The high rates paid by consumers bought lobbyists and legislators by the gross, and they obediently safeguarded the monopoly franchise and kept the public-utility commissions (PUCs) staffed with tame members. That money also paid the bill for a steady diet of publicity designed to mislead the public about the essence of public-utility regulation.
We were assured by the press that the PUC was a vigilant watchdog whose noble motives kept the greedy utility executives from turning the rate screws on a helpless public. At each rate hearing, self-styled consumer advocacy groups paraded their compassion for consumers by demanding low rates for the poor and high rates on business – as if it were really possible for some non-human entity called “business” to pay rates in the true sense, any more than they could pay taxes. PUCs made a show of ostentatiously requiring the utility to enumerate its costs and pretending to laboriously calculate “just and reasonable” rates – as if a Commission possessed juridical powers denied to the world’s greatest philosophers and moralists.
Behind the scenes, after the press had filed their poker-faced stories on the latest hearings, increasingly jaded and cynical reporters, editors and industry consultants rolled their eyes and snorted at the absurdity of it all. Utilities quickly learned that they wouldn’t be allowed to earn big “profits,” because this would be cosmetically bad for the PUC, the consumer advocates, the politicians and just about everybody involved in this process. So executives, middle-level managers and employees figured out that they had to make their money differently than they would if working for an ordinary business in the private sector. Instead of working efficiently and productively and striving to maximize profit, they would strive to maximize cost instead. Why? Because they could make money from higher costs in the form of higher salaries, higher wages, larger staffs and bigger budgets. What about the shareholders, who would ordinarily be shafted by this sort of behavior? Shareholders couldn’t lose because the PUC was committed to giving them a rate of return sufficient to attract financial capital to the industry. (And the shareholders couldn’t gain from extra diligence and work effort put forward by the company because of the limitation on profits.) That is, the Commission would simply ratchet up rates commensurate with any increase in costs – accompanied by whatever throat-clearing, phony displays of concern for the poor and cost-shifting shell games were necessary to make the numbers work. In the final analysis, the name of the game was inefficiency and consumers always paid for it – because there was nobody else who could pay.
So much for the vaunted institution of public-utility regulation in the public interest. Over fifty years ago, a famous left-wing economist named Gardiner Means proposed subjecting every corporation in the U.S. to rate-of-return regulation by the federal government. This held the record for most preposterous policy program advanced by a mainstream commentator – until Thomas Wheeler announced that henceforth the Internet would be regulated as if it were a public utility. Now every American will get a taste of life as Ivan Denisovich, consigned to the Gulag Archipelago of regulatory bureaucracy.
Of particular significance to us in today’s climate is the effect of this regime on innovation. Outside of totalitarian economies such as the Soviet Union and Communist China, public-utility regulation is the most stultifying climate for innovation ever devised by man. The idea behind innovation is to find ways to produce more goods using the same amount of inputs or (equivalently) the same amount of goods using fewer inputs. Doing this lowers costs – which increases profits. But why do to the trouble if you can’t enjoy the increase in profits? Of course, utilities were willing to spend money on research, provided they could get it in the rate base and earn a rate of return on the investment. But they had no incentive to actually implement any cost-saving innovations. The Bell System was legendary for its unwillingness to lower its costs; the economic literature is replete with jaw-dropping examples of local Bell companies lagging years and even decades behind the private sector in technology adoption – even spurning advances developed in Bell’s own research labs!
Any reader who suspects this writer of exaggeration is invited to peruse the literature of industrial organization and regulation. One nagging question should be dealt with forthwith. If the demerits of public-utility regulation were well recognized by insiders, how were they so well concealed from the public? The answer is not mysterious. All of those insiders had a vested interest in not blowing the whistle on the process because they were making money from ongoing public-utility regulation. Commission employees, consultants, expert witnesses, public-interest lawyers and consumer advocates all testified at rate hearings or helped prepare testimony or research it. They either worked full-time or traveled the country as contractors earning lucrative hourly pay. If any one of them was crazy enough to launch an expose of the public-utility scam, he or she would be blackballed from the business while accomplishing nothing – the institutional inertia in favor of the system was so enormous that it would have taken mass revolt to effect change. So they just shrugged, took the money and grew more cynical by the year.
In retrospect, it seems miraculous that anything did change. In the 1960s, local Bell companies were undercharging for local service to consumers and compensating by soaking business and long-distance customers with high prices. The high long-distance rates eventually attracted the interest of would-be competitors. One government regulator grew so fed up with the inefficiency of the Bell system that he granted the competitive petition of a small company called MCI, which sought to compete only in the area of long-distance telecommunications. MCI was soon joined by other firms. The door to competition had been cracked slightly ajar.
In the 1980s, it was kicked wide open. A federal antitrust lawsuit against AT&T led to the breakup of the firm. At the time, the public was dubious about the idea that competition was possible in telecommunications. The 1990s soon showed that regulators were the only ones standing between the American public and a revolution unlike anything we had seen in a century. After vainly trying to protect the local Bells against competition, regulators finally succumbed to the inevitable – or rather, they were overrun by the competitive hordes. When the public got used to cell phones and the Internet, they ditched good old Ma Bell and land-line phones.
This, then, is public-utility regulation. The only reason we have smart phones and mobile Internet access today is that public-utility regulation in telecommunications was overrun by competition despite regulatory opposition in the 1990s. But public-utility regulation is the wonderful fate to which Barack Obama, Thomas Wheeler and the FCC propose to consign the Internet. What is the justification for their verdict?
The Case for Net Neutrality – Debunked
As we have seen, public-utility regulation was based on a premise that certain industries were “natural monopolies.” But nobody has suggested that the Internet is a natural monopoly – which makes sense, since it isn’t an industry. Nobody has suggested that all or even some of the industries that utilize the Internet are natural monopolies – which makes sense, since they aren’t. So why in God’s name should we subject them to public-utility regulation – especially since public-utility regulation didn’t even work well in the industries for which it was ideally suited? We shouldn’t.
The phrase “net neutrality” is designed to achieve an emotional effect through alliteration and a carefully calculated play on the word “neutral.” In this case, the word is intended to appeal to egalitarian sympathies among hearers. It’s only fair, we are urged to think, that ISPs, the “gatekeepers” of the Internet, are scrupulously fair or “neutral” in letting everybody in on the same terms. And, as with so many other issues in economics, the case for “fairness” becomes just so much sludge upon closer examination.
The use of the term “gatekeepers” suggests that God handed to Moses on Mount Olympus a stone tablet for the operation of the Internet, on which ISPs were assigned the role of “gatekeepers.” Even as hyperbolic metaphor, this bears no relation to reality. Today, cable companies are ISPs. But they began life as monopoly-killers. In the early 1960s, Americans chose between three monopoly VHF-TV networks, broadcast by ABC, NBC and CBS. Gradually, local UHF stations started to season the diet of content-starved viewers. When cable-TV came along, it was like manna from heaven to a public fed up with commercials and ravenous for sports and movies. But government regulators didn’t allow cable-TV to compete with VHF and UHF in the top 100 media markets of the U.S. for over two decades. As usual, regulators were zealously protecting government monopoly, restricting competition and harming consumers.
Eventually, cable companies succeeded in tunneling their way into most local markets. They did it by bribing local government literally and figuratively – the latter by splitting their profits via investment in pet political projects of local politicians as part of their contracts. In return, they were guaranteed various degrees of exclusivity. But this “monopoly” didn’t last because they eventually faced competition from telecommunication firms who wanted to get into their business and whose business the cable companies wanted to invade. And today, the old structural definitions of monopoly simply don’t apply to the interindustry forms of competition that prevail.
Take the Kansas City market. Originally, Time Warner had a monopoly franchise. But eventually a new cable company called Everest invaded the metro area across the state line in Johnson County, KS. Overland Park is contiguous with Kansas City, MO, and consumers were anxious to escape the toils of Time Warner. Eventually, Everest prevailed upon KC, MO to gain entry to the Missouri side. Now even the cable-TV market was competitive. Then Google selected Kansas City, KS as the venue for its new high-speed service. Soon KC, MO was included in that package, too – now there were three local ISPs! (Everest has morphed into two successive incarnations, one of which still serves the area.)
Although this is not typical, it does not exhaust the competitive alternatives. This is only the picture for fixed service. Americans are now turning to mobile forms of access to the Internet, such as smart phones. Smart watches are on the horizon. For mobile access, the ISP is a wireless company like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile.
The NN websites stridently maintain that “most Americans have only a single ISP.” This is nonsense; a charitable interpretation would be that most of us have only a single cable-TV provider in our local market. But there is no necessary one-to-one correlation between “cable-TV provider” and “ISP.” Besides, the state of affairs today is ephemeral – different from what is was a few years ago and from what it will be a few years from now. It is only under public-utility regulation that technology gets stuck in one place because under public-utility regulation there is no incentive to innovate.
More specifically, the FCC’s own data suggest that 80% of Americans have two or more ISPs offering 10Mbps downstream speeds. 96% have two or more ISPs offering 6Mbps downstream and 1.5 upstream speeds. (Until quite recently, the FCC’s own criterion for “high-speed” Internet was 4Mbps or more.) This simply does not comport with any reasonable structural concept of monopoly.
The current flap over “blocking and interfering with traffic on the Internet” is the residue of disputes between Netflix and ISPs over charges for transmission of the former’s streaming services. In general, there is movement toward higher charges for data transmission than for voice transmission. But the huge volumes of traffic generated by Netflix cause congestion, and the free-market method for handling congestion is a higher price, or the functional equivalent. That is what economists have recommended for dealing with road congestion during rush hours and congested demand for air-conditioning and heating services at peak times of day and during peak seasons. Redirecting demand to the off-peak is not a monopoly response; it is an efficient market response. Competitive bar and restaurant owners do it with their pricing methods; competitive movie theater owners also do it (or used to).
Similar logic applies to other forms of hypothetically objectionable behavior by ISPs. The prioritization of traffic, creation of “fast” and “slow” lanes, blocking of content – these and other behaviors are neither inherently good nor bad. They are subject to the constraints of competition. If they are beneficial on net balance, they will be vindicated by the market. That is why we have markets. If a government had to vet every action by every business for moral worthiness in advance, it would paralyze life as we know it. The only sensible course is to allow free markets and competition to police the activities of competitors.
Just as there is nothing wrong or untoward with price differentials based on usage, there is nothing virtuous about government-enforced pricing equality. Forcing unequals to be treated equally is not meritorious. NN proponents insist that the public has to be “protected” from that kind of treatment. But this is exactly what PUCs did for decades when they subsidized residential consumers inefficiently by soaking business and long-distance users with higher rates. Back then, the regulatory mantra wasn’t “net neutrality,” it was “universal service.” Ironically, regulators never succeeded in achieving rates of household telephone subscription that exceeded the rate of household television service. Consumers actually needed – but didn’t get – protection from the public-utility monopoly imposed upon them. Today, consumers don’t need protection because there is no monopoly, nor is there any prospect of one absent regulatory intervention. The only remaining vestige of monopoly is that remaining from the grants of local cable-TV monopoly given by municipal governments. Compensating for past mistakes by local government is no excuse for making a bigger mistake by granting monopoly power to FCC regulators.
The late, great economist Frank Knight once remarked that he had heard do-gooders utter the equivalent words to “I want power to do good” so many times for so long that he automatically filtered out the last three words, leaving only “I want power.” Federal-government regulators want the maximum amount of power with the minimum number of restrictions, leaving them the maximum amount of flexibility in the exercise of their power. To get that, they have learned to write excuses into their mandates. In the case of NN and Internet regulation, the operative excuse is “forbearance.”
Forbearance is the writing on the hand with which they will wave away all the objections raised in this essay. The word appears in the original Title II regulations. It means that regulators aren’t required to enforce the regulations if they don’t want to; they can “forebear.” “Hey, don’t worry – be happy. We won’t do the bad stuff, just the good stuff – you know, the ‘neutrality’ stuff, the ‘equality’ stuff.” Chairman Wheeler is encouraging NN proponents to fill the empty vessel of Internet regulation with their own individual wish-fulfillment fantasies of what they dream a “public-utility” should be, not what the ugly historical reality tells us public-utility regulation actually was. For example, he has implied that forbearance will cut out things like rate-of-return regulation.
This just begs the questions raised by the issue of “regulating the Internet like a public utility.” The very elements that Wheeler proposes to forbear constitute part and parcel of public-utility regulation as we have known it. If these are forborne, we have no basis for knowing what to expect from the concept of Internet public-utility regulation at all. If they are not, after all, forborne – then we are back to square one, with the utterly dismal prospect of replaying 20th-century public-utility regulation in all its cynical inefficiency.
Forbearance is a good idea, all right – so good that we should apply it to the whole concept of Internet regulation by the federal government. We should forbear completely.