DRI-290 for week of 5-18-14: The Role of Economics in Sports

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Role of Economics in Sports

It is a commonplace that sports today is “just a business.” Once upon a time, so the thinking goes, sports was a magical realm, a “kid’s game” in which everybody played for fun and decisions were motivated by “the love of the game.” Now, though, it’s “all about the money.” From this, we might draw the inference that sports were once an economics-free zone.

The cliché applies: Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, sports today are ruled less by economic considerations than formerly. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying that money plays a smaller role. It doesn’t; the role of money has been distorted by the introduction of non-economic factors.

By applying the logic of economics to baseball, the national pastime, we can appreciate the historical role played by economics and understand how this role has been misshapen in recent decades.

Profit in Baseball

Baseball began as a game played for fun. Its origins are shrouded in mystery but date to before the Civil War. (Thus, the celebration of Abner Doubleday, Civil War general in the Union army, as baseball’s inventor is undoubtedly misplaced.) Professional baseball began in 1869 with the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Since then, profit has been inseparable from the game of baseball as a commercial enterprise.

Until recent decades, owners of baseball teams earned revenue from one primary source – the admission of baseball fans to watch games in person. The calculation of profit was quite straightforward: an admission price was charged to games and collected – either from advance ticket sales or at the gate prior to game time – and the revenue from the sum of all such sales was weighed against the costs of owning the team. The costs varied with circumstances, but less in true economic terms than might be supposed. For example, a team that owned its stadium would not pay rent according to a lease, but an economist would still reckon that rent as an implicit cost, since the team is foregoing the rent it could earn by leasing the stadium out to somebody else. Salaries paid to players and administrative staff, wages paid to low-level employees, travel costs, marketing costs – these comprise the standard costs of operating a baseball team and are subtracted from revenue in reckoning profit.

Like so many things in life, though, even this simple calculation has its complications. Revenue always has been, and remains today, a function of market size. The larger the potential number of fans, the greater is a team’s revenue potential. But for most of its history, revenue was also a function of stadium size. The Philadelphia Phillies have been a National League mainstay for over a century. For the first third of the 20th century, they played their games in the Baker Bowl, a tiny stadium whose capacity never exceeded 20,000 people and was typically less. The New York Yankees, on the other hand, played in a stadium befitting the nation’s largest city, as New York City was for nearly the first century of professional baseball’s existence. Yankee Stadium, built expressly to house the Yankees in the early 1920s, could hold around 70,000 people. Even the Polo Grounds, home of crosstown National League New York Giants, held over 60,000. Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium held over 80,000. If that seems incongruous, given the city’s comparatively modest size, our later discussion will rectify that impression.

Economists have developed a theory of the firm. They teach it to students in microeconomics courses. It is designed to apply broadly to business firms of all kinds, shapes and sizes. Given the tenuous connection traditionally made between sports and business, that attitude might seem arrogant. It turns out to be well-justified confidence.

The traditional formula for profit maximization in the economic theory of the firm requires equality between marginal revenue and marginal cost. But in order to apply the theory, we must have a measure of output. Businesses exist in order to produce goods and services. What do baseball teams exist to produce, anyway? In the ultimate sense, they produce satisfaction by entertaining fans. But this feeling of satisfaction is subjective; it is a non-operational definition of output. Is there something hard-edged and quantitative that we can measure as a source of this satisfaction?

Yes. It is winning games. If this doesn’t make baseball fans happy, it is hard to think of something else that does. Now all we have to do is identify the process by which the wins are produced – what economists call the production function. Inconceivable as it seems, it is only in the last 15 years that any real headway has been made in quantifying this formula. For over a century, professionals and amateurs alike were content to apply more or less subjective criteria to this concept.

Everybody always knew that good players and athletic talent were the raw material from which the production function sprang. But exactly how did they interact to produce winning baseball? Everybody had their own pet theories. Owners and their administrative staffs applied the theories to the selection and grooming of talent. Really, all that was done was to throw money at the problem. The amount of money and the direction of the throw varied widely from team to team and owner to owner. And baseball fans throughout America developed a time-honored set of prejudices, educated guesses and conventional thinking about the subject.

Bigger Market = More Revenue = Larger Expenditure on Player Salaries = Better Team

Even without a clear theoretical idea of the production function, though, we can still say a lot about how economic logic influenced the conduct of baseball operations and the course of baseball history. Regardless of how you go about calculating the marginal revenue associated with an additional win, it will be larger for a (say) New York City than (say) a Kansas City. (That is true even though New York City has two baseball teams to Kansas City’s one.) That an owner in New York City will find it profitable to expend a larger amount on player salaries than will an owner in Kansas City. All other things equal, this should produce better teams in New York City. In the broader context, that means that larger-market teams should tend to be better teams.

“All other things equal” (or “ceteris paribus,” as economists prefer to disguise it) is the great weasel phrase joining theory to reality. As we will see in the second installment of this discussion, those things became unequal indeed when a few wise guys cracked the code for the production function in baseball. But this generalization certainly worked well for over a century of baseball history.

No baseball team has come within a country mile of the Yankees’ 27 world championships. The St. Louis Cardinals hold second place, and for most of baseball history St. Louis was among the most populous cities and metropolitan areas in the nation. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers also rank among the most successful teams in history despite vacating New York in the 1950s. The Los Angeles Dodgers picked up the mantle doffed by their Brooklyn predecessor.

Chicago might seem a conspicuous exception to this rule of thumb, but even there it held good in the early days of the modern era. The Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs were two of the most successful teams in the first two decades of the modern era beginning in 1901. The Cubs set the all-time record for wins in a season in 1906 and appeared often in the World Series until 1918. The White Sox vied with the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers for American League supremacy during that era and upset the Cubs in the 1906 Series. The Cubs enjoyed periodic success until after World War II, their final World Series appearance to date being 1945.

“Free Agency Will Be the Death of Baseball”

Much has been made over the years of the fact that major-league baseball enjoys exemption from the anti-trust laws, thanks to a federal-court decision in 1922 (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League et al). While it is technically true that “major-league baseball” constitutes a combination of businesses that restricts its membership via the issuance of franchises, this exemption means very little in practice.

Over the course of baseball history, various competitive leagues have arisen. The American League itself was once one of those, just as the American Football League once competed with the National Football League. And major-league baseball has often reacted to its competition by absorbing it, as the NFL did the AFL. At other times, the Federal League (in 1915) and the Mexican League (in the late 1940s) briefly constituted significant threats to the major leagues.

Even more significant, though, has been the very substantial inter-industry competition provided by competing forms of sports and entertainment generally. Today, pro football and pro basketball have supplanted major-league baseball in the attraction of athletic talent. Insofar as the antitrust exemption applies to the product market in which major-league baseball operates, it has become a dead letter.

By far the most important antitrust issue faced by baseball concerned its input market. Economists have traditionally contended that baseball teams should compete with each other for players in the labor market. Until 1975, labor-market competition for players was severely restricted by the reserve clause. That clause granted exclusive bargaining rights to a player to the team first to sign that player. In recent years, a draft has assigned initial bargaining rights in baseball, as in football and basketball. It is still true that the right of players to initiate transfers to different teams is restricted in various ways.

The first economist to publicly question this arrangement was Gerald Scully in 1974 in a pathbreaking article in the American Economic Review. Scully maintained that competitive bidding normally drives a worker’s wage at or close to marginal revenue product – the value of additional output created at the margin by the input. In the case of uniquely talented inputs such as athletes – the antithesis of homogeneous unskilled labor – a player should earn his incremental contribution to revenue. By allowing freedom of player movement, players would naturally move where they would earn the most money.

Owners and baseball administrators spoke with one voice in response to this theory. They hated it. They loathed it. They reviled it. Almost unanimously, they proclaimed that to allow players the freedom of movement, or “free agency,” would be the death of organized baseball. Owners would be unable to recoup their “investment” in players. They would be unable to make enough profit to stay in business – the result would be carpetbagging teams moving from city to city in an effort to skim the cream of popularity off the top before moving on to the next city. Most of all, fans would lose their sense of identification with players who rented their services to the highest bidder rather than establishing loyalty to a city and its fan base.

An often-repeated fallacy is that the higher salaries associated with free agency would cause ticket prices to skyrocket upwards. Economists often use this as a case study in their microeconomics classes. Assuming owners want to maximize the revenue earned from ticket sales, they will choose the ticket price (or range of prices) that accomplishes that objective – with no regard whatsoever for what players are paid. The profit maximizing price depends on fan tastes, incomes and the substitute forms of entertainment available, which are the parameters of what economists call the demand curve. It is unrelated to supply-curve considerations such as player salaries.

But don’t fans pay player salaries ultimately, through ticket payments and various other means? Indeed they do. In fact, it is useful to employ the framework of the late, great Nobel laureate Ronald Coase from his classic article “The Theory of the Firm.” A business firm is a middleman between the players and fans. It is too costly for fans to contract directly with players for entertainment, so the team acts as a business intermediary. Free agency settles the question of how the fans’ payments are divided between players and team, not how much the total payment will be. The reserve clause allocated more to the team (e.g., the owner) than was economically efficient; free agency changes the division to favor the players more.

Of all these predictions, the least likely was the one that was most widely subscribed. Most people believed that free agency would cause players to move between teams much more freely and often than before. But economists like Scully contended that this would not happen. And years after the case of outfielder Curt Flood set in motion the eventual destruction of the reserve clause, they produced studies showing that player movement was no more rapid or frequent after the reserve clause was gone than in its heyday.

Although Scully and his colleagues thought they needed econometrics to persuade the public, simple logic should have sufficed. On second thought, a glance backward at baseball history should have been enough. This is how Scully put it in his contribution to the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics: “When players are not free to move, does a small city that acquired a star player… keep him? …A small-city franchise…holding the contract of the player expects him to contribute, say, $1 million in incremental revenue to the club. In a large city that same player’s talents might contribute $3 million. Since the player is worth more to the big-city team…the big-city team will pay more for him [so] the small-city franchise has an incentive to sell the player’s contract to the big-city team and thereby make more money than it could by keeping him. Thus, players should wind up allocated by highest incremental revenue, with or without restrictions on player-initiated movement.”

There are countless examples of this principle in operation. The most famous example involved baseball’s greatest player.

“The Curse of the Bambino?” No, Just Economics at Work

In 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was in trouble. His trouble wasn’t baseball-related. The Red Sox had won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918. They had baseball’s greatest player, Babe Ruth. He was the American League’s best left-handed pitcher who had lately taken to playing the outfield in his spare time – and had led the league in home runs in 1919 and 1920.

No, Frazee’s troubles were related to his main business, which was bankrolling Broadway shows. Financing shows was and still is a high-risk business. Now Frazee was in debt up to his ears. He was contemplating selling baseball’s best and most popular player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees, in spite of the pleading of his general manager, Ed Barrow.

Eventually, Frazee did just that. He got $100,000 (the tax-free equivalent of several million today) plus a $300,000 loan. And Babe Ruth went on to set a flock of records in a Yankee uniform and earn more in a single year than the President of the United States. Frazee went on to sell numerous other players to the Yankees in the next few years for another $305,000 in sale proceeds. And he produced successful shows such as “No, No, Nanette.”

According to baseball history, Frazee was an idiot who sacrificed his fans to his personal bank balance. But economics tells us that the Red Sox could never have paid Ruth anywhere close to his maximum potential salary. Only the Yankees, with their tremendous geographic and demographic reach, could have paid Ruth the salary he later commanded. It is no coincidence that Barrow, who criticized Frazee so sternly at the time, later went to work for the Yankees himself, became baseball’s most famous general manager and entered the Hall of Fame in his own right. Barrow also became rich by working for the Yankees.

Is it a coincidence that all the great power hitters, the players who commanded the biggest salaries and drew the most fans to the park, played for large-market teams? Lou Gehrig played alongside Ruth on the Yankees. Joe Dimaggio joined Gehrig in the 1930s and flanked Mickey Mantle in Mantle’s formative years. Roger Maris dueled teammate Mantle on his way to hitting 61 home runs in 1961. Yogi Berra was their teammate. Willie Mays played for the New York Giants, then moved with them to San Francisco, finishing up his career back in New York with the Mets. Duke Snider’s glory years were spent in Brooklyn before he, too, ended up with the New York Mets. Jimmie Foxx’s two primary teams were the Philadelphia Athletic and Boston Red Sox. The exceptions, Harmon Killebrew (Minnesota) and Ralph Kiner (Pittsburgh), were one-dimensional players who were slow runners and mediocre defensive players; thus, their value was limited by their liabilities.

Misers? Or Profit-Maximizers?

Connie Mack was one of baseball’s most beloved figures. Prior to that, he was a well-known and skillful major-league catcher. He owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years, from 1901 to 1950. He managed his teams to 8 World Series appearances and 4 championships. He retired as manager at age 87 and died at 95. Late in life, he was universally revered as the “grand old man” of the game.

Yet on three separate occasions he created furious controversy by selling his star players wholesale or (less often) trading them. He didn’t merely trade away one popular, talented player. He either sold or traded all his stars and started all over again with young players. At the time, he was not much more popular in Philadelphia than Frazee had been in Boston. He was even accused of being “no better than a miser, selling the contracts of players to line his own pockets.”

In order to have meaning, the word “miser” must denote inordinate stinginess. It must imply actions of thrift and economy that exceed in intensity those of ordinary men. But when we examine Connie Mack’s actions by the standards set by Scully and the principles of economics, they resemble instead the same kinds of profit-maximizing actions that any businessman would take.

In 1907, pitcher Rube Waddell was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, certainly the best left-handed pitcher. He had just set a season record for strikeouts (349) that was to last for over half a century. His off-the-field behavior was just as fast and even less controllable than his blazing fastball and wicked curveball. His drinking and carousing gave Mack the excuse for selling his contract to the St. Louis Browns, where he set a single-game league record for strikeouts (16) in 1908. Mack also disposed of Waddell’s batterymate, catcher Ozzie Schreckengost. The sale of the popular duo was highly unpopular with the public, although team members were more willing to bid goodbye to Waddell’s eccentric antics. The players had been instrumental in the two American League pennants won by the Athletics in 1902 and 1905.

Mack set about rebuilding his team. He produced a group of players – Frank “Home Run” Baker, Jack Barry, Eddie Collins and Stuffy McInnis – who became known as the “$100,000 Infield” because of their defensive positions and their aggregate salaries. They spearheaded pennant-winning seasons in 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914. The first two of those were also World Series championship years.

Yet following the Athletics’ stunning upset loss to the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series, Mack broke up this winning team through sales and trades over the course of the next three years. At the time, this action was explained by Mack’s financial troubles caused by competition from the new Federal League, which raided major-league teams for players and reportedly drove up player salaries with their competitive forays. But Mack’s actions caused a furor throughout professional baseball and were front-page news in Philadelphia, where he was bitterly criticized in the press.

Once more, Mack slowly and painfully rebuilt his team. Despite having to play in the American League against the powerful New York Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, Mack eventually assembled a powerhouse squad that included future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane. They won consecutive American League pennants in 1929, 1930 and 1931 against the “Murderer’s Row” lineup from New York and took two World Series titles in 1929 and 1930.

And once again, Mack pleaded financial exigency – this time citing the Great Depression – as his justification for selling or trading away all of those great players and others. This succession of transactions was nearly as unpopular as the previous one, and this time there was no comeback. Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics won no more American League pennants and mostly occupied the lower rungs of the league rankings until Mack’s retirement as manager at age 87 in 1950.

In retrospect, the citation of financial necessity was flimsy and unnecessary. Mack’s philosophy of player management and development was well-known and documented. He believed in using young players in preference to older ones. He was convinced that maximum value could be extracted from a player by trading or (preferably) selling him before his abilities declined markedly. Sure enough, players such as Waddell, Baker, Collins, Grove, Foxx and Cochrane produced productive years with their new teams. Collins and Grove went on to have unexpectedly long careers; the rest declined in ability and retired or became benchwarmers within a few years after leaving the Athletics.

Mack was obviously following the philosophy of profit-maximization to the best of his knowledge and ability. He used his formidable contacts throughout the baseball industry to scout and develop young talent. He could hardly be accused of stinginess when he paid the impressive talent he developed the high salaries that eventually made the team payroll a financial burden to him.

Economist James Quirk did voluminous research into the financial history of major-league baseball and found that only in the major-market cities like New York City did owners typically earn large profits from their teams. It is also important to note that the large-market owners, like Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, were already independently rich before entering the baseball business. This enabled them to undertake any investments necessary to capitalize on the opportunities presented by their market size. The norm was represented by hardscrabble owners like Connie Mack, who worked with small- to medium-size stadiums circumscribed by downtown urban environments. Mack played the game better than most of these lower-class owners, which explains his amazing longevity.

Connie Mack borrowed the money he used to buy part-ownership in the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901. He remained part-owner until 1937, when he was 75 years old. Yet he was able to hand on through difficult business and economic circumstances for a half-century as both owner and manager of a leading major-league team. He was a classic example of economics at work in major-league baseball during its first century.

The Changeover

The great manager Casey Stengel is famous for remarking, upon viewing the lack of talent assembled by the expansion-team New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” There is no doubt that for baseball’s first century it was a business, not just a game. The problem was that most of its practitioners lacked the acquired skills and natural talent to play the game of baseball from a purely business standpoint. A baseball genius like Connie Mack was able to exist and earn a comfortable living for over fifty years without stacking up the fortunes earned by today’s moguls.

The watershed came when baseball owners started treating the game less like a hobby – as it was viewed by rich, large-market owners – or just a way of earning a decent living – as the lower-level owners experienced it. A man came along with the marketing skills, business acumen and love of the game to take the business of baseball to a new level. That paved the way for the ascension of baseball – and professional sports generally – to the economic level it now occupies. The man’s name was Bill Veeck. His story will be told in our next EconBrief.

DRI-269 for week of 11-10-13: How Business Views Competition

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

How Business Views Competition

Every profession must endure the distortions resulting from the misshapen lens of public perception. Veteran economists know the specialized meaning of terms like “competition” and “efficiency.” They know the attitudes and mental habits formed by businessmen. And they know what happens when the mind of the businessman is forced to coexist with the vocabulary of economics. What happens is that the businessman perceives economics through the subjective prism of his own wants and expectations. This produces a view that is wrong in predictable ways.

By appreciating how intelligent, single-minded businessmen go wrong, we can better calibrate our own understanding with the truth. Recent published examples provide excellent case studies in the pathology of business misunderstanding of economics.

iK9 – Establishing “Standards” for the Detection-Dog Market

The current (11/4/2013) issue of Bloomberg Business Week tells the story of iK9, a detection-dog business started by a man named Tim Dunnigan. In the article “The Bomb Squad: Building an Empire on a Dog’s Nose,” author Josh Dean explains Dunnigan’s attempt to build a security firm around the olfactory talents of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Detection-dogs use their highly advanced sense of smell to locate everything from explosives to drugs to malignant tumors in humans. Their talent is inborn but requires extensive training and direction. Most of this training is done by individuals working alone or within small businesses, but one of the largest institutions devoted to this purpose is Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute. This subsidiary of the university’s veterinary research school trains some 200 teams of dog and handler every year for corporate and government clients. Associate Director Paul Waggoner has perhaps the best view of the dog-detection market.

“Detection-dog training has been a vocation where most of the knowledge has been handed down in master-apprentice manner. That’s led to a lot of unproven ideas and ways of doing things,” Waggoner observes. “It’s still a young field,” a “trust-me” kind of business.

It’s no wonder, then, that “the detection-dog marketplace is fragmented, and no one knows for sure how large it is,” according to Josh Dean. Estimates range from $400 million to $700 million. So far, the big-ticket buyers have been government and the military, with private security a distant third. In principle, though, “any high-traffic location or corporate headquarters is vulnerable” to the threat of terrorism or criminal activity, so “the potential market is immense.” On the other hand, the service is quite expensive. Effective security requires round-the-clock surveillance and dogs need constant care and supervision. Demand has fluctuated wildly, skyrocketing after the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing but nosediving in between.

Tim Dunnigan’s business plan calls for reaching $200 million in revenue as quickly as possible. He projects about $300,000 in annual revenue from each dog-and-handler team, so his game plan requires employing hundreds of dogs and trainers. Competing in the marketplace poses special problems because the scope for cost-cutting is minimal; any reduction in quality could be fatal to the firm’s competitive position.

What is Dunnigan’s strategy for rising to this competitive challenge? According to author Dean, it would seem that Dunnigan is instead planning on cutting competitors down to his size. “As much as anything, Dunnigan’s strategy seems to be to raise the industry’s profile anddemand that anyone offering canine detection adhere to standards that have yet to be formalized [emphasis added]. One challenge, he says, is that ‘everybody thinks his technique is the best.'”

It is worthwhile noting that even the federal government – thus far the leading purchaser of detection-dog services – has so far feared to tread the line of standardization. “Detection dogs are such a freewheeling business that a U.S. government training standard does not exist among the many departments deploying them in the field,” Dean admits. The watchword of government is coercion and compulsion, so at first glance Dunnigan seems foolish for rushing in.

In a free market, Dunnigan is at liberty to promulgate whatever standards he chooses – for his own firm. He can advertise them in accordance with his inclinations and financial resources. He can contrast them with those of his competitors – or with those they lack.

But the phrase “demand that anyone offering canine detection adhere to standards” has a sound that is both familiar and worrisome to the veteran market watcher. It smacks of the classic American business strategy: get the government to suppress your competition. In this case, it would mean that Dunnigan is lobbying for passage of industry regulations that a fragmented industry of smaller operators would find costly and cumbersome. After all, they don’t have the resources of a CDRI or Auburn University to call upon. These regulations would raise costs in a highly competitive, low-margin industry. (“You wouldn’t believe how thin our margins are,” complains Paul Stapleton, son of the founder of MSA Security, pioneering private-security dog-detection firm and New York-market leader.) In turn, that would drive some firms out of business and reduce the supply of services, raising price for the remaining firms.

To the average person – the man or woman on the street, untrained in economics – a call for standards sounds innocuous and even praiseworthy. All of us have grown up hearing the phrase “the XYZ industry is not regulated by the government” used synonymously for “this industry is inhabited by dishonest, unscrupulous bastards who will take your money and your life without a second’s hesitation.” But to an economist, the “demand for standards” is seen in its true light – as a demand for regulation that will restrict competition at the consumer’s expense and for the benefit of one or a few firms in the industry.

Were we to summarize this rhetorical pathology, it would read as follows: “In order to protect buyers from being exploited by sellers, who may or may not possess mysterious means of providing this new and valuable service, standards of performance must be set. Obviously, these must be set by government because…because…well, because that’s just the way things are done. As a would-be leader in this field, I demand that government step in and set standards to save all of us sellers from succumbing to our own shortcomings.”

Evil Street Vendors

The great economist and multi-disciplinary theorist Thomas Sowell has specialized in exposing the logical shortcomings of conventional rhetoric. One of his most incisive exposes has been of the “powerful powerless” – groups of the lowly and disenfranchised whose economic prospects are customarily suppressed on the contradictory grounds that they somehow possess unfair advantages over ordinary people. Street vendors are charter members of this unfortunate fraternity.

The conventional case against street vendors was argued in a recent letter to The Wall Street Journal (11/11/2013). The author, one Jerome Barth, represents a New York business group called the 34th Street Partnership.

“The Journal has steadfastly defended street vendors in the past…It should follow from common free-market rules that this position is sound. However, in the case of street vending, it isn’t.” This stance is a backbone of the rhetorical practice known as “special pleading.” Free markets and competition, it grants, are wonderful things. They work beautifully – except in my particular case/industry/country/state/city/neighborhood. My case is special, exceptional. Why? Well…er…uh…because it’s mine.

“Street vendors are not necessarily the sign of a good economy or a good downtown. They are messy actors who usually have very poor aesthetics and offer a very uniform product of relatively low quality – when it isn’t counterfeit.” No doubt Mr. Barth would take strong exception if somebody referred to his colleagues in collective terms – “the 34th Street Partnership are sloppy businessmen with questionable ethics.” But he does not hesitate to herd all or most street vendors into one corral and brand them with the same iron. They don’t merely offer a uniform product; they offer a very uniform product! (In political rhetoric, nothing succeeds like excess.)

Of course, we all know that you just can’t trust vendors who sell uniform products of relatively low quality, like McDonald’s, White Castle, Wal Mart and Dollar Store. But it isn’t enough that the street vendors be pigeonholed as specialists in inexpensive, homogeneous goods – no, they must be stigmatized as crooks, counterfeiters. This is just another way of saying: “The customers of street vendors are complete idiots, since they cannot detect forgeries of the simplest, least complex goods; instead, they not only fall for the fakes but apparently keep coming back for more!” And since the customers of street vendors are the same people who patronize the downtown shops of the 34th Street Partners, Mr. Barth is stigmatizing his own customers and those of his colleagues.

“Further, they [street vendors] seldom follow rules, often don’t pay taxes, often exploit workers and leave messes behind.” Throughout the world, street vendors are the lowest of the low among businessmen. Often their net worth travels with them in the cart or wagon that dispenses their wares. The working capital with which they purchase tomorrow’s inputs is gained from today’s sales. But in Mr. Barth’s telling, these powerful powerless wield powers unknown to mortal businesses. They ignore laws, evade taxes, exploit workers – does this mean that a one-man hot dog vendor acting as entrepreneur exploits himself acting as laborer? Meanwhile, Mr. Barth would have us believe that police are the powerless ones. In reality, the police typically act in concert with Mr. Barth and colleagues to roust street vendors on the slightest pretext. Of course, nobody disputes that street vendors should pay taxes and respect property rights, and they possess no special rights or immunities that would prevent this.

“…The great retail places of the world…don’t have street vending or…limit it to products that enhance the street experience and have difficulty paying for storefronts (flowers, newsstands, shoeshine).” The criterion “products that enhance the street experience” is utterly subjective; it allows would-be cartels like the 34th Street Partnership to restrain trade and restrict competition while holding up a fig leaf of pretense by allowing vendors as long as they don’t compete with incumbent merchants. Any downtown habitué knows that flower stands, newsstands and shoeshine parlors do sometimes operate behind storefronts; this is merely the pretext under which the cartels grant them the special privilege denied to competing street vendors.

If there is even a tiny grain of truth in Jerome Barth’s case against street vendors, it would have to crystallize around the issue of spillover costs resulting from a transient vendor who cannot be traced and braced for costs of cleanup. Presumably, this was the rationale for Atlanta’s awarding a franchise rather than allowing open competition among street vendors (“…in the case of Atlanta’s concession of street vending to a single group. namely General Growth Properties”). However dubious this example and this practice may be, it serves to demolish whatever remains of Mr. Barth’s argument against street vending.

The outlines of this second anti-competitive rhetorical pathology are as follows: “Free markets are wonderful for everybody else, but not for me because my case is special. I am the helpless victim of invidious, evil forces beyond the reach of normal market competition. The law must suppress these competitive forces or they will destroy me. (The fact that these powerful evil forces consist of people who are otherwise the most powerless people in society is a paradox that I do not choose to address or even recognize.)”

It’s the Gypsy (Cab) in My Soul

Although both of the first two examples are recent, the attitudes displayed therein have been around for many years. A classic case amalgamating the two rhetorical stances involves the “gypsy” cab business. Gypsy (illegal) cabs operate throughout the world. Taxicabs are heavily regulated around the globe and gypsy cabs are linked to regulation the way pilot fish are attached to whales.

In its paradigmatic form, taxi regulation limits the number of taxis allowed to operate within a political jurisdiction and also prescribes the specific fare structure the taxis are allowed to charge. In effect, the governmental body regulating taxis functions as a cartel that blocks entry of new firms into the market. This limitation places an upward bound on the amount of taxi service that taxi consumers can receive, thereby bolstering the high price set by the regulators. In turn, this allows monopoly profits to be earned on the supply side of the market. Whether the beneficiaries of those profits are taxi firm owners or drivers or somebody else depends on various factors, some of which we will elaborate below.

New York City is the classic case of taxicab regulation resulting in monopoly profits and the proliferation of gypsy cabs. Beginning with the Haas Act in 1937, operators of New York City taxicabs were required to purchase medallions as emblems of licensure. During World War II, 1,794 of the original 13,566 medallions were returned to the city by entering servicemen. That left 11,772 outstanding medallions – a total that has not increased since then.

Meanwhile, the demand for taxicab service in perhaps the most tightly concentrated population in America continued to increase. There was no way to legally increase the size of the taxicab fleet and no way to legally raise the price of service. Thus, waits for service became intolerably long. Service to poorer neighborhoods deteriorated disproportionately, especially to ghetto communities where the risk of robbery and injury to drivers was thought to be higher. Eventually, local residents responded by reallocating private passenger vehicles to the service of commercial passenger transportation; they installed meters, top lights and lettering identifying the vehicle as a taxicab. These gypsy cabs found a plentiful market for their services inside the ghetto and even ventured into the larger community in search of business.

Sometimes private vehicles were conscripted to serve as livery vehicles or jitneys. In principle, livery vehicles are defined as for-hire transportation vehicles engaged via telephone or appointment only and not responsive to street hails. In practice, though, this distinction gradually blurred and the unmarked livery vehicles became de facto taxis. Individuals who contracted with grocery stores to provide exclusive “car service” for shoppers became the modern-day prototype for jitneys. With very few exceptions, these too have traditionally been illegal in America but have been tolerated by authorities beset by complaints about poor taxi service.

Why not simply open up the taxi business for competition? In New York City, the monopoly profits available in the taxi market have been reaped by owners of the medallions. Although it is the drivers who pocket the money derived from the high taxi fares, the value of those monopoly profits is capitalized into the price paid for the medallion. (The medallion is legally transferable, so a retiring driver can cash in his or her investment by selling the medallion to a prospective entrant into the business. The price of medallions fluctuates; it has often reached six figures over the years.) If the city were to suddenly allow free entry into the taxi business, the market value of those 11,772 medallions would suddenly fall to zero – and 11,772 medallion-holders would raise hell when their capital asset suddenly evaporated in their hands. Obviously, New York City politicians fear the volume of this outrage more than they welcome the more moderate gratitude that would flow in from taxicab consumers.

The official rationale for taxicab regulation dates back roughly a century, when the automobile was young and taxis competed with buses and streetcars. City government wanted to protect buses and streetcars from the competition of taxis. But they couldn’t very well say that they wanted to deny taxicab consumers the transportation services vital to their well-being. Instead, they used the same sorts of arguments that survive to this day in the official pamphlets and websites that warn against gypsy cabs.

A famous 1969 New York Times piece warned its readers that, by riding in a gypsy cab, “…you may be putting yourself in the care of a murderer, a thief, or even a rapist [!]. The gypsy driver, by the very fact that he solicits on the street, is at least a crook, but he may have big ideas which include you.” Of course, the inherent contradiction implied by this characterization is never broached. The very thing that makes the gypsy cab attractive is the possibility of earning money by transporting passengers. In order to do this, the vehicle must be made both conspicuous and distinguishable. But driving a big yellow vehicle marked with a number is not conducive to the successful commission of a crime, since it makes its driver both highly visible and easy to trace.

One would suppose that the prospect of traveling with crooks, rapists and murderers would deter prospective passengers of gypsy cabs, but evidence supports the conjecture that gypsy cab operations were and are “flourishing,” to borrow the characterization of black economist Walter Williams. Various estimates have been made of the gypsy cab influx within New York City. One Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman put forward the figure of 15,000, which would have made the gypsy cab business larger than the licit medallioned fleet.

This suggests that gypsy cabs are, in the aggregate, more beneficial than legal cabs. Throughout New York City, but especially in the ghettos and low-income areas, people dependent on commercial transportation are willing to use unauthorized means of transport rather than wait for hours on authorized transport that may never arrive. More pithily put by Wikipedia: “Passengers sometimes find illegal cabs to be more available, convenient or economical than licensed cabs.” Gypsy cabs are often cheaper than licensed cabs in absolute terms. If one thinks of a time delay in obtaining a cab as a form of higher price – foregoing time otherwise available for work or leisure, just as paying a money price entails foregoing alternative consumption goods or saving that could be enjoyed – gypsy cabs are clearly the lower-priced alternative to licensed taxicabs. Consequently, it is the legal taxicab industry that most assiduously demonizes gypsy cabs through propaganda such as that in the quoted New York Times piece above.

Seldom has reality been so at odds with rhetorical pretense as in the taxicab business, where the conventional thinking is bereft of any economic content. Expressing the conventional view compactly would yield something like this: “Crooks are people who violate the law. Gypsy cab drivers violate the law. Therefore, gypsy cab drivers are crooks. Crooks rob, rape and kill people. Therefore, gypsy cab drivers also rob, rape and kill people. You should be happy to wait hours for a licensed cab and pay its sky-high fare rather than risk robbery, rape and death in a gypsy cab.” As with the other rhetorical pathologies we exposed, this one is utterly without redeeming social value. It serves the interest of the taxi cartels and bureaucrats and nobody else.

Business and Competition

These few examples point to a great American truth. American business is devoted to the principles of free enterprise – but not to their practice. American business loves competition – for its rivals. The best way for a business to avoid facing competition is by removing competitors. The best way to remove competitors is by making them illegal or, alternatively, passing laws and regulations making it too costly for them to operate.