If all international trade was done through eBay, the world would be 30 per cent richer

Frictionless trade is closer than ever before online, according to a new paper.

If all trade was as frictionless as it is on eBay, the world's real income could be almost 30 per cent higher, according to a new research paper from the European Trade Study Group, in a phenomenon known as the "death of distance".

The study looks at a dataset of cross-border transactions performed over eBay, modified to only include sales from businesses which were concluded with a fixed price; in other words, no auctions, and no customer-to-customer sales. While this removes the majority of transactions from their dataset, the modification is necessary to make eBay sales more accurately represent offline trade.

They find that, unsurprisingly, the effect of distance on trade volume is lessened online. Controlling for standard trade costs "such as the absence of a common language, a common legal system, a border, a colonial history, or a free-trade agreement", the distance effect is 65 per cent smaller online than offline.

That effect may be due to a mixture of three different frictions on trade: shipping costs, information frictions (you can, after all, only export to a country if you know someone there who wants to buy from you), or trust frictions.

Shipping costs appear to have little to do with the death of distance online – partially, it appears, because they have little correlation with distance. For instance, the average shipping cost, as a proportion of the cost of the item, is less from the USA to Iceland than it is for shipping from the USA to Canada or Mexico:

Instead, the real reduction in friction comes from the provision of both trust and information; as a result, "the distance-effect reduction is largest for exporting countries with high levels of corruption and which are relatively unknown to consumers, as measured by Google search results."

Worldwide, the increase in real income achieved by the reductions in distance effects is equal to 29 per cent, but that increase is spread very unevenly. At one end of the extreme, Brazil would see an increase in real income of 80 per cent, if only it could conduct all its trade with the rest of the world as efficiently as it does when that trade is on eBay.

At the other end, Belgium would actually lose out. It currently gains from information frictions, and would lose 0.9 per cent of its real income from trade if those frictions were abolished. It is the only country in the dataset which would lose out in such a way, though, and Britain would be up by over 40 per cent.

Of course, the study doesn't address every aspect of the online world. One of the reasons why eBay is so frictionless is that the company takes a (rather large) cut of the transaction in order to keep that infrastructure maintained. If all the world's trade was carried out on eBay, its annual revenue from international transactions alone would be in the order of $400bn, a significant increase on the $12bn it's earned in the last year. And let's not even talk about the Paypal fees.

Still, the paper strikes a blow in favour of those of us who think there are still significant gains to be made from the online economy.

eBay. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle