Tenuous economic lessons drawn from detergent shoplifting

The Tide is turning.

Last year, I wrote about the extraordinary news that Tide – a popular brand of laundry detergent – was being stolen and used as a black-market currency across the United States (I also titled the post Laundered Money which I am still proud of ten months later). The retail price is high, the resale value is only slightly lower, it's impossible to track and everyone uses it. I looked at how well it would work as a unit of exchange:

Crucially, one bottle of it is identical to any other, a quality economists call "fungibility", putting it in the same class as oil, precious metals, or currency itself. If someone lends me a bottle of Tide, I don't have to return the same one to them when my debt is called in – in fact, because there are no serial numbers, it would be impossible for them to tell even if I did…

[Stolen] Tide is also a highly liquid commodity, frequently traded, which will allow a natural, and relatively stable, value to emerge for it.

Now, New York Magazine's Ben Paynter has done further investigation on the Tide-boosting phenomenon, and taken some of the magic out of it. It turns out that while a lot of people are stealing a lot of detergent, there's less evidence of the currency side of it. Crucially, Paynter, who was speaking to police in Maryland, didn't hear the same stories that Kentucky police passed on in March 2012 of people exchanging Tide for drugs, or being offered Tide instead of drugs. Instead, it's just your common-or-garden people-are-shoplifting-something-to-sell-it-and-use-the-money story.

But! There's still tenuous economic lessons to be drawn from the NY Mag piece. The first comes when the Maryland police describe their frustration with the fact that the penalties for a misdemeanour aren't that high:

After [Sergeant Aubrey Thompson's] team busted one area shop owner for taking in stolen Tide, the perpetrator struck a deal for a $250 fine and a form of probation—then turned around and raised the price his store charged for Tide by $3.

What we're seeing here is an example of someone with price-setting power passing on a regulatory cost. Simple models normally wouldn't ascribe price-setting power to the owner of a lowly neighbourhood grocery store, since it's more typically found in examples of monopolistic competition. But in reality, every shop owner has a quasi-monopoly over "shops in this location", which grants them the ability to set prices a bit. (That is: even if you know your corner-shop is charging you 10p more than the supermarket down the road, you still pay up, because you don't want to walk).

That price-setting ability lets the shop pass on costs incurred from regulation – in this case, the regulation which ensures that it cannot resell stolen goods. The owner treats a $250 fine as just another cost of doing business, and raises the price of Tide accordingly.

And yes, laws against reselling stolen goods are regulation. Think of that next time you hear someone railing against "red tape".

The other tenuous economic link comes from Paynter's description of the history of Tide:

When the company released Tide in 1946, it was greeted as revolutionary… Procter & Gamble, naturally, patented its formula, forcing competitors to develop their own surfactants. It took years for other companies to come up with effective alternatives.

It's a good description of the plus-side of patents. Procter & Gamble gets a reward for its innovation by being guaranteed-first-to-market, while competitors, eager to chase that market, develop other surfactants alongside. The pace of human invention speeds up, and after less than thirty years, all that knowledge is released into the public domain for anyone to apply.

It also reminds us what's broken with much of the current intellectual property regime. Imagine if, instead of patenting a surfactant, P&G had patented "a method for cleaning clothes" which described nothing more than "the application of a surfactant to fabric in water". Any other surfactants invented by competitors would then still be covered by the P&G patent, giving the company a monopoly over that entire method of cleaning clothes. Worse still, what if P&G had applied for that patent before anyone had actually invented a surfactant? The company could then sit back, wait for someone else to actually innovate, and then sue them for infringement when they do.

That rather describes the state of patents now, at least in the IT industry. Consider the patent trolls who are asking for $1000 from end-users who have networked scanners:

He said, if you hook up a scanner and e-mail a PDF document—we have a patent that covers that as a process.

The same legal framework which enhanced innovation in the 1940s may well be hindering it now. Worse, it has basically turned into a license for extortion.

But at least our clothes are clean.

Bottles of tide on a store shelf. 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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Labour to strip "abusive" registered supporters of their vote in the leadership contest

The party is asking members to report intimidating behaviour - but is vague about what this entails. 

Labour already considered blocking social media users who describe others as "scab" and "scum" from applying to vote. Now it is asking members to report abuse directly - and the punishment is equally harsh. 

Registered and affiliated supporters will lose their vote if found to be engaging in abusive behaviour, while full members could be suspended. 

Labour general secretary Iain McNicol said: “The Labour Party should be the home of lively debate, of new ideas and of campaigns to change society.

“However, for a fair debate to take place, people must be able to air their views in an atmosphere of respect. They shouldn’t be shouted down, they shouldn’t be intimidated and they shouldn’t be abused, either in meetings or online.

“Put plainly, there is simply too much of it taking place and it needs to stop."

Anyone who comes across abusive behaviour is being encouraged to email validation@labour.org.uk.

Since the bulk of Labour MPs decided to oppose Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, supporters of both camps have traded insults on social media and at constituency Labour party gatherings, leading the party to suspend most meetings until after the election. 

In a more ominous sign of intimidation, a brick was thrown through the window of Corbyn challenger Angela Eagle's constituency office. 

McNicol said condemning such "appalling" behaviour was meaningless unless backed up by action: “I want to be clear, if you are a member and you engage in abusive behaviour towards other members it will be investigated and you could be suspended while that investigation is carried out. 

“If you are a registered supporter or affiliated supporter and you engage in abusive behaviour you will not get a vote in this leadership election."

What does abusive behaviour actually mean?

The question many irate social media users will be asking is, what do you mean by abusive? 

A leaked report from Labour's National Executive Committee condemned the word "traitor" as well as "scum" and "scab". A Labour spokeswoman directed The Staggers to the Labour website's leadership election page, but this merely stated that "any racist, abusive or foul language or behaviour at meetings, on social media or in any other context" will be dealt with. 

But with emotions running high, and trust already so low between rival supporters, such vague language is going to provide little confidence in the election process.