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.

Photo: Getty
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Goodbye, Sam Allardyce: a grim portrait of national service

In being brought down by a newspaper sting, the former England manager joins a hall of infamy. 

It took the best part of 17 years for Glenn Hoddle’s reputation to recover from losing the England job.

Between leaving his job as manager in February 1999 and re-surfacing as a television pundit on ITV during the 2014 World Cup, Hoddle was English football’s great pariah. Thanks to his belief in faith healer Eileen Drewery and a string of unconventional and unacceptable views on reincarnation, he found himself in exile following in a newspaper interview during qualification for England’s Euro 2000 campaign.

But just as Hoddle is now cautiously being welcomed back to the bosom of English football, current incumbent Sam Allardyce has felt the axe fall. After less than two months in charge of the national side and with only a single game under his belt, the former Bolton Wanderers manager was caught up in a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph — allegedly offering guidance on how to circumvent his employer’s rules on third-party player ownership.

The rewards for guiding an English team to major international success promise to be spectacular. As a result, the price for any failure — either moral or performance-related — is extreme.

Hoddle’s successor – the endearing Kevin Keegan – resigned tearfully in a toilet at Wembley after a tumultuous 18-month spell in charge. His replacement, the laconic Sven-Göran Eriksson, provided moments of on-field excitement paired with incredible incidents of personal indiscretion. His tangle with "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood in the run up to the 2006 World Cup – an incident with haunting parallels to Allardyce’s current predicament – led to a mutual separation that summer.

Steve McClaren was hapless, if also incredibly unfortunate, and was dispatched from the top job in little over a year. Fabio Capello – who inspired so much optimism throughout his first two years in charge – proved himself incapable of lifting the hex on English major tournament fortunes.

The Italian’s star was falling from the moment he put his name to the oddly timed Capello Index in 2010, although his sustained backing of then captain John Terry over a string of personal misdemeanours would prove to be the misjudgement that ultimately forced his exit. As Allardyce has found out, the FA has become increasingly hard on lapses in moral judgement.

English football is suffused with a strange mix of entitlement and crushing self-doubt. After a decade that has given us a Wimbledon champion, several Ashes triumphs, two Tour de France winners and eye-watering Olympic success, a breakthrough in this area has never felt further away.

In replacing Capello, Roy Hodgson — the man mocked by Allardyce during his hours supping pints with Telegraph reporters — had hoped to put a rubber stamp on a highly respectable coaching career with a spell managing his own country. But this summer’s farcical defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 put his previous career in a much harsher light.    

Allardyce was a mix of the best and worst of each of his predecessors. He was as gaffe-prone as Steve McClaren, yet as committed to football science and innovation as Hodgson or Capello. He also carried the affability of Keegan and the bulldog spirit of Terry Venables — the last man to make great strides for England at a major tournament.  

And as a result, his fall is the most heartbreaking of the lot. The unfairly decried charlatan of modern football is the same man who built a deeply underrated dynasty at Bolton before keeping Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland afloat in the most competitive league in Europe.

And it was this hard apprenticeship that convinced the FA to defy the trendy naysayers and appoint him.

“I think we make mistakes when we are down here and our spirit has to come back and learn,” Hoddle mused at the beginning of his ill-fated 1999 interview. As the FA and Allardyce consider their exit strategy from this latest sorry mess, it’s difficult to be sure what either party will have learned.

The FA, desperately short of options could theoretically turn again to a reborn Hoddle. Allardyce, on the other hand, faces his own long exile. 

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