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.

Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

I believe only Yvette Cooper has the breadth of support to beat Jeremy Corbyn

All the recent polling suggests Andy Burnham is losing more votes than anyone else to Jeremy Corbyn, says Diana Johnson MP.

Tom Blenkinsop MP on the New Statesman website today says he is giving his second preference to Andy Burnham as he thinks that Andy has the best chance of beating Jeremy.

This is on the basis that if Yvette goes out first all her second preferences will swing behind Andy, whereas if Andy goes out first then his second preferences, due to the broad alliance he has created behind his campaign, will all or largely switch to the other male candidate, Jeremy.

Let's take a deep breath and try and think through what will be the effect of preferential voting in the Labour leadership.

First of all, it is very difficult to know how second preferences will switch. From my telephone canvassing there is some rather interesting voting going on, but I don't accept that Tom’s analysis is correct. I have certainly picked up growing support for Yvette in recent weeks.

In fact you can argue the reverse of Tom’s analysis is true – Andy has moved further away from the centre and, as a result, his pitch to those like Tom who are supporting Liz first is now narrower. As a result, Yvette is more likely to pick up those second preferences.

Stats from the Yvette For Labour team show Yvette picking up the majority of second preferences from all candidates – from the Progress wing supporting Liz to the softer left fans of Jeremy – and Andy's supporters too. Their figures show many undecideds opting for Yvette as their first preference, as well as others choosing to switch their first preference to Yvette from one of the other candidates. It's for this reason I still believe only Yvette has the breadth of support to beat Jeremy and then to go on to win in 2020.

It's interesting that Andy has not been willing to make it clear that second preferences should go to Yvette or Liz. Yvette has been very clear that she would encourage second preferences to be for Andy or Liz.

Having watched Andy on Sky's Murnaghan show this morning, he categorically states that Labour will not get beyond first base with the electorate at a general election if we are not economically credible and that fundamentally Jeremy's economic plans do not add up. So, I am unsure why Andy is so unwilling to be clear on second preferences.

All the recent polling suggests Andy is losing more votes than anyone else to Jeremy. He trails fourth in London – where a huge proportion of our electorate is based.

So I would urge Tom to reflect more widely on who is best placed to provide the strongest opposition to the Tories, appeal to the widest group of voters and reach out to the communities we need to win back. I believe that this has to be Yvette.

The Newsnight focus group a few days ago showed that Yvette is best placed to win back those former Labour voters we will need in 2020.

Labour will pay a massive price if we ignore this.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.