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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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.