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 Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.