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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Commons confidential: Vive May's revolution

It's a risky time to be an old Etonian in the Tory party. . . 

The blond insulter-in-chief, Boris Johnson, survives as Theresa May’s pet Old Etonian but the purge of the Notting Hell set has left Tory sons of privilege suddenly hiding their poshness. The trustafundian Zac Goldsmith was expelled from Eton at the age of 16 after marijuana was found in his room, unlike David Cameron, who survived a cannabis bust at the school. The disgrace left Richmond MP Goldsmith shunned by his alma mater. My snout whispered that he is telling colleagues that Eton is now asking if he would like to be listed as a distinguished old boy. With the Tory party under new, middle-class management, he informed MPs that it was wise to decline.

Smart operator, David Davis. The broken-nosed Action Man is a keen student of geopolitics. While the unlikely Foreign Secretary Johnson is on his world apology tour, the Brexit Secretary has based himself in 9 Downing Street, where the whips used to congregate until Tony Blair annexed the space. The proximity to power gives Davis the ear of May, and the SAS reservist stresses menacingly to visitors that he won’t accept Johnson’s Foreign Office tanks on his Brexit lawn. King Charles Street never felt so far from Downing Street.

No prisoners are taken by either side in Labour’s civil war. The Tories are equally vicious, if sneakier, preferring to attack each other in private rather than in public. No reshuffle appointment caused greater upset than that of the Humberside grumbler Andrew Percy as Northern Powerhouse minister. He was a teacher, and the seething overlooked disdainfully refer to his role as the Northern Schoolhouse job.

Philip Hammond has the air of an undertaker and an unenviable reputation as the dullest of Tory speakers. During a life-sapping address for a fundraiser at Rutland Golf Club, the rebellious Leicestershire lip Andrew Bridgen was overheard saying in sotto voce: “His speech is drier than the bloody chicken.” The mad axeman Hammond’s economics are also frighteningly dry.

The Corbynista revolution has reached communist China, where an informant reports that the Hong Kong branch of the Labour Party is now in the hands of Britain’s red leader. Of all the groups backing Jezza, Bankers 4 Corbyn is surely the most incongruous.

Labour’s newest MP, Rosena Allin-Khan of Tooting, arrived in a Westminster at its back-stabbing height. Leaving a particularly poisonous gathering of the parliamentary party, the concerned deputy leader, Tom Watson, inquired paternalistically if she was OK. “I’m loving it,” the doctor shot back with a smile. Years of rowdy Friday nights in A&E are obviously good training for politics.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue