Contesting contestability

Economics, like fashion, has its hot ideas. Among the hottest ideas of 1982 was the theory of contestable monopoly, described as an ‘uprising’ by its leading proponent William Baumol. To quote the summary in Wikipedia

Its fundamental features are low barriers to entry and exit; in theory, a perfectly contestable market would have no barriers to entry or exit (“frictionless reversible entry” in economist William Brock’s terms).[1] Contestable markets are characterized by “hit and run” competition; if a firm in a contestable market raises its prices much beyond the average price level of the market, and thus begins to earn excess profits, potential rivals will enter the market, hoping to exploit the price level for easy profit. When the original incumbent firm(s) respond by returning prices to levels consistent with normal profits, the new firms will exit. Because of that, even a single-firm market can show highly competitive behavior

Contestable monopoly theory didn’t stay at the top of the hit parade for long. In theoretical terms, it was hard to formulate the hit-and-run analysis in the language of game theory, which was beginning its rise to dominance around the same time. More importantly, at least from my viewpoint, the predictions turned out wrong, most notably in relation to US airline deregulation, which was the primary motivation for the theory. Routes served by only one or two airlines were characterized by higher fares than more competitive routes, and “raids” of the type described by the theory were rarely if ever observed. Looking at Google Scholar, I found hardly any recent papers making use of contestable monopoly theory (feel free to point some out!)

Yet an examination of the policy statements of Australian governments would make it appear that contestability is a central idea in economic theory. Google reveals the term applied to electricity and water consumers, vocational education (a spectacular disaster), the Department of Finance, and even Tasmania.

It seems that contestability, having died as an economic theory in its native country, has been resurrected as a piece of policy jargon in Australia. Presumably, it is supposed to carry with it the positive connotations of the theoretical term. In practice, however, it’s one of the long list of euphemisms for “privatisation”, a word that is almost never used nowadays, except by its opponents.

Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

For anyone following the trainwreck of Brexit, Richard North’s is an indispensable source. North was (and, at least in principle, still is) a Leave supporter, proposing a model called Flexcit (roughly, the Norway/EFTA/EEA option), but has long since broken with May, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers.

North is scathing about the low level of analysis of just about everyone involved in the debate, the only consistent exceptions being Pete North (not sure if or how they are related) and his former employer Christopher Booker who, despite being on the denialist fringe of the climate debate, seems to make sense on Brexit.

I’ll ask a question about Brexit over the fold, but I mainly wanted to cite this important observation. Attacking a recent report, he writes that the author

proudly announces that his piece “is based on conversations” with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the “oral culture” approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission’s Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth “research” means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

The point about the oral culture is spot-on, I think. I remember observing long ago that journalists, unlike bloggers, assume that they can ring anyone up about anything and expect an answer. That has a huge influence on the way the media work.

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P@ssw0rd follies (repost from 2017)

I didn’t around to posting on the MyHealthRecord mess before the government retreated on the issue, but I just ran across this piece from 2017 which reminded me how insecure the system would have been.

Looking at the broader issue, it’s clear that the push from both governments and corporations to collect and sell our data is going to keep producing disasters unless things change. We need to address the issue comprehensively starting from the premise that any transfer of individual information without explicit consent is, prima facie unlawful, then adding in exceptions based on a clear public benefit test.

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NEGative on NEG

I’ve just joined 22 other Australian energy researchers in calling for the release of the modelling used to justify the Abbott-Turnbull government’s National Energy Guarantee. Until this is out in the open, state and federal Labor should have nothing to do with the NEG. I am confident that, once the modelling is released, it will quickly be shown to be so weak as to provide no support for this camel of a policy, designed to placate both the Abbott denialists and the business lobby who want a soft policy but can see that they can’t win with denialism. The letter is at

A bit more of the iceberg

Just a day after this post on wrongdoing in the pursuit of the government’s anti-union agenda comes the news that the AFP is liaising with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions about whether charges should be laid over leaks from Federal Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash’s office about raids on the Australian Workers Union. It remains to be seen whether charges will be laid – if so, it will be a breach of the normal protocol under which unionists are charged in the most trivial cases, while business owners and politicians are almost invariably let off.

A striking, and closely related, example was Human Services Minister Alan Tudge’s release, to a friendly journalist, of the social security files of a blogger who had complained about the department. This contrasts notably with the routine invocation of “client privacy” when the Department is accused of wrongdoing and wants to avoid responding.

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