Time for a Federal Price Gouging Law?

Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, calls for a federal price gouging law in a recent post over at Amazon’s in-house blog. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

One is that there are already effective ways to reduce price gouging without regulation. At Amazon, Huseman writes, “We deploy dynamic automated technology to proactively seek out and pull down unreasonably priced offers, and we have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating unfairly priced products that are now in high demand, such as protective masks and hand sanitizer.”

This should be a competitive selling point for Amazon, not a call for more regulation. Regulations, remember, are made by the government we have, not the government we want. Amazon’s technology and in-house policies are almost certainly more effective than what Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell would enact during an election year and a pandemic. Company-level policies are also more adaptable than federal-level policies as technology and circumstances change.​

In fact, if Amazon isn’t already doing so, it could license or sell its anti-price gouging technology to competitors for a profit. Price gouging is unpopular, and companies that fight against it look good to customers. Amazon does not need federal regulations to force this business opportunity into being.

Looking at price gouging legislation from Amazon’s perspective, but without the public relations filter, they stand to gain three things from a federal price gouging law:

  1. Regulatory certainty. One federal standard is easier to follow than dozens of state standards.
  2. Liability protection. Amazon will face fewer price gouging lawsuits if the company is cooperative with legislators, or even has a hand in crafting the rules.
  3. Rent-seeking, which is economists’ term for using government for unfair advantage. Price gouging legislation is a way for Amazon to raise rivals’ costs without having to improve its own offerings. Amazon has already invested in artificial intelligence algorithms (AI) and in enforcing guidelines for its third-party sellers. Many of Amazon’s competitors have not, especially the smaller ones.

There is something to be said for the first two items, though there are also arguments against them. But the third item, rent-seeking, is anti-competitive behavior at its worst. One of the primary reasons CEI opposes antitrust regulation, for example, is that antitrust regulations themselves are a major rent-seeking opportunity. Big companies routinely game the rules to thwart competition. Price gouging legislation is another example of the same rent-seeking process. These initiatives happen when companies compete in Washington, rather than the marketplace.

Other Factors

Amazon’s call for a price gouging bill might be part of a larger effort to get itself out of antitrust crosshairs. Ironically, such a bill would make retail less competitive. Not only would Amazon raise rivals’ costs, legislation would prevent companies from competing with each other to offer price gouging policies their customers most prefer.

The timing is as bad as the idea itself. Retail sales declined by 16.4 percent in the month of April, the worst ever recorded—for the second month in a row. Retailers have enough to deal with without having to spend resources complying with new rules their competitor helped to write.

There is a federalism angle, as well. A federal rule would impose standards on more than a dozen states that intentionally refuse them.

Prices Are More than Money

As any good economist will tell you, money isn’t everything. Prices are a lot more than money. Every good has a mix of both money and non-money prices. Price gouging legislation is ultimately ineffective because it only reduces ­money prices during a crisis. Tamping down on those means more severe non-money price increases. These cannot be legislated away.

A high money price causes people who don’t urgently need toilet paper or hand sanitizer to hold off until later, when the price goes back down. That leaves more left over for people who need it now. This matters a great deal during an emergency. On the other side of the equation, that same money price increase also induces producers and distributors to go the extra mile, often literally.

What about non-money prices? One example of a non-money price is when a good becomes harder to find. You might have to drive to a store further away or do some deep digging online for some potentially shady sources. Queuing and waiting lists emerge or shipping times might take longer. These things don’t cost money, but they still have a price. They are not measured in dollars, but in wasted time, extra hassle and stress, and lost opportunities. These non-money price increases leave people with less time left over for other things such as job searches, home schooling, or even taking some time for self-care.

Shortages will happen during a crisis. That is unavoidable. The question is how to deal with them. Just as pushing on a balloon doesn’t change how much air is in it, squeezing down on money prices with a price gouging regulation doesn’t actually do anything to stop price increases. It mostly just redirects them to non-money areas.

What is the correct mix of money- and non-money prices? That is a subjective value judgment. There is no truly right or wrong answer, which is another reason why federal price gouging legislation is bad policy.

Public opinion is pretty well set against price gouging. Importantly, though, most anti-price gouging activists have likely not considered the tradeoffs they would pay in steeper non-money prices. Some of them would likely change their mind if they did. Pollsters should find out. Corporate PR departments would likely change their tune quite a bit based on the results.

Federal price gouging legislation would not stop price increases or alleviate shortages. It would sharply increase non-money prices during emergencies and drive some economic activity into black markets. Companies can set their own price gouging policies without regulation, as Amazon has proven with a mix of AI and sanctions against violating sellers. The rent-seeking aspect of potential price gouging legislation is worth considering for people concerned about business ethics and about large companies gaining an unfair advantage over smaller rivals.

In short, a price gouging bill is #NeverNeeded. Congress has already passed enough harmful flash policy. There’s no need for still more.

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