Monday, June 30, 2014

Old and Busted: Tacocopter. New Hotness: 420drone

If the FAA comes through on strict measures to prevent commercial unmanned airborne air transport for small packages, we may have an opportunity to see the Allen-Alchian theorem in action.

The A-A theorem is one of those great blackboard theories in economics that tends to have contestable empirical support. It's pretty simple though: if you add a fixed cost (in this case, the cost of a criminal violation) to differently-priced substitutes, you tilt the relative prices in favor of the higher-priced good. In their textbook examples, that's why you should expect to see the best lobsters exported from Maine, the best apples exported from Washington, etc. Of course, this is holding everything else equal, which is really not the case in produce exporting, so that's why it's hard to find lots of evidence in support of the theorem.

But here, we've got a pair of well-timed exogenous treatment effects. Amazon and Taco Bell would (presumably) like to be able to deliver piping hot books and burritos straight to your door without all the tedious mucking about with roads and the like. But so would your neighborhood drug dealer. The difference is, Amazon and Taco Bell are already mostly compliant with statute law and the relevant regulations of their industries. The drug dealer is already in violation of a number of trafficking statutes, so one additional charge is far less likely to change their decision calculus. If a commercial drone can improve customer service or otherwise improve productivity, it is more likely that they will adopt the technology.

And for those property owners that wish to be unmolested by flyovers, there's much less legal recourse against smugglers than against above-the-board business owners.

The conclusion is clear. If we wish commercial drone operations to be legal and properly regulated in the US (whatever path to regulation is chosen, via tort search or FAA prior restraint), we absolutely must end the coercive, unjust war on drugs.

Tip of the hat to Eli Dourado and Ilya Somin for the idea.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?