The Race to the Bottom is not inevitable

Jul 19 JDN 2459050

The race to the bottom is a common result of competition, between firms, between states, or even between countries. One firm finds a way to cut corners and reduce costs, then lowers their price to undercut others; then soon every firm is cutting those same corners. Or one country decides to weaken their regulations in order to attraction more business; then soon every other country has to weaken their regulations as well.

Let’s first consider individual firms. Suppose that you run a business, and you are an upstanding, ethical person. You want to treat your employees, your customers, and your community well. You have high labor standards, you exceed the requirements of environmental regulations, and you make a high-quality product at a reasonable price for a moderate profit.

Then, a competitor appears. The owner of this company is not so ethical. They exploit their workers, perhaps even stealing their wages. They flaunt environmental regulations. They make shoddy products. All of this allows them to make their products for a lower price than yours.

Suppose that most customers can’t tell the difference between your product and theirs. What will happen? They will stop buying yours, because it’s more expensive. What do you do then?

You could simply go out of business. But that doesn’t really solve anything. Probably you’ll be forced to lower your standards. You’ll treat your workers worse, pollute more, reduce product quality. You may not do so as much as the other company, but you’ll have to do it some in order to get the price down low enough to still compete. And your profits will be lower than theirs as a result.

Far better would be for the government to step in and punish that other business for breaking the rules—or if what they’re doing is technically legal, change the rules so that it’s not anymore. Then you could continue to produce high-quality products with fair labor standards and good environmental sustainability.

But there are some problems with this. First, consider this from the point of view of a regulator, who is being lobbied by both companies. Your company asks for higher standards to improve product quality while protecting workers and the environment. But theirs claims that these higher standards will push them out of business. Who will they believe?

In fact, it may be worse than that: Suppose we’ve already settled into an equilibrium where all the firms have low standards. In that case, all the lobbyists will be saying that regulations need to be kept weak, lest the whole industry fail.

But in fact there’s no reason to think that stricter regulations would actually destroy the whole industry. Firm owners are used to thinking in terms of fixed competitors: They act in response to what competitors do. And in many cases it’s actually true that if just one firm tried to raise their standards, they would be outcompeted and go out of business. This does not mean that if all firms were forced to raise their standards, the industry would collapse. In fact, it’s much more likely that stricter regulations would only moderately reduce output and profits, if imposed consistently across the whole industry.

To see why, let’s consider a very simple model, a Bertrand competition game. There are two firms, A and B. Each can either use process H, producing a product of high quality with high labor standards and good sustainability, or use process L, producing a product of low quality with low labor standards and poor sustainability. Process H costs $100 per unit, process L costs $50 per unit. Customers can’t tell the difference, so they will buy whichever product is offered at the lowest price. Let’s say you are in charge of firm A. You choose which process to use, and set your price. At the same time, firm B chooses a process and sets their price.

Suppose choose to use process H. The lowest possible price you could charge to still make a profit would be a price of $101 (ignoring cents; let’s say customers also ignore them, which might be true!).

But firm B could choose process L, and then set a price of $100. They can charge just one dollar less than you charge for their product, but their cost is only $50, so now they are making a large profit—and you get nothing.

So you are forced to lower your standards, in order to match their price. You could try to undercut them at a price of $100, but in the long run that’s a bad idea, since eventually you’ll both be driven to charging a price of 51 and making only a very small profit. And there’s a way to stop them from undercutting you, which is to offer a price-matching guarantee; you can tell your customers that if they see a lower price from firm B than what you’re offering, you’ll match it for them. Then firm B has no incentive to try to undercut you, and you can maintain a stable equilibrium at a price of $100. You have been forced to used process L even though you know it is worse, because any attempt to unilaterally deviate from that industry norm would result in your company going bankrupt.

But now suppose the government comes in and mandates that all firms use process H, and they really enforce this rule so that no firm wants to try to break it. Then you’d want to raise the price, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to raise it all that much. Even $101 would be enough to ensure some profit, and you could even maintain your current profits by raising the price up to $150. In reality the result would probably be somewhere in between those two, depending on the elasticity of demand; so perhaps you end up charging $125 and make half the profit you did before.

Even though the new regulation raised costs all the way up to the current price, they did not result in collapsing the industry; because the rule was enforced uniformly, all firms were able to raise their standards and also raise their prices. This is what we should typically expect to happen; so any time someone claims that a new regulation will “destroy the industry” we should be very skeptical of that claim. (It’s not impossible; for instance, a regulation mandating that all fast food workers be paid $200 per hour would surely collapse the fast food industry. But it’s very unlikely that anyone would seriously propose a regulation like that.)

So as long as you have a strong government in place, you can escape the race to the bottom. But then we must consider international competition: What if other countries have weaker regulations, and so firms want to move their production to those other countries?

Well, a small country may actually be forced to lower their standards in order to compete. I’m not sure there’s much that Taiwan or Singapore could do to enforce higher labor standards. If Taiwan decided to tighten all their labor regulations, firms might just move their production to Indonesia or Vietnam. Then again, monthly incomes in Taiwan, once adjusted for currency exchange rates, are considerably higher than those in Vietnam. Indeed, wages in Taiwan aren’t much lower than wages in the US. So apparently Taiwan has some power to control their own labor standards—perhaps due to their highly educated population and strong industrial infrastructure.

However, a large country like the US or China absolutely has more power than that. If the US wants to enforce stricter labor standards, they can simply impose tariffs on countries that don’t. Actually there are many free-trade rules in place precisely to reduce that power, because it can be easily abused in the service of protectionism.

Perhaps these rules go too far; while I agree with the concern about protectionism, I definitely think we should be doing more to enforce penalties for forced labor, for instance. But this is not the result of too little international governance—if anything it is the result of too much. Our free trade agreements are astonishingly binding, even on the most powerful countries (China has successfully sued the United States under WTO rules!). I wish only that our human rights charters were anywhere near as well enforced.

This means that the race to the bottom is not the inevitable result of competition between firms or even between countries. When it occurs, it is the result of particular policy regimes nationally or internationally. We can make better rules.

The first step may be to stop listening to the people who say that any change will “destroy the industry” because they are unable (or unwilling?) to understand how uniformly-imposed rules differ from unilateral deviations from industry norms.

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