The public option

I’m on my way to a workshop at The New Institute in Hamburg, where I will talk about the scope for a public option in (especially) digital markets. As preparation, I’ve read a recent short (and moderately technical) book surveying the literature on ‘mixed oligopoly’ by Joanna Potoygo-Theotoky; these are oligopolistic markets with a mixture of private and public provision, where the public competitor has a broader objective function than profit maximisation – such as social welfare broadly, or ESG motivations, or universal service obligations. The basic idea is that by having a different objective function, the presence of the public provider acts as a regulatory function; private firms will choose a lower price/higher quantity or will select to compete on a different level of quality.

I’m most interested in the latter area, where the formal results can go both ways. Public firms can either decide to offer a ‘basic’ package to deliver universal service or can offer a higher quality package than the private sector. Think of public schools vs private schools providing great sports fields and additional subjects in the former case, or public broadcasters ensuring provision of children’s programmes or religious programmes in the latter case. Given the concentration in digital markets and the limited tools governments other than the US and China have to affect the behaviour of Big Tech, provision of a public option in some domains is worth thinking about.

The book, Mixed Oligopoly and Public Enterprises, is a very nice survey and introduction to the mixed oligopoly literature, much of it focused on the price and quantity decisions and the optimal mixture of private and public, but covering some more recent literature on issues like R&D, quality and ESG standards. It also ends outlining a fascinating research agenda – introducing issues of motivation of employees, and even wider objectives such as creating jobs and reducing inequality.

Screenshot 2024-06-04 at 09.52.52


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