Honduras moving forward with the construction of three private cities

Honduras is moving forward in allowing three private cities to be built though some have voiced objections:

The “model cities” will have their own judiciary, laws, governments and police forces. They also will be empowered to sign international agreements on trade and investment and set their own immigration policy.

Congress president Juan Hernandez said the investment group MGK will invest $15 million to begin building basic infrastructure for the first model city near Puerto Castilla on the Caribbean coast. That first city would create 5,000 jobs over the next six months and up to 200,000 jobs in the future, Hernandez said. South Korea has given Honduras $4 million to conduct a feasibility study, he said…

The project is opposed by civic groups as well as the indigenous Garifuna people, who say they don’t want their land near Puerto Castilla on the Caribbean coast to be used for the project. Living along Central America’s Caribbean coast, the Garifuna are descendants of the Amazon’s Arawak Indians, the Caribbean’s Caribes and escaped West African slaves…

The president of Honduras will appoint “globally respected international figures” without financial interests in the projects to nine-member independent boards that will oversee the running of the cities, whose daily operations will be administered by a board-appointed governor. Future appointments to the board will be decided by votes by standing board members, Strong said.

I could understand how this would be alluring for governments that are struggling to attract foreign capital and create jobs. However, privatization on this scale sounds daunting and possible problematic. It is one thing to have developers own and run neighborhoods or particular projects; but a whole city? With separate international powers and not having to follow Honduran law? With a future promise of allowing citizens to vote? I could imagine some of the responses from urban sociologists who write about the privatization of public space. What happens when these developers run afoul of citizens or Honduran law and conventions? What kind of free speech rights will citizens have and will they have any say in what happens? It is one thing to have to follow the rules of corporations in private-public spaces in American cities (see these examples in San Francisco) but another when the whole city follows the guidelines of developers or “respected international figures.”

Assuming this moves forward and the cities are built, it will be fascinating to see what happens.

21st century problem: “Who inherits your iTunes library?”

If you have made a will, don’t forget to include your digital music and ebooks:

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files—but they don’t actually own them…

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.

Another reason to buy the physical version if you really like the music or book.

Thinking more broadly, this extends to a whole host of digital content. What happens to your Facebook information if you die? Your Dropbox account? Accessing your email? Stories about these circumstances tend to stress the lack of formal legal or corporate agreement of what should be done. How about a “dead digital user bill or rights”?

Argument: the rise of the American rental economy

Even though ownership seems engrained in the American psyche, Daniel Gross argues that recent economic troubles are pushing the United States to a rental economy which may just thrive in the years to come:

In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving—striving, that is, well short of achieving. But as we climb our way out of the Great Recession, it seems something has changed. Americans are getting over the idea of owning the American dream; increasingly, they’re OK with renting it. Homeownership is on the decline, and home rentership is on the rise. But the trend isn’t limited to the housing market. Across the board—for goods ranging from cars to books to clothes—Americans are increasingly acclimating to the idea of giving up the stability of being an owner for the flexibility of being a renter. This may sound like a decline in living standards. But the new realities of our increasingly mobile economy make it more likely that this transition from an Ownership Society to what might be called a Rentership Society, far from being a drag, will unleash a wave of economic efficiency that could fuel the next boom.

While downgrading the place of ownership in the American psyche may sound like a traumatic task, the cold, unsentimental fact about the American dream is that Americans never really owned it in the first place. For the past three decades, especially, consumers haven’t so much bought their quality of life as they’ve borrowed it from banks and credit card companies. And since the Great Recession, Americans have been busy rebuilding their balance sheets and avoiding new financial encumbrances. When American consumers can’t—or won’t—borrow to purchase the goods and services they’ve come to consider part of their standard of living, how does the economy get back on its feet?…

It’s tempting to view the rise of rentership as an economic step backward. Renters can’t build up equity, and they have less control over their living standards than owners. Renting is generally seen as something you do when you’ve failed as a homeowner or are not yet ready to be one. But I’d argue the rise of rentership is a sign of a system adapting—albeit too slowly—to new realities.

The U.S. economy needs the dynamism that renting enables as much as—if not more than—it needs the stability that ownership engenders. In the current economy, there are vast gulfs between the employment pictures in different regions and states, from 12% unemployment in Nevada to 3% unemployment in North Dakota. But a steelworker in Buffalo, or an underemployed construction worker in Las Vegas, can’t easily take his skills to where they are needed in North Dakota or Wyoming if he’s underwater on his mortgage. Economists, in fact, have found that there is frequently a correlation between persistently high local unemployment rates and high levels of homeownership.

An interesting argument.

I wish Gross would explore the implications of this further. Perhaps for the “average” American, renting will make sense  in the future. It has several clear advantages: it doesn’t require one to take on a lot of upfront debt. This is most clear with mortgages: how many people will want to take on that amount of money when conditions can change quickly? (Does this idea about renting have any application for the other popular debt topic these days: college loans?) Second, it allows consumers to pick and choose more. If you are renting with a yearly lease, you have some freedom to adapt to changing circumstances. (There also could be some negative pressures due to rising rents, actions of landlords, etc.) If there is something that Americans like even more than ownership, it is choices. You can also see this trend in media options: we are moving away from a system of ownership to buffet or a la carte models where you can access thousands upon thousands of songs and movies on demand. Third, this seems like a classic American argument: the times are changing and there is money to be made by more quickly seizing on the new realities!

But there could also be some downsides to this. First, someone must still own things like housing units and rights to digital media. Will ownership be consolidated in the hands of a few? What happens if the few want to restrict access to their products? Does a society based more on the renting of housing units inevitably require things like rent control? Second, there is a long cultural history in the United States that ties renting to transience and lack of concern for the local community. For example, many suburban communities have resisted the construction of apartments because the perception is that people who live in apartments don’t contribute long-term to a community in the same way that homeowners do. (Of course, there are other reasons suburbanites resist apartments, including issues of race, class, and property values.) At its most blatant, homeownership was seen as a bulwark against Communism. These cultural biases can be overturned but it won’t necessarily come quickly or easily. Third, are there other aspects of life that would have to change to accommodate a shift to renting? Can widespread renting of homes work in suburbia? Can Zipcar exist in less dense areas? In other words, is this just about renting or about large-scale adjustments to American society based on new realities?

This bears watching. Is this the end of the dream of some of an ownership society?

Live event tickets and the first sale doctrine

Daniel Indiviglio over at The Atlantic discusses the potential for eliminating all secondary markets in live event tickets:

If you have ever sold even[t] tickets through the online resale market StubHub, then you may have received an e-mail last week about the dangers of paperless tickets. It cautions that companies “like Ticketmaster” are moving to restrictive paperless ticketing systems, which could kill the secondary market for tickets….According to the Fan Freedom Project, a group speaking out against this product that StubHub links to in its email, there are essentially two kinds:

Restricted transfer (closed-loop system): Primary ticketing agencies have sole control over sales, restricting the transfer of tickets and allowing them to be resold only on their own proprietary exchanges – and with their price restrictions which are often unrelated to the market value of the ticket.

Prohibition of ticket transfer: You purchase paperless tickets with a credit card and must provide the same credit card and a photo ID at the event venue. A swipe of the credit card at the gate produces a slip confirming the location of the reserved seat. The ticket cannot be transferred, sold or given away to another consumer.

Hmm…this sounds suspiciously like book publishers’ plans to undermine libraries and software companies’ recent progress in eliminating the secondary market for software.  Doesn’t anybody want to actually own anything anymore?

Wired’s David Rowan certainly thinks renting rather than owning is the wave of the future, as I discussed in a previous post.  However, Rowan’s analysis focused on the “idling capacity” of personal assets (e.g., a lawnmower that you only use once a week) and how the Internet is helping individuals coordinate more efficient arrangements (e.g., sharing that lawnmower among a wide group of “neighbors”).  The idea here is to increase asset utilization and thus maximize the consumer surplus.  (To round off the example:  lawn mower manufacturers may be upset, but the economy is better off overall since resources are freed for more productive uses than making a ton of lawnmowers that will only be used for 2 hours per week.)

In contrast, eliminating secondary markets in tickets, books, and software only benefits the producer surplus.  It allows de facto monopolies (like Ticketmaster for live event tickets) and copyright monopolies (like those enjoyed by publishers of books and software by virtue of their rightful copyrights) to extend those monopolies over the entire market (since they no longer have to compete with resold tickets, used books, and previously owned software).  Under these circumstances, offering consumers something less than full ownership in their tickets, books, and software doesn’t benefit the economy — it simply increases monopoly, expanding inefficiency and the deadweight loss triangle.

For copyrighted works, the first sale doctrine was supposed to prevent owners from eliminating secondary markets, but that doctrine is under judicial attack.  As for tickets, it remains to be seen whether established industry players like Ticketmaster will be able to further their monopolies by choking off the secondary market.  But it doesn’t look good for consumers — or economic efficiency.

Getting not pwned by technology

David Rowan over at the UK edition of Wired has an article about the advantages of renting out what you own:

There are assets all around us with high “idling capacity” that are essentially like an ATM machine. People use the extra cash for everything from offsetting car payments to taking the holiday they could not otherwise afford. Collaborative consumption is an easy way to become a micro-entrepreneur.

Rowan argues that the Internet is fundamentally changing the way that people think about ownership:

Now that collaborative spirit [of the sort that launched auction website eBay] is spreading to all sorts of other industries as ubiquitous internet connections bring us together in creative new ways. The peer-to-peer model has lately moved from auction houses and online classifieds to car-sharing, jewelery lending, even online banking — and each time it’s cutting out a traditional incumbent.

In an era when environmental concerns are making conspicuous consumption harder to justify, start-ups are targeting customers keener to pay for access to goods and services rather than actual physical ownership — and new web-based networks are letting all of us be both lenders and borrowers.

As the articles notes, however, such systems can only thrive within an environment of robust trust.  It’s one thing to sell a used laser pointer to a total stranger with the expectation of payment (like eBay’s first sale).  It’s quite another to open one’s dwelling to total strangers who find you through Couchsurfing.

One thing that the Wired article doesn’t address is the official legal barriers to much of these sorts of collaborative activities.  Hospitality, car rentals, banking:  these are highly regulated industries with a host of rules designed to protect incumbents by erecting barriers to entry.  While this may not be a large issue currently, it will be interesting to see how established industry players (or revenue-starved state and local governments) start responding if and when “collaborative consumption” becomes a truly major economic force.