A Case Study on Why We Need Competition

In the 38 years that I have worked in the City of Los Angeles (at two chambers of commerce), I have never seen anything quite like the rollout of RecycLA. It is fair to say that it has been nothing short of a disaster.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez has had a field day skewering the program. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized against it. Some councilmembers are now calling for a study on how to kill the program, and there is even the threat of a citizens’ initiative to force the City to pull the plug.

Since July, the Times reports there have been more than 28,000 complaints of missed collections and poor service. Rates have skyrocketed. We have members who report their trash collection fees have more than tripled – and unfortunately this is not a rare occurrence. Ratepayers report sharp increases across the board from when they had control of their own trash services. The City Council has begun holding hearings to determine where things went wrong – time that they could be spending on other important matters if they didn’t have an unfolding debacle with which to deal.

How did this mess occur? Perhaps an explanation can be found in the City’s justification of the RecycLA program to “expand recycling, improve workers’ pay and conditions, and put cleaner burning refuse trucks on the street.” While those are worthwhile goals, what is obviously missing from the statement is any reference to improving service to the City’s customers – the businesses and residents’ groups forced to use this program. Somehow the City seems to have forgotten whom they serve.

Hearings on the proposed program began back in 2011. The City was under the gun to comply with a State directive for mandatory commercial recycling. At the time, the debate was whether to go with exclusive or nonexclusive franchise districts. The chief administrative officer (CAO) for the City recommended going with a non-exclusive system in order to preserve competition. Despite that recommendation, the City Council approved an exclusive system. Our chamber was represented at every hearing as were numerous other business organizations. We warned then that eliminating competition was a recipe for disaster – but hardly anyone listened. So now, with the debacle that has occurred, I think it wouldn’t hurt to refresh everyone’s memory on why competition is a good thing, and what happens when you grant exclusive franchise contracts.

If you google the word “competition” on the internet, you can find excellent material. Forbes, for example, has identified five reasons why competition is the best solution. Consider the following:

  1. Innovation – healthy competition encourages change and innovation, which leads to improvements and helping a company distinguish itself from the competition.
  2. Customer Service – competition forces a business to improve its service in order to compete for customers.
  3. Complacency – without competition, businesses become complacent. Competition forces a business to innovate.
  4. Understanding your core market – Competition moves a business to focus on its core audience and to figure out how to provide better service.
  5. Education – having competitors helps a business better understand what works and what doesn’t and can provide valuable insights.

These points illustrate why the City is going to have a difficult time reforming RecycLA to be effective. When you eliminate competition, you are headed for trouble. When you have an exclusive contract, what is the incentive to try and improve? You cannot legislate good service.

The Federal Trade Commission, which administers antitrust laws, has said that “competition in the marketplace is good for consumers and good for business. … When firms compete with each other, consumers get the best possible prices, quantity, and quality of goods and services.”

Yes, in certain instances, there can be justification for a monopoly, but by and large, that should only be a rare occasion, such as with certain utilities. And even with utilities, there is a debate on whether we would be better served with competition (remember the break-up of telecommunications? Somehow, we not only survived but prospered with the advent of competition).

I don’t know if the City can find a way to back out of a 10-year contract with the trash haulers holding these exclusive franchises. That part of this sad saga has yet to be written, but let’s hope that the City’s decisionmakers have learned why competition has been the basis of the U.S. economy for more than two centuries. It is one of the main reasons for our country’s success. I’ve always found it best not to mess with success.

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Leron Gubler has been serving as the President and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for the past 25 years. His tenure since 1992 continues to oversee the great comeback story of Hollywood.

 

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