No Grounds to Stand On: Analyzing the Case Against Lil’ Bill

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The video was all over Facebook, trailed by hundreds of angry comments from USC students. The reason? “I’ve been asked to leave the campus,” says Aaron Flournoy in the clip. “It’s like an eviction so to speak.”

The word “eviction” glares in bright gold from its subtitle on the screen, as if daring someone to object to its usage. First covered by Annenberg Media on March 31 by Cole Sullivan, the story of Lil’ Bill’s Bike Shop has frequently been spun as an economic injustice, for reasons that have little economic justification.

Lil’ Bill was being “evicted” from campus, because Solé Bicycles was becoming a vendor for USC Village. Solé and the university had agreed to sign a non-compete clause, preventing USC from allowing a competitor like Lil’ Bill to sell bikes on campus with a business move that has been virtually banned from California, except in three circumstances:  

  1. When one business acquires another
  2. When a partnership is dissolved
  3. Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)

USC isn’t acquiring Solé. The two had no preexisting partnership, and are not involved in an LLC, so none of the three circumstances apply. Has Lil’ Bill been illegally targeted?

When asked to elaborate on the specifics of the non-compete in an email exchange, David Donovan, Associate Director of USC Transportation, who has previously addressed media inquiries regarding the Village, declined to respond. Even so, studying the case history of non-competes in California may offer an answer.

An exception to California’s strict criteria for non-competes emerged in Campbell v. Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 817 F.2d 499 (9th Cir.1987), where the court ruled against Stanford’s contract preventing a professor from reproducing a psychological test he developed. Campbell states that contracts “where one is barred from pursuing only a small or limited part of the business, trade or profession” are valid, and that the burden of proving whether a contract fully bars business is up to the plaintiff.

This statement became known as the “narrow-restraint” clause, and has since been applied to several other cases. It might be Solé’s justification behind implementing a non-compete clause, which would not fully bar Lil’ Bill from his profession of fixing bicycles. In fact, in Boughton v. Socony Mobil Oil Co., the Ninth Circuit upheld the narrow-restraint clause to allow a non-compete that prevented the use of land for a competitor’s business, rather than prevent the competitor from carrying out business.

The only problem? In 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the “narrow-restraint” clause in Edwards v. Arthur Andersen LLP, claiming that “if the legislature had intended the statute to apply only to unreasonable or over-broad restraints, it could have included language to indicate so.” While the Court in Edwards agreed with the Boughton decision, the Court argued that restricting use of land did not qualify as a non-compete. Furthermore, California lawyer David Trossen points out that the court claimed Boughton did not offer any guidance on evaluating non-compete, suggesting that using Boughton as a precedent for justifying a non-compete would be risky for Solé.

Yet Solé must have felt threatened enough by Lil’ Bill to risk a non-compete clause. After all, according to the Daily Trojan, Lil’ Bill and his family have been serving the USC community for 40 years. Surely, those 40 years gave enough of a foundation for them to gain significant market power and become a monopoly within the USC community. Perhaps Solé meant to kill Lil’ Bill’s market power.

Or perhaps the justification was even simpler. USC faces strong incentives to favor Solé’s non-compete over Lil’ Bill. The university financially benefits from Solé paying rent for a venue in the Village. Furthermore, in 2028, when USC Village will be used to host the Summer Olympics, Solé will reap additional profit from sales to competing athletes. Meanwhile, Lil’ Bill’s venue takes up a parking spot on USC’s property for free. Even if the financial loss of favoring Lil’ Bill were discounted, USC could face the legal cost of facilitating an illegal business. In a Daily Trojan interview, David Donovan said that “the city of Los Angeles has identified [Lil’ Bill’s] shop as an illegal business because it is operating out of parking lot and occupying a handicap space.”

But what do Lil’ Bill’s losses matter? They are excluded from the contract, as a negative externality–that is, a cost that signers of the contract cause, but are not held accountable for. And it is not enough to ask Lil’ Bill to give up his business and work for Solé, and call it accountability. When companies make decisions about their community, without the community’s legal ability to negotiate, the law itself ought to be reevaluated to consider the existing community businesses as stakeholders. To do otherwise, would be an economic injustice.

Everbooked and Dynamic Pricing in the Share Economy

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We live in an era of sharing. Technological developments and online platforms allow people today to network and earn extra income by sharing assets they already have – their cars (Uber and Lyft), their household goods (Snapgoods), and even their homes and apartments (Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway). Collectively, this activity is known as the “share economy,” and it is rapidly growing. Participating in the share economy is simple: go online, or open an app, and in minutes you can find a ride or a place to stay for the weekend.

Founded in 2008, Airbnb allows users to rent a place to stay overnight in a private home or apartment. Having personally used Airbnb, I can attest to the benefits of renting a private place while on vacation it’s often less expensive than a hotel, there are more options to choose from, and staying in a private place has a “local feel.” As Airbnb advertises, “Don’t go there. Live there.” This online platform has proven very popular: Airbnb today is worth around $24 billion and has helped over 40 million people find a place to stay. As Airbnb’s rapid growth both in the United States and abroad continues, Airbnb landlords are taking advantage of data science in order to raise more revenue and secure a greater number of bookings. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with David Ordal, the CEO of a Bay-Area startup known as Everbooked that assists Airbnb landlords with market analytics and a technique known as dynamic pricing.

Dynamic pricing involves continually adjusting prices to adapt to changes in demand that are detected through data analysis. American Airlines is credited with being the first company to adopt this technique; in the early 1980s, it began experimenting with “Super Saver” ticket prices that were adjusted based upon seat availability, demand, and how far in advance customers made reservations. The results were impressive – American Airlines’ revenues skyrocketed the next year. Dynamic pricing is now universal in the airline industry, and the hotel industry has used dynamic pricing for a long time as well. Ordal founded Everbooked in 2014 when he noticed that dynamic pricing was not widely used in the vacation rental industry. He saw an opportunity in bringing dynamic pricing and data analytics to landlords renting through Airbnb. “We do the same thing as airlines, but for a place to stay,” Ordal explained. Today, Everbooked operates in 3,322 cities across the United States and looks to expand internationally in the future.

Everbooked uses an algorithm to scan through market data in real time, searching for changes in various demand factors. “We look at different factors for demand, such as seasonal trends and weekend and weekday tracks,” Ordal said. He noted that, in some cases, weekdays actually see higher demand than weekends, often due to business travelers. In addition, the algorithm tracks Airbnb reservations in a given area and even examines local FAA air traffic data, which has proven to be a good metric for predicting how many people are traveling to and from a particular locale. When the algorithm detects something notable, it automatically updates users’ prices within hours of detection. The end result is that, by having their prices updated in real time, Airbnb landlords can earn an extra 14-38 percent in revenue each year.

“A lot of clients are professional landlords,” Ordal added. “We work with hosts who are more business-oriented. These are the people who really want to understand the market, who really want to understand analytics.” In addition to automatically updating clients’ prices, Everbooked also compiles huge amounts of data on rental units in various locales across the United States, allowing clients to compare their listings to those of other nearby Airbnb landlords. On the Everbooked website, an Airbnb landlord can see what types of listings they are competing against – whether homes, apartments, or condominiums – and the average prices for each of these types of listings throughout the year. Several histograms display which prices are the most common among various types of listings, as well as which types of listings are the most popular in a given locale. Everbooked also creates graphs to help clients determine the prices they should charge for extra guests, and provides up-to-date information on seasonal demand trends.

At one time, the benefits of dynamic pricing were limited to large, highly organized businesses. Today, with the rise of the share economy, that landscape is dramatically changing. Ordal thinks that someday dynamic pricing will become universal among vacation rentals. I agree – there are simply too many benefits to pass up.

A welcome from the editorial board

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From Brexit to the U.S. presidential election, from the Panama Papers to the Petrobras scandal, political and economic fractures and fissures have shaped the majority of 2016 across the world. While basking under the unrelenting sunshine of Los Angeles, it’s easy to see the consequences of socioeconomic illiteracy as a product of chaos. However, as undergraduates at the University of Southern California, we have challenged ourselves to take the abstract laws and theorems and functions and policies from our lectures and research to apply them to the challenges of the real world. While we may not have Ph.Ds, millennials have grown up with the privilege of constant, global access and awareness through the Internet and the advent of social media. With the foundation of the USC Economics Review, we aspire to analyze and comment on economic issues as close to home as LA’s Metro expansion to those as far away as Japanese monetary policy using the unique theoretical education afforded by our studies at USC Dornsife as well as a practical education fostered by our coming of age in the information era.

As we publish our own opinions and explorations of complex topics, the USC Economics Review welcomes you to post your own questions or otherwise challenge us in the comments section. We aim to represent a wide spectrum of ideological diversity and to initiate a dialogue and an understanding for not just those involved in economic academia, but also for simply curious and civic-minded readers. On that note, welcome to the beginning and beyond of the USC Economics Review.

Sincerely, the inaugural USC Economics Review Editorial Board.