Corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Live Nation are allegedly taking advantage of chokepoints in the economy, earning excessive profits. That’s the thesis of a new book, Chokepoint Capitalism: how big tech and big content captured creative labour markets, and how we’ll win them back. The authors are Uni. of Melbourne Law Professor Rebecca Giblin and writer and activist Cory Doctorow. Show host Gene Tunny speaks with Prof. Giblin about Chokepoint Capitalism in this episode.
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About this episode’s guest: Rebecca Giblin
Rebecca Giblin is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor at Melbourne Law School, and the Director of the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia. Her work sits at the intersection of law and culture, focusing on creators’ rights, access to knowledge and culture, technology regulation and copyright. Using quantitative, qualitative, doctrinal and comparative methods, she leads interdisciplinary teams with expertise across data science, cultural economics, literary sociology, information research and law to better understand how law impacts the creation and dissemination of creative works.
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Where you can buy Chokepoint Capitalism:
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Transcript: Chokepoint Capitalism w/ Rebecca Giblin – EP169
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:00
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Rebecca Giblin 00:03
We’re sharing less and less in the value that’s that’s created by our work. And that’s happening because we’ve got these increasingly powerful corporations, creating choke points that allow them to extract more than their fair share.
Gene Tunny 00:18
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane Australia. This is episode 169 on choke point capitalism. That’s the name of the new book from University of Melbourne law professor Rebecca Giblin and from writer and activist Cory Doctorow. Professor Giblin joins me this episode to discuss the book. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Rebecca I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now. It’s my conversation with Rebecca Giblin on a new book with Cory Doctorow chokepoint capitalism, thanks to the publisher scribe for sending me a copy of the book. And finally, thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Rebecca Gibson, welcome to the programme.
Rebecca Giblin 01:00
Gene Tunny 01:01
Yes, good to have you on Rebecca keen to chat with you about your new book, Choke Point Capitalism: how big tech and big content captured creative labour markets and how we’ll win them back. So to begin with, Rebecca, could you explain what’s the meaning of a choke point? And why do you think capitalism can be labelled in this way? Or there’s a form of capitalism that is chokepoint capitalism?
Rebecca Giblin 01:40
Well, competition is supposed to be fundamental to capitalism. It is supposedly about the free exchange of goods and services. But you have this new orthodoxy that’s come out in the last 30 or 40 years. When you have Peter Thiel say competition is for losers. You have Warren Buffett salivating over companies that have what he calls wide, sustainable moats, which are barriers to competition that stop that, you know, lock in customers and lock in suppliers, and stop that free exchange. And once and this is now the orthodoxy that’s been taught in business schools, people are told that if you want to make a fortune, you don’t make something, don’t provide a service, but find a way to scrape off the value of other people’s labour. And these are the choke points. So it’s where you manage to lock people in. So you lock in customers, you lock in suppliers, you use, the power you get from that. And those increased margins you get from that to do a scorched earth approach where anybody in your kill zone gets eliminated so that there are fewer and fewer choices for those locked in customers and suppliers. And then ultimately, you shake everybody down for more than your fair share. And we see these choke pointed markets in throughout the culture industries in particular, that’s what we talk about in the book to demonstrate this problem. But they’re everywhere. We’ve started seeing the term getting used in the context of all different kinds of businesses. We’ve had people talking about on social media emailing us to tell us about it. One of the more interesting ones and somebody saying this is exactly what’s happening in the global ornamental plant industry is a big plant is a problem as well.
Gene Tunny 03:28
Ornamental what? Sorry?
Rebecca Giblin 03:30
Plants, Yes. Yeah, it’s a big problem in the plant market, we discovered. And, and what we’re really trying to demonstrate here is the danger of this. And the reason why so many of us are feeling squeezed right now. It’s not our imaginations, it’s that we are being and that we need to become really aware of it if we want to change the material conditions in which we live and work.
Gene Tunny 03:54
Okay, so by many of us, are you talking about creative professionals?
Rebecca Giblin 03:59
But it goes much beyond that as well. If you’re working, or if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, for example, you are dealing with a similar kind of buyer power as what we talked about in the book. And so let me mention this. This book, we talk about monopoly a bit, which is, you know, we’re all familiar with that concept, because we got a board game for that one. It’s where you’ve got a seller, that’s really powerful. So Amazon, for example, is a really powerful seller. And its relationship with consumers because it controls so many consumer markets, including the market for books, but it’s also an incredibly powerful buyer. So if you’re a publisher or an author, you you you need to go through Amazon to reach those customers. And so it’s, it’s it’s got monopsony power as well, which is where you’ve got a powerful buyer. So if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, you’re dealing with people. I have to say this word monopsony, it does turn a lot of people off. It did appear a lot more often in the book in the first draft and people begged us to take it out, but we do think we can make it sexy. Technically what we’re talking about here is oligopoly, which is probably even worse, which is where you’ve got a couple of very powerful buyers. But I’m going to use monopsony just for simplicity. But that’s what you’re dealing with if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, in Australia or so many other companies that have increasingly come to control their markets. And the reason why we’ve got this increased corporate concentration throughout the world is largely due to the emergence of what we call Chicago School of Economics reasoning, this, it gets a little bit wonky at this point, but this consumer welfare theory, that suggests that we should only be concerned about corporate concentration, not just because it exists, but where it has the effect of, of harming consumer welfare, which is often treated as just looking at the prices people pay. There’s many problems with that standard. And we’ve seen them the consequences of that really starting to play out now. But one of the consequences is that it really ignores the fact that when you’ve got a powerful buyer, right, it may be that the prices that the consumer pays are not affected. But that buyer has its hand in the pockets of its workers and its suppliers. And you’re it’s a little bit of a stage magic, sleight of hand misdirection where you’re looking over there at the Consumer Price, and not noticing that you’ve got somebody picking your pocket on the other. And we think I mean, it’s exactly the same end result. If you’re if you’re having downward pressure on your wages, the salary that you bring, bring in the what you get paid for your goods and your services, it has the exact same end result as higher prices at the checkout, which is that you’ve got less and less capacity to pay for what you need. And what we’re really seeing now in the current environment. And a lot of these prices, we are seeing big price increases at the checkout. And partly those are inflationary pressures. But we are seeing as well, there’s a lot of evidence of companies, these powerful concentrated industries, hiking up their profit margins and using inflation as an excuse for that. So we’re seeing higher prices at one end, and also these companies having their hands in our pockets at the other. And so it’s no wonder that everybody’s feeling squeezed.
Gene Tunny 07:30
Right. Okay, so you mentioned a few things there. You talked about antitrust, and I’ve chatted with Danielle Wood from Gratton about this, this issue of you know, there was this consumer welfare standard. And that meant that there may be, there wasn’t as much antitrust enforcement. But now there’s been a change, you’ve mentioned, is it Lina Khan in the States? So there’s more of a, a willingness to look at antitrust as a tool. And can we, Rebecca can ask about what mean, what companies you’re talking about? I mean, are you talking, you mentioned. Well, it’s could, though, there could be companies in the sort of more traditional economy, but it’s, is it mainly big tech? Are they these are the companies that are exhibiting the characteristics of being a choke point, capitalist, what are some of these companies?
Rebecca Giblin 08:23
Okay, so the ones that we talk about in the context of the creative industries, they go all the way through the chain. So if we think about just music to begin with, musician has to deal with the big three record labels, who control almost 70% of global recorded music rights. They own the big three records, the big three music publishers, which control almost 60% of global song rights, they structure the deals in ways that benefit their executives and shareholders, and work to the detriment of these creative workers. Then the streaming industry, which is where most of the increasingly most of the money from recorded music is generated, the streaming we lots of people know that music streaming really doesn’t pay very well. But fewer people are aware that the reason that works, the way that it does is because this is the way those big three record labels, arranged things, the streaming platforms had to have to go through those records, those record companies in order to get permission to play the songs. And in order to clear those rights, they have to enter into these deals that again, favour those record labels, again, to the detriment of the artists, and that give those those those major labels who should be far less relevant and indeed are far less relevant today than they were 30 or 40 years ago because they no longer control all of the avenues to distribution, but because they’ve got these huge reservoirs of copyrights that they’ve acquired often through buying up distressed companies very, very cheaply, that’s given them outsized power to control the future of music. And so you can see that those, the copyrights themselves create a choke point, at one point, the incredible complexity of the licencing systems that we have in music, create other choke points, because it is only Spotify and the big tech music offerings that can afford to go through the, you know, these hoops to pay that what’s demanded by the record labels and also to comply with these complex regulatory rules and that keeps lots of other companies that that could be started by people who love music and want to support artists and passionately believe in alternative ways of getting music out there. It stops them from being able to start up any kind of meaningful competition. And then if you look, and you say, Well, that’s all right, people don’t really need to make money from recorded music. No one’s really made money from recorded music except a few outliers. People make money from touring. Well, then we start looking at Live Nation, which is the behemoth in that space. It controls nearly all of the world’s largest and most prestigious music venues. It also has a music management and promotion business. And it bought Ticketmaster a few years ago to, you know, in the face of many, many warnings that what has happened would happen, the Department of Justice in the United States still permitted this merger to go ahead. Now, just think about this for a moment. Imagine you are a company. So you’re a music venue, right? And you want to book acts, you will have Live Nation tell you well, if you don’t use us for your ticketing, you won’t be able to book our biggest acts that we control through our management, business and promotion business, or, or any other kind of incredible threat that they’ve made. In the book, we talk about this we are in, we looked in an incredible range of creative industries in our research for this book. And we always gave people the opportunity to be synonymous or anonymous if they wanted to. And I think nobody took us up on that. Even when they were talking about these other really big, really scary giants like Amazon, who’s also known for not playing fair, except the people we spoke to about Live Nation. Almost all of those said that they could not be named. And they were really genuinely terrified about what kind of retribution could come if it got out that they’d spoken to us about this company. But it has a voyeurs, voyeurs view at the businesses of all of its competitors, right? If you’ve got to use Ticketmaster or if you’re a venue, or you face all of these other consequences, all of these other things that you miss out on. But that gives Ticketmaster the ability to see, well, okay, so which other acts that you are hosting are doing well, who are the artists that look like based on the ticket sales, they’re about to break out, and maybe Ticketmaster, Live Nation can jump in with its promotion and management business and snag up those acts. Now, even though they didn’t do the early investment, they can just sneak in and grab them now that they’re about to start making lots of money. And, you know, all kinds of other, you know, extraordinary advantages this gives them and we’re really seeing this play out at the moment with anyone who’s listening. Is there is there much crossover? Do you think Gene in the economics explained audience and the people who are big fans of Taylor Swift, and been waiting in a queue for days in order to get tickets to her concert? You have
Gene Tunny 13:47
Look, I have no idea. I mean, I quite like Taylor Swift. I wouldn’t line up for days to get tickets. But yeah, who knows? Tell me more.
Rebecca Giblin 13:55
Look, the Department of Justice is investigating again, they did do an investigation a couple of years ago that we talked about in the book, where a bunch of venues who all had to be assured of anonymity in order to speak, we’re talking about Live Nation’s mob tactics and ways in which it was using its power to crush other people’s businesses. It got a fine that was just really a slap on the wrist and told really sternly not to do it again. But in this kind of context of fine is a price. The Live Nation is quite happy to pay that kind of fine in, you know, in order to get to continue its predatory behaviour. It will only be stopped if there is sort of meaningful enforcement. And the DOJ hadn’t done anything since until this Taylor Swift controversy came up. And and and we are seeing now there’s going to be another investigation. So hopefully, there’ll be some kind of more meaningful enforcement here and what we really need to see is Ticket Master broken up. That’s one of the main domain remedies were there. antitrust breaches. You can have structural remedies, which is where you break a company up or conduct remedies, which is where you sort of get them to pinky swear they won’t do anything bad. Now, unfortunately, those remedies are not particularly easy to enforce. Right. It took literally decades to break up AT&T In the United States. I was it was a Bell. I think it was Bell before it became AT&T. So there’s so many, the Bell System we concentrated. Yeah, concentrated firms the sometimes I get mixed up. And it can be incredibly expensive and lasts for decades to take these actions and we don’t have decades. And the other problem with those antitrust remedies or competition law remedies is that they work even less well when you’re dealing with monopsony rather than monopoly for various reasons. And so what we argue for in the book is remedies that we know do work in response to monopsony power. And that’s things like encouraging new entrants into the market, directly regulating excessive buyer power by limiting what they can do and by taking measures to build countervailing power in workers and suppliers.
Gene Tunny 16:21
Okay, well, I want to come back to that that point about the monopsony you said, it’s harder for antitrust act on monopsony if you meant I think you said that I’d be interested in that if you can explain why or, and also the, I guess, I’d like to ask about, I mean, is this really so bad? I mean, you mentioned that it’s, it’s captured creative labour markets. I mean, okay, I’m, I’m against a lot of the surveillance capitalism. And I think you know, where to the extent there are choke points, and they’re really bad business practices, or they’re they are, they’re relying on some. Yeah, I guess it’s IP, they’re relying on these relationships they have and they’re, they’re preventing competition from, from coming into the market. Yeah, I can see the problem with Ticketmaster. At the same time, I mean, I think a lot of these platforms have enabled a lot of people to make a living out of content creation, haven’t they? I mean, if you look at YouTube, and you look at all the podcasting platforms, I mean, there are many more people that are able to, you know, quit their jobs and become full time content creators, aren’t there. So, I mean, is there a risk that we, we, we undermine this system that has actually created a lot of benefits? I mean, how do you see it, Rebecca?
Rebecca Giblin 17:48
Let me answer that second part. The second part first, I think we are constantly being sold the idea that we can’t have the good things without the bad things, right. So Amazon is constantly telling us that we can’t have a good search engine without surveillance. But we can have a great search engine without surveillance. Google didn’t surveil us for the first several years of its existence, right. And it was a terrific search engine. We, with the access to digital technologies and the Internet, we absolutely can have global virtually instantaneous gloop at virtually costless, like zero marginal cost of distribution, supply of many kinds of creative work. So we’ve got this potential for the good things anyway, what we don’t have to have is the bad parts, the lock ins, right, these strategies that are used to create these hourglass shaped markets, so that you’ve got audiences at one end, and creators, the other and these predatory companies squatting at the NEC, were they using that power that they’ve artificially created by locking everybody in to extract more than their fair share? So that’s what I say in response to that. And getting, I’m so glad you asked me more about monopsony. Most people run away screaming from that pot. So some of the reasons suddenly tell you a couple of things about it. One reason why monopsony is so dangerous is that it accrues at far lower market concentrations than monopoly power does. So you know, when monopsony when when when a buyer controls even eight or 10% of the market, that already gives it quite outsized power over its suppliers. And that says that’s assuming that there’s no alternative buyer for that. And we saw that when Amazon started out one of its one of its as soon as it got power over the physical book market. It started exerting that to try and squeeze margin out of everybody else. And, you know, this is a famous Bezos aphorism. Your margin is my opportunity. He’s very clear about what he’s trying to do. But sometimes when you look at how the sausage gets made, it can be a little bit frightening. They created something called the gazelle project, which is exactly what it sounds like the way that a cheetah cuts out the weakest Gazelle from the herd, they went after the smaller and more vulnerable publishers to squeeze margin from them. One of them was Melville House, who lots of people have read books from. And the publisher they resisted, he said, look, if you I cannot, we cannot afford to give you what you’re asking for our business won’t be sustainable on that basis, we just won’t do it. And Amazon instantly retaliated by removing the buy buttons for all the Melville House books on its platform. Okay and now at that, at that time, I think Amazon only controlled about 8% of the market for those books. But nonetheless, Melville House was forced to instantly get virtually instantly given because without that, that eight or 10% of sales, it was just no longer sustainable. And so if you look at how much power Amazon had, when it had such a small market share relative to what it has got now, you can see how dangerous that’s become. And then if we look at other industries, in so many of them, you’ve only got, you know, one or two or three buyers that are available. And coincidentally, they often seem to have very, very similar policies and very, very similar abuses. And this is what this is what puts them in that position where they can extract so much from the people that they’re dealing with. Yeah, the other. The other thing about monopsony that I think is relevant here to why the remedies are not particularly effective, is that there’s real concern that when you regulate a powerful buyer, that maybe the reason why it’s so powerful is because it’s very efficient. And this is what Amazon argues it argues that it has this highly efficient structure, that it has these lower costs, which leads to attracts customers, which then attracts suppliers. And then there’s a better customer experience, which brings more in and sort of feeds this loop which Amazon calls its virtuous cycle, right. But what we see when we look at Amazon, and my co author, Cory Doctorow just did a terrific thread, or blog post on his pluralistic website about this a day or two ago, is Amazon increasingly is a shitty place to buy from, because most of it has been taken up by advertising. People, people know that Google and Facebook have big online advertising businesses, but not many people know that Amazon is a close third now. It shakes down the people that sell on it. For placement fees, and for the right to be shown first and for the right to be earlier in the search listings. And that means that you know, rather than getting the best search experience, the best customer experience, you’re just being inundated with ads all the time. They’re making billions upon billions of dollars from this. So the evidence is that in practice, it’s probably not from efficiency, but regulators are concerned that they might not be able to tell the difference. And that makes them hesitant, even more hesitant to intervene in cases of monopsony than monopoly.
Gene Tunny 23:24
And Rebecca, how do you respond to the argument that these companies are simply being rewarded for the innovation, they’re being compensated for the innovation, that they’ve undertaken to deliver new services to consumers, because a lot of these platforms are delivering value or consumer surplus to a lot of consumers. And, you know, providing opportunities for content creators. I’m just wondering how you respond to that argument, because as economists, I mean, we’re very much a lot of economists are sympathetic to that Schumpeterian idea of creative destruction, that wherever there are these, you know, the opportunities for profits that encourages innovation. And I mean, who knows? I mean, will these companies survive? Or will there be new innovative innovators who take over?
Rebecca Giblin 24:10
Let’s see, that’s the thing. This is another thing that we’re constantly being sold this idea, but look at Google, how much innovation does it actually manage? Alright, it made a great search engine, and a pretty good Hotmail clone, right? And nearly everything else that it’s ever provided that’s had any kind of success. It’s bought from other people who did actually innovate with its monopoly profits that it’s making on from these choke points. Right. And so, you know, Google tried really hard, and we talked about it in the book to create a Google video service, right? Absolutely failed with all of its resources and all of its smart people it could not, it’s almost ludicrous, how hard and how many ways it failed on that. And so it had to buy YouTube, right, which scrappy people above a pizza shop where they were actually doing innovation. And we see this time and time and time again, you know Facebook came to control the messaging market, and to control the way you communicate with your community and your family and your friends, not by innovating and creating the products that we want. But by buying up what’s happened Instagram for billions of dollars each when they had, you know, virtually no employees, because these tiny companies were the ones who actually doing the innovation, okay, so we don’t need not only do we not need these, these massive companies in their massive war chest to be innovating, they’re actually getting in the way of other people innovating. Because everybody knows what happens if you get in the kill zone, right? So it’s a risk, you either get bought up. And that’s like, that’s what many, many people are aiming to do. If they’re trying to innovate in this area, they know that the only exit is to get acquired by these companies, or crushed by them. And so it’s called the kill zone. And if you and venture capitalists know, we know that there is less VC investment in territories that are controlled by big tech and other powerful corporations, because of these kill zones. So Amazon, for example, burned, I think it was 200 million US dollars in a single month, undercutting and going directly up against diapers.com, in order to control the nappy market in the US. And that’s an extraordinary amount of money drove this innovative competitor absolutely under because it had access to these, these war chests from its monopoly profits and access to capital markets that this scrappy little innovator didn’t have. Now $200 million in a month to control the diaper market might sound like a lot of money. But it’s actually incredible value, because it didn’t just get rid of diapers.com it sent an incredibly clear signal to anyone else that was thinking of entering any space that Amazon has marked that you will be absolutely burnt out if you even attempt it.
Gene Tunny 27:04
Yeah, it’s a real gangster move, as they’d say, isn’t it? I mean, really?
Rebecca Giblin 27:08
Yeah, they would say no, no, it’s just it’s just it’s good, hard. It’s good fair competition. But it’s not is it? Right. And all of that. There’s extensive research on this, we see that there’s less investment, less innovation in areas where you’ve got choke points.
Gene Tunny 27:26
Okay. Rebecca, I think I should have booked you for longer. There’s been fascinating, and I’m enjoying the conversation. But yes, if, if there’s anything else? Yeah, I’d love to if you had any final points, you know, feel free to make them otherwise. We might have to, we can wrap up. And yeah, I’ll, I’ll try and connect with you sometime in the future. Because I’m sure there’ll be a lot of discussion about your book and this debate will continue on into the future.
Rebecca Giblin 27:55
Yeah, I guess the final thing I would say just to sort of sum up the ultimate message is that you know, creators, but also the rest of us are getting choked, that we’re sharing less and less than the value that’s that’s created by our work. And that’s happening because we’ve got these increasingly powerful corporations, creating choke points that allow them to extract more than their fair share. But we don’t have to put up with it. There’s lots of things that we can do to widen these choke points out once we see them for what they are.
Gene Tunny 28:25
Okay. Rebecca Giblin. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much.
Female speaker 28:33
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Gene Tunny 29:03
Okay, I hope you enjoyed that conversation I had with Rebecca. Overall, I think Choke Point Capitalism is a book worth reading, although I disagree with some of its assertions. Regrettably, I didn’t book Rebecca Long enough to ask her all the questions that occurred to me from reading the book, so I’ll aim to get her back on the show next year for another conversation. The book includes many compelling examples of dubious business practices by big companies. So I must admit I am somewhat sympathetic to the choke point capitalism thesis. And if you’re a regular listener, you will know that I’ve covered surveillance capitalism and problems with big tech in the past. There does appear to be scope for some antitrust action against some of the badly behaved big tech companies for sure. That said, one reservation that I have about the book is that it appears to have a wider ambition than simply acting against the market abuses of big tech. In parts, it reads like a polemic against capitalism in general. For instance, the book concludes, we’ve organised our societies to make rich people richer at everyone else’s expense. I think that sweeping statement goes too far. Like some other popular economics books I’ve read in recent years, choke point capitalism adopts to negative view of our economic system. Capitalism, after all, has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty in recent decades. And it has fostered a bewildering array of innovative new services that have benefited billions of people. And we still have progressive tax systems in which the wealthy generally pay much more tax than the less wealthy. Of course, many wealthy people avoid paying tax I know. But I think it’s broadly true that we still have a highly progressive tax system, at least in Australia and European countries, possibly less so in the US. Okay. Despite some reservations, I’d still recommend the book for its vivid examples of so called choke point capitalism. The book makes a useful and stimulating contribution to the important debate over the regulation of big tech. So I’ve included a link to the Amazon page for the book in the show notes, so please consider buying a copy. Thank you. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.
Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au.
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