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Joshua Wright is a Commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission

I’d like to thank Geoff and Thom for organizing this symposium and creating a forum for an open and frank exchange of ideas about the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority under Section 5.  In offering my own views in a concrete proposed Policy Statement and speech earlier this summer, I hoped to encourage just such a discussion about how the Commission can define its authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition in a way that both strengthens the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provides much needed guidance to the business community.  During the course of this symposium, I have enjoyed reading the many thoughtful posts providing feedback on my specific proposal, as well as offering other views on how guidance and limits can be imposed on the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority.  Through this marketplace of ideas, I believe the Commission can develop a consensus position and finally accomplish the long overdue task of articulating its views on the application of the agency’s signature competition statute.  As this symposium comes to a close, I’d like to make a couple quick observations and respond to a few specific comments about my proposal.

There Exists a Vast Area of Agreement on Section 5

Although conventional wisdom may suggest it will be impossible to reach any meaningful consensus with respect to Section 5, this symposium demonstrates that there actually already exists a vast area of agreement on the subject.  In fact, it appears safe to draw at least two broad conclusions from the contributions that have been offered as part of this symposium.

First, an overwhelming majority of commentators believe that we need guidance on the scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority.  This is not surprising.  The absence of meaningful limiting principles distinguishing lawful conduct from unlawful conduct under Section 5 and the breadth of the Commission’s authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition creates significant uncertainty among the business community.  Moreover, without a coherent framework for applying Section 5, the Commission cannot possibly hope to fulfill Congress’s vision that Section 5 would play a key role in helping the FTC leverage its unique research and reporting functions to develop evidence-based competition policy.

Second, there is near unanimity that the FTC should challenge only conduct as an unfair method of competition if it results in “harm to competition” as the phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws.  Harm to competition is a concept that is readily understandable and has been deeply embedded into antitrust jurisprudence.  Incorporating this concept would require that any conduct challenged under Section 5 must both harm the competitive process and harm consumers.  Under this approach, the FTC should not consider non-economic factors, such as whether the practice harms small business or whether it violates public morals, in deciding whether to prosecute conduct as an unfair method of competition.  This is a simple commitment, but one that is not currently enshrined in the law.  By tethering the definition of unfair methods of competition to modern economics and to the understanding of competitive harm articulated in contemporary antitrust jurisprudence, we would ensure Section 5 enforcement focuses upon conduct that actually is anticompetitive.

While it is not surprising that commentators offering a diverse set of perspectives on the appropriate scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority would agree on these two points, I think it is important to note that this consensus covers much of the Section 5 debate while leaving some room for debate on the margins as to how the FTC can best use its unfair methods of competition authority to complement its mission of protecting competition.

Some Clarifications Regarding My Proposed Policy Statement

In the spirit of furthering the debate along those margins, I also briefly would like to correct the record, or at least provide some clarification, on a few aspects of my proposed Policy Statement.

First, contrary to David Balto’s suggestion, my proposed Policy Statement acknowledges the fact that Congress envisioned Section 5 to be an incipiency statute.  Indeed, the first element of my proposed definition of unfair methods of competition requires the FTC to show that the act or practice in question “harms or is likely to harm competition significantly.”  In fact, it is by prosecuting practices that have not yet resulted in harm to competition, but are likely to result in anticompetitive effects if allowed to continue, that my definition reaches “invitations to collude.”  Paul Denis raises an interesting question about how the FTC should assess the likelihood of harm to competition, and suggests doing so using an expected value test.  My proposed policy statement does just that by requiring the FTC to assess both the magnitude and probability of the competitive harm when determining whether a practice that has not yet harmed competition, but potentially is likely to, is an unfair method of competition under Section 5.  Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission should not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the conduct poses a substantial harm.  Moreover, by requiring the FTC to show that the conduct in question results in “harm to competition” as that phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws, my proposal also incorporates all the temporal elements of harm discussed in the antitrust case law and therefore puts the Commission on the same footing as the courts.

Second, both Dan Crane and Marina Lao have suggested that the efficiencies screen I have proposed results in a null (or very small) set of cases because there is virtually no conduct for which some efficiencies cannot be claimed.  This suggestion stems from an apparent misunderstanding of the efficiencies screen.  What these comments fail to recognize is that the efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines.  As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service.  Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted.  Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.

Third, Marina Lao further argues that permitting the FTC to challenge conduct as an unfair method of competition only when there are no cognizable efficiencies is too strict a standard and that it would be better to allow the agency to balance the harms against the efficiencies.  The current formulation of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition enforcement has proven unworkable in large part because it lacks clear boundaries and is both malleable and ambiguous.  In my view, in order to make Section 5 a meaningful statute, and one that can contribute productively to the Commission’s competition enforcement mission as envisioned by Congress, the Commission must first confine its unfair methods of competition authority to those areas where it can leverage its unique institutional capabilities to target the conduct most harmful to consumers.  This in no way requires the Commission to let anticompetitive conduct run rampant.  Where the FTC identifies and wants to challenge conduct with both harms and benefits, it is fully capable of doing so successfully in federal court under the traditional antitrust laws.

I cannot think of a contribution the Commission can make to the FTC’s competition mission that is more important than issuing a Policy Statement articulating the appropriate application of Section 5.  I look forward to continuing to exchange ideas with those both inside and outside the agency regarding how the Commission can provide guidance about its unfair methods of competition authority.  Thank you once again to Truth on the Market for organizing and hosting this symposium and to the many participants for their thoughtful contributions.

*The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the Commission or any other Commissioner.

As Geoff mentioned, I was fortunate enough to be confirmed by the Senate yesterday as Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.  I’m excited about the opportunity and very much looking forward to getting started in the new job.   Unfortunately, this means I will be taking a hiatus from blogging here at TOTM for awhile.  I’ve greatly enjoyed blogging here and exchanging ideas with co-bloggers and our commenters and will looking forward to coming back when I return to the academy.

Happy New Year!

My paper with Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit; NYU Law), Behavioral Law & Economics: Its Origins, Fatal Flaws, and Implications for Liberty, is posted to SSRN and now published in the Northwestern Law Review.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral economics combines economics and psychology to produce a body of evidence that individual choice behavior departs from that predicted by neoclassical economics in a number of decision-making situations. Emerging close on the heels of behavioral economics over the past thirty years has been the “behavioral law and economics” movement and its philosophical foundation — so-called “libertarian paternalism.” Even the least paternalistic version of behavioral law and economics makes two central claims about government regulation of seemingly irrational behavior: (1) the behavioral regulatory approach, by manipulating the way in which choices are framed for consumers, will increase welfare as measured by each individual’s own preferences and (2) a central planner can and will implement the behavioral law and economics policy program in a manner that respects liberty and does not limit the choices available to individuals. This Article draws attention to the second and less scrutinized of the behaviorists’ claims, viz., that behavioral law and economics poses no significant threat to liberty and individual autonomy. The behaviorists’ libertarian claims fail on their own terms. So long as behavioral law and economics continues to ignore the value to economic welfare and individual liberty of leaving individuals the freedom to choose and hence to err in making important decisions, “libertarian paternalism” will not only fail to fulfill its promise of increasing welfare while doing no harm to liberty, it will pose a significant risk of reducing both.

Download here.

 

Free Uber

Josh Wright —  6 September 2012

From the NY Times:

Uber, a company based in San Francisco, is introducing a smartphone app to New York that allows available taxi drivers and cab-seeking riders to find one another. The company said the service would begin operating on Wednesday in 105 cabs — a bit less than 1 percent of the city’s more than 13,000 yellow cabs. Uber added that it hoped to recruit 100 new drivers each week.

But the program may have a significant problem: Taxi officials say that Uber’s service may not be legal since city rules do not allow for prearranged rides in yellow taxis. They also forbid cabbies from using electronic devices while driving and prohibit any unjustified refusal of fares. (Under Uber’s policy, once a driver accepts a ride through the app, no other passenger can be picked up.)

So, who else might be interested in fighting the rise of Uber and similar services?

The influx of apps appears to have created a moment of unity among yellow-taxi, livery and black-car operators, all of whom have raised concerns about the apps’ legality. Some industry officials said the commission was not acting forcefully enough; the result, said Avik Kabessa, the chief executive of Carmel Car and Limousine Service and a member of the board of the Livery Roundtable, a group representing livery drivers, is a New York City version of “the Wild West.”  An analysis conducted by the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents yellow-taxi operators, identified what it deemed to be 11 potential violations of taxi guidelines in Uber’s model. These included charging a tip automatically, not allowing for cash payments and turning away passengers while being on duty.

Uber and similar services face similar threats in other cities, including here in DC, where Uber faced the “Uber Amendments” which would require Uber to charge five times the price of a cab!  At least the DC Commission was incredibly clear about the role of the regulation: to suppress competition and harm consumers:

Explanation and Rationale
· This section would clarify how sedan services operate.

· Sedans would be required to charge a minimum fare of 5 times the drop rate for taxicabs.

· Sedans would be required to charge time and distance rates that are greater as those for taxicabs.

· These requirements would ensure that sedan service is a premium class of service with a substantially higher cost that does not directly compete with or undercut taxicab service.

Here is Uber’s response to the DC Council:

The Council’s intention is to prevent Uber from being a viable alternative to taxis by enacting a price floor to set Uber’s minimum fare at today’s rates and no less than 5 times a taxi’s minimum fare. Consequently they are handicapping a reliable, high quality transportation alternative so that Uber cannot offer a high quality service at the best possible price. It was hard for us to believe that an elected body would choose to keep prices of a transportation service artificially high – but the goal is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significantexperience in influencing local politicians. They want to make sure there is no viable alternative to a taxi in Washington DC, and so on Tuesday (tomorrow!), the DC City Council is going to formalize that principle into law.

There appears to be subsequent history, including a temporary shelving of the Amendment with the potential to bring it back on its own in the future.  Councilwoman and George Washington Law Prof Mary Cheh is a force behind the Uber Amendment and complained that a settlement could not be reached with Uber that would shed the requirement of having prices 5 times higher, but retain a price differential in the name of shielding taxi cabs from competition (emphasis my own):

Establishing a minimum fare is important to distinguish premium sedan service from traditional taxicab service and to prevent sedans from directly competing with or undercuting taxicabs.  Taxi companies want minimum fares that are much higher than what I am proposing in my amendment.  However, I believe that simply preserving the status quo is appropriate and reasonable.

I am deeply disappointed that Uber has decided that it no longer supports this amendment that we negotiated in good faith.  The taxi industry is one that has been regulated for a very long time.  If Uber wishes to operate taxis, then it is free to do so, but it should then be subject to the same regulations and requirements of taxis.

As I frequently point out on the blog, local barriers to entry cause substantially greater dissipation of consumer surplus than is conventionally acknowledged (e.g., here, here, and here).

HT: Hal Singer.

Some Links

Josh Wright —  4 September 2012

Michael McCann (Vermont, CNNSI) has a very interesting column on developments in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA.   O’Bannon is challenging the NCAA’s licensing of the names, images and likenesses of former Division I college athletes for commercial purposes without compensation or consent.  McCann discusses the implications of O’Bannon’s motion to expand the class to include current players:

The prospect of O’Bannon v. NCAA radically reshaping college sports is real. If O’Bannon ultimately prevails, “student-athletes” and “amateurism” would take on new meanings in the context of D-I sports. While college athletes would still not obtain compensation for their labor, they would be compensated for the licensing of their identity. If O’Bannon instead extracts a favorable settlement from the NCAA, these athletes would likely be compensated as well.

Still, it’s early in the litigation process and, besides, the NCAA has a good record in court. The NCAA is sure to raise concerns about the new world of D-I college sports as envisioned by O’Bannon. For one, how a fund for current student-athletes is distributed and how former student-athletes are compensated will spark questions. Should star players get more? Would Title IX be implicated if male student-athletes receive more licensing revenue because they might generate more revenue than female student-athletes? Also expect some colleges and universities to bemoan that they cannot afford to contribute to player trusts unless they eliminate most of their teams and give pay cuts to coaches and staff. Along those lines, schools with large endowments or those with high revenue-generating teams may only become “richer” in a college sports world where certain schools have the financial wherewithal to compensate student-athletes while others do not.

Go read the whole thing.

 

 

My GMU colleague Adam Mossoff has been on and around the blogs this week — or at least, other people have been writing about him and particularly about his new paper  The Trespass Fallacy in Patent Law.  For example, here are a few reactions at Prawfsblawg and Patently-O.  I’ve been trying to get Professor Mossoff on the blog for some time now to talk about his own research and intellectual property issues more generally, and so I’m thrilled that he will be hanging out here for a bit.  Here’s his bio:

Professor Adam Mossoff teaches and writes in the areas of property and intellectual property law.  His research focuses on the intersection between intellectual property law and property theory, with a special emphasis on natural rights philosophy and its role in the intellectual history of patent law.  He has published numerous articles on topics in patent law, property law, legal history and legal philosophy in the University of Pennsylvania Law ReviewCornell Law Review, and Social Philosophy & Policy, among other journals.  He teaches a range of courses, including patent law, property, trade secrets, cyberlaw, jurisprudence, property theory, and estates and trusts.

Professor Mossoff graduated with honors from the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a research assistant to Richard A. Epstein and held the Bradley Governance Fellowship.  Following law school, he was a John M. Olin Fellow in Law and Visiting Lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, and he clerked for the Honorable Jacques L. Wiener, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He holds an M.A. in philosophy, specializing in legal and political philosophy, from Columbia University and a B.A. with High Distinction and High Honors in philosophy from the University of Michigan.

While I suspect Adam will take some of his blogging time to write about his new and important essay, no doubt he will have many interesting things to blog about in the intellectual property world.  TOTM is excited to have him with us.

I have recently joined my colleague Bruce Johnsen as co-director of the Robert A. Levy Fellowship in Law and Liberty at GMU Law.  It is a very generous fellowship — a tuition waiver plus a generous stipend —  for economists who have their PhD’s or “ABD” status to come to law school on our dime along with a stipend of up to $27,000 annually.   PhD’s and doctoral candidates in other social science disciplines are also welcome to apply.  Several Levy Fellows have successfully ventured into the legal academic market over the past few years, and we continue to look for economists and economists-in-training with an interest in law and legal institutions.  Among others, Levy Fellow alumni include Jonathan Klick (University of Pennsylvania School of Law), Moin Yahya (University of Alberta),  and James Cooper (former Director of the Office of Policy and Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, former student of our TOTM’s own Paul Rubin, and now Research Director at the George Mason Law & Economics Center).  More recently, Levy alum Murat Mungan joined the faculty at Florida State as a Visiting Assistant Professor; and Levy Fellow alum Jeremy Kidd is now as Assistant Professor at Mercer.

If the opportunity is of interest — please contact me via email, or check out the details in the advertisement below, as well as the website with further details on the application process.

GMU Law is a great place to do law and economics.  The GMU Law and Economics Center, with a new and ambitious research and policy agenda under Henry Butler, is a wonderful asset for a rising law and economics scholar, and the law and economics faculty here are interested in a wide range of legal topics and play an integral part in the Levy Fellow program.  The program isn’t for everybody.  We’re looking for economists and other social scientists who are interested in understanding legal institutions and plan on entering the academic job market.  Experimental economists interested in the special opportunities available at the Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science and Center for the Study of Neuroeconomics might also find the program especially attractive.

The full text of the advertisement is below the fold.  Contact me if you have questions about the application process.

GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY

School of Law

Robert A. Levy Fellowship

George Mason University School of Law invites applications for the Robert A. Levy Fellowship in Law & Liberty. The Levy Fellowship includes an annual stipend of up to $27,000 per year plus a tuition waiver and is available to PhD or ABD economists who wish to pursue a JD at George Mason.

DESCRIPTION:

Applicants will be evaluated for their promise as Law and Economics scholars capable of making a significant contribution to understanding the institutions of a free society. We are pleased in recent years to have placed fellows in highly ranked institutions. Two or more fellowships will be awarded for the 2013/14 academic year. Applicants should arrange to take the LSAT no later than February 2013. George Mason University is an equal opportunity-affirmative action institution.

A special opportunity now exists for those interested in experimental economics. Levy Fellows will have the opportunity to run experiments and collaborate with faculty at the path breaking Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science and Center for the Study of Neuroeconomics.

APPLICATION PROCEDURE:

Please provide all items requested in standard law school application process, including LSAT/LSDAS, PLUS cover letter with three references, curriculum vitae, graduate transcripts, and a copy of current research.

Letters should be sent to the:

CONTACT:

George Mason University School of Law
Office of Admissions
3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201

Or calls made to:

Tel: (703) 993-8010

The co-director of the Levy Fellowship program:

CONTACT: Professor Joshua Wright
Email: jwrightg at gmu dot edu

The NPR put together a panel of economists with various political and ideological views to see what economists agree on.  (HT: Mankiw) Here is the list:

One: Eliminate the mortgage tax deduction, which lets homeowners deduct the interest they pay on their mortgages. Gone. After all, big houses get bigger tax breaks, driving up prices for everyone. Why distort the housing market and subsidize people buying expensive houses?

Two: End the tax deduction companies get for providing health-care to employees. Neither employees nor employers pay taxes on workplace health insurance benefits. That encourages fancier insurance coverage, driving up usage and, therefore, health costs overall. Eliminating the deduction will drive up costs for people with workplace healthcare, but makes the health-care market fairer.

Three: Eliminate the corporate income tax. Completely. If companies reinvest the money into their businesses, that’s good. Don’t tax companies in an effort to tax rich people.

Four: Eliminate all income and payroll taxes. All of them. For everyone. Taxes discourage whatever you’re taxing, but we like income, so why tax it? Payroll taxes discourage creating jobs. Not such a good idea. Instead, impose a consumption tax, designed to be progressive to protect lower-income households.

Five: Tax carbon emissions. Yes, that means higher gasoline prices. It’s a kind of consumption tax, and can be structured to make sure it doesn’t disproportionately harm lower-income Americans. More, it’s taxing something that’s bad, which gives people an incentive to stop polluting.

Six: Legalize marijuana. Stop spending so much trying to put pot users and dealers in jail — it costs a lot of money to catch them, prosecute them, and then put them up in jail. Criminalizing drugs also drives drug prices up, making gang leaders rich.

See also Greg Mankiw’s list from his NY Times piece back in 2008.  Agree?  Disagree?   Additions to the list?

My former student and recent George Mason Law graduate (and co-author, here) Angela Diveley has posted Clarifying State Action Immunity Under the Antitrust Laws: FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc.  It is a look at the state action doctrine and the Supreme Court’s next chance to grapple with it in Phoebe Putney.  here is the abstract:

The tension between federalism and national competition policy has come to a head. The state action doctrine finds its basis in principles of federalism, permitting states to replace free competition with alternative regulatory regimes they believe better serve the public interest. Public restraints have a unique ability to undermine the regime of free competition that provides the basis of U.S.- and state-commerce policies. Nevertheless, preservation of federalism remains an important rationale for protecting such restraints. The doctrine has elusive contours, however, which have given rise to circuit splits and overbroad application that threatens to subvert the state action doctrine’s dual goals of federalism and competition. The recent Eleventh Circuit decision in FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. epitomizes the concerns associated with misapplication of state action immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted the FTC’s petition for certiorari and now has the opportunity to more clearly define the contours of the doctrine. In Phoebe Putney, the FTC has challenged a merger it claims is the product of a sham transaction, an allegation certain to test the boundaries of the state action doctrine and implicate the interpretation of a two-pronged test designed to determine whether consumer welfare-reducing conduct taken pursuant to purported state authorization is immune from antitrust challenge. The FTC’s petition for writ of certiorari raises two issues for review. First, it presents the question concerning the appropriate interpretation of foreseeability of anticompetitive conduct. Second, the FTC presents the question whether a passive supervisory role on the state’s part can be construed as state action or whether its approval of the merger was a sham. In this paper, I seek to explicate the areas in which the state action doctrine needs clarification and to predict how the Court will decide the case in light of precedent and the principles underlying the doctrine.

Go read the whole thing.