Dear Mr. Toobin

Josh Wright —  3 June 2009

Jeff Toobin has an interesting profile on John Roberts in the New Yorker (HT: Jonathan Adler who also takes issue with Toobin’s description of Leegin, but goes on to challenge Toobin’s general account of Roberts as a “stealth nominee”).   Toobin’s column has very little to do with antitrust.  with the exception of one sentence describing the Leegin decision where he writes:

That same day, the Justices overturned a ninety-six-year-old precedent in antitrust law and thus made it harder to prove collusion by corporations.

Mr. Toobin clearly did not get this memo.  Descriptions of resale price maintenance agreements between manufacturers and retailers are not collusion in the antitrust sense, a label that connotes horizontal price-fixing between competitors.   Toobin’s explanation implies that what the Roberts court did was make it more difficult to prove a price-fixing agreement that harms consumers.  In the United States where the difference is not only economic but also legal, there is simply no excuse to use the words “cartel” or “price-fixing” to describe RPM.  Yes, a vertical agreement “fixes prices” but this is a fairly transparent attempt to obfuscate the economic issues (empirically RPM generally increases consumer welfare and does not have cartel-like effects) by analogizing it to a cartel.  If one was not paying attention, or knew nothing about antitrust economics, they could take the wrong impression from Toobin’s description that the Court reached an anti-consumer and pro-business result.  That’s a silly way to think about RPM as discussed here.

UPDATE: A reader reminds me that the Antitrust Section at the American Bar Association, which I don’t believe can fairly be characterized as a “conservative” (if that’s a useful label at all in this context) antitrust group, has made an official statement in support of the Roberts Court’s analysis in Leegin:

The ABA supports the position that under the federal antitrust laws—and analogous state and territorial antitrust law—agreements between a buyer and seller setting the price at which the buyer may resell a product or service purchased from the seller should not be illegal per se. Instead, these agreements should be analyzed under a rule of reason analysis. The ABA also believes that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Leegin is consistent with that position.

One response to Dear Mr. Toobin

    antitrust guy 4 June 2009 at 11:19 am

    I might go further to suggest that Toobin simply doesn’t know what Leegin is about. His characterization of the case suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of the issue in Leegin.