Commissioner Wright takes the FTC to task for its dangerous technocratic mindset in his Nielsen merger dissent

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Geoffrey Manne, Commissioner Wright takes the FTC to task for its dangerous technocratic mindset in his Nielsen merger dissent, Truth on the Market (September 20, 2013),

Commissioner Wright makes a powerful and important case in dissenting from the FTC’s 2-1 (Commissioner Ohlhausen was recused from the matter) decision imposing conditions on Nielsen’s acquisition of Arbitron.

Essential to Josh’s dissent is the absence of any actual existing market supporting the Commission’s challenge:

Nielsen and Arbitron do not currently compete in the sale of national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement services. In fact, there is no commercially available national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement service today. The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

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[W]e…do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

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To be clear, I do not base my disagreement with the Commission today on the possibility that the potential efficiencies arising from the transaction would offset any anticompetitive effect. As discussed above, I find no reason to believe the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition because the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is likely to generate anticompetitive effects in the alleged relevant market.

This is the kind of theory that seriously threatens innovation. Regulators in Washington are singularly ill-positioned to predict the course of technological evolution — that’s why they’re regulators and not billionaire innovators. To impose antitrust-based constraints on economic activity that hasn’t even yet occurred is the height of folly. As Virginia Postrel discusses in The Future and Its Enemies, this is the technocratic mindset, in all its stasist glory:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation.

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By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

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For technocrats, a kaleidoscope of trial-and-error innovation is not enough; decentralized experiments lack coherence. “Today, we have an opportunity to shape technology,” wrote [Newt] Gingrich in classic technocratic style. His message was that computer technology is too important to be left to hackers, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and computer buyers. “We” must shape it into a “coherent picture.” That is the technocratic notion of progress: Decide on the one best way, make a plan, and stick to it.

It should go without saying that this is the antithesis of the environment most conducive to economic advance. Whatever antitrust’s role in regulating technology markets, it must be evidence-based, grounded in economics and aware of its own limitations.

As Josh notes:

A future market case, such as the one alleged by the Commission today, presents a number of unique challenges not confronted in a typical merger review or even in “actual potential competition” cases. For instance, it is inherently more difficult in future market cases to define properly the relevant product market, to identify likely buyers and sellers, to estimate cross-elasticities of demand or understand on a more qualitative level potential product substitutability, and to ascertain the set of potential entrants and their likely incentives. Although all merger review necessarily is forward looking, it is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer these basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

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When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Josh’s dissent also contains an important, related criticism of the FTC’s problematic reliance on consent agreements. It’s so good, in fact, I will quote it almost in its entirety:

Whether parties to a transaction are willing to enter into a consent agreement will often have little to do with whether the agreed upon remedy actually promotes consumer welfare. The Commission’s ability to obtain concessions instead reflects the weighing by the parties of the private costs and private benefits of delaying the transaction and potentially litigating the merger against the private costs and private benefits of acquiescing to the proposed terms. Indeed, one can imagine that where, as here, the alleged relevant product market is small relative to the overall deal size, the parties would be happy to agree to concessions that cost very little and finally permit the deal to close. Put simply, where there is no reason to believe a transaction violates the antitrust laws, a sincerely held view that a consent decree will improve upon the post-merger competitive outcome or have other beneficial effects does not justify imposing those conditions. Instead, entering into such agreements subtly, and in my view harmfully, shifts the Commission’s mission from that of antitrust enforcer to a much broader mandate of “fixing” a variety of perceived economic welfare-reducing arrangements.

Consents can and do play an important and productive role in the Commission’s competition enforcement mission. Consents can efficiently address competitive concerns arising from a merger by allowing the Commission to reach a resolution more quickly and at less expense than would be possible through litigation. However, consents potentially also can have a detrimental impact upon consumers. The Commission’s consents serve as important guidance and inform practitioners and the business community about how the agency is likely to view and remedy certain mergers. Where the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare. Because there is no judicial approval of Commission settlements, it is especially important that the Commission take care to ensure its consents are in the public interest.

This issue of the significance of the FTC’s tendency to, effectively, legislate by consent decree is of great importance, particularly in its Section 5 practice (as we discuss in our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).

As the FTC begins its 100th year next week, we need more voices like those of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen challenging the FTC’s harmful, technocratic mindset.