Josh Wright, Commissioner-Provocateur

Alden Abbott —  25 August 2015

Much ink will be spilled at this site lauding Commissioner Joshua (Josh) Wright’s many contributions to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and justly so. I will focus narrowly on Josh Wright as a law and economics “provocateur,” who used his writings and speeches to “stir the pot” and subject the FTC’s actions to a law and economics spotlight. In particular, Josh highlighted the importance of decision theory, which teaches that bureaucratic agencies (such as the FTC) are inherently subject to error and high administrative costs, and should adopt procedures and rules of decision accordingly. Thus, to maximize welfare, an agency should adopt “optimal” rules, directed at minimizing the sum of false positives, false negatives, and administrative costs. In that regard, the FTC should pay particular attention to empirical evidence of actual harm, and not bring cases based on mere theoretical models of possible harm – models that are inherently likely to generate substantial false positives (predictions of consumer harm) and thereby run counter to a well-run decision-theoretical regime.

Josh became a Commissioner almost three years ago, so there are many of his writings to comment upon. Nevertheless, he is so prolific that a very good understanding of his law and economics approach may be gleaned merely by a perusal of his 2015 contributions. I will selectively focus upon a few representative examples of wisdom drawn from Josh Wright’s (hereinafter JW) 2015 writings, going in reverse chronological order. (A fuller and more detailed exposition of his approach over the years would warrant a long law review article.)

Earlier this month, in commenting on the importance of granting FTC economists (housed in the FTC’s Bureau of Economics (BE)) a greater public role in the framing of FTC decisions, JW honed in on the misuse of consent decrees to impose constraints on private sector behavior without hard evidence of consumer harm:

One [unfortunate] phenomenon is the so‐called “compromise recommendation,” that is, a BE staff economist might recommend the FTC accept a consent decree rather than litigate or challenge a proposed merger when the underlying economic analysis reveals very little actual economic support for liability. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a BE staff analysis to convincingly demonstrate that competitive harm is possible but unlikely, but for BE staff to recommend against litigation on those grounds, but in favor of a consent order. The problem with this compromise approach is, of course, that a recommendation to enter into a consent order must also require economic evidence sufficient to give the Commission reason to believe that competitive harm is likely. . . . [What, then, is the solution?] Requiring BE to make public its economic rationale for supporting or rejecting a consent decree voted out by the Commission could offer a number of benefits at little cost. First, it offers BE a public avenue to communicate its findings to the public. Second, it reinforces the independent nature of the recommendation that BE offers. Third, it breaks the agency monopoly the FTC lawyers currently enjoy in terms of framing a particular matter to the public. The internal leverage BE gains by the ability to publish such a document may increase conflict between bureaus on the margin in close cases, but it will also provide BE a greater role in the consent process and a mechanism to discipline consents that are not supported by sound economics. I believe this would go a long ways towards minimizing the “compromise” recommendation that is most problematic in matters involving consent decrees.

In various writings, JW has cautioned that the FTC should apply an “evidence-based” approach to adjudication, and not lightly presume that particular conduct is anticompetitive – including in the area of patents. JW’s most recent pronouncement regarding an evidence-based approach is found in his July 2015 statement with fellow Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), recommending that the ITC apply an “evidence-based” approach in deciding (on public interest grounds) whether to exclude imports that infringe “standard essential patents” (SEPs):

There is no empirical evidence to support the theory that patent holdup is a common problem in real world markets. The theory that patent holdup is prevalent predicts that the threat of injunction leads to higher prices, reduced output, and lower rates of innovation. These are all testable implications. Contrary to these predictions, the empirical evidence is not consistent with the theory that patent holdup has resulted in a reduction of competition. . . .  An evidence-based approach to the public interest inquiry, i.e., one that requires proof that holdup actually occurred in a particular case, protects incentives to participate in standard setting by allowing SEP holders to seek and obtain exclusion orders when permitted by the SSO agreement at issue and in the absence of a showing of any improper use. In contrast, any proposal that would require the ITC to presume the existence of holdup and shift the burden of proof to SEP holders to show unwillingness threatens to deter participation in standard setting, particularly if an accused infringer can prove willingness simply by agreeing to be bound by terms determined by neutral adjudication.

In such matters as Cephalon (May 2015) and Cardinal Health (April 2015), JW teamed up with Commissioner Ohlhausen to caution that disgorgement of profits as an FTC remedy in competition cases should not be lightly pursued, and indeed should be subject to a policy statement that limits FTC discretion, in order to reduce costly business uncertainty and enforcement error.

JW also brought to bear decision-theoretic insights on consumer protection matters. For example, in his April 2015 dissent in Nomi Technologies, he castigated the FTC for entering into a consent decree when the evidence of consumer harm was exceedingly weak (suggesting a high probability of a false positive, in decision-theoretic terms):

The Commission’s decision to issue a complaint and accept a consent order for public comment in this matter is problematic for both legal and policy reasons. Section 5(b) of the FTC Act requires us, before issuing any complaint, to establish “reason to believe that [a violation has occurred]” and that an enforcement action would “be to the interest of the public.” While the Act does not set forth a separate standard for accepting a consent decree, I believe that threshold should be at least as high as for bringing the initial complaint. The Commission has not met the relatively low “reason to believe” bar because its complaint does not meet the basic requirements of the Commission’s 1983 Deception Policy Statement. Further, the complaint and proposed settlement risk significant harm to consumers by deterring industry participants from adopting business practices that benefit consumers.

Consistent with public choice insights, JW stated in an April 2015 speech that greater emphasis should be placed on public advocacy efforts aimed at opposing government-imposed restraints of trade, which have a greater potential for harm than purely private restraints. Thus, welfare would be enhanced by a reallocation of agency resources toward greater advocacy and less private enforcement:

[P]ublic restraints are especially pernicious for consumers and an especially worthy target for antitrust agencies. I am quite confident that a significant shift of agency resources away from enforcement efforts aimed at taming private restraints of trade and instead toward fighting public restraints would improve consumer welfare.

In March 2015 congressional testimony, JW explained his opposition to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) net neutrality regulation, honing in on the low likelihood of harm from private conduct (and thus implicitly the high risk of costly error and unwarranted regulatory costs) in this area:

Today I will discuss my belief that the FCC’s newest regulation does not make sense from an economic perspective. By this I mean that the FCC’s decision to regulate broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 will make consumers of broadband internet service worse off, rather than better off. Central to my conclusion that the FCC’s attempts to regulate so-called “net neutrality” in the broadband industry will ultimately do more harm than good for consumers is that the FCC and commentators have failed to identify a problem worthy of regulation, much less cumbersome public-utility-style regulation under Title II.

At the same time, JW’s testimony also explained that in the face of hard evidence of actual consumer harm, the FTC could take – and indeed has taken on several instances – case-specific enforcement action.

Also in March 2015, in his dissent in Par Petroleum, JW further developed the theme that the FTC should not enter into a consent decree unless it has hard evidence of competitive harm – a mere theory does not suffice:

Prior to entering into a consent agreement with the merging parties, the Commission must first find reason to believe that a merger likely will substantially lessen competition under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The fact that the Commission believes the proposed consent order is costless is not relevant to this determination. A plausible theory may be sufficient to establish the mere possibility of competitive harm, but that theory must be supported by record evidence to establish reason to believe its likelihood. Modern economic analysis supplies a variety of tools to assess rigorously the likelihood of competitive harm. These tools are particularly important where, as here, the conduct underlying the theory of harm – that is, vertical integration – is empirically established to be procompetitive more often than not. Here, to the extent those tools were used, they uncovered evidence that, consistent with the record as a whole, is insufficient to support a reason to believe the proposed transaction is likely to harm competition. Thus, I respectfully dissent and believe the Commission should close the investigation and allow the parties to complete the merger without imposing a remedy.

In a February 2015 speech on the need for greater clarity with respect to “unfair methods of competition” under Section 5 of the FTC Act, JW emphasized the problem of uncertainty generated by the FTC’s failure to adequately define unfair methods of competition:

The lack of institutional commitment to a stable definition of what constitutes an “unfair method of competition” leads to two sources of problematic variation in the agency’s interpretation of Section 5. One is that the agency’s interpretation of the statute in different cases need not be consistent even when the individual Commissioners remain constant. Another is that as the members of the Commission change over time, so does the agency’s Section 5 enforcement policy, leading to wide variations in how the Commission prosecutes “unfair methods of competition” over time. In short, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of commissioners believes it is.

Focusing on the empirical record, JW offered a sharp critique of FTC administrative adjudication (and the value of the FTC’s non-adjudicative research function) in another February 2015 speech:

The data show three things with significant implications for those  important questions. The first is that, despite modest but important achievements in administrative adjudication, it can offer in its defense only a mediocre substantive record and a dubious one when it comes to process. The second is that the FTC can and does influence antitrust law and competition policy through its unique research-and-reporting function. The third is, as measured by appeal and reversal rates, generalist courts get a fairly bad wrap relative to the performance of expert agencies like the FTC.

In the same speech, JW endorsed proposed congressional reforms to the FTC’s exercise of jurisdiction over mergers, embodied in the draft “Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act.” Those reforms include harmonizing the FTC and Justice Department’s preliminary injunction standards, and divesting the FTC of its authority to initiate and pursue administrative challenges to unconsummated mergers, thus requiring the agency to challenge those deals in federal court.

Finally, JW dissented from the FTC’s publication of an FTC staff report (based on an FTC workshop) on the “Internet of Things,” in light of the report’s failure to impose a cost-benefit framework on the recommendations it set forth:

[T]he Commission and our staff must actually engage in a rigorous cost-benefit analysis prior to disseminating best practices or legislative recommendations, given the real world consequences for the consumers we are obligated to protect. Acknowledging in passing, as the Workshop Report does, that various courses of actions related to the Internet of Things may well have some potential costs and benefits does not come close to passing muster as cost-benefit analysis. The Workshop Report does not perform any actual analysis whatsoever to ensure that, or even to give a rough sense of the likelihood that the benefits of the staff’s various proposals exceed their attendant costs.  Instead, the Workshop Report merely relies upon its own assertions and various surveys that are not necessarily representative and, in any event, do not shed much light on actual consumer preferences as revealed by conduct in the marketplace. This is simply not good enough; there is too much at stake for consumers as the Digital Revolution begins to transform their homes, vehicles, and other aspects of daily life. Paying lip service to the obvious fact that the various best practices and proposals discussed in the Workshop Report might have both costs and benefits, without in fact performing such an analysis, does nothing to inform the recommendations made in the Workshop Report.

To conclude, FTC Commissioner Josh Wright went beyond merely emphasizing the application of economic theory to individual FTC cases, by explaining the need to focus economic thinking on FTC policy formulation – in other words, viewing FTC administrative processes and decision-making from an economics-based, decision-theoretical perspective, with hard facts (not mere theory) a key consideration. If the FTC is to be true to its goal of advancing consumer welfare, it should fully adopt such a perspective on a going-forward basis. One may only hope that current and future FTC Commissioners will heed this teaching.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

2 responses to Josh Wright, Commissioner-Provocateur

  1. 

    I think you meant to say “minimize the sum of false positives, false negatives and administrative costs” — maximizing that sum would result in a boon for the agency, but probably a result in significant welfare losses for society as a whole.