Damn the Economics, Full Speed Ahead!

Alden Abbott —  22 September 2022 — Leave a comment

A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.

Their aggressive enforcement statements draw headlines, but will the administration’s neo-Brandeisians actually notch enforcement successes? The prospects are cloudy, to say the least.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has lost some cartel cases in court this year (what was the last time that happened?) and, on Sept. 19, a federal judge rejected the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin United Health’s $13.8 billion bid for Change Healthcare. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently lost two merger challenges before its in-house administrative law judge. It now faces a challenge to its administrative-enforcement processes before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Axon case, to be argued in November).

(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)

So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.

Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference

Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.

In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)

Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).

Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).

In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.

Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.

Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.

Conclusion

What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.

It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court. 

Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out. 

Alden Abbott

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Alden Abbott is a a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, focusing on antitrust issues. He previously served as the Federal Trade Commission’s General Counsel from 2018 to early 2021.

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