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[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ramsi Woodcock, (Assistant Professor of Law, University of Kentucky; Assistant Professor of Management, Gatton College of Business and Economics).]

Specialists know that the antitrust courses taught in law schools and economics departments have an alter ego in business curricula: the course on business strategy. The two courses cover the same material, but from opposite perspectives. Antitrust courses teach how to end monopolies; strategy courses teach how to construct and maintain them.

Strategy students go off and run businesses, and antitrust students go off and make government policy. That is probably the proper arrangement if the policy the antimonopolists make is domestic. We want the domestic economy to run efficiently, and so we want domestic policymakers to think about monopoly—and its allocative inefficiencies—as something to be discouraged.

The coronavirus, and the shortages it has caused, have shown us that putting the antimonopolists in charge of international policy is, by contrast, a very big mistake.

Because we do not yet have a world government. America’s position, in relation to the rest of the world, is therefore more akin to that of a business navigating a free market than it is to a government seeking to promote efficient interactions among the firms that it governs. To flourish, America must engage in international trade with a view to creating and maintaining monopoly positions for itself, rather than eschewing them in the interest of realizing efficiencies in the global economy. Which is to say: we need strategists, not antimonopolists.

For the global economy is not America, and there is no guarantee that competitive efficiencies will redound to America’s benefit, rather than to those of her competitors. Absent a world government, other countries will pursue monopoly regardless what America does, and unless America acts strategically to build and maintain economic power, America will eventually occupy a position of commercial weakness, with all of the consequences for national security that implies.

When Antimonopolists Make Trade Policy

The free traders who have run American economic policy for more than a generation are antimonopolists playing on a bigger stage. Like their counterparts in domestic policy, they are loyal in the first instance only to the efficiency of the market, not to any particular trader. They are content to establish rules of competitive trading—the antitrust laws in the domestic context, the World Trade Organization in the international context—and then to let the chips fall where they may, even if that means allowing present or future adversaries to, through legitimate means, build up competitive advantages that the United States is unable to overcome.

Strategy is consistent with competition when markets are filled with traders of atomic size, for then no amount of strategy can deliver a competitive advantage to any trader. But global markets, more even than domestic markets, are filled with traders of macroscopic size. Strategy then requires that each trader seek to gain and maintain advantages, undermining competition. The only way antimonopolists could induce the trading behemoth that is America to behave competitively, and to let the chips fall where they may, was to convince America voluntarily to give up strategy, to sacrifice self-interest on the altar of efficient markets.

And so they did.

Thus when the question arose whether to permit American corporations to move their manufacturing operations overseas, or to permit foreign companies to leverage their efficiencies to dominate a domestic industry and ensure that 90% of domestic supply would be imported from overseas, the answer the antimonopolists gave was: “yes.” Because it is efficient. Labor abroad is cheaper than labor at home, and transportation costs low, so efficiency requires that production move overseas, and our own resources be reallocated to more competitive uses.

This is the impeccable logic of static efficiency, of general equilibrium models allocating resources optimally. But it is instructive to recall that the men who perfected this model were not trying to describe a free market, much less international trade. They were trying to create a model that a central planner could use to allocate resources to a state’s subjects. What mattered to them in building the model was the good of the whole, not any particular part. And yet it is to a particular part of the global whole that the United States government is dedicated.

The Strategic Trader

Students of strategy would have taken a very different approach to international trade. Strategy teaches that markets are dynamic, and that businesses must make decisions based not only on the market signals that exist today, but on those that can be made to exist in the future. For the successful strategist, unlike the antimonopolist, identifying a product for which consumers are willing to pay the costs of production is not alone enough to justify bringing the product to market. The strategist must be able to secure a source of supply, or a distribution channel, that competitors cannot easily duplicate, before the strategist will enter.

Why? Because without an advantage in supply, or distribution, competitors will duplicate the product, compete away any markups, and leave the strategist no better off than if he had never undertaken the project at all. Indeed, he may be left bankrupt, if he has sunk costs that competition prevents him from recovering. Unlike the economist, the strategist is interested in survival, because he is a partisan of a part of the market—himself—not the market entire. The strategist understands that survival requires power, and all power rests, to a greater or lesser degree, on monopoly.

The strategist is not therefore a free trader in the international arena, at least not as a matter of principle. The strategist understands that trading from a position of strength can enrich, and trading from a position of weakness can impoverish. And to occupy that position of strength, America must, like any monopolist, control supply. Moreover, in the constantly-innovating markets that characterize industrial economies, markets in which innovation emerges from learning by doing, control over physical supply translates into control over the supply of inventions itself.

The strategist does not permit domestic corporations to offshore manufacturing in any market in which the strategist wishes to participate, because that is unsafe: foreign countries could use control over that supply to extract rents from America, to drive domestic firms to bankruptcy, and to gain control over the supply of inventions.

And, as the new trade theorists belatedly discovered, offshoring prevents the development of the dense, geographically-contiguous, supply networks that confer power over whole product categories, such as the electronics hub in Zhengzhou, where iPhone-maker Foxconn is located.

Or the pharmaceutical hub in Hubei.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Free Trade

Today, America is unprepared for the coming wave of coronavirus cases because the antimonopolists running our trade policy do not understand the importance of controlling supply. There is a shortage of masks, because China makes half of the world’s masks, and the Chinese have cut off supply, the state having forbidden even non-Chinese companies that offshored mask production from shipping home masks for which American customers have paid. Not only that, but in January China bought up most of the world’s existing supply of masks, with free-trade-obsessed governments standing idly by as the clock ticked down to their own domestic outbreaks.  

New York State, which lies at the epicenter of the crisis, has agreed to pay five times the market price for foreign supply. That’s not because the cost of making masks has risen, but because sellers are rationing with price. Which is to say: using their control over supply to beggar the state. Moreover, domestic mask makers report that they cannot ramp up production because of a lack of supply of raw materials, some of which are actually made in Wuhan, China. That’s the kind of problem that does not arise when restrictions on offshoring allow manufacturing hubs to develop domestically.

But a shortage of masks is just the beginning. Once a vaccine is developed, the race will be on to manufacture it, and America controls less than 30% of the manufacturing facilities that supply pharmaceuticals to American markets. Indeed, just about the only virus-relevant industries in which we do not have a real capacity shortage today are food and toilet paper, panic buying notwithstanding. Because fortunately for us antimonopolists could not find a way to offshore California and Oregon. If they could have, they surely would have, since both agriculture and timber are labor-intensive industries.

President Trump’s failed attempt to buy a German drug company working on a coronavirus vaccine shows just how damaging free market ideology has been to national security: as Trump should have anticipated given his resistance to the antimonopolists’ approach to trade, the German government nipped the deal in the bud. When an economic agent has market power, the agent can pick its prices, or refuse to sell at all. Only in general equilibrium fantasy is everything for sale, and at a competitive price to boot.

The trouble is: American policymakers, perhaps more than those in any other part of the world, continue to act as though that fantasy were real.

Failures Left and Right

America’s coronavirus predicament is rich with intellectual irony.

Progressives resist free trade ideology, largely out of concern for the effects of trade on American workers. But they seem not to have realized that in doing so they are actually embracing strategy, at least for the benefit of labor.

As a result, progressives simultaneously reject the approach to industrial organization economics that underpins strategic thinking in business: Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that strategic behavior by firms seeking to achieve and maintain monopolies is ultimately good for society, because it leads to a technological arms race as firms strive to improve supply, distribution, and indeed product quality, in ways that competitors cannot reproduce.

Even if progressives choose to reject Schumpeter’s argument that strategy makes society better off—a proposition that is particularly suspect at the international level, where the availability of tanks ensures that the creative destruction is not always creative—they have much to learn from his focus on the economics of survival.

By the same token, conservatives embrace Schumpeter in arguing for less antitrust enforcement in domestic markets, all the while advocating free trade at the international level and savaging governments for using dumping and tariffs—which is to say, the tools of monopoly—to strengthen their trading positions. It is deeply peculiar to watch the coronavirus expose conservative economists as pie-in-the-sky internationalists. And yet as the global market for coronavirus necessities seizes up, the ideology that urged us to dispense with producing these goods ourselves, out of faith that we might always somehow rely on the support of the rest of the world, provided through the medium of markets, looks pathetically naive.

The cynic might say that inconsistency has snuck up on both progressives and conservatives because each remains too sympathetic to a different domestic constituency.

Dodging a Bullet

America is lucky that a mere virus exposed the bankruptcy of free trade ideology. Because war could have done that instead. It is difficult to imagine how a country that cannot make medical masks—much less a Macbook—would be able to respond effectively to a sustained military attack from one of the many nations that are closing the technological gap long enjoyed by the United States.

The lesson of the coronavirus is: strategy, not antitrust.

Big Ink vs. Bigger Tech

Ramsi Woodcock —  30 December 2019

[TOTM: The following is the fifth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the politicization of antitrust. The entire series of posts is available here.]

This post is authored by Ramsi Woodcock, Assistant Professor, College of Law, and Assistant Professor, Department of Management at Gatton College of Business & Economics, University of Kentucky.

When in 2011 Paul Krugman attacked the press for bending over backwards to give equal billing to conservative experts on social security, even though the conservatives were plainly wrong, I celebrated. Social security isn’t the biggest part of the government’s budget, and calls to privatize it in order to save the country from bankruptcy were blatant fear mongering. Why should the press report those calls with a neutrality that could mislead readers into thinking the position reasonable?

Journalists’ ethic of balanced reporting looked, at the time, like gross negligence at best, and deceit at worst. But lost in the pathos of the moment was the rationale behind that ethic, which is not so much to ensure that the truth gets into print as to prevent the press from making policy. For if journalists do not practice balance, then they ultimately decide the angle to take.

And journalists, like the rest of us, will choose their own.

The dark underbelly of the engaged journalism unleashed by progressives like Krugman has nowhere been more starkly exposed than in the unfolding assault of journalists, operating as a special interest, on Google, Facebook, and Amazon, three companies that writers believe have decimated their earnings over the past decade.

In story after story, journalists have manufactured an antitrust movement aimed at breaking up these companies, even though virtually no expert in antitrust law or economics, on either the right or the left, can find an antitrust case against them, and virtually no expert would place any of these three companies at the top of the genuinely long list of monopolies in America that are due for an antitrust reckoning.

Bitter ledes

Headlines alone tell the story. We have: “What Happens After Amazon’s Domination Is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues”; “Be Afraid, Jeff Bezos, Be Very Afraid”; “How Should Big Tech Be Reined In? Here Are 4 Prominent Ideas”;  “The Case Against Google”; and “Powerful Coalition Pushes Back on Anti-Tech Fervor.”

My favorite is: “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook.” Unlike the others, it belongs to an Op-Ed, so a bias is appropriate. Not appropriate, however, is the howler, contained in the article’s body, that “a host of legal scholars like Lina Khan, Barry Lynn and Ganesh Sitaraman are plotting a way forward” toward breakup. Lina Khan has never held an academic appointment. Barry Lynn does not even have a law degree. And Ganesh Sitaraman’s academic specialty is constitutional law, not antitrust. But editors let it through anyway.

As this unguarded moment shows, the press has treated these and other members of a small network of activists and legal scholars who operate on antitrust’s fringes as representative of scholarly sentiment regarding antitrust action. The only real antitrust scholar among them is Tim Wu, who, when you look closely at his public statements, has actually gone no further than to call for Facebook to unwind its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

In more sober moments, the press has acknowledged that the law does not support antitrust attacks on the tech giants. But instead of helping readers to understand why, the press instead presents this as a failure of the law. “To Take Down Big Tech,” read one headline in The New York Times, “They First Need to Reinvent the Law.” I have documented further instances of unbalanced reporting here.

This is not to say that we don’t need more antitrust in America. Herbert Hovenkamp, who the New York Times once recognized as  “the dean of American antitrust law,” but has since downgraded to “an antitrust expert” after he came out against the breakup movement, has advocated stronger monopsony enforcement across labor markets. Einer Elhauge at Harvard is pushing to prevent index funds from inadvertently generating oligopolies in markets ranging from airlines to pharmacies. NYU economist Thomas Philippon has called for deconcentration of banking. Yale’s Fiona Morton has pointed to rising markups across the economy as a sign of lax antitrust enforcement. Jonathan Baker has argued with great sophistication for more antitrust enforcement in general.

But no serious antitrust scholar has traced America’s concentration problem to the tech giants.

Advertising monopolies old and new

So why does the press have an axe to grind with the tech giants? The answer lies in the creative destruction wrought by Amazon on the publishing industry, and Google and Facebook upon the newspaper industry.

Newspapers were probably the most durable monopolies of the 20th century, so lucrative that Warren Buffett famously picked them as his preferred example of businesses with “moats” around them. But that wasn’t because readers were willing to pay top dollar for newspapers’ reporting. Instead, that was because, incongruously for organizations dedicated to exposing propaganda of all forms on their front pages, newspapers have long striven to fill every other available inch of newsprint with that particular kind of corporate propaganda known as commercial advertising.

It was a lucrative arrangement. Newspapers exhibit powerful network effects, meaning that the more people read a paper the more advertisers want to advertise in it. As a result, many American cities came to have but one major newspaper monopolizing the local advertising market.

One such local paper, the Lorain Journal of Lorain, Ohio, sparked a case that has since become part of the standard antitrust curriculum in law schools. The paper tried to leverage its monopoly to destroy a local radio station that was competing for its advertising business. The Supreme Court affirmed liability for monopolization.

In the event, neither radio nor television ultimately undermined newspapers’ advertising monopolies. But the internet is different. Radio, television, and newspaper advertising can coexist, because they can target only groups, and often not the same ones, minimizing competition between them. The internet, by contrast, reaches individuals, making it strictly superior to group-based advertising. The internet also lets at least some firms target virtually all individuals in the country, allowing those firms to compete with all comers.

You might think that newspapers, which quickly became an important web destination, were perfectly positioned to exploit the new functionality. But being a destination turned out to be a problem. Consumers reveal far more valuable information about themselves to web gateways, like search and social media, than to particular destinations, like newspaper websites. But consumer data is the key to targeted advertising.

That gave Google and Facebook a competitive advantage, and because these companies also enjoy network effects—search and social media get better the more people use them—they inherited the newspapers’ old advertising monopolies.

That was a catastrophe for journalists, whose earnings and employment prospects plummeted. It was also a catastrophe for the public, because newspapers have a tradition of plowing their monopoly profits into investigative journalism that protects democracy, whereas Google and Facebook have instead invested their profits in new technologies like self-driving cars and cryptocurrencies.

The catastrophe of countervailing power

Amazon has found itself in journalists’ crosshairs for disrupting another industry that feeds writers: publishing. Book distribution was Amazon’s first big market, and Amazon won it, driving most brick and mortar booksellers to bankruptcy. Publishing, long dominated by a few big houses that used their power to extract high wholesale prices from booksellers, some of the profit from which they passed on to authors as royalties, now faced a distribution industry that was even more concentrated and powerful than was publishing. The Department of Justice stamped out a desperate attempt by publishers to cartelize in response, and profits, and author royalties, have continued to fall.

Journalists, of course, are writers, and the disruption of publishing, taken together with the disruption of news, have left journalists with the impression that they have nowhere to turn to escape the new economy.

The abuse of antitrust

Except antitrust.

Unschooled in the fine points of antitrust policy, it seems obvious to them that the Armageddon in newspapers and publishing is a problem of monopoly and that antitrust enforcers should do something about it.  

Only it isn’t and they shouldn’t. The courts have gone to great lengths over the past 130 years to distinguish between doing harm to competition, which is prohibited by the antitrust laws, and doing harm to competitors, which is not.

Disrupting markets by introducing new technologies that make products better is no antitrust violation, even if doing so does drive legacy firms into bankruptcy, and throws their employees out of work and into the streets. Because disruption is really the only thing capitalism has going for it. Disruption is the mechanism by which market economies generate technological advances and improve living standards in the long run. The antitrust laws are not there to preserve old monopolies and oligopolies such as those long enjoyed by newspapers and publishers.

In fact, by tearing down barriers to market entry, the antitrust laws strive to do the opposite: to speed the destruction and replacement of legacy monopolies with new and more innovative ones.

That’s why the entire antitrust establishment has stayed on the sidelines regarding the tech fight. It’s hard to think of three companies that have more obviously risen to prominence over the past generation by disrupting markets using superior technologies than Amazon, Google, and Facebook. It may be possible to find an anticompetitive practice here or there—I certainly have—but no serious antitrust scholar thinks the heart of these firms’ continued dominance lies other than in their technical savvy. The nuclear option of breaking up these firms just makes no sense.

Indeed, the disruption inflicted by these firms on newspapers and publishing is a measure of the extent to which these firms have improved book distribution and advertising, just as the vast disruption created by the industrial revolution was a symptom of the extraordinary technological advances of that period. Few people, and not even Karl Marx, thought that the solution to those disruptions lay with Ned Ludd. The solution to the disruption wrought by Google, Amazon, and Facebook today similarly does not lie in using the antitrust laws to smash the machines.

Governments eventually learned to address the disruption created by the original industrial revolution not by breaking up the big firms that brought that revolution about, but by using tax and transfer, and rate regulation, to ensure that the winners share their gains with the losers. However the press’s campaign turns out, rate regulation, not antitrust, is ultimately the approach that government will take to Amazon, Google, and Facebook if these companies continue to grow in power. Because we don’t have to decide between social justice and technological advance. We can have both. And voters will demand it.

The anti-progress wing of the progressive movement

Alas, smashing the machines is precisely what journalists and their supporters are demanding in calling for the breakup of Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Zephyr Teachout, for example, recently told an audience at Columbia Law School that she would ban targeted advertising except for newspapers. That would restore newspapers’ old advertising monopolies, but also make targeted advertising less effective, for the same reason that Google and Facebook are the preferred choice of advertisers today. (Of course, making advertising more effective might not be a good thing. More on this below.)

This contempt for technological advance has been coupled with a broader anti-intellectualism, best captured by an extraordinary remark made by Barry Lynn, director of the pro-breakup Open Markets Institute, and sometime advocate for the Author’s Guild. The Times quotes him saying that because the antitrust laws once contained a presumption against mergers to market shares in excess of 25%, all policymakers have to do to get antitrust right is “be able to count to four. We don’t need economists to help us count to four.”

But size really is not a good measure of monopoly power. Ask Nokia, which controlled more than half the market for cell phones in 2007, on the eve of Apple’s introduction of the iPhone, but saw its share fall almost to zero by 2012. Or Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and a monopolist in many smaller retail markets, which nevertheless saw its stock fall after Amazon announced one-day shipping.

Journalists themselves acknowledge that size does not always translate into power when they wring their hands about the Amazon-driven financial troubles of large retailers like Macy’s. Determining whether a market lacks competition really does require more than counting the number of big firms in the market.

I keep waiting for a devastating critique of arguments that Amazon operates in highly competitive markets to emerge from the big tech breakup movement. But that’s impossible for a movement that rejects economics as a corporate plot. Indeed, even an economist as pro-antitrust as Thomas Philippon, who advocates a return to antitrust’s mid-20th century golden age of massive breakups of firms like Alcoa and AT&T, affirms in a new book that American retail is actually a bright spot in an otherwise concentrated economy.

But you won’t find journalists highlighting that. The headline of a Times column promoting Philippon’s book? “Big Business Is Overcharging you $5000 a Year.” I tend to agree. But given all the anti-tech fervor in the press, Philippon’s chapter on why the tech giants are probably not an antitrust problem ought to get a mention somewhere in the column. It doesn’t.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “though no one will believe it—economics is a technical and difficult subject.” So too antitrust. A failure to appreciate the field’s technical difficulty is manifest also in Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s antitrust proposals, which were heavily influenced by breakup advocates.

Warren has argued that no large firm should be able to compete on its own platforms, not seeming to realize that doing business means competing on your own platforms. To show up to work in the morning in your own office space is to compete on a platform, your office, from which you exclude competitors. The rule that large firms (defined by Warren as those with more than $25 billion in revenues) cannot compete on their own platforms would just make doing large amounts of business illegal, a result that Warren no doubt does not desire.

The power of the press

The press’s campaign against Amazon, Google, and Facebook is working. Because while they may not be as well financed as Amazon, Google, or Facebook, writers can offer their friends something more valuable than money: publicity.

That appears to have induced a slew of politicians, including both Senator Warren on the left and Senator Josh Hawley on the right, to pander to breakup advocates. The House antitrust investigation into the tech giants, led by a congressman who is simultaneously championing legislation advocated by the News Media Alliance, a newspaper trade group, to give newspapers an exemption from the antitrust laws, may also have similar roots. So too the investigations announced by dozens of elected state attorneys general.

The investigations recently opened by the FTC and Department of Justice may signal no more than a desire not to look idle while so many others act. Which is why the press has the power to turn fiction into reality. Moreover, under the current Administration, the Department of Justice has already undertaken two suspiciously partisan antitrust investigations, and President Trump has made clear his hatred for the liberal bastions that are Amazon, Google and Facebook. The fact that the press has made antitrust action against the tech giants a progressive cause provides convenient cover for the President to take down some enemies.

The future of the news

Rate regulation of Amazon, Google, or Facebook is the likely long-term resolution of concerns about these firms’ power. But that won’t bring back newspapers, which henceforth will always play the loom to Google and Facebook’s textile mills, at least in the advertising market.

Journalists and their defenders, like Teachout, have been pushing to restore newspapers’ old monopolies by government fiat. No doubt that would make existing newspapers, and their staffs, very happy. But what is good for Big News is not necessarily good for journalism in the long run.

The silver lining to the disruption of newspapers’ old advertising monopolies is that it has created an opportunity for newspapers to wean themselves off a funding source that has always made little sense for organizations dedicated to helping Americans make informed, independent decisions, free of the manipulation of others.

For advertising has always had a manipulative function, alongside its function of disseminating product information to consumers. And, as I have argued elsewhere, now that the vast amounts of product information available for free on the internet have made advertising obsolete as a source of product information, manipulation is now advertising’s only real remaining function.

Manipulation causes consumers to buy products they don’t really want, giving firms that advertise a competitive advantage that they don’t deserve. That makes for an antitrust problem, this time with real consequences not just for competitors, but also for technological advance, as manipulative advertising drives dollars away from superior products toward advertised products, and away from investment in innovation and toward investment in consumer seduction.

The solution is to ban all advertising, targeted or not, rather than to give newspapers an advertising monopoly. And to give journalism the state subsidies that, like all public goods, from defense to highways, are journalism’s genuine due. The BBC provides a model of how that can be done without fear of government influence.

Indeed, Teachout’s proposed newspaper advertising monopoly is itself just a government subsidy, but a subsidy extracted through an advertising medium that harms consumers. Direct government subsidization achieves the same result, without the collateral consumer harm.

The press’s brazen advocacy of antitrust action against the tech giants, without making clear how much the press itself has to gain from that action, and the utter absence of any expert support for this approach, represents an abdication by the press of its responsibility to create an informed citizenry that is every bit as profound as the press’s lapses on social security a decade ago.

I’m glad we still have social security. But I’m also starting to miss balanced journalism.

1/3/2020: Editor’s note – this post was edited for clarification and minor copy edits.