Archives For Federalism

In the U.S. system of dual federal and state sovereigns, a normative analysis reveals principles that could guide state antitrust-enforcement priorities, to promote complementarity in federal and state antitrust policy, and thereby advance consumer welfare.

Discussion

Positive analysis reveals that state antitrust enforcement is a firmly entrenched feature of American antitrust policy. The U.S. Supreme Court (1) has consistently held that federal antitrust law does not displace state antitrust law (see, for example, California v. ARC America Corp. (U.S., 1989) (“Congress intended the federal antitrust laws to supplement, not displace, state antitrust remedies”)); and (2) has upheld state antitrust laws even when they have some impact on interstate commerce (see, for example, Exxon Corp. v. Governor of Maryland (U.S., 1978)).

The normative question remains, however, as to what the appropriate relationship between federal and state antitrust enforcement should be. Should federal and state antitrust regimes be complementary, with state law enforcement enhancing the effectiveness of federal enforcement? Or should state antitrust enforcement compete with federal enforcement, providing an alternative “vision” of appropriate antitrust standards?

The generally accepted (until very recently) modern American consumer-welfare-centric antitrust paradigm (see here) points to the complementary approach as most appropriate. In other words, if antitrust is indeed the “magna carta” of American free enterprise (see United States v. Topco Associates, Inc., U.S. (U.S. 1972), and if consumer welfare is the paramount goal of antitrust (a position consistently held by the Supreme Court since Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., (U.S., 1979)), it follows that federal and state antitrust enforcement coexist best as complements, directed jointly at maximizing consumer-welfare enhancement. In recent decades it also generally has made sense for state enforcers to defer to U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) matter-specific consumer-welfare assessments. This conclusion follows from the federal agencies’ specialized resource advantage, reflected in large staffs of economic experts and attorneys with substantial industry knowledge.

The reality, nevertheless, is that while state enforcers often have cooperated with their federal colleagues on joint enforcement, state enforcement approaches historically have been imperfectly aligned with federal policy. That imperfect alignment has been at odds with consumer welfare in key instances. Certain state antitrust schemes, for example, continue to treat resale price maintenance (RPM)  as per se illegal (see, for example, here), a position inconsistent with the federal consumer welfare-centric rule of reason approach (see Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (U.S., 2007)). The disparate treatment of RPM has a substantial national impact on business conduct, because commercially important states such as California and New York are among those that continue to flatly condemn RPM.

State enforcers also have from time to time sought to oppose major transactions that received federal antitrust clearance, such as several states’ unsuccessful opposition to the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile merger (see here). Although the states failed to block the merger, they did extract settlement concessions that imposed burdens on the merging parties, in addition to the divestiture requirements impose by the DOJ in settling the matter (see here). Inconsistencies between federal and state antitrust-enforcement decisions on cases of nationwide significance generate litigation waste and may detract from final resolutions that optimize consumer welfare.

If consumer-welfare optimization is their goal (which I believe it should be in an ideal world), state attorneys general should seek to direct their limited antitrust resources to their highest valued uses, rather than seeking to second guess federal antitrust policy and enforcement decisions.

An optimal approach might focus first and foremost on allocating state resources to combat primarily intrastate competitive harms that are clear and unequivocal (such as intrastate bid rigging, hard core price fixing, and horizontal market division). This could free up federal resources to focus on matters that are primarily interstate in nature, consistent with federalism. (In this regard, see a thoughtful proposal by D. Bruce Johnsen and Moin A. Yaha.)

Second, state enforcers could also devote some resources to assist federal enforcers in developing state-specific evidence in support of major national cases. (This would allow state attorneys general to publicize their “big case” involvement in a productive manner.)

Third, but not least, competition advocacy directed at the removal of anticompetitive state laws and regulations could prove an effective means of seeking to improve the competitive climate within individual states (see, for example, here). State antitrust enforcers could advance advocacy through amicus curiae briefs, and (where politically feasible) through interventions (perhaps informal) with peer officials who oversee regulation. Subject to this general guidance, the nature of state antitrust resource allocations would depend upon the specific competitive problems particular to each state.

Of course, in the real world, public choice considerations and rent seeking may at times influence antitrust enforcement decision-making by state (and federal) officials. Nonetheless, the capsule idealized normative summary of a suggested ideal state antitrust-enforcement protocol is useful in that it highlights how state enforcers could usefully complement (assumed) sound federal antitrust initiatives.

Great minds think alike. A well-crafted and much more detailed normative exploration of ideal state antitrust enforcement is found in a recently released Pelican Institute policy brief by Ted Bolema and Eric Peterson. Entitled The Proper Role for States in Antitrust Lawsuits, the brief concludes (in a manner consistent with my observations):

This review of cases and leading commentaries shows that states should focus their involvement in antitrust cases on instances where:

· they have unique interests, such as local price-fixing

· play a unique role, such as where they can develop evidence about how alleged anticompetitive behavior uniquely affects local markets

· they can bring additional resources to bear on existing federal litigation.

States can also provide a useful check on overly aggressive federal enforcement by providing courts with a traditional perspective on antitrust law — a role that could become even more important as federal agencies aggressively seek to expand their powers. All of these are important roles for states to play in antitrust enforcement, and translate into positive outcomes that directly benefit consumers.

Conversely, when states bring significant, novel antitrust lawsuits on their own, they don’t tend to benefit either consumers or constituents. These novel cases often move resources away from where they might be used more effectively, and states usually lose (as with the recent dismissal with prejudice of a state case against Facebook). Through more strategic antitrust engagement, with a focus on what states can do well and where they can make a positive difference antitrust enforcement, states would best serve the interests of their consumers, constituents, and taxpayers.

Conclusion

Under a consumer-welfare-centric regime, an appropriate role can be identified for state antitrust enforcement that would helpfully complement federal efforts in an optimal fashion. Unfortunately, in this tumultuous period of federal antitrust policy shifts, in which the central role of the consumer welfare standard has been called into question, it might appear fatuous to speculate on the ideal melding of federal and state approaches to antitrust administration. One should, however, prepare for the time when a more enlightened, economically informed approach will be reinstituted. In anticipation of that day, serious thinking about antitrust federalism should not be neglected.

A debate has broken out among the four sitting members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in connection with the recently submitted FTC Report to Congress on Privacy and Security. Chair Lina Khan argues that the commission “must explore using its rulemaking tools to codify baseline protections,” while Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter has urged the FTC to initiate a broad-based rulemaking proceeding on data privacy and security. By contrast, Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Christine Wilson counsel against a broad-based regulatory initiative on privacy.

Decisions to initiate a rulemaking should be viewed through a cost-benefit lens (See summaries of Thom Lambert’s masterful treatment of regulation, of which rulemaking is a subset, here and here). Unless there is a market failure, rulemaking is not called for. Even in the face of market failure, regulation should not be adopted unless it is more cost-beneficial than reliance on markets (including the ability of public and private litigation to address market-failure problems, such as data theft). For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that FTC rulemaking directed at privacy and data security would pass a cost-benefit test.

Discussion

As I have previously explained (see here and here), FTC rulemaking pursuant to Section 6(g) of the FTC Act (which authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter”) is properly read as authorizing mere procedural, not substantive, rules. As such, efforts to enact substantive competition rules would not pass a cost-benefit test. Such rules could well be struck down as beyond the FTC’s authority on constitutional law grounds, and as “arbitrary and capricious” on administrative law grounds. What’s more, they would represent retrograde policy. Competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications; could be deemed to undermine the rule of law, because the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) could not apply such rules; and innovative efficiency-seeking business arrangements would be chilled.

Accordingly, the FTC likely would not pursue 6(g) rulemaking should it decide to address data security and privacy, a topic which best fits under the “consumer protection” category. Rather, the FTC presumably would most likely initiate a “Magnuson-Moss” rulemaking (MMR) under Section 18 of the FTC Act, which authorizes the commission to prescribe “rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce within the meaning of Section 5(a)(1) of the Act.” Among other things, Section 18 requires that the commission’s rulemaking proceedings provide an opportunity for informal hearings at which interested parties are accorded limited rights of cross-examination. Also, before commencing an MMR proceeding, the FTC must have reason to believe the practices addressed by the rulemaking are “prevalent.” 15 U.S.C. Sec. 57a(b)(3).

MMR proceedings, which are not governed under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), do not present the same degree of legal problems as Section 6(g) rulemakings (see here). The question of legal authority to adopt a substantive rule is not raised; “rule of law” problems are far less serious (the DOJ is not a parallel enforcer of consumer-protection law); and APA issues of “arbitrariness” and “capriciousness” are not directly presented. Indeed, MMR proceedings include a variety of procedures aimed at promoting fairness (see here, for example). An MMR proceeding directed at data privacy predictably would be based on the claim that the failure to adhere to certain data-protection norms is an “unfair act or practice.”

Nevertheless, MMR rules would be subject to two substantial sources of legal risk.

The first of these arises out of federalism. Three states (California, Colorado, and Virginia) recently have enacted comprehensive data-privacy laws, and a large number of other state legislatures are considering data-privacy bills (see here). The proliferation of state data-privacy statutes would raise the risk of inconsistent and duplicative regulatory norms, potentially chilling business innovations addressed at data protection (a severe problem in the Internet Age, when business data-protection programs typically will have interstate effects).

An FTC MMR data-protection regulation that successfully “occupied the field” and preempted such state provisions could eliminate that source of costs. The Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, however, does not contain an explicit preemption clause, leaving in serious doubt the ability of an FTC rule to displace state regulations (see here for a summary of the murky state of preemption law, including the skepticism of textualist Supreme Court justices toward implied “obstacle preemption”). In particular, the long history of state consumer-protection and antitrust laws that coexist with federal laws suggests that the case for FTC rule-based displacement of state data protection is a weak one. The upshot, then, of a Section 18 FTC data-protection rule enactment could be “the worst of all possible worlds,” with drawn-out litigation leading to competing federal and state norms that multiplied business costs.

The second source of risk arises out of the statutory definition of “unfair practices,” found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority . . . to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

In effect, Section 5(n) implicitly subjects unfair practices to a well-defined cost-benefit framework. Thus, in promulgating a data-privacy MMR, the FTC first would have to demonstrate that specific disfavored data-protection practices caused or were likely to cause substantial harm. What’s more, the commission would have to show that any actual or likely harm would not be outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. One would expect that a data-privacy rulemaking record would include submissions that pointed to the efficiencies of existing data-protection policies that would be displaced by a rule.

Moreover, subsequent federal court challenges to a final FTC rule likely would put forth the consumer and competitive benefits sacrificed by rule requirements. For example, rule challengers might point to the added business costs passed on to consumers that would arise from particular rule mandates, and the diminution in competition among data-protection systems generated by specific rule provisions. Litigation uncertainties surrounding these issues could be substantial and would cast into further doubt the legal viability of any final FTC data protection rule.

Apart from these legal risk-based costs, an MMR data privacy predictably would generate error-based costs. Given imperfect information in the hands of government and the impossibility of achieving welfare-maximizing nirvana through regulation (see, for example, here), any MMR data-privacy rule would erroneously condemn some economically inefficient business protocols and disincentivize some efficiency-seeking behavior. The Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework, though helpful, would not eliminate such error. (For example, even bureaucratic efforts to accommodate some business suggestions during the rulemaking process might tilt the post-rule market in favor of certain business models, thereby distorting competition.) In the abstract, it is difficult to say whether the welfare benefits of a final MMA data-privacy rule (measured by reductions in data-privacy-related consumer harm) would outweigh the costs, even before taking legal costs into account.

Conclusion

At least two FTC commissioners (and likely a third, assuming that President Joe Biden’s highly credentialed nominee Alvaro Bedoya will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate) appear to support FTC data-privacy regulation, even in the absence of new federal legislation. Such regulation, which presumably would be adopted as an MMR pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act, would probably not prove cost-beneficial. Not only would adoption of a final data-privacy rule generate substantial litigation costs and uncertainty, it would quite possibly add an additional layer of regulatory burdens above and beyond the requirements of proliferating state privacy rules. Furthermore, it is impossible to say whether the consumer-privacy benefits stemming from such an FTC rule would outweigh the error costs (manifested through competitive distortions and consumer harm) stemming from the inevitable imperfections of the rule’s requirements. All told, these considerations counsel against the allocation of scarce FTC resources to a Section 18 data-privacy rulemaking initiative.

But what about legislation? New federal privacy legislation that explicitly preempted state law would eliminate costs arising from inconsistencies among state privacy rules. Ideally, if such legislation were to be pursued, it should to the extent possible embody a cost-benefit framework designed to minimize the sum of administrative (including litigation) and error costs. The nature of such a possible law, and the role the FTC might play in administering it, however, is a topic for another day.

U.S. antitrust law is designed to protect competition, not individual competitors. That simple observation lies at the heart of the Consumer Welfare Standard that for years has been the cornerstone of American antitrust policy. An alternative enforcement policy focused on protecting individual firms would discourage highly efficient and innovative conduct by a successful entity, because such conduct, after all, would threaten to weaken or displace less efficient rivals. The result would be markets characterized by lower overall levels of business efficiency and slower innovation, yielding less consumer surplus and, thus, reduced consumer welfare, as compared to the current U.S. antitrust system.

The U.S. Supreme Court gets it. In Reiter v. Sonotone (1979), the court stated plainly that “Congress designed the Sherman Act as a ‘consumer welfare prescription.’” Consistent with that understanding, the court subsequently stressed in Spectrum Sports v. McQuillan (1993) that “[t]he purpose of the [Sherman] Act is not to protect businesses from the working of the market, it is to protect the public from the failure of the market.” This means that a market leader does not have an antitrust duty to assist its struggling rivals, even if it is flouting a regulatory duty to deal. As a unanimous Supreme Court held in Verizon v. Trinko (2004): “Verizon’s alleged insufficient assistance in the provision of service to rivals [in defiance of an FCC-imposed regulatory obligation] is not a recognized antitrust claim under this Court’s existing refusal-to-deal precedents.”

Unfortunately, the New York State Senate seems to have lost sight of the importance of promoting vigorous competition and consumer welfare, not competitor welfare, as the hallmark of American antitrust jurisprudence. The chamber on June 7 passed the ill-named 21st Century Antitrust Act (TCAA), legislation that, if enacted and signed into law, would seriously undermine consumer welfare and innovation. Let’s take a quick look at the TCAA’s parade of horribles.

The TCAA makes it unlawful for any person “with a dominant position in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce, in any labor market, or in the furnishing of any service in this state to abuse that dominant position.”

A “dominant position” may be established through “direct evidence” that “may include, but is not limited to, the unilateral power to set prices, terms, power to dictate non-price contractual terms without compensation; or other evidence that a person is not constrained by meaningful competitive pressures, such as the ability to degrade quality without suffering reduction in profitability. In labor markets, direct evidence of a dominant position may include, but is not limited to, the use of non-compete clauses or no-poach agreements, or the unilateral power to set wages.”

The “direct evidence” language is unbounded and hopelessly vague. What does it mean to not be “constrained by meaningful competitive pressures”? Such an inherently subjective characterization would give prosecutors carte blanche to find dominance. What’s more, since “no court shall require definition of a relevant market” to find liability in the face of “direct evidence,” multiple competitors in a vigorously competitive market might be found “dominant.” Thus, for example, the ability of a firm to use non-compete clauses or no-poach agreements for efficient reasons (such as protecting against competitor free-riding on investments in human capital or competitor theft of trade secrets) would be undermined, even if it were commonly employed in a market featuring several successful and aggressive rivals.

“Indirect evidence” based on market share also may establish a dominant position under the TCAA. Dominance would be presumed if a competitor possessed a market “share of forty percent or greater of a relevant market as a seller” or “thirty percent or greater of a relevant market as a buyer”. 

Those numbers are far below the market ranges needed to find a “monopoly” under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Moreover, given inevitable error associated with both market definitions and share allocations—which, in any event, may fluctuate substantially—potential arbitrariness would attend share based-dominance calculations. Most significantly, of course, market shares may say very little about actual market power. Where entry barriers are low and substitutes wait in the wings, a temporarily large market share may not bestow any ability on a “dominant” firm to exercise power over price or to exclude competitors.

In short, it would be trivially easy for non-monopolists possessing very little, if any, market power to be characterized as “dominant” under the TCAA, based on “direct evidence” or “indirect evidence.”

Once dominance is established, what constitutes an abuse of dominance? The TCAA states that an “abuse of a dominant position may include, but is not limited to, conduct that tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of one or more actual or potential competitors to compete, such as leveraging a dominant position in one market to limit competition in a separate market, or refusing to deal with another person with the effect of unnecessarily excluding or handicapping actual or potential competitors.” In addition, “[e]vidence of pro-competitive effects shall not be a defense to abuse of dominance and shall not offset or cure competitive harm.” 

This language is highly problematic. Effective rivalrous competition by its very nature involves behavior by a firm or firms that may “limit the ability or incentive” of rival firms to compete. For example, a company’s introduction of a new cost-reducing manufacturing process, or of a patented product improvement that far surpasses its rivals’ offerings, is the essence of competition on the merits. Nevertheless, it may limit the ability of its rivals to compete, in violation of the TCAA. Moreover, so-called “monopoly leveraging” typically generates substantial efficiencies, and very seldom undermines competition (see here, for example), suggesting that (at best) leveraging theories would generate enormous false positives in prosecution. The TCAA’s explicit direction that procompetitive effects not be considered in abuse of dominance cases further detracts from principled enforcement; it denigrates competition, the very condition that American antitrust law has long sought to promote.

Put simply, under the TCAA, “dominant” firms engaging in normal procompetitive conduct could be held liable (and no doubt frequently would be held liable, given their inability to plead procompetitive justifications) for “abuses of dominance.” To top it off, firms convicted of abusing a dominant position would be liable for treble damages. As such, the TCAA would strongly disincentivize aggressive competitive behavior that raises consumer welfare. 

The TCAA’s negative ramifications would be far-reaching. By embracing a civil law “abuse of dominance” paradigm, the TCAA would run counter to a longstanding U.S. common law antitrust tradition that largely gives free rein to efficiency-seeking competition on the merits. It would thereby place a new and unprecedented strain on antitrust federalism. In a digital world where the effects of commercial conduct frequently are felt throughout the United States, the TCAA’s attack on efficient welfare-inducing business practices would have national (if not international) repercussions.

The TCAA would alter business planning calculations for the worse and could interfere directly in the setting of national antitrust policy through congressional legislation and federal antitrust enforcement initiatives. It would also signal to foreign jurisdictions that the United States’ long-expressed staunch support for reliance on the Consumer Welfare Standard as the touchtone of sound antitrust enforcement is no longer fully operative.

Judge Richard Posner is reported to have once characterized state antitrust enforcers as “barnacles on the ship of federal antitrust” (see here). The TCAA is more like a deadly torpedo aimed squarely at consumer welfare and the American common law antitrust tradition. Let us hope that the New York State Assembly takes heed and promptly rejects the TCAA.    

[TOTM: The following is the second 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 Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance, and Charles M. Harper Faculty Fellow, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Director, the George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State, and Filippo Maria Lancieri, Fellow, George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State. JSD Candidate, The University of Chicago Law School.

This symposium discusses the “The Politicization of Antitrust.” As the invite itself stated, this is an umbrella topic that encompasses a wide range of subjects: from incorporating environmental or labor concerns in antitrust enforcement, to political pressure in enforcement decision-making, to national security laws (CFIUS-type enforcement), protectionism, federalism, and more. This contribution will focus on the challenges of designing a system that protects the open markets and democracy that are the foundation of modern economic and social development.

The “Chicago School of antitrust” was highly critical of the antitrust doctrine prevailing during the Warren-era Supreme Court. A key objection was that the vague legal standards of the Sherman, Clayton and the Federal Trade Commission Acts allowed for the enforcement of antitrust policy based on what Bork called “inferential analysis from casuistic observations.” That is, without clearly defined goals and without objective standards against which to measure these goals, antitrust enforcement would become arbitrary or even a tool that governments could wield against a political enemy. To address this criticism, Bork and other key members of the Chicago School narrowed the scope of antitrust to a single objective—the maximization of allocative efficiency/total welfare (coined as “consumer welfare”)—and advocated the use of price theory as a method to reduce judicial discretion. It was up to markets and Congress/politics, not judges (and antitrust), to redistribute economic surplus or protect small businesses. Developments in economic theory and econometrics over the next decades increased the number of tools regulators and Courts could rely on to measure the short-term price/output impacts of many specific types of conduct. A more conservative judiciary translated much of the Chicago School’s teaching into policy, including the triumph of Bork’s narrow interpretation of “consumer welfare.”

The Chicago School’s criticism of traditional antitrust struck many correct points. Some of the Warren-era Supreme Court cases are perplexing to say the least (e.g., Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, Utah Pie, Schwinn). Antitrust is a very powerful tool that covers almost the entire economy. In the United States, enforcement can be initiated by multiple federal and state regulators and by private parties (for whom treble damages encourage litigation). If used without clear and objective standards, antitrust remedies could easily add an extra layer of uncertainty or could even outright prohibit perfectly legitimate conduct, which would depress competition, investment, and growth. The Chicago School was also right in warning against the creation of what it understood as extensive and potentially unchecked governmental powers to intervene in the economic sphere. At best, such extensive powers can generate rent-seeking and cronyism. At worst, they can become an instrument of political vendettas. While these concerns are always present, they are particularly worrisome now: a time of increased polarization, dysfunctional politics, and constant weakening of many governmental institutions. If “politicizing antitrust” is understood as advocating for a politically driven, uncontrolled enforcement policy, we are similarly concerned about it. Changes to antitrust policy that rely primarily on vague objectives may lead to an unmitigated disaster.

Administrability is certainly a key feature of any regulatory regime hoping to actually increase consumer welfare. Bork’s narrow interpretation of “consumer welfare” unquestionably has three important features: Its objectives are i) clearly defined, ii) clearly ranked, and iii) (somewhat) objectively measurable. Yet, whilst certainly representing some gains over previous definitions, Bork’s “consumer welfare” is not the end of history for antitrust policy. Indeed, even the triumph of “consumer welfare” is somewhat bittersweet. With time, academics challenged many of the doctrine’s key tenets. US antitrust policy also constantly accepts some form of external influences that are antagonistic to this narrow, efficiency-focused “consumer welfare” view—the “post-Chicago” United States has explicit exemptions for export cartels, State Action, the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, and regulated markets (solidified in Trinko), among others. Finally, as one of us has indicated elsewhere, while prevailing in the United States, Chicago School ideas find limited footing around the world. While there certainly are irrational or highly politicized regimes, there is little evidence that antitrust enforcement in mature jurisdictions such as the EU or even Brazil is arbitrary, is employed in political vendettas, or reflects outright protectionist policies.

Governments do not function in a vacuum. As economic, political, and social structures change, so must public policies such as antitrust. It must be possible to develop a well-designed and consistent antitrust policy that focuses on goals other than imperfectly measured short-term price/output effects—one that sits in between a narrow “consumer welfare” and uncontrolled “politicized antitrust.” An example is provided by the Stigler Committee on Digital Platforms Final Report, which defends changes to current US antitrust enforcement as a way to increase competition in digital markets. There are many similarly well-grounded proposals for changes to other specific areas, such as vertical relationships. We have not yet seen an all-encompassing, well-grounded, and generalizable framework to move beyond the “consumer welfare” standard. Nonetheless, this is simply the current state of the art, not an impossibility theorem. Academia contributes the most to society when it provides new ways to tackle hard, important questions. The Chicago School certainly did so a few decades ago. There is no reason why academia and policymakers cannot do it again.   

This is exactly why we are dedicating the 2020 Stigler Center annual antitrust conference to the topic of “monopolies and politics.” Competitive markets and democracy are often (and rightly) celebrated as the most important engines of economic and social development. Still, until recently, the relationship between the two was all but ignored. This topic had been popular in the 1930s and 1940s because many observers linked the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and the nationalist government in Japan to the industrial concentration in the three Axis countries. Indeed, after WWII, the United States set up a “Decartelization Office” in Germany and passed the Celler-Kefauver Act to prevent gigantic conglomerates from destroying democracies. In 1949, Congressman Emanuel Celler, who sponsored the Act, declared:

“There are two main reasons why l am concerned about concentration of economic power in the United States. One is that concentration of business unavoidably leads to some kind of socialism, which is not the desire of the American people. The other is that a concentrated system is inefficient, compared with a system of free competition.

We have seen what happened in the other industrial countries of the Western World. They allowed a free growth of monopolies and cartels; until these private concentrations grew so strong that either big business would own the government or the government would have to seize control of big business. The most extreme case was in Germany, where the big business men thought they could take over the government by using Adolf Hitler as their puppet. So Germany passed from private monopoly to dictatorship and disaster.”

There are many reasons why these concerns around monopolies and democracy are resurfacing now. A key one is that freedom is in decline worldwide and so is trust in democracy, particularly amongst newer generations. At the same time, there is growing evidence that market concentration is on the rise. Correlation is not causation, thus we cannot jump to hasty conclusions. Yet, the stakes are so high that these coincidences need to be investigated further.  

Moreover, even if the correlation between monopolies and fascism were spurious, the correlation between economic concentration and political dissatisfaction in democracy might not be. The fraction of people who feel their interests are represented in government fell from almost 80% in the 1950s to 20% today. Whilst this dynamic is impacted by many different drivers, one of them could certainly be increased market concentration.

Political capture is a reality, and it seems straightforward to assume that firms’ ability to influence the political system greatly depends not only on their size but also on the degree of concentration of the markets they operate in. The reasons are numerous. In concentrated markets, legislators only hear one version of the story, and there are fewer sophisticated stakeholders to ring the alarm when wrongdoing is present, thus making it easier for the incumbents to have their way. Similarly, in concentrated markets, the one or two incumbent firms represent the main or only source of employment for retiring regulators, ensuring an incumbent’s long-term influence over policy. Concentrated markets also restrict the pool of potential employers/customers for technical experts, making it difficult for them to survive if they are hostile to the incumbent behemoths—an issue particularly concerning in complex markets where talent is both necessary and scarce. Finally, firms with market power can use their increased rents to influence public policy through lobbying or some other legal form of campaign contributions.

In other words, as markets become more concentrated, incumbent firms become better at distorting the political process in their favor. Therefore, an increase in dissatisfaction with democracy might not just be a coincidence, but might partially reflect increases in market concentration that drive politicians and regulators away from the preference of voters and closer to that of behemoths.   

We are well aware that, at the moment, these are just theories—albeit quite plausible ones. For this reason, the first day of the 2020 Stigler Center Antitrust Conference will be dedicated to presenting and critically reviewing the evidence currently available on the connections between market concentration and adverse political outcomes.

If a connection is established, then the question becomes how an antitrust (or other similar) policy aimed at preserving free markets and democracy can be implemented in a rational and consistent manner. The “consumer welfare” standard has generated measures of concentration and measures of possible harm to be used in trial. The “democratic welfare” approach would have to do the same. Fortunately, in the last 50 years political science and political economy have made great progress, so there is a growing number of potential alternative theories, evidence, and methods. For this reason, the second day of the 2020 Stigler Center Antitrust Conference will be dedicated to discussing the pros and cons of these alternatives. We are hoping to use the conference to spur further reflection on how to develop a methodology that is predictable, restricts discretion, and makes a “democratic antitrust” administrable.  As mentioned above, we agree that simply “politicizing” the current antitrust regime would be very dangerous for the economic well-being of nations. Yet, ignoring the political consequences of economic concentration on democracy can be even more dangerous—not just for the economic, but also for the democratic well-being of nations. Progress is not achieved by returning to the past nor by staying religiously fixed on the current status quo, but by moving forward: by laying new bricks on the layers of knowledge accumulated in the past. The Chicago School helped build some important foundations of modern antitrust policy. Those foundations should not become a prison; instead, they should be the base for developing new standards capable of enhancing both economic welfare and democratic values in the spirit of what Senator John Sherman, Congressman Emanuel Celler, and other early antitrust advocates envisioned.

A recent exchange between Chris Walker and Philip Hamburger about Walker’s ongoing empirical work on the Chevron doctrine (the idea that judges must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes) gives me a long-sought opportunity to discuss what I view as the greatest practical problem with the Chevron doctrine: it increases both politicization and polarization of law and policy. In the interest of being provocative, I will frame the discussion below by saying that both Walker & Hamburger are wrong (though actually I believe both are quite correct in their respective critiques). In particular, I argue that Walker is wrong that Chevron decreases politicization (it actually increases it, vice his empirics); and I argue Hamburger is wrong that judicial independence is, on its own, a virtue that demands preservation. Rather, I argue, Chevron increases overall politicization across the government; and judicial independence can and should play an important role in checking legislative abdication of its role as a politically-accountable legislature in a way that would moderate that overall politicization.

Walker, along with co-authors Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd, has done some of the most important and interesting work on Chevron in recent years, empirically studying how the Chevron doctrine has affected judicial behavior (see here and here) as well as that of agencies (and, I would argue, through them the Executive) (see here). But the more important question, in my mind, is how it affects the behavior of Congress. (Walker has explored this somewhat in his own work, albeit focusing less on Chevron than on how the role agencies play in the legislative process implicitly transfers Congress’s legislative functions to the Executive).

My intuition is that Chevron dramatically exacerbates Congress’s worst tendencies, encouraging Congress to push its legislative functions to the executive and to do so in a way that increases the politicization and polarization of American law and policy. I fear that Chevron effectively allows, and indeed encourages, Congress to abdicate its role as the most politically-accountable branch by deferring politically difficult questions to agencies in ambiguous terms.

One of, and possibly the, best ways to remedy this situation is to reestablish the role of judge as independent decisionmaker, as Hamburger argues. But the virtue of judicial independence is not endogenous to the judiciary. Rather, judicial independence has an instrumental virtue, at least in the context of Chevron. Where Congress has problematically abdicated its role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker by deferring important political decisions to the executive, judicial refusal to defer to executive and agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes can force Congress to remedy problematic ambiguities. This, in turn, can return the responsibility for making politically-important decisions to the most politically-accountable branch, as envisioned by the Constitution’s framers.

A refresher on the Chevron debate

Chevron is one of the defining doctrines of administrative law, both as a central concept and focal debate. It stands generally for the proposition that when Congress gives agencies ambiguous statutory instructions, it falls to the agencies, not the courts, to resolve those ambiguities. Thus, if a statute is ambiguous (the question at “step one” of the standard Chevron analysis) and the agency offers a reasonable interpretation of that ambiguity (“step two”), courts are to defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute instead of supplying their own.

This judicially-crafted doctrine of deference is typically justified on several grounds. For instance, agencies generally have greater subject-matter expertise than courts so are more likely to offer substantively better constructions of ambiguous statutes. They have more resources that they can dedicate to evaluating alternative constructions. They generally have a longer history of implementing relevant Congressional instructions so are more likely attuned to Congressional intent – both of the statute’s enacting and present Congresses. And they are subject to more direct Congressional oversight in their day-to-day operations and exercise of statutory authority than the courts so are more likely concerned with and responsive to Congressional direction.

Chief among the justifications for Chevron deference is, as Walker says, “the need to reserve political (or policy) judgments for the more politically accountable agencies.” This is at core a separation-of-powers justification: the legislative process is fundamentally a political process, so the Constitution assigns responsibility for it to the most politically-accountable branch (the legislature) instead of the least politically-accountable branch (the judiciary). In turn, the act of interpreting statutory ambiguity is an inherently legislative process – the underlying theory being that Congress intended to leave such ambiguity in the statute in order to empower the agency to interpret it in a quasi-legislative manner. Thus, under this view, courts should defer both to this Congressional intent that the agency be empowered to interpret its statute (and, should this prove problematic, it is up to Congress to change the statute or to face political ramifications), and the courts should defer to the agency interpretation of that statute because agencies, like Congress, are more politically accountable than the courts.

Chevron has always been an intensively studied and debated doctrine. This debate has grown more heated in recent years, to the point that there is regularly scholarly discussion about whether Chevron should be repealed or narrowed and what would replace it if it were somehow curtailed – and discussion of the ongoing vitality of Chevron has entered into Supreme Court opinions and the appointments process with increasing frequency. These debates generally focus on a few issues. A first issue is that Chevron amounts to a transfer of the legislature’s Constitutional powers and responsibilities over creating the law to the executive, where the law ordinarily is only meant to be carried out. This has, the underlying concern is, contributed to the increase in the power of the executive compared to the legislature. A second, related, issue is that Chevron contributes to the (over)empowerment of independent agencies – agencies that are already out of favor with many of Chevron’s critics as Constitutionally-infirm entities whose already-specious power is dramatically increased when Chevron limits the judiciary’s ability to check their use of already-broad Congressionally-delegated authority.

A third concern about Chevron, following on these first two, is that it strips the judiciary of its role as independent arbiter of judicial questions. That is, it has historically been the purview of judges to answer statutory ambiguities and fill in legislative interstices.

Chevron is also a focal point for more generalized concerns about the power of the modern administrative state. In this context, Chevron stands as a representative of a broader class of cases – State Farm, Auer, Seminole Rock, Fox v. FCC, and the like – that have been criticized as centralizing legislative, executive, and judicial powers in agencies, allowing Congress to abdicate its role as politically-accountable legislator, abdicating the judiciary’s role in interpreting the law, as well as raising due process concerns for those subject to rules promulgated by federal agencies..

Walker and his co-authors have empirically explored the effects of Chevron in recent years, using robust surveys of federal agencies and judicial decisions to understand how the doctrine has affected the work of agencies and the courts. His most recent work (with Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd) has explored how Chevron affects judicial decisionmaking. Framing the question by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking,” they ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?” They find that, empirically speaking, “the Chevron Court’s objective to reduce partisan judicial decision-making has been quite effective.” By instructing judges to defer to the political judgments (or just statutory interpretations) of agencies, judges are less political in their own decisionmaking.

Hamburger responds to this finding somewhat dismissively – and, indeed, the finding is almost tautological: “of course, judges disagree less when the Supreme Court bars them from exercising their independent judgment about what the law is.” (While a fair critique, I would temper it by arguing that it is nonetheless an important empirical finding – empirics that confirm important theory are as important as empirics that refute it, and are too often dismissed.)

Rather than focus on concerns about politicized decisionmaking by judges, Hamburger focuses instead on the importance of judicial independence – on it being “emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is” (quoting Marbury v. Madison). He reframes Walker’s results, arguing that “deference” to agencies is really “bias” in favor of the executive. “Rather than reveal diminished politicization, Walker’s numbers provide strong evidence of diminished judicial independence and even of institutionalized judicial bias.”

So which is it? Does Chevron reduce bias by de-politicizing judicial decisionmaking? Or does it introduce new bias in favor of the (inherently political) executive? The answer is probably that it does both. The more important answer, however, is that neither is the right question to ask.

What’s the correct measure of politicization? (or, You get what you measure)

Walker frames his study of the effects of Chevron on judicial decisionmaking by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking. Such deference to the political branches has long been a bedrock principle for at least some judicial conservatives.” Based on this understanding, his project is to ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?”

This framing, that one of Chevron’s goals is to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking, is not wrong. But this goal may be more accurately stated as being to prevent the judiciary from encroaching upon the political purposes assigned to the executive and legislative branches. This restatement offers an important change in focus. It emphasizes the concern about politicizing judicial decisionmaking as a separation of powers issue. This is in apposition to concern that, on consequentialist grounds, judges should not make politicized decisions – that is, judges should avoid political decisions because it leads to substantively worse outcomes.

It is of course true that, as unelected officials with lifetime appointments, judges are the least politically accountable to the polity of any government officials. Judges’ decisions, therefore, can reasonably be expected to be less representative of, or responsive to, the concerns of the voting public than decisions of other government officials. But not all political decisions need to be directly politically accountable in order to be effectively politically accountable. A judicial interpretation of an ambiguous law, for instance, can be interpreted as a request, or even a demand, that Congress be held to political account. And where Congress is failing to perform its constitutionally-defined role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker, it may do less harm to the separation of powers for the judiciary to make political decisions that force politically-accountable responses by Congress than for the judiciary to respect its constitutional role while the Congress ignores its role.

Before going too far down this road, I should pause to label the reframing of the debate that I have impliedly proposed. To my mind, the question isn’t whether Chevron reduces political decisionmaking by judges; the question is how Chevron affects the politicization of, and ultimately accountability to the people for, the law. Critically, there is no “conservation of politicization” principle. Institutional design matters. One could imagine a model of government where Congress exercises very direct oversight over what the law is and how it is implemented, with frequent elections and a Constitutional prohibition on all but the most express and limited forms of delegation. One can also imagine a more complicated form of government in which responsibilities for making law, executing law, and interpreting law, are spread across multiple branches (possibly including myriad agencies governed by rules that even many members of those agencies do not understand). And one can reasonably expect greater politicization of decisions in the latter compared to the former – because there are more opportunities for saying that the responsibility for any decision lies with someone else (and therefore for politicization) in the latter than in the “the buck stops here” model of the former.

In the common-law tradition, judges exercised an important degree of independence because their job was, necessarily and largely, to “say what the law is.” For better or worse, we no longer live in a world where judges are expected to routinely exercise that level of discretion, and therefore to have that level of independence. Nor do I believe that “independence” is necessarily or inherently a criteria for the judiciary, at least in principle. I therefore somewhat disagree with Hamburger’s assertion that Chevron necessarily amounts to a problematic diminution in judicial independence.

Again, I return to a consequentialist understanding of the purposes of judicial independence. In my mind, we should consider the need for judicial independence in terms of whether “independent” judicial decisionmaking tends to lead to better or worse social outcomes. And here I do find myself sympathetic to Hamburger’s concerns about judicial independence. The judiciary is intended to serve as a check on the other branches. Hamburger’s concern about judicial independence is, in my mind, driven by an overwhelmingly correct intuition that the structure envisioned by the Constitution is one in which the independence of judges is an important check on the other branches. With respect to the Congress, this means, in part, ensuring that Congress is held to political account when it does legislative tasks poorly or fails to do them at all.

The courts abdicate this role when they allow agencies to save poorly drafted statutes through interpretation of ambiguity.

Judicial independence moderates politicization

Hamburger tells us that “Judges (and academics) need to wrestle with the realities of how Chevron bias and other administrative power is rapidly delegitimizing our government and creating a profound alienation.” Huzzah. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Preach! Hear-hear!

Allow me to present my personal theory of how Chevron affects our political discourse. In the vernacular, I call this Chevron Step Three. At Step Three, Congress corrects any mistakes made by the executive or independent agencies in implementing the law or made by the courts in interpreting it. The subtle thing about Step Three is that it doesn’t exist – and, knowing this, Congress never bothers with the politically costly and practically difficult process of clarifying legislation.

To the contrary, Chevron encourages the legislature expressly not to legislate. The more expedient approach for a legislator who disagrees with a Chevron-backed agency action is to campaign on the disagreement – that is, to politicize it. If the EPA interprets the Clean Air Act too broadly, we need to retake the White House to get a new administrator in there to straighten out the EPA’s interpretation of the law. If the FCC interprets the Communications Act too narrowly, we need to retake the White House to change the chair so that we can straighten out that mess! And on the other side, we need to keep the White House so that we can protect these right-thinking agency interpretations from reversal by the loons on the other side that want to throw out all of our accomplishments. The campaign slogans write themselves.

So long as most agencies’ governing statutes are broad enough that those agencies can keep the ship of state afloat, even if drifting rudderless, legislators have little incentive to turn inward to engage in the business of government with their legislative peers. Rather, they are freed to turn outward towards their next campaign, vilifying or deifying the administrative decisions of the current government as best suits their electoral prospects.

The sharp-eyed observer will note that I’ve added a piece to the Chevron puzzle: the process described above assumes that a new administration can come in after an election and simply rewrite all of the rules adopted by the previous administration. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this is exactly what administrative law allows (see Fox v. FCC and State Farm). The underlying logic, which is really nothing more than an expansion of Chevron, is that statutory ambiguity delegates to agencies a “policy space” within which they are free to operate. So long as agency action stays within that space – which often allows for diametrically-opposed substantive interpretations – the courts say that it is up to Congress, not the Judiciary, to provide course corrections. Anything else would amount to politically unaccountable judges substituting their policy judgments (this is, acting independently) for those of politically-accountable legislators and administrators.

In other words, the politicization of law seen in our current political moment is largely a function of deference and a lack of stare decisis combined. A virtue of stare decisis is that it forces Congress to act to directly address politically undesirable opinions. Because agencies are not bound by stare decisis, an alternative, and politically preferable, way for Congress to remedy problematic agency decisions is to politicize the issue – instead of addressing the substantive policy issue through legislation, individual members of Congress can campaign on it. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with one contemporary example of this: the recent net neutrality CRA vote, which is widely recognized as having very little chance of ultimate success but is being championed by its proponents as a way to influence the 2018 elections.) This is more directly aligned with the individual member of Congress’s own incentives, because, by keeping and placing more members of her party in Congress, her party will be able to control the leadership of the agency which will thus control the shape of that agency’s policy. In other words, instead of channeling the attention of individual Congressional actors inwards to work together to develop law and policy, it channels it outwards towards campaigning on the ills and evils of the opposing administration and party vice the virtues of their own party.

The virtue of judicial independence, of judges saying what they think the law is – or even what they think the law should be – is that it forces a politically-accountable decision. Congress can either agree, or disagree; but Congress must do something. Merely waiting for the next administration to come along will not be sufficient to alter the course set by the judicial interpretation of the law. Where Congress has abdicated its responsibility to make politically-accountable decisions by deferring those decisions to the executive or agencies, the political-accountability justification for Chevron deference fails. In such cases, the better course for the courts may well be to enforce Congress’s role under the separation of powers by refusing deference and returning the question to Congress.

 

On December 1, 2017, in granting certiorari in Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District v. SolarCity Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider “whether orders denying antitrust state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”  At first blush, this case might appear to involve little more than a narrow technical question regarding the availability of interlocutory appeals.  But more fundamentally, this matter may afford the Supreme Court yet another opportunity to weigh in on the essential nature of the antitrust state action doctrine (albeit indirectly), in deciding whether the existence of state action immunity should be decided prior to the litigation of substantive antitrust suits.

Background

The Salt River Power District (SRP) is the only supplier of traditional electrical power in Phoenix, and is a subdivision of the State of Arizona.  SRP has lobbied successfully for special governmental status and has used its longstanding ties to government to advance the interests of its private shareholders.  (This sort of tale comes as no surprise to students of public choice.)  Counsel for respondent SolarCity discussed these ties in their brief opposing certiorari:

[SRP] was created in 1903 to take advantage of a federal law that provided interest-free loans for landowners to build reclamation projects to irrigate their lands.  During the Great Depression, SRP successfully lobbied the Arizona legislature for a law denominating it a political subdivision of Arizona so the landowners who ran SRP could avoid income taxes and sell tax-free bonds. . . .  Arizona denominates SRP a public entity, but as th[e] [U.S. Supreme] Court . . . explained [in a 1981 case involving [the right of local non-landowner residents to vote on SRP policy determinations], SRP and organizations like it are “essentially business enterprises, created by and chiefly benefitting a specific group of landowners.” . . . .  Among other things, SRP lacks “the crucial powers of sovereignty typical of a general purpose unit of government” and SRP’s electric business does not implicate any traditional sovereign power. . . . 

SRP’s retail electric business is unregulated. The business answers only to its own self-interested Board, not a public utility commission or any similar independent body. . . .   42 (ER55). SRP is thus free to serve private, not public interests. . . .  SRP takes profits from electricity sales and uses them to subsidize irrigation and canal water so that, for example, certain agricultural interests can farm cheaply by a city in the desert. . . . 

 In short, [as the Supreme Court explained in 1981,] SRP makes money from electric customers and pays out dividends in the form of irrigating “private lands for personal profit.”

 

SolarCity sells and leases rooftop solar-energy panels in Arizona.  It alleges that SRP used its special government subsidies to drive it out of the market for the supply of those panels to customers in the SRP district area.  Specifically, according to counsel for SolarCity:

As solar generation increased in popularity and efficiency, SRP started to view solar as a long-term competitive threat to its electricity sales and profits. . . .  Facing competition for the first time ever, SRP had a choice between competing in the market or using its monopoly power to exclude competition. . . .  SRP first attempted to compete on the merits by developing its own solar offerings. . . .  However, consumers continued to prefer SRP’s solar competitors. . . .  Then, rather than offer consumers a better product or value, SRP used its unregulated market power to impose terms that lock customers into remaining what SRP calls “requirements” customers—those who satisfy all their electric needs from, and deal exclusively with, SRP. . . .

SRP’s plan [which imposed a large penalty on any customer who obtained power from its own solar system] worked. . . .  The new requirements it mandated for its customers had a drastic anticompetitive effect. . . .  New rooftop solar applications—from customers of any firm, not just SolarCity—dropped by about 96 percent. . . .  SolarCity was forced to stop selling in SRP territory and to relocate employees.

SolarCity sued SRP for Sherman Antitrust Act violations in Arizona federal district court.  SRP moved to dismiss under the antitrust state action doctrine, which (as Professor Herbert Hovenkamp puts it) “exempts qualifying state and local government regulation from federal antitrust [law], even if the regulation at issue compels an otherwise clear violation of the law.”  The district court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The Ninth Circuit panel opinion (Judge Michelle Friedland, joined by Judges Alex Kozinski and Ronald Lee Gilman) assessed the applicability of the “collateral order doctrine,” which allows an appeal of a non-final district court decision if it is:  (1) conclusive; (2) addresses a question separate from the merits of the underlying case; and (3) raises “some particular value of a high order” that will evade effective review if not considered immediately.  The Ninth Circuit emphasized the Supreme Court’s teaching that the collateral order doctrine is a “narrow exception” that must be “strictly applied.”  It concluded that, “because the state-action doctrine is a defense to liability and not an immunity from suit, the collateral-order doctrine does not give us jurisdiction here [footnotes omitted].”

In its brief supporting its writ of certiorari, SRP stressed that an interlocutory appeal was justified here because“[a] denial of state-action immunity, like a denial of state sovereign immunity, offends state sovereignty, dignity, and autonomy. . . .  [T]he decision below threatens the dignity and autonomy of the states, as well as the division of regulatory power between the state and federal governments, by allowing a political subdivision of a state to be subjected to prolonged litigation for engaging in conduct that was clearly authorized by the state.”

In short, the Supreme Court has been asked to take fundamental federalism principles into account in weighing the applicability of the collateral order doctrine.

Discussion

Set aside for the moment the narrow question of the applicability of specific collateral order doctrine criteria in this case.   Assuming the validity of the facts summarized above, this matter highlights the always-present anticompetitive potential of enabling private parties to exercise monopoly power under the mantle of state authority.  Let us briefly examine, then, key state action principles that apply to essentially private conduct that seeks to shelter under a governmental cloak.

Commendably, in Midcal and 324 Liquor, the Supreme Court made it clear that the state action doctrine does not enable state governments to directly authorize purely private actors to violate the Sherman Act, free from state oversight.  But should an entity such as SRP that is in essence an unregulated for-profit private enterprise, acting in an anticompetitive fashion, be free to undermine the competitive process (benefiting from government subsidies to boot) merely because a century-old state law characterized it as a state political subdivision?

The “spirit” of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence suggests that the answer should be no, and that the Court may be willing to look beyond the formality of a legislative designation (in this case, “state political subdivision”) to questions of political accountability.  In 2015, In North Carolina Dental Board, the Court rejected the claim that state action immunity applied to the self-interested actions of a state dental regulatory board stacked with dentists (the board barred competition from non-dentists in tooth whitening).  In so doing, the Court held that entities designated as state agencies are not exempt from active supervision when they are controlled by market participants, because immunizing such entities from federal antitrust challenge would pose the risk of self-dealing that the Court had warned against in prior decisions, such as Midcal.

A legal formalist might respond that a mere state board is of a lesser dignity than a state political subdivision, such as SRP, which directly exercises state sovereign power, and, as such, is not subject to “active supervision” requirements.  Functionally, however, SRP acts in all respects like a private company, except that it benefits from certain special state subsidies that assist it in undermining competition.  Recognizing that reality, the Court might be willing to say that it will look beyond formal legislative designations to the actual role of a state entity in deciding whether it is, or is not, engaging in “sovereign action.”  (State instrumentalities engaging in classic sovereign functions, such as a state supreme court or state treasury department, would not raise this sort of problem.)

More specifically, the Court might wish to consider whether federal antitrust law should be applicable when a state instrumentality that does not have the attributes of a classic private business – such as a state owned-controlled- and operated electric company, for example – engages in business activity and uses its governmental ties to subvert competition.  Such a company might, for instance, predate against competing private companies by pricing below its own cost to drive out and keep out rivals, relying on taxpayer funding to support its activities.  Activity of this sort could be made subject to a “market participant exception” to the state action doctrine (at the very least requiring state active supervision), as recommended by the Federal Trade Commission’s 2004 State Action Task Force Report.  Such an exception, which has not yet been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court, would reduce the returns to anticompetitive business activity engaged in by privileged “state” agents, thereby promoting commercial freedom and vibrant markets.  And, as two learned commentators recently pointed out, it would not offend federalism principles that underlie the antitrust state action doctrine (footnote references deleted):

[T]he state does not act within its sovereign prerogative when engaged in economic conduct.  It cannot be that the government is truly exercising sovereign powers when acting in the same way as its private citizens.  Thus, restricting the prerogative of state and local governments to engage in economic conduct does not abrogate sovereign immunity.  Therefore, the federalism concerns underpinning the . . . [state action] immunity doctrine are not in play when the State acts as an ordinary market-participant on equal-footing with private citizens.

The policy and federalism justifications for denying state action immunity to an unsupervised state agency acting as a commercial operator would apply “in spades” to SRP, which, as has been seen, in all material respects looks like a purely private actor.

Let’s return now to the specific question before the Supreme Court.  While state action doctrinal issues (including, of course, a possible market operator exception) are not directly presented in the SRP v. SolarCity case, they may well flavor the approach the Court takes in determining the availability of interlocutory appeals of state action immunity denials.  The clear and ringing invocation of federalism principles in petitioners’ brief for certiorari suggests a possible doctrinal hook.  In particular, the Court might determine that respect for the dignity and role of states as coordinate sovereigns compels a finding that denials of antitrust state action immunity should be subject to immediate review.

A ruling that state action questions should be decided “up front” might, however, prove a pyrrhic victory for petitioners.  Counsel for respondents have ably pointed out the quintessentially private commercial nature of SRP’s activities, which could amply support a judicial finding of no state action immunity – whether based on the somewhat novel “market participant” exception or because of inadequate state supervision.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s decision in SPR v. SolarCity will determine the narrow issue of the availability of interlocutory appeals to an antitrust defendant that is denied a dismissal on antitrust state action grounds.  A holding that authorizes such appeals also would have the incidental salutary effect of furthering efficiency, by eliminating a significant source of costly uncertainty affecting the litigation of cases that fall under the shadow of the “state action” umbrella.

More broadly, the facts in SPR v. SolarCity highlight a potential future clarification of the antitrust state action doctrine – establishment of a clear “market participant” exception to state action immunity.  Such an exception commendably would promote effective market processes without offending federalism.  It would also tend to diminish returns to (and thereby weaken incentives to engage in) rent seeking by those firms that seek to obtain a business advantage through special government privilege, rather than through competition on the merits.

  1. Overview

A‌merica’s antitrust laws have long held a special status in the ‌federal statutory hierarchy.  The Supreme Court of the United States, for example, famously stated that the “[a]ntitrust laws in general, and the Sherman Act in particular, are the Magna Carta of free enterprise.”  Thus, when considering the qualifications of a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nominee’s views (if any) on antitrust are unquestionably of interest.  Such an assessment is particularly significant today, given the fact that the Court has had only one remaining antitrust expert (Justice Breyer, who taught antitrust at Harvard), since the sad demise of Justice Scalia (author of the landmark Trinko opinion on the limits of monopolization law).

Fortunately, we know a great deal about the antitrust perspective of Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first nominee to the Supreme Court.  Judge Gorsuch authored several well-reasoned and highly persuasive antitrust opinions as a Tenth Circuit judge, which show him to be respectful of Supreme Court precedent and fully aware of the nuances of modern antitrust analysis.  This is not surprising, since Judge Gorsuch in recent years has taught antitrust law at the University of Colorado Law School.  In addition, he had exposure to antitrust matters as Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General during the George W. Bush Administration.  What’s more, he worked on major antitrust cases as an associate and then a partner at the Kellogg Huber law firm (see here).  Recent commentaries by highly respected antitrust lawyers on Judge Gorsuch’s antitrust jurisprudence manifest great respect for his mastery of the field (see, for example, here and here) – and put to shame a non-antitrust lawyer’s jejeune and misleading “hit piece” on Judge Gorsuch’s antitrust record (see here) that displays a woeful ignorance of the nature of antitrust analysis (see, for example, Ed Whelan’s devastating critique of that screed, here).

In short, Judge Gorsuch is extremely well-versed in antitrust and thus ideally positioned to make important contributions to the Supreme Court’s antitrust jurisprudence, should he be confirmed.  A quick evaluation of Judge Gorsuch’s decisions in antitrust cases confirms this conclusion.

  1. Judge Gorsuch’s Antitrust Opinions

Let’s take a look at three antitrust opinions authored by Judge Gorsuch, two of which deal with refusals to deal, and one of which concerns municipal antitrust immunity.  All three decisions show an appreciation for the underlying economic efficiency rationale that undergirds modern mainstream antitrust analysis, consistent with Supreme Court case law pronouncements.

a.  Four Corners Nephrology, Associates, PC v. Mercy Medical Center of Durango, 582 F.3d 1216 (10th 2009). To provide Durango, Colorado, residents and Southern Ute Indian tribe members with greater access to kidney dialysis and other nephrology services, Mercy Medical Center, a non-profit hospital, together with the tribe, sought to entice Dr. Mark Bevan to join the hospital’s active staff.  When Dr. Bevan declined, the hospital hired somebody else.  To convince that physician and others to settle in Durango, and aware that starting a nephrology practice was likely to prove unprofitable for the foreseeable future, the hospital and tribe agreed to underwrite up to $2.5 million in losses they expected the practice to incur.  To protect its investment, Mercy made its new practice the exclusive provider of nephrology services at the hospital.

Dr. Bevan sued, contending that Mercy’s refusal to deal with other nephrologists, including himself, amounted to the monopolization, or attempted monopolization, of the market for physician nephrology services in the Durango area.  The district court granted summary judgment to the hospital.

Judge Gorsuch’s Sixth Circuit panel opinion affirmed, for two reasons.  First, he held that the hospital had no antitrust duty to share its facilities with Dr. Bevan at the expense of its own nephrology practice.  It stressed that in demanding access to Mercy’s facilities, Dr. Bevan sought to share, not to undo, the hospital’s putative monopoly.  According to Judge Gorsuch, that is not what the antitrust laws are about:  they seek to advance competition, not advantage competitors.  Judge Gorsuch deftly distinguished the Supreme Court’s 1985 Aspen Skiing decision, which upheld a Sherman Act Section 2 refusal to deal claim based on a monopolist ski resort’s discontinuation of a joint ticketing arrangement with a smaller resort (a decision deemed “at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability” in Justice Scalia’s Trinko opinion).  He noted that defendant terminated a profitable long-term contractual relationship in Aspen Skiing, in order to achieve long-term anticompetitive goals.  In the instant case, however, the hospital was seeking to avoid an unprofitable short-term relationship with the plaintiff doctor – an action consistent with legal competition on the merits, as in TrinkoSecond, Judge Gorsuch held that plaintiff had suffered no antitrust injury, because it was seeking to share in monopoly profits, not to undo a monopoly and thereby benefit consumers.

Judge Gorsuch’s careful reasoning in Four Corners adroitly cabined Aspen Skiing’s problematic reasoning.  Future courts could benefit from his approach to help rein in inappropriate antitrust attacks on refusals to deal that manifest competition on the merits.

b.  Novell, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation, 731 F.3d 1064 (10th 2013).  Novell produced office software, including WordPerfect, Microsoft Word’s leading rival in word processing applications.  Microsoft initially gave independent software vendors, including Novell, pre-release access to design information which would enable them to produce applications for Windows 95.  Microsoft subsequently changed its policy, however, denying such access prior to the release of Windows 95.  This decision significantly delayed, but did not preclude, third party companies from developing Windows 95 applications.  Novell sued Microsoft, alleging that Microsoft’s actions helped it maintain its monopoly in the market for Intel-compatible personal computer operating systems.  The district court granted judgment for Microsoft as a matter of law, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

In his opinion, Judge Gorsuch framed the standard of liability for illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act in a decision-theoretic manner that would gladden the hearts of law and economics mavens:  “the question . . . is whether, based on the evidence and experience derived from past cases, the conduct at issue before us has little or no value beyond the capacity to protect the monopolist’s market power—bearing in mind the risk of false positives (and negatives) any determination on the question of liability might invite, and the limits on the administrative capacities of courts to police market terms and transactions.”

Applying this set of general principles in light of the case law and the facts presented, Judge Gorsuch ably dissected and rejected Novell’s theories of antitrust harm, explaining that Novell’s claims did not squeeze “through the narrow needle of [antitrust] refusal to deal doctrine.”  Specifically, Microsoft’s actions failed to pass Aspen Skiing muster.  Even though “[a] voluntary and profitable relationship clearly existed between Microsoft and Novell[,]. . . Novell . . .  presented no evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that Microsoft’s discontinuation of this arrangement suggested a willingness to sacrifice short-term profits, let alone in a manner that was irrational but for its tendency to harm competition.”  The court also rejected Novell’s alternative claim of an antitrust violation based on an “affirmative” act of interference with a rival rather than on a refusal to deal.  As Judge Gorsuch explained, “neither Trinko nor Aspen Skiing suggested this is enough to evade their profit sacrifice test, and we refuse to do so either.  Whether one chooses to call a monopolist’s refusal to deal with a rival an act or omission, interference or withdrawal of assistance, the substance is the same”.  Finally, Novell’s third theory, that Microsoft acted deceptively when it gave pretextual reasons for withdrawing key compatibility information from Novell, similarly proved unavailing.  According to Judge Gorsuch, “[deception] . . . wasn’t the cause of Novell’s injury or any possible harm to consumers—Microsoft’s refusal to deal was. . . .  Even if Microsoft had behaved [non-deceptively,] just as Novell sa[id] it should have, it would have helped Novell not at all.”

Novell, like Kay Electric, reflects Judge Gorsuch’s understanding of the importance of curtailing inappropriate antitrust attacks on the right not to deal with competitors.  It also manifests his keen appreciation for protecting a successful firm’s market-driven economic incentives from being undermined by antitrust attacks.  Finally, and most significantly, this decision highlights Judge Gorsuch’s understanding that decision theory is of central importance in administering a rules-based antitrust legal system (see here for a discussion of the role of decision theory in Roberts Court antitrust decisions).

c.  Kay Electric Cooperative v. City of Newkirk, Oklahoma, 647 F.3d 1039 (10th 2011). In this case, the Tenth Circuit, per Judge Gorsuch, reversed and remanded a district court’s dismissal of an antitrust suit filed against a municipal electricity provider.  Kay, an Oklahoma rural electric cooperative, offered to provide electricity to a new jail being built in an area just outside the city boundaries of Newkirk.  The City of Newkirk responded by annexing the area and issuing its own service offer.  As Judge Gorsuch pithily explained, “Kay’s offer was much the better but the jail still elected to buy electricity from Newkirk.  Why?  Because Newkirk is the only provider of sewage services in the area and it refused to provide any sewage services to the jail – that is, unless the jail also bought the city’s electricity.  Finding themselves stuck between a rock and a pile of sewage, the operators of the jail reluctantly went with the city’s package deal.”  Kay responded by suing Newkirk for unlawful tying and attempted monopolization in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  The district court found Newkirk “immune” from liability as a matter of law, and Kay appealed.

Judge Gorsuch surveyed the Supreme Court’s confusing case law on state action antitrust immunity, which shields state-sanctioned restraints of trade from Sherman Act scrutiny.  He noted that “though it’s hard to see a way to reconcile all of the [Supreme] Court’s competing statements in this area, we can say with certainty this much – a municipality surely lacks antitrust ‘immunity’ unless it can bear the burden of showing that its challenged conduct was at least a foreseeable (if not explicit) result of state legislation [emphasis in the original].”  The judge brilliantly parsed the “muddled” jurisprudence and found three “bright lines” that were “enough to allow us to dispose of this appeal with confidence.”  First, “a state’s grant of a traditional corporate chapter to a municipality isn’t enough to make the municipality’s subsequent anticompetitive conduct foreseeable.”  Second, “the fact that a state may have authorized some forms of municipal anticompetitive conduct isn’t enough to make all forms of anticompetitive conduct foreseeable [emphasis in the original].”  Third, “when asking whether the state has authorized the municipality’s anticompetitive conduct we look to and preference the most specific direction issued by the state legislature on the subject.”  Applying these rules to the facts at hand (including relevant Oklahoma statutes), the judge concluded “that it quickly becomes clear that Newkirk enjoys no immunity.”

Judge Gorsuch’s Kay Electric opinion displays great facility in reconciling respect for antitrust federalism with the Sherman Act’s goal of rooting out unreasonable constraints on free market competition.  His concise ruling ably cuts through the complexities of the opaque (to be generous) antitrust state action doctrine decisions to identify clear administrable principles that, if broadly adopted, would reduce uncertainty regarding the legal status of anticompetitive municipal conduct.  In short, if Kay Electric is any indication, Judge Gorsuch may be just the jurist needed to bring greater (and badly needed) clarity to the Supreme Court’s treatment of state action controversies.

  1. Conclusion

In sum, Judge Gorsuch’s antitrust opinions reflect a sound grounding in law and economics and decision theory, combined with a respect for Supreme Court precedent, careful attention to traditional judicial craftsmanship, and a respect for the appropriate contours of antitrust federalism.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court’s antitrust jurisprudence would unquestionably benefit by having Judge Gorsuch join the Court.  For this and for so many other reasons (see, for example, here), Judge Gorsuch merits swift confirmation by the Senate.

On February 28, the Heritage Foundation issued a volume of essays by leading scholars on the law and economics of financial services regulatory reform entitled Prosperity Unleashed:  Smarter Financial Regulation.  This Report, which is well worth a read (in particular, by incoming Trump Administration officials and Members of Congress), is available online.

The Report’s 23 chapters, which deal with different aspects of financial markets, reflect 10 core principles:

  1. Private and competitive financial markets are essential for healthy economic growth.
  2. The government should not interfere with the financial choices of market participants, including consumers, investors, and uninsured financial firms. Regulators should focus on protecting individuals and firms from fraud and violations of contractual rights.
  3. Market discipline is a better regulator of financial risk than government regulation.
  4. Financial firms should be permitted to fail, just as other firms do. Government should not “save” participants from failure because doing so impedes the ability of markets to direct resources to their highest and best use.
  5. Speculation and risk-taking are what make markets operate. Interference by regulators attempting to mitigate risks hinders the effective operation of markets.
  6. Government should not make credit and capital allocation decisions.
  7. The cost of financial firm failures should be borne by managers, equity-holders, and creditors, not by taxpayers.
  8. Simple rules—such as straightforward equity capital requirements—are preferable to complex rules that permit regulators to micromanage markets.
  9. Public-private partnerships create financial instability because they create rent-seeking opportunities and misalign incentives.
  10. Government backing for financial activities, such as classifying certain firms or activities as “systemically important,” inevitably leads to government bailouts.

The chapters deal with these specific topics (the following summary draws upon the introduction to the Report):

Chapter 1, “Deposit Insurance, Bank Resolution, and Market Discipline,” explains how government-backed deposit insurance weakens market discipline, increases moral hazard, and leads to higher financial risk than the economy would have otherwise, thus weakening the banking system as a whole.

Chapter 2, “A Simple Proposal to Recapitalize the U.S. Banking System,” follows with a brief look at the failure of the Basel rules and a discussion of how banks’ historical capital ratios—a key measure of bank safety—have fallen as regulations have increased.  The author proposes a regulatory off-ramp, whereby banks could opt out of the current regulatory framework in return for meeting a minimum leverage ratio of at least 20 percent.

Chapter 3, “A Better Path for Mortgage Regulation,” provides a brief history of federal mortgage regulation.  This essay shows that, prior to Dodd–Frank, the preferred federal policy was to protect mortgage borrowers through mandatory disclosure as opposed to directly regulating the content of mortgage agreements.  The author argues that the vibrancy of the mortgage market has suffered because the basic disclosure approach has succumbed to regulation via content restrictions.

Chapter 4, “Money and Banking Provisions in the 2016 Financial CHOICE Act: A Major Step Toward Financial Security,” evaluates the reforms in the CHOICE Act, the first major piece of legislation written to replace large portions of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (a far-reaching statute whose provisions are at odds with its name). The author discusses the CHOICE Act’s regulatory off-ramp—and one potential alternative—because a similar approach could be used to implement a broad set of bank regulation reforms.

Chapter 5, “Securities Disclosure Reform,” delves into the law and economics of mandatory disclosure requirements, both in connection with new securities offerings and ongoing disclosure obligations.  The author explains that disclosure requirements have become so voluminous that they obfuscate rather than inform, making it more difficult for investors to find relevant information.

Chapter 6, “The Case for Federal Pre-Emption of State Blue Sky Laws,” recommends improving the efficiency and effectiveness of capital markets through federal pre-emption of state securities “blue sky” laws, which impose state registration requirements on companies seeking to issue securities.  Blue sky laws inefficiently retard the flow of capital from investors to businesses.

Chapter 7, “How to Reform Equity Market Structure: Eliminate ‘Reg NMS’ and Build Venture Exchanges,” tackles the seemingly opaque topic of U.S. equity market structure.  The essay argues that the increasingly fragmented structure of today’s equities markets has been shaped as much, if not more, by legislative and regulatory action than by the private sector.  The author calls on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to consider rescinding Reg NMS and replacing it with rules (and rigorous disclosure requirements) that allow free and competitive markets to dictate much of market structure.

Chapter 8, “Reforming FINRA,” explains that FINRA, the primary regulator of broker-dealers, is neither a true self-regulatory organization nor a government agency, and that FINRA is largely unaccountable to the industry or to the public.  The chapter broadly outlines alternative approaches that Congress and the regulators can take to fix these problems, and it recommends specific reforms to FINRA’s rule-making and arbitration process.

Chapter 9, “Reforming the Financial Regulators,” argues that financial regulation should establish a framework for financial institutions based on their ability to serve consumers, investors, and Main Street companies.  This view is starkly at odds with the current “macroprudential” trend in financial regulation, which places governmental regulators—with their purportedly greater understanding of the financial system—at the top of the decision-making chain.

Chapter 10, “The World After Chevron,” discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a case that has generated considerable controversy among policymakers over the past decade.  The Chevron decision effectively transferred final interpretive authority from the courts to the agencies in any case where Congress did not itself answer the precise dispute.  Reform-minded policymakers have long called on Congress to return that ultimate decision-making authority to the federal courts.

Chapter 11, “Transparency and Accountability at the SEC and at FINRA,” describes how these two regulatory bodies—the two mostly responsible for governing the U.S. securities sector—lack the structural safeguards necessary to ensure that they exercise their authority with the consent of the American public.  The chapter provides recommendations for fixing these deficiencies, such as giving respondents a choice of federal court or administrative proceedings with the SEC, and allowing FINRA to exist as a purely voluntary, private industry association.

Chapter 12, “The Massive Federal Credit Racket,” provides an extensive list of the more than 150 federal credit programs that provide some form of government backing.  These programs consist of direct loans and loan guarantees for housing, agriculture, energy, education, transportation, infrastructure, exporting, and small businesses, as well as insurance programs to cover bank and credit union deposits, pensions, flood damage, crop damage, and acts of terrorism.  Government financing programs are often sold to the public as economic imperatives, particularly during downturns, but they are instruments of redistributive policies that mainly benefit those with the most political influence rather than those with the greatest need.

Chapter 13, “Reforming Last-Resort Lending: The Flexible Open-Market Alternative,” proposes a plan to reform the Federal Reserve’s means for preserving liquidity for financial as well as nonfinancial firms, especially during financial emergencies, but also in normal times.  The essay proposes, among other things, to replace the existing Fed framework with a single standing (as opposed to temporary) facility to meet extraordinary as well as ordinary liquidity needs as they arise.  The goal is to eliminate the need for ad hoc changes in the rules governing the lending facility, or for special Fed, Treasury, or congressional action.

Chapter 14, “Simple, Sensible Reforms for Housing Finance,” advocates establishing a national title database to prevent the sort of clerical errors that plagued the foreclosure process during the housing crash of 2007 to 2009.  The author also recommends eliminating government support for all mortgages with low down payments, and for refinancing loans that increase the borrower’s mortgage debt.  Both types of loans encourage households to take on debt rather than accumulate wealth.

Chapter 15, “A Pathway to Shutting Down the Federal Housing Finance Enterprises,” provides an overview of all the federal housing finance enterprises and argues that Congress should end these failed experiments.  The federal housing finance enterprises, cobbled together over the last century, today cover more than $6 trillion (60 percent) of the outstanding single-family residential mortgage debt in the United States.  Over time, the policies implemented through these enterprises have inflated home prices, led to unsustainable levels of mortgage debt for millions of people, cost federal taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts, and undermined the resilience of the housing finance system.

Chapter 16, “Fixing the Regulatory Framework for Derivatives,” discusses government preferences for derivatives and repurchase agreements (repos)—an often ignored but integral part of the many policy problems that contributed to the 2008 crisis.  As the essay explains, the main problem with the pre-crisis regulatory structure for derivatives and repos was that the bankruptcy code included special exemptions (safe harbors) for these financial contracts.  The safe harbors were justified on the grounds that they would prevent systemic financial problems, a theory that proved false in 2008.  The chapter concluded that eliminating all safe harbors for repos and derivatives would affect the market because counterparties would have to account for more risk, a desirable outcome.

Chapter 17, “Designing an Efficient Securities-Fraud Deterrence Regime,” explains that the main flaws in the current approach to securities-fraud deterrence in the U.S., and recommends several reforms to fix these problems.  This essay recommends that the government should credibly threaten individuals who would commit fraud with criminal penalties, and pursue corporations only if their shareholders would otherwise have poor incentives to adopt internal control systems to deter fraud.

Chapter 18, “Financial Privacy in a Free Society,” stresses the importance of maintaining financial privacy—a key component of life in a free society—while policing markets for fraudulent (and other criminal) behavior.  The current U.S. financial regulatory framework has expanded so much that it now threatens this basic element of freedom.  For instance, individuals who engage in cash transactions of more than a small amount automatically trigger a general suspicion of criminal activity, and financial institutions of all kinds are forced into a quasi-law-enforcement role.  The chapter recommends seven reforms that would better protect individuals’ privacy rights and improve law enforcement’s ability to apprehend and prosecute criminals and terrorists.

Chapter 19, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” provides an overview of consumer financial protection law, and then provide several recommendations on how to modernize the consumer financial protection system.  The goal of these reforms is to fix the federal consumer financial protection framework so that it facilitates competition, consumer protection, and consumer choice.  The authors recommend transferring all federal consumer protection authority to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency with vast regulatory experience in consumer financial services markets.

I will have a bit more to say about my co-authored contribution, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” in my next post.

Chapter 20, “Reducing Banks’ Incentives for Risk-Taking via Extended Shareholder Liability,” examines changes in shareholder liability that could better align incentives and reduce the moral hazard problems that result in excessively risky financial institutions.  The authors describe how under extended liability, an arrangement common in banking history, shareholders of failed banks have an obligation to repay the remaining debts to creditors.

Chapter 21, “Improving Entrepreneurs’ Access to Capital: Vital for Economic Growth,” shows how existing rules and regulations hinder capital formation and entrepreneurship.  The essay explains that several groups usually support the current complex, expensive, and economically destructive system because excessive regulation helps keep their competitors at bay.  The author describes more than 25 policy reforms to reduce or eliminate state and federal regulatory barriers that hinder entrepreneurs’ access to capital.

Chapter 22, “Federalism and FinTech,” provides an in-depth look at how financial technology or “FinTech” companies are beginning to utilize advances in communications, data processing, and cryptography to compete with traditional financial services providers.  Some of the most powerful FinTech applications are removing geographic limitations on where companies can offer services and, in general, lowering barriers to entry for new firms.  As the essay explaints, this newly competitive landscape is exposing weaknesses, inefficiency, and inequity in the U.S. financial regulatory structure.

Chapter 23, “A New Federal Charter for Financial Institutions,” proposes a new banking charter under which a financial institution would be regulated more like banks were regulated before the modern era of bank bailouts and government guarantees.  Under the proposed charter, which is similar to a regulatory off-ramp approach, banks that choose to fund themselves with higher equity would be faced mostly with regulations that focus on punishing and deterring fraud, and fostering the disclosure of information that is material to investment decisions.  The charter explicitly includes a prohibition against receiving government funds from any source, and even excludes the financial institution from FDIC deposit insurance eligibility.

In conclusion, Prosperity Unleashed sets forth the elements of a legislative and regulatory reform agenda for the financial services sector, which has the potential for stimulating economic growth and innovation while benefiting consumers and businesses alike.  I will have a bit more to say about my co-authored contribution, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” in my next post.

On October 6, the Heritage Foundation released a legal memorandum (authored by me) that recounts the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent sad history of ignoring the rule of law in its enforcement and regulatory actions.  The memorandum calls for a legislative reform agenda to rectify this problem by reining in the agency.  Key points culled from the memorandum are highlighted below (footnotes omitted).

1.  Background: The Rule of Law

The American concept of the rule of law is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law.  As the late Friedrich Hayek explained:

[The rule of law] means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.

In other words, the rule of law involves a system of binding rules that have been adopted and applied by a valid government authority and that embody clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.   Practices employed by government agencies that undermine the rule of law ignore a fundamental duty that the government owes its citizens and thereby weaken America’s constitutional system.  It follows, therefore, that close scrutiny of federal administrative agencies’ activities is particularly important in helping to achieve public accountability for an agency’s failure to honor the rule of law standard.

2.  How the FCC Flouts the Rule of Law

Applying such scrutiny to the FCC reveals that it does a poor job in adhering to rule of law principles, both in its procedural practices and in various substantive actions that it has taken.

Opaque procedures that generate uncertainties regarding agency plans undermine the clarity and predictability of agency actions and thereby undermine the effectiveness of rule of law safeguards.  Process-based reforms designed to deal with these problems, to the extent that they succeed, strengthen the rule of law.  Procedural inadequacies at the FCC include inordinate delays and a lack of transparency, including the failure to promptly release the text of proposed and final rules.  The FCC itself has admitted that procedural improvements are needed, and legislative proposals have been advanced to make the Commission more transparent, efficient, and accountable.

Nevertheless, mere procedural reforms would not address the far more serious problem of FCC substantive actions that flout the rule of law.  Examples abound:

  • The FCC imposes a variety of “public interest” conditions on proposed mergers subject to its jurisdiction. Those conditions often are announced after inordinate delays, and typically have no bearing on the mergers’ actual effects.  The unpredictable nature and timing of such impositions generate a lack of certainty for businesses and thereby undermine the rule of law.
  • The FCC’s 2015 Municipal Broadband Order preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries. Apart from its substantive inadequacies, this Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raised grave federalism problems (by interfering with a state’s sovereign right to oversee its municipalities), thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law.  The Order was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in August 2016.
  • The FCC’s 2015 “net neutrality” rule (the Open Internet Order) subjects internet service providers (ISPs) to sweeping “reasonableness-based” FCC regulatory oversight. This “reasonableness” standard gives the FCC virtually unbounded discretion to impose sanctions on ISPs.  It does not provide, in advance, a knowable, predictable rule consistent with due process and rule of law norms.  In the dynamic and fast-changing “Internet ecosystem,” this lack of predictable guidance is a major drag on innovation.  Regrettably, in June 2014, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by a two-to-one vote, rejected a challenge to the order brought by ISPs and their trade association.
  • The FCC’s abrupt 2014 extension of its long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local television broadcast stations, to encompass Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) likewise undermined the rule of law. JSAs, which allow one television station to sell advertising (but not programming) on another station, have long been used by stations that had no reason to believe that their actions in any way constituted illegal “ownership interests,” especially since many of them were originally approved by the FCC.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wisely vacated the television JSA rule in May 2016, stressing that the FCC had violated a statutory command by failing to carry out in a timely fashion the quadrennial review of the television ownership rules on which the JSA rule was based.
  • The FCC’s February 2016 proposed rules that are designed to “open” the market for video set-top boxes, appear to fly in the face of federal laws and treaty language protecting intellectual property rights, by arbitrarily denying protection to intellectual property based solely on a particular mode of information transmission. Such a denial is repugnant to rule of law principles.
  • FCC enforcement practices also show a lack of respect for rule of law principles, by seeking to obtain sanctions against behavior that has never been deemed contrary to law or regulatory edicts. Two examples illustrate this point.
    • In 2014, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed imposing a $10 million fine on TerraCom, Inc., and YourTelAmerica, Inc., two small telephone companies, for a data breach that exposed certain personally identifiable information to unauthorized access. In so doing, the FCC cited provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and accompanying regulations that had never been construed to authorize sanctions for failure to adopt “reasonable data security practices” to protect sensitive consumer information.
    • In November 2015, the FCC similarly imposed a $595,000 fine on Cox Communications for failure to prevent a data breach committed by a third-party hacker, although no statutory or regulatory language supported imposing any penalty on a firm that was itself victimized by a hack attack

3.  Legislative Reforms to Rein in the FCC

What is to be done?  One sure way to limit an agency’s ability to flout the rule of law is to restrict the scope of its legal authority.  As a matter of first principles, Congress should therefore examine the FCC’s activities with an eye to eliminating its jurisdiction over areas in which regulation is no longer needed:  For example, residual price regulation may be unnecessary in all markets where competition is effective. Regulation is called for only in the presence of serious market failure, coupled with strong evidence that government intervention will yield a better economic outcome than will a decision not to regulate.

Congress should craft legislation designed to sharply restrict the FCC’s ability to flout the rule of law.  At a minimum, no matter how it decides to pursue broad FCC reform, the following five proposals merit special congressional attention as a means of advancing rule of law principles:

  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over all mergers. The federal antitrust agencies are best equipped to handle merger analysis, and this source of costly delay and uncertainty regarding ad hoc restrictive conditions should be eliminated.
  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband Internet service. Given the benefits associated with an open and unregulated Internet, Congress should provide clearly and unequivocally that the FCC has no jurisdiction, direct or indirect, in this area.
  • Shift FCC regulatory authority over broadband-related consumer protection (including, for example, deceptive advertising, privacy, and data protection) and competition to the Federal Trade Commission, which has longstanding experience and expertise in the area. This jurisdictional transfer would promote clarity and reduce uncertainty, thereby strengthening the rule of law.
  • Require that before taking regulatory action, the FCC carefully scrutinize regulatory language to seek to avoid the sorts of rule of law problems that have plagued prior commission rulemakings.
  • Require that the FCC not seek fines in an enforcement action unless the alleged infraction involves a violation of the precise language of a regulation or statutory provision.

4.  Conclusion

In recent years, the FCC too often has acted in a manner that undermines the rule of law. Internal agency reforms might be somewhat helpful in rectifying this situation, but they inevitably would be limited in scope and inherently malleable as FCC personnel changes. Accordingly, Congress should weigh major statutory reforms to rein in the FCC—reforms that will advance the rule of law and promote American economic well-being.

The American concept of “the rule of law” (see here) is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law (see here).  It holds that the executive must comply with the law because ours is “a government of laws, and not of men,” or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a 2006 address to the American Bar Association, “that the Law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.”  (See here.)  More specifically, and consistent with these broader formulations, the late and great legal philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote that the rule of law “means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”  (See here.)  In other words, as former Boston University Law School Dean Ron Cass put it, the rule of law involves “a system of binding rules” adopted and applied by a valid government authority that embody “clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.”  (See here.)

Regrettably, by engaging in regulatory overreach and ignoring statutory limitations on the scope of their authority, federal administrative agencies have shown scant appreciation for rule of law restraints under the current administration (see here and here for commentaries on this problem by Heritage Foundation scholars).  Although many agencies could be singled out, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) actions in recent years have been especially egregious (see here).

A prime example of regulatory overreach by the FCC that flouted the rule of law was its promulgation in 2015 of an order preempting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally-owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries (Municipal Broadband Order, see here).   As a matter of substance, this decision ignored powerful economic evidence that municipally-provided broadband services often involve wasteful subsidies for financially–troubled government-owned providers that interfere with effective private sector competition and are economically harmful (my analysis is here).   As a legal matter, the Municipal Broadband Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raises grave constitutional problems, thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law (see here).  The Order lacked a sound legal footing in basing its authority on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which merely authorizes the FCC to promote local broadband competition and investment (a goal which the Order did not advance) and says nothing about preemption.   In addition, the FCC’s invocation of preemption authority trenched upon the power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities, guaranteed to them by the Constitution as an essential element of their sovereignty in our federal system (see here).   What’s more, the Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband systems that had requested FCC preemption imposed content-based restrictions on users of their network that raised serious First Amendment issues (see here).   Specifically, those systems’ bans on the transmittal of various sorts of “abusive” language appeared to be too broad to withstand First Amendment “strict scrutiny.”  Moreover, by requiring prospective broadband enrollees to agree not to sue their provider as an initial condition of service, two of the municipal systems arguably unconstitutionally coerced users to forgo exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Fortunately, on August 10, 2016, in Tennessee v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down the Municipal Broadband Order, pithily stating:

The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities. This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision has important policy ramifications that extend beyond the immediate controversy, as Free State Foundation Scholars Randolph May and Seth Cooper explain:

The FCC’s Municipal Broadband Preemption Order would have turned constitutional federalism inside out by severing local political subdivisions’ accountability from the states governments that created them. Had the agency’s order been upheld, the FCC surely would have preempted several other state laws restricting municipalities’ ownership and operation of broadband networks. Several state governments would have been locked into an unwise policy of favoring municipal broadband business ventures with a track record of legal and proprietary conflicts of interest, expensive financial failures, and burdensome debts for local taxpayers.

The avoidance of a series of bad side effects in a corner of the regulatory world is not, however, sufficient grounds for breaking out the champagne.  From a global perspective, the Sixth Circuit’s Tennessee v. FCC decision, while helpful, does not address the broader problem of agency disregard for the limitations of constitutional federalism and the rule of law.  Administrative overreach, like a chronic debilitating virus, saps the initiative of the private sector (and, more generally, the body politic) and undermines its vitality.  In addition, not all federal judges can be counted on to rein in legally unjustified rules (which in any event impose costly delay and uncertainty, even if they are eventually overturned).  What is needed is an administration that emphasizes by word and deed that it is committed to constitutionalist rule of law principles – and insists that its appointees (including commissioners of independent agencies) share that philosophy.  Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for such an administration.

On December 11 I published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum on this topic. I concluded that the federal courts have done a fairly good job in harmonizing antitrust with constitutionally-based federalism and First Amendment interests (petitioning, free speech, and religious freedom). Nevertheless, it must be admitted that these “constitutional constraints” somewhat limit the ability of antitrust to promote a procompetitive, pro-efficiency, pro-innovation, pro-consumer welfare agenda. Anticompetitive government action – the most pernicious and long-lasting affront to competition, because it is backed by the coercive power of the state – presents a particularly serious and widespread problem. How can antitrust and other legal principles be applied to further promote economic freedom and combat anticompetitive government action, in a manner consistent with the Constitution?

First, it may be possible to further tweak antitrust to apply a bit more broadly to governmental conduct, without upsetting the constitutional balance.

For instance, in 2013, in Phoebe Putney, the United States Supreme Court commendably held that general grants of corporate powers (such as the power to enter into contracts) to sub-state governmental entities are not in themselves “clear articulations” of a state policy to displace competition. Thus, in that case, a special purpose hospital authority granted general corporate powers by the State of Georgia could not evade federal antitrust scrutiny when it orchestrated a potentially anticompetitive hospital merger. In short, by requiring states to be specific when they authorize regulators to displace competition, Phoebe Putney makes it a bit more difficult to achieve anticompetitive results through routine state governmental processes.

But what about when a subsidiary state entity has been empowered to displace competition? Imposing a greater requirement on states to actively supervise decisions by self-interested state regulatory boards could enhance competition without severely undermining state prerogatives. Specifically, where members of a profession dominate a state-created board that oversees the profession, the risk of self-dealing and consumer harm is particularly high, and therefore the board’s actions should be subject to exacting scrutiny. In its imminent ruling on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) challenge to anticompetitive rules by the dentist-dominated North Carolina Dental Board of Dental Examiners (rules which forestall competition by storefront teeth whitening services), the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to require that states actively supervise the decisions of self-interested regulators as a prerequisite to federal antitrust immunity. At the very least, such a requirement would make states be more cautious before giving a blank check to potentially anticompetitive industry self-regulation. It could also raise the costs of obtaining special government favor, and shed needed light on rent-seekers’ efforts to achieve regulatory capture.

Unfortunately, though, a great deal of anticompetitive governmental activity, both state and federal, is and will remain beyond the bounds of federal antitrust prosecution. What can be done to curb such excesses, given the practical political difficulties in achieving far-reaching pro-competitive legislative and regulatory reforms? My December 11 Heritage Memo highlights a few possibilities rooted in constitutional economic liberties (see also the recent Heritage Foundation special report on economic liberty and the Constitution). One involves putting greater teeth into constitutional equal protection and due process analysis – say, by holding that pure protectionism standing alone does not pass muster as a “rational basis” justification for a facially anticompetitive law. Another approach is to deploy takings law (highlighted in a current challenge to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s raisin cartel) and the negative commerce clause in appropriate circumstances. The utility of these approaches, however, is substantially limited by case law.

Finally, competition advocacy – featuring public statements by competition agencies that describe the anticompetitive effects and welfare harm stemming from specific government regulations or proposed laws – remains a potentially fruitful means for highlighting the costs of anticompetitive government action and building a case for reform. As I have previously explained, the FTC has an established track record of competition advocacy filings, and the International Competition Network is encouraging the utilization of competition advocacy around the world. By shedding light on the specific baleful effects of government actions that undermine normal competitive processes, competition advocacy may over time help build a political case for reform that transcends the inherent limitations of antitrust and constitutional litigation.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to expand its presence in online data regulation.  On August 13 the FTC announced a forthcoming workshop to explore appropriate policies toward “big data,” a term used to refer to advancing technologies that are dramatically expanding the commercial collection, analysis, use, and storage of data.  This initiative follows on the heels of the FTC’s May 2014 data broker report, which recommended that Congress impose a variety of requirements on companies that legally collect and sell consumers’ personal information.  (Among other requirements, companies would be required to create consumer data “portals” and implement business procedures that allow consumers to edit and suppress use of their data.)  The FTC also is calling for legislation that would enhance its authority over data security standards and empower it to issue rules requiring companies to inform consumers of security breaches.

These recent regulatory initiatives are in addition to the Commission’s active consumer data enforcement efforts.  Some of these efforts are pursuant to three targeted statutory authorizations – the FTC’s Safeguards Rule (promulgated pursuant to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and directed at non-bank financial institutions), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (directed at consumer protecting agencies), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (directed at children’s information collected online).

The bulk of the FTC’s enforcement efforts, however, stem from its general authority to proscribe unfair or deceptive practices under Section 5(a)(1) of the FTC ActSince 2002, pursuant to its Section 5 powers, the FTC has filed and settled over 50 cases alleging that private companies used deceptive or ineffective (and thus unfair) practices in storing their data.  (Twitter, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, GMR Transcription Services, GeneLink, Inc., and mobile device provider HTC are just a few of the firms that have agreed to settle.)  Settlements have involved consent decrees under which the company in question agreed to take a wide variety of “corrective measures” to avoid future harm.

As a matter of first principles, one may question the desirability of FTC data security investigations under Section 5.  Firms have every incentive to avoid data protection breaches that harm their customers, in order to avoid the harm to reputation and business values that stem from such lapses.  At the same time, firms must weigh the costs of alternative data protection systems in determining what the appropriate degree of protection should be.  Economic logic indicates that the optimal business policy is not one that focuses solely on implementing the strongest data protection system program without regard to cost.  Rather, the optimal policy is to invest in enhancing corporate data security up to the point where the marginal benefits of additional security equal the marginal costs, and no further.  Although individual businesses can only roughly approximate this outcome, one may expect that market forces will tend toward the optimal result, as firms that underinvest in data security lose customers and firms that overinvest in security find themselves priced out of the market.  There is no obvious “market failure” that suggests the market should not work adequately in the data security area.  Indeed, there is a large (and growing) amount of information on security systems available to business, and a thriving labor market for IT security specialists to whom companies can turn in designing their security programs.   Nevertheless, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that the FTC will choose to abandon its efforts to apply Section 5 to this area.  With that in mind, let us examine more closely the problems with existing FTC Section 5 data security settlements, with an eye to determining what improvements the Commission might beneficially make if it is so inclined.

The HTC settlement illustrates the breadth of decree-specific obligations the FTC has imposed.  HTC was required to “establish a comprehensive security program, undergo independent security assessments for 20 years, and develop and release software patches to fix security vulnerabilities.”  HTC also agreed to detailed security protocols that would be monitored by a third party.  The FTC did not cite specific harmful security breaches to justify these sanctions; HTC was merely charged with a failure to “take reasonable steps” to secure smartphone software.  Nor did the FTC explain what specific steps short of the decree requirements would have been deemed “reasonable.”

The HTC settlement exemplifies the FTC’s “security by design” approach to data security, under which the agency informs firms after the fact what they should have done, without exploring what they might have done to pass muster.  Although some academics view the FTC settlements as contributing usefully to a developing “common law” of data privacy, supporters of this approach ignore its inherent ex ante vagueness and the costs decree-specific mandates impose on companies.

Another serious problem stems from the enormous investigative and litigation costs associated with challenging an FTC complaint in this area – costs that incentivize most firms to quickly accede to consent decree terms even if they are onerous.  The sad case of LabMD, a small cancer detection lab, serves as warning to businesses that choose to engage in long-term administrative litigation against the FTC.  Due to the cost burden of the FTC’s multi-year litigation against it (which is still ongoing as of this writing), LabMD was forced to wind down its operations, and it stopped accepting new patients in January 2014.

The LabMD case suggests that FTC data security initiatives, carried out without regard to the scale or resources of the affected companies, have the potential to harm competition.  Relatively large companies are much better able to absorb FTC litigation and investigation costs.  Thus, it may be in the large firms’ interests to encourage the FTC to support intrusive and burdensome new FTC data security initiatives, as part of a “raising rivals’ costs” strategy to cripple or eliminate smaller rivals.  As a competition and consumer welfare watchdog, the FTC should keep this risk in mind when weighing the merits of expanding data security regulations or launching new data security investigations.

A common thread runs through the FTC’s myriad activities in data privacy “space” – the FTC’s failure to address whether its actions are cost-beneficial.  There is little doubt that the FTC’s enforcement actions impose substantial costs, both on businesses subject to decree and investigation, and on other firms possessing data that must contemplate business system redesigns to forestall potential future liability.  As a result, business innovation suffers.  Furthermore, those costs are passed on at least in part to consumers, in the form of higher prices and a reduction in the quality and quantity of new products and services.  The FTC should, consistent with its consumer welfare mandate, carefully weigh these costs against the presumed benefits flowing from a reduction in future data breaches.  A failure to carry out a cost-benefit appraisal, even a rudimentary one, makes it impossible to determine whether the FTC’s much touted data privacy projects are enhancing or reducing consumer welfare.

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright recently gave voice to the importance of cost benefit analysis in commenting on the FTC’s data brokerage report – a comment that applies equally well to all of the FTC’s data protection and privacy initiatives:

“I would . . . like to see evidence of the incidence and scope of consumer harms rather than just speculative hypotheticals about how consumers might be harmed before regulation aimed at reducing those harms is implemented.  Accordingly, the FTC would need to quantify more definitively the incidence or value of data broker practices to consumers before taking or endorsing regulatory or legislative action. . . .  We have no idea what the costs for businesses would be to implement consumer control over any and all data shared by data brokers and to what extent these costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers.  Once again, a critical safeguard to insure against the risk that our recommendations and actions do more harm than good for consumers is to require appropriate and thorough cost-benefit analysis before acting.  This failure could be especially important where the costs to businesses from complying with any recommendations are high, but where the ultimate benefit generated for consumers is minimal. . . .  If consumers have minimal concerns about the sharing of certain types of information – perhaps information that is already publicly available – I think we should know that before requiring data brokers to alter their practices and expend resources and incur costs that will be passed on to consumers.”

The FTC could take several actions to improve its data enforcement policies.  First and foremost, it could issue Data Security Guidelines that (1) clarify the FTC’s enforcement actions regarding data security will be rooted in cost-benefit analysis, and (2) will take into account investigative costs as well as (3) reasonable industry self-regulatory efforts.  (Such Guidelines should be framed solely as limiting principles that tie the FTC’s hands to avoid enforcement excesses.  They should studiously avoid dictating to industry the data security principles that firms should adopt.)  Second, it could establish an FTC website portal that features continuously updated information on the Guidelines and other sources of guidance on data security. Third, it could employ cost-benefit analysis before pursuing any new regulatory initiatives, legislative recommendations, or investigations related to other areas of data protection.  Fourth, it could urge its foreign counterpart agencies to adopt similar cost-benefit approaches to data security regulation.

Congress could also improve the situation by enacting a narrowly tailored statute that preempts all state regulation related to data protection.  Forty-seven states now have legislation in this area, which adds additional burdens to those already imposed by federal law.  Furthermore, differences among state laws render the data protection efforts of merchants who may have to safeguard data from across the country enormously complex and onerous.  Given the inherently interstate nature of electronic commerce and associated data breaches, preemption of state regulation in this area would comport with federalism principles.  (Consistent with public choice realities, there is always the risk, of course, that Congress might be tempted to go beyond narrow preemption and create new and unnecessary federal powers in this area.  I believe, however, that such a risk is worth running, given the potential magnitude of excessive regulatory burdens, and the ability to articulate a persuasive public policy case for narrow preemptive legislation.)

Stay tuned for a more fulsome discussion of these issues by me.