Archives For antitrust

[TOTM: The following is the seventh 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 Cento Veljanoski, Managing Partner, Case Associates and IEA Fellow in Law and Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs.

The concept of a “good” or “efficient” cartel is generally regarded by competition authorities as an oxymoron. A cartel is seen as the worst type of antitrust violation and one that warrants zero tolerance. Agreements between competitors to raise prices and share the market are assumed unambiguously to reduce economic welfare. As such, even if these agreements are ineffective, the law should come down hard on attempts to rig prices. In this post, I argue that this view goes too far and that even ‘hard core’ cartels that lower output and increase prices can be efficient, and pro-competitive. I discuss three examples of where hard core cartels may be efficient.

Resuscitating the efficient cartel

Basic economic theory tells us that coordination can be efficient in many instances, and this is accepted in law, e.g. joint ventures and agreements on industry standards.  But where competitors agree on prices and the volume of sales – so called “hard core” cartels – there is intolerance.

Nonetheless there is a recognition that cartel-like arrangements can promote efficiency. For example, Article 101(3)TFEU exempts anticompetitive agreements or practices whose economic and/or technical benefits outweigh their restrictions on competition, provided a fair share of those benefits are passed-on to consumers. However, this so-called ‘efficiency defence’ is highly unlikely to be accepted for hard core cartels nor are the wider economic or non-economic considerations. But as will be shown, there are classes of hard core cartels and restrictive agreement which, while they reduce output, raise prices and foreclose entry, are nonetheless efficient and not anticompetitive.

Destructive competition and the empty core

The claim that cartels have beneficial effects precedes US antitrust law. Trusts were justified as necessary to prevent ‘ruinous’ or ‘destructive’ competition in industries with high fixed costs subject to frequent ‘price wars’. This was the unsuccessful defence in Trans-Missouri (166 U.S. 290 (1897), where 18 US railroad companies formed a trust to set their rates, arguing that absent their agreement there would be ruinous competition, eventual monopoly and even higher prices.  Since then industries such as steel, cement, paper, shipping and airlines have at various times claimed that competition was unsustainable and wasteful.

These seem patently self-serving claims.  But the idea that some industries are unstable without a competitive equilibrium has long been appreciated by economists.  Nearly a century after Trans-Missouri, economist Lester Telser (1996) refreshed the idea that cooperative arrangements among firms in some industries were not attempts to impose monopoly prices but a response to their inherent structural inefficiency. This was based on the concept of an ‘empty core’. While Tesler’s article uses some hideously dense mathematical game theory, the idea is simple to state.  A market is said to have a ‘core’ if there is a set of transactions between buyers and sellers such that there are no other transactions that could make some of the buyers or sellers better off. Such a core will survive in a competitive market if all firms can make zero economic profits. In a market with an empty core no coalition of firms will be able to earn zero profits; some firms will be able to earn a surplus and thereby attract entry, but because the core is empty the new entry will inflict losses on all firms. When firms exit due to their losses, the remaining firms again earn economic profits, and attract entry. There are no competitive long-run stable equilibria for these industries.

The literature suggests that an industry is likely to have an empty core: (1) where firms have fixed production capacities; (2) that are large relative to demand; (3) there are scale economies in production; (4) incremental costs are low, (5) demand is uncertain and fluctuates markedly; and (6) output cannot be stored cheaply. Industries which have frequently been cartelised share many of these features (see above).

In the 1980s several academic studies applied empty core theory to antitrust. Brittlingmayer (1982) claimed that the US iron pipe industry had an empty core and that the famous Addyston Pipe case was thus wrongly decided, and responsible for mergers in the industry.

Sjostrom (1989) and others have argued that conference lines were not attempts to overcharge shippers but to counteract an empty core that led to volatile market shares and freight rates due to excess capacity and fixed schedules.  This type of analysis formed the basis for their exemption from competition laws. Since the nineteenth century, liner conferences had been permitted to fix prices and regulate capacity on routes between Europe, and North America and the Far East. The EU block exemption (Council Regulation 4056/86) allowed them to set common freight rates, to take joint decisions on the limitation of supply and to coordinate timetables. However the justifications for these exemptions has worn thin. As from October 2008, these EU exemptions were removed based on scepticism that liner shipping is an empty core industry particularly because, with the rise of modern leasing and chartering techniques to manage capacity, the addition of shipping capacity is no longer a lumpy process. 

While the empty core argument may have merit, it is highly unlikely to persuade European competition authorities, and the experience with legal cartels that have been allowed in order to rationalise production and costs has not been good.

Where there are environmental problems

Cartels in industries with significant environmental problems – which produce economic ‘bads’ rather than goods – can have beneficial effects. Restricting the output of an economic bad is good. Take an extreme example. When most people hear the word cartel, they think of a Colombian drugs cartel. . A drugs cartel reduces drug trafficking to keep its profits high. Competition in the supply would  lead to an over-supply of cheaper drugs, and a cartel charging higher prices and lower output is superior to a competitive outcome.

The same logic applies also to industries in which bads, such as pollution, are a by-product of otherwise legitimate and productive activities.  An industry which generates pollution does not take the full costs of its activities into account, and hence output is over-expanded and prices too low. Economic efficiency requires a reduction in the harmful activities and the associated output.  It also requires the product’s price to increase to incorporate the pollution costs. A cartel that raises prices can move such an industry’s output and harm closer to the efficient level, although this would not be in response to higher pollution-inclusive costs – which makes this a second-best solution.

There has been a fleeting recognition that competition in the presence of external costs is not efficient and that restricting output does not necessarily distort competition. In 1999, the European Commission almost uniquely exempted a cartel-like restrictive agreement among producers and importers of washing machines under Article 101(3)TFEU (Case IV.F.1/36.718. CECED).  The agreement not to produce or import the least energy efficient washing machines representing 10-11% of then EC sales would adversely affect competition and increase prices since the most polluting machines were the least expensive ones.

The Commission has since rowed back from its broad application of Article 101(3)TFEU in CECED. In its 2001 Guidelines on Horizontal Agreements it devoted a chapter to environmental agreements which it removed from its revised 2011 Guidelines (para 329) which treated CECED as a standardisation agreement.

Common property industries

A more clear-cut case of an efficient cartel is where firms compete over a common property resource for which property rights are ill-defined or absent, such as is often the case for fisheries. In these industries, competition leads to excessive entry, over-exploitation, and the dissipation of the economic returns (rents).  A cartel – a ‘club’ of fisherman – having sole control of the fishing grounds would unambiguously increase efficiency even though it increased prices, reduced production and foreclosed entry. 

The benefits of such cartels have not been accepted in law by competition authorities. The Dutch competition authority’s (MNa Case No. 2269/330) and the European Commission’s (Case COMP/39633 Shrimps) shrimps decisions in 2013-14 imposed fines on Dutch shrimp fleet and wholesalers’ organisations for agreeing quotas and prices. One study showed that the Dutch agreement reduced the fishing catch by at least 12%-16% during the cartel period and increased wholesale prices. However, this output reduction and increase in prices was not welfare-reducing if the competitive outcome resulted over-fishing. This and subsequent cases have resulted in a vigorous policy debate in the Netherlands over the use of Article 101(3)TFEU to take the wider benefits into account (ACM Position Paper 2014).

Sustainability and Article 101(3)

There is a growing debate over the conflict between and antitrust and other policy objectives, such as sustainability and industrial policy. One strand of this debate focuses on expanding the efficiency defence under Article 101(3)TFEU.  As currently framed, it has not enabled the reduction in pollution costs or resource over-exploitation to exempt restrictive agreements which distort competition even though these agreements may be efficient. In the pollution case the benefits are generalised ones to third parties not consumers, which are difficult to quantify. In the fisheries case, the short-term welfare of existing consumers is unambiguously reduced as they pay higher prices for less fish; the benefits are long term (more sustainable fish stock which can continue to be consumed) and may not be realized at all by current consumers but rather will accrue to future generations.

To accommodate sustainability concerns and other efficiency factors Article 101(3)TFEU would have to be expanded into a public interest defence based on a wider total welfare objective, not just consumers’ welfare as it is now, which took into account the long-run interest of consumers and third parties potentially affected by a restrictive agreement. This would mark a radical and open-ended expansion of the objectives of European antitrust and the grounds for exemption. It would put sustainability on the same plank as the clamour that industrial policy be taken-into-account by antitrust authorities, which has been firmly resisted so far.  This is not to belittle both the economic and environmental grounds for a public interest defence, it is just to recognise that it is difficult to see how this can be coherently incorporated into Article 101(3)TFEU while at the same time as preserving the integrity and focus of European antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is the sixth 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 Kristian Stout, Associate Director at the International Center for Law & Economics.

There is a push underway to punish big tech firms, both for alleged wrongdoing and in an effort to prevent future harm. But the movement to use antitrust law to punish big tech firms is far more about political expediency than it is about sound competition policy. 

For a variety of reasons, there is a current of dissatisfaction in society with respect to the big tech companies, some of it earned, and some of it unearned. Between March 2019 and September 2019, polls suggested that Americans were increasingly willing to entertain breaking up or otherwise increasing regulation on the big tech firms. No doubt, some significant share of this movement in popular opinion is inspired by increasingly negative reporting from major news outlets (see, for a small example, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). But, the fact that these companies make missteps does not require that any means at hand should be used to punish them. 

Further, not only is every tool not equal in dealing with the harms these companies could cause, we must be mindful that, even when some harm occurs, these companies generate a huge amount of social welfare. Our policy approaches to dealing with misconduct, therefore, must be appropriately measured. 

To listen to  the media, politicians, and activists, however, one wouldn’t know that anything except extreme action — often using antitrust law — is required. Presidential hopefuls want to smash the big tech companies, while activists and academics see evidence of anticompetitive conduct in every facet of these  companies’ behavior. Indeed, some claim that the firms themselves are per se a harm to democracy

The confluence of consumer dissatisfaction and activist zeal leads to a toxic result: not wanting to let a good crisis go to waste, activists and politicians push the envelope on the antitrust theories they want to apply to the detriment of the rule of law. 

Consumer concerns

Missteps by the big tech companies, both perceived and real, have led to some degree of consumer dissatisfaction. In terms of real harms data breaches and privacy scandals have gained more attention in recent years and are undoubtedly valid concerns of consumers. 

In terms of perceived harms, it has, for example, become increasingly popular to blame big tech companies for tilting the communications landscape in favor of one or another political preference. Ironically, the accusations leveled against big tech are frequently at odds. Some progressives blame big tech for helping Donald Trump to be elected president, while some conservatives believe a pervasive bias in Silicon Valley in favor of progressive policies harms conservative voices. 

But, at the same time, consumers are well familiar with the benefits that search engines, the smartphone revolution, and e-commerce have provided to society. The daily life of the average consumer is considerably better today than it was in past decades thanks to the digital services and low cost technology that is in reach of even the poorest among us. 

So why do consumers appear to be listening to the heated rhetoric of the antitrust populists?

Paul Seabright pointed to one of the big things that I think is motivating consumer willingness to listen to populist attacks on otherwise well-regarded digital services. In his keynote speech at ICLE’s “Dynamic Competition and Online Platforms” conference earlier this month, he discussed the role of trust in the platform ecosystem. According to Seabright, 

Large digital firms create anxiety in proportion to how much they meet our needs… They are strong complements to many of our talents and activities – but they also threaten to provide lots of easy substitutes for us and our talents and activities… The more we trust them the more we (rightly) fear the abuse of their trust.

Extending this insight, we imbue these platforms with a great deal of trust because they are so important to our daily lives. And we have a tendency to respond dramatically to (perceived or actual) violations of trust by these platforms because they do such a great job in nearly every respect. When a breach of that trust happens — even if its relative impact on our lives is small, and the platform continues to provide a large amount of value — we respond not in terms of its proportionate effect on our lives, but in the emotional terms of one who has been wronged by a confidant.

It is that emotional lever that populist activists and politicians are able to press. The populists can frame the failure of the firms as the sum total of their existence, and push for extreme measures that otherwise (and even a few short years ago) would have been unimaginable. 

Political opportunism

The populist crusade is fueled by the underlying sentiment of consumers, but has its own separate ends. Some critics of the state of antitrust law are seeking merely a realignment of priorities within existing doctrine. The pernicious crusade of antitrust populists, however, seeks much more. These activists (and some presidential hopefuls) want nothing short of breaking up big tech and of returning the country to some ideal of “democracy” imagined as having existed in the hazy past when antitrust laws were unevenly enforced.

It is a laudable goal to ensure that the antitrust laws are being properly administered on their own terms, but it is an entirely different project to crusade to make antitrust great again based on the flawed understandings from a century ago. 

In few areas of life would most of us actually yearn to reestablish the political and social order of times gone by — notwithstanding presidential rhetoric. The sepia-toned crusade to smash tech companies into pieces inherits its fervor from Louis Brandeis and his fellow travelers who took on the mustache-twisting villains of their time: Carnegie, Morgan, Mellon and the rest of the allegedly dirty crew of scoundrels. 

Matt Stoller’s recent book Goliath captures this populist dynamic well. He describes the history of antitrust passionately, as a morality play between the forces of light and those of darkness. On one side are heroes like Wright Patman, a scrappy poor kid from Texas who went to a no-name law school and rose to prominence in Washington as an anti-big-business crusader. On the other side are shadowy characters like Andrew Mellon, who cynically manipulated his way into government after growing bored with administering his vast, immorally acquired economic empire. 

A hundred years ago the populist antitrust quest was a response to the success of industrial titans, and their concentration of wealth in the hands of relatively few. Today, a similar set of arguments are directed at the so-called big tech companies. Stoller sees the presence of large tech firms as inimical to democracy itself — “If we don’t do something about big tech, something meaningful, we’ll just become a fascist society. It’s fairly simple.” Tim Wu has made similar claims (which my colleague Alec Stapp has ably rebutted).

In the imagination of the populists, there are good guys and bad guys and the optimal economy would approach atomistic competition. In such a world, the “little guy” can have his due and nefarious large corporations cannot become too economically powerful relative to the state.

Politicians enter this mix of consumer sentiment and populist activism with their own unique priors. On the one hand, consumer dissatisfaction makes big tech a ripe target to score easy political points. It’s a hot topic that fits easily into fundraising pitches. After all, who really cares if the billionaires lose a couple of million dollars through state intervention?

In truth, I suspect that politicians are ambivalent about what exactly to do to make good on their anti-big tech rhetoric. They will be forced to admit that these companies provide an enormous amount of social value, and if they destroy that value, fickle voters will punish them. The threat at hand is if politicians allow themselves to be seduced by the simplistic policy recommendations of the populists.

Applying the right tool to the job

Antitrust is a seductive tool to use against politically disfavored companies. It is an arcane area of law which, to the average observer, will be just so much legalese. It is, therefore, relatively easy to covertly import broader social preferences through antitrust action and pretend that the ends of the law aren’t being corrupted. 

But this would be a mistake. 

The complicated problem with the big tech companies is that they indeed could be part of a broader set of social ills mentioned above. Its complicated because it’s highly unlikely that these platforms cause the problems in society, or that any convenient legal tool like antitrust will do much to actually remedy the problems we struggle with. 

Antitrust is a goal-focused body of law, and the goal it seeks—optimizing consumer welfare—is distinctly outside of the populist agenda. The real danger in the populist campaign is not just the social losses we will incur if they successfully smash productive firms, but the long term harm to the rule of law. 

The American system of law is fundamentally predicated on an idea of promulgating rules of general applicability, and resorting to sector- or issue-specific regulations when those general bodies of law are found to be inapplicable or ineffective. 

Banking regulation is a prime example. Banks are subject to general regulation from entities like the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, but, for particular issues, are subject to other agencies and laws. Requirements for deterring money laundering, customer privacy obligations, and rules mandating the separation of commercial banking from investment activities all were enacted through specific legislation aimed to tailor the regulatory regime that banks faced. 

Under many of the same theories being propounded by the populists, antitrust should have been used for at least some of these ends. Couldn’t you frame the “problem” of mixing commercial banking and investment as one of impermissible integration that harms the competitive process? Wouldn’t concerns for the privacy of bank consumers sound in exactly the same manner as that proposed by advocates who claim that concentrated industries lack the incentive to properly include privacy as a dimension of product quality?

But if we hew to rigorous interpretation of competition policy, the problem for critics is that their claims that actually sound in antitrust – that Amazon predatorily prices, or Google engages in anticompetitive tying, for example – are highly speculative and not at all an easy play if pressed in litigation. So they try “new” theories of antitrust as a way to achieve preferred policy ends. Changing well accepted doctrine, such as removing the recoupement requirement from predatory pricing in order to favor small firms, or introducing broad privacy or data sharing obligations as part of competition “remedies”, is a terrible path for the stability of society and the health of the rule of law. 

Concerns about privacy, hate speech, and, more broadly, the integrity of the democratic process are critical issues to wrestle with. But these aren’t antitrust problems. If we lived in a different sort of society, where the rule of law meant far less than it does here, its conceivable that we could use whatever legal tool was at hand to right the wrongs of society. But this isn’t a good answer if you take seriously constitutional design; allowing antitrust law to “solve” broader social problems is to suborn Congress in giving away its power to a relatively opaque enforcement process. 

We should not have our constitution redesigned by antitrust lawyers.

Big Ink vs. Bigger Tech

Ramsi Woodcock —  30 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter ledes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising monopolies old and new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catastrophe of countervailing power

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

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

The abuse of antitrust

Except antitrust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The anti-progress wing of the progressive movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of the press

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

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

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

The future of the news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TOTM: The following is the fourth 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 Valentin Mircea, a Senior Partner at Mircea and Partners Law Firm, Bucharest, Romania.

The enforcement of competition rules in the European Union is at historic heights. Competition enforcers at the European Commission seem to think that they have reached a point of perfect equilibrium, or perfection in enforcement. “Everything we do is right,” they seem to say, because for decades no significant competition decision by the Commission has been annulled on substance. Meanwhile, the objectives of EU competition law multiply continuously, as DG Competition assumes more and more public policy objectives. Indeed, so wide is DG Competition’s remit that it has become a kind of government in itself, charged with many areas and facing several problems looking for a cure.

The consumer welfare standard is merely affirmed and rarely pursued in the enforcement of the EU competition rules, where even the abuse of dominance tends to be considered as a per se infringement, at least until the European Court of Justice had its say in Intel. It helps that this standard has been always of a secondary importance in the European Union, where the objective of market integration prevailed over time.

Now other issues are catching the eye of the European Commission and the easiest way to handle things such as the increasing power of the technology companies was to make use of the toolkit of the EU competition enforcement.  A technology giant such as Google has already been hit three times with significant fines; but beyond the transient glory of these decisions, nothing significant happened in the market, to other companies or to consumers. Or it did? I’m not sure and nobody seems to check or even care. But the impetus in investigating and applying fines on the technology companies is unshaken — and is likely to remain so at least until the European Court of Justice has its say in a new roster of cases, which will not happen very soon.

The EU competition rules look both over- and under-enforced. This seeming paradox is explained by the formalistic approach of the European Commission and its willingness to serve political purposes, often the result of lobbying from various industries.  In the European Union, competition enforcement increasingly resembles Swiss Army knife; it is good for quick fixes of various problems, while not solving entirely any of them. 

The pursuit of political goals is not necessarily bad in itself; it seems obvious that competition enforcers should listen to the worries of the societies in which they live. Once objectives such as welfare seem to have been attained, it is thus not entirely surprising that enforcement should move towards fixing other societal problems. Take the case of the antitrust laws in the United States, the enactment of which was not determined by an overwhelming concern for consumer welfare or economic efficiency but by powerful lobbies that convinced Congress to act as a referee for their long-lasting disputes with different industries.  In spite of this not-so-glorious origin, the resultant antitrust rules have generated many benefits throughout the world and are an essential part of the efforts to keep markets competitive and ensure a level-playing field. So, why worry that the European Commission – and, more recently, even certain national competition authorities (such as Germany) – have developed a tendency to use powerful competition rules to make order in other areas, where the public opinion, irrespective if it is or not aware of the real causes of concern, requires it?

But in fact, what is happening today is bad and is setting precedents never seen before.  The speed at which new fronts are being opened, where the enforcement of the EU competition rules is an essential part of the weaponry, gives rise to two main areas of concern.

First, EU competition enforcers are generally ill-equipped to address sensitive technical issues that even big experts in the field do not understand properly, such as the use of the Big Data (a vague concept itself, open to various interpretations).  While creating a different set of rules and a new toolkit for the digital economy does not seem to be warranted (debates are still raging on this subject), a dose of humility as to the right level of knowledge required for a proper understanding of the interactions and for proper enforcement, would be most welcome.  Venturing into territories where conventional economics does not apply to its full extent, such as the absence of a price, an essential element of competition, requires a prudent and diligent enforcer to hold back, advance cautiously, and act only where deemed necessary, in an appropriate and proportionate way. So doing is more likely to have an observably beneficial impact, in contrast to the illusory glory of simply confronting the tech giants.

Second, given the limited resources of the European Commission and the national competition authorities in the Member States, exaggerated attention to cases in the technology and digital economy sectors will result in less enforcement in the traditional economy, where cartels and other harmful behaviors still happen, with often more visible negative effects on consumers and the economy. It is no longer fashionable to tackle such cases, as they do not draw the same attention from the media and their outcomes are not likely to create the same fame to the EU competition enforcers.

More recently, in an interesting move, the new European Commission unified the competition and the digital economy portfolios under the astute supervision of commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Beyond the anomaly to put together ex-ante and ex-post powers, the move signals an even larger propensity towards using competition enforcement tools in order to investigate and try to rein in the power of the behemoths of the digital economy.  The change is a powerful political message that EU competition enforcement will be even more prone to cases and decisions motivated by the pursuit of various public policy goals.

I am not saying that the approach taken by the EU competition enforcers has no chance of generating benefits for European consumers. But I am worried that moving ahead with the same determination and with the same limited expertise of the case handlers as has so far been demonstrated, is unlikely to deliver such a beneficial outcome. Moreover, contrary to the stated intention of the policy, it is likely to chill further the prospects for EU technology ventures. 

Last but not least, courageous enforcement of EU competition rules is not a panacea for the unwanted effects on the evidentiary tier, which might put in danger the credibility of this enforcement, its most valuable feature. Indeed, EU competition enforcement may be at its heights but there is no certainty that it won’t fall from there — and falling could be as spectacular as the cases which made the European Commission get to this point. I thus advocate for DG Competition to be wise and humble, to take one step at a time, to acknowledge that markets are generally able to self-correct, and to remember that the history of the economy is little more than a cemetery of forgotten giants that were once assumed to be unshakeable and unstoppable.

[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.

[TOTM: The following is the third 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 Geoffrey A. Manne, president and founder of the International Center for Law & Economics, and Alec Stapp, Research Fellow at the International Center for Law & Economics.

Source: The Economist

Is there a relationship between concentrated economic power and political power? Do big firms have success influencing politicians and regulators to a degree that smaller firms — or even coalitions of small firms — could only dream of? That seems to be the narrative that some activists, journalists, and scholars are pushing of late. And, to be fair, it makes some intuitive sense (before you look at the data). The biggest firms have the most resources — how could they not have an advantage in the political arena?

The argument that corporate power leads to political power faces at least four significant challenges, however. First, the little empirical research there is does not support the claim. Second, there is almost no relationship between market capitalization (a proxy for economic power) and lobbying expenditures (a, admittedly weak, proxy for political power). Third, the absolute level of spending on lobbying is surprisingly low in the US given the potential benefits from rent-seeking (this is known as the Tullock paradox). Lastly, the proposed remedy for this supposed problem is to make antitrust more political — an intervention that is likely to make the problem worse rather than better (assuming there is a problem to begin with).

The claims that political power follows economic power

The claim that large firms or industry concentration causes political power (and thus that under-enforcement of antitrust laws is a key threat to our democratic system of government) is often repeated, and accepted as a matter of faith. Take, for example, Robert Reich’s March 2019 Senate testimony on “Does America Have a Monopoly Problem?”:

These massive corporations also possess substantial political clout. That’s one reason they’re consolidating: They don’t just seek economic power; they also seek political power.

Antitrust laws were supposed to stop what’s been going on.

* * *

[S]uch large size and gigantic capitalization translate into political power. They allow vast sums to be spent on lobbying, political campaigns, and public persuasion. (emphasis added)

Similarly, in an article in August of 2019 for The Guardian, law professor Ganesh Sitaraman argued there is a tight relationship between economic power and political power:

[R]eformers recognized that concentrated economic power — in any form — was a threat to freedom and democracy. Concentrated economic power not only allowed for localized oppression, especially of workers in their daily lives, it also made it more likely that big corporations and wealthy people wouldn’t be subject to the rule of law or democratic controls. Reformers’ answer to the concentration of economic power was threefold: break up economic power, rein it in through regulation, and tax it.

It was the reformers of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era who invented America’s antitrust laws — from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission Acts of the early 20th century. Whether it was Republican trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt or liberal supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, courageous leaders in this era understood that when companies grow too powerful they threatened not just the economy but democratic government as well. Break-ups were a way to prevent the agglomeration of economic power in the first place, and promote an economic democracy, not just a political democracy. (emphasis added)

Luigi Zingales made a similar argument in his 2017 paper “Towards a Political Theory of the Firm”:

[T]he interaction of concentrated corporate power and politics is a threat to the functioning of the free market economy and to the economic prosperity it can generate, and a threat to democracy as well. (emphasis added)

The assumption that economic power leads to political power is not a new one. Not only, as Zingales points out, have political thinkers since Adam Smith asserted versions of the same, but more modern social scientists have continued the claims with varying (but always indeterminate) degrees of quantification. Zingales quotes Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means’ 1932 book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, for example:

The rise of the modern corporation has brought a concentration of economic power which can compete on equal terms with the modern state — economic power versus political power, each strong in its own field. 

Russell Pittman (an economist at the DOJ Antitrust Division) argued in 1988 that rent-seeking activities would be undertaken only by firms in highly concentrated industries because:

if the industry in question is unconcentrated, then the firm may decide that the level of benefits accruing to the industry will be unaffected by its own level of contributions, so that the benefits may be enjoyed without incurrence of the costs. Such a calculation may be made by other firms in the industry, of course, with the result that a free-rider problem prevents firms individually from making political contributions, even if it is in their collective interest to do so.

For the most part the claims are virtually entirely theoretical and their support anecdotal. Reich, for example, supports his claim with two thin anecdotes from which he draws a firm (but, in fact, unsupported) conclusion: 

To take one example, although the European Union filed fined [sic] Google a record $2.7 billion for forcing search engine users into its own shopping platforms, American antitrust authorities have not moved against the company.

Why not?… We can’t be sure why the FTC chose not to pursue Google. After all, section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 gives the Commission broad authority to prevent unfair acts or practices. One distinct possibility concerns Google’s political power. It has one of the biggest lobbying powerhouses in Washington, and the firm gives generously to Democrats as well as Republicans.

A clearer example of an abuse of power was revealed last November when the New York Times reported that Facebook executives withheld evidence of Russian activity on their platform far longer than previously disclosed.

Even more disturbing, Facebook employed a political opposition research firm to discredit critics. How long will it be before Facebook uses its own data and platform against critics? Or before potential critics are silenced even by the possibility? As the Times’s investigation made clear, economic power cannot be separated from political power. (emphasis added)

The conclusion — that “economic power cannot be separated from political power” — simply does not follow from the alleged evidence. 

The relationship between economic power and political power is extremely weak

Few of these assertions of the relationship between economic and political power are backed by empirical evidence. Pittman’s 1988 paper is empirical (as is his previous 1977 paper looking at the relationship between industry concentration and contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign), but it is also in direct contradiction to several other empirical studies (Zardkoohi (1985); Munger (1988); Esty and Caves (1983)) that find no correlation between concentration and political influence; Pittman’s 1988 paper is indeed a response to those papers, in part. 

In fact, as one study (Grier, Muger & Roberts (1991)) summarizes the evidence:

[O]f ten empirical investigations by six different authors/teams…, relatively few of the studies find a positive, significant relation between contributions/level of political activity and concentration, though a variety of measures of both are used…. 

There is little to recommend most of these studies as conclusive one way or the other on the question of interest. Each one suffers from a sample selection or estimation problem that renders its results suspect. (emphasis added)

And, as they point out, there is good reason to question the underlying theory of a direct correlation between concentration and political influence:

[L]egislation or regulation favorable to an industry is from the perspective of a given firm a public good, and therefore subject to Olson’s collective action problem. Concentrated industries should suffer less from this difficulty, since their sparse numbers make bargaining cheaper…. [But at the same time,] concentration itself may affect demand, suggesting that the predicted correlation between concentration and political activity may be ambiguous, or even negative. 

* * *

The only conclusion that seems possible is that the question of the correct relation between the structure of an industry and its observed level of political activity cannot be resolved theoretically. While it may be true that firms in a concentrated industry can more cheaply solve the collective action problem that inheres in political action, they are also less likely to need to do so than their more competitive brethren…. As is so often the case, the interesting question is empirical: who is right? (emphasis added)

The results of Grier, Muger & Roberts (1991)’s own empirical study are ambiguous at best (and relate only to political participation, not success, and thus not actual political power):

[A]re concentrated industries more or less likely to be politically active? Numerous previous studies have addressed this topic, but their methods are not comparable and their results are flatly contradictory. 

On the side of predicting a positive correlation between concentration and political activity is the theory that Olson’s “free rider” problem has more bite the larger the number of participants and the smaller their respective individual benefits. Opposing this view is the claim that it precisely because such industries are concentrated that they have less need for government intervention. They can act on their own to gamer the benefits of cartelization that less concentrated industries can secure only through political activity. 

Our results indicate that both sides are right, over some range of concentration. The relation between political activity and concentration is a polynomial of degree 2, rising and then falling, achieving a peak at a four-firm concentration ratio slightly below 0.5. (emphasis added)

Despite all of this, Zingales (like others) explicitly claims that there is a clear and direct relationship between economic power and political power:

In the last three decades in the United States, the power of corporations to shape the rules of the game has become stronger… [because] the size and market share of companies has increased, which reduces the competition across conflicting interests in the same sector and makes corporations more powerful vis-à-vis consumers’ interest.

But a quick look at the empirical data continues to call this assertion into serious question. Indeed, if we look at the lobbying expenditures of the top 50 companies in the US by market capitalization, we see an extremely weak (at best) relationship between firm size and political power (as proxied by lobbying expenditures):

Of course, once again, this says little about the effectiveness of efforts to exercise political power, which could, in theory, correlate with market power but not expenditures. Yet the evidence on this suggests that, while concentration “increases both [political] activity and success…, [n]either firm size nor industry size has a robust influence on political activity or success.” (emphasis added). Of course there are enormous and well-known problems with measuring industry concentration, and it’s not clear that even this attribute is well-correlated with political activity or success (and, interestingly for the argument that profits are a big part of the story because firms in more concentrated industries from lax antitrust realize higher profits have more money to spend on political influence, even concentration in the Esty and Caves study is not correlated with political expenditures.)

Indeed, a couple of examples show the wide range of lobbying expenditures for a given firm size. Costco, which currently has a market cap of $130 billion, has spent only $210,000 on lobbying so far in 2019. By contrast, Amgen, which has a $144 billion market cap, has spent $8.54 million, or more than 40 times as much. As shown in the chart above, this variance is the norm. 

However, discussing the relative differences between these companies is less important than pointing out the absolute levels of expenditure. Spending eight and a half million dollars per year would not be prohibitive for literally thousands of firms in the US. If access is this cheap, what’s going on here?

Why is there so little money in US politics?

The Tullock paradox asks why, if the return to rent-seeking is so high — which it plausibly is because the government spends trillions of dollars each year — is so little money spent on influencing policymakers?

Considering the value of public policies at stake and the reputed influence of campaign contributors in policymaking, Gordon Tullock (1972) asked, why is there so little money in U.S. politics? In 1972, when Tullock raised this question, campaign spending was about $200 million. Assuming a reasonable rate of return, such an investment could have yielded at most $250-300 million over time, a sum dwarfed by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public expenditures and regulatory costs supposedly at stake.

A recent article by Scott Alexander updated the numbers for 2019 and compared the total to the $12 billion US almond industry:

[A]ll donations to all candidates, all lobbying, all think tanks, all advocacy organizations, the Washington Post, Vox, Mic, Mashable, Gawker, and Tumblr, combined, are still worth a little bit less than the almond industry.

Maybe it’s because spending money on donations, lobbying, think tanks, journalism and advocacy is ineffective on net (i.e., spending by one group is counterbalanced by spending by another group) and businesses know it?

In his paper on elections, Ansolabehere focuses on the corporate perspective. He argues that money neither makes a candidate much more likely to win, nor buys much influence with a candidate who does win. Corporations know this, which is why they don’t bother spending more. (emphasis added)

To his credit, Zingales acknowledges this issue:

To the extent that US corporations are exercising political influence, it seems that they are choosing less-visible but perhaps more effective ways. In fact, since Gordon Tullock’s (1972) famous article, it has been a puzzle in political science why there is so little money in politics (as discussed in this journal by Ansolabehere, de Figueiredo, and Snyder 2003).

So, what are these “less-visible but perhaps more effective” ways? Unfortunately, the evidence in support of this claim is anecdotal and unconvincing. As noted above, Reich offers only speculation and extremely weak anecdotal assertions. Meanwhile, Zingales tells the story of Robert (mistakenly identified in the paper as “Richard”) Rubin pushing through repeal of Glass-Steagall to benefit Citigroup, then getting hired for $15 million a year when he left the government. Assuming the implication is actually true, is that amount really beyond the reach of all but the largest companies? How many banks with an interest in the repeal of Glass-Steagall were really unlikely at the time to be able to credibly offer future compensation because they would be out of business? Very few, and no doubt some of the biggest and most powerful were arguably at greater risk of bankruptcy than some of the smaller banks.

Maybe only big companies have an interest in doing this kind of thing because they have more to lose? But in concentrated industries they also have more to lose by conferring the benefit on their competitors. And it’s hard to make the repeal or passage of a law, say, apply only to you and not everyone else in the industry. Maybe they collude? Perhaps, but is there any evidence of this? Zingales offers only pure speculation here, as well. For example, why was the US Google investigation dropped but not the EU one? Clearly because of White House visits, says Zingales. OK — but how much do these visits cost firms? If that’s the source of political power, it surely doesn’t require monopoly profits to obtain it. And it’s virtually impossible that direct relationships of this kind are beyond the reach of coalitions of smaller firms, or even small firms, full stop.  

In any case, the political power explanation turns mostly on doling out favors in exchange for individuals’ payoffs — which just aren’t that expensive, and it’s doubtful that the size of a firm correlates with the quality of its one-on-one influence brokering, except to the extent that causation might run the other way — which would be an indictment not of size but of politics. Of course, in the Hobbesian world of political influence brokering, as in the Hobbesian world of pre-political society, size alone is not determinative so long as alliances can be made or outcomes turn on things other than size (e.g., weapons in the pre-Hobbesian world; family connections in the world of political influence)

The Noerr–Pennington doctrine is highly relevant here as well. In Noerr, the Court ruled that “no violation of the [Sherman] Act can be predicated upon mere attempts to influence the passage or enforcement of laws” and “[j]oint efforts to influence public officials do not violate the antitrust laws even though intended to eliminate competition.” This would seem to explain, among other things, the existence of trade associations and other entities used by coalitions of small (and large) firms to influence the policymaking process.

If what matters for influence peddling is ultimately individual relationships and lobbying power, why aren’t the biggest firms in the world the lobbying firms and consultant shops? Why is Rubin selling out for $15 million a year if the benefit to Citigroup is in the billions? And, if concentration is the culprit, why isn’t it plausibly also the solution? It isn’t only the state that keeps the power of big companies in check; it’s other big companies, too. What Henry G. Manne said in his testimony on the Industrial Reorganization Act of 1973 remains true today: 

There is simply no correlation between the concentration ratio in an industry, or the size of its firms, and the effectiveness of the industry in the halls of Government.

In addition to the data presented earlier, this analysis would be incomplete if it did not mention the role of advocacy groups in influencing outcomes, the importance and size of large foundations, the role of unions, and the role of individual relationships.

Maybe voters matter more than money?

The National Rifle Association spends very little on direct lobbying efforts (less than $10 million over the most recent two-year cycle). The organization’s total annual budget is around $400 million. In the grand scheme of things, these are not overwhelming resources. But the NRA is widely-regarded as one of the most powerful political groups in the country, particularly within the Republican Party. How could this be? In short, maybe it’s not Sturm Ruger, Remington Outdoor, and Smith & Wesson — the three largest gun manufacturers in the US — that influence gun regulations; maybe it’s the highly-motivated voters who like to buy guns. 

The NRA has 5.5 million members, many of whom vote in primaries with gun rights as one of their top issues  — if not the top issue. And with low turnout in primaries — only 8.7% of all registered voters participated in 2018 Republican primaries — a candidate seeking the Republican nomination all but has to secure an endorsement from the NRA. On this issue at least, the deciding factor is the intensity of voter preferences, not the magnitude of campaign donations from rent-seeking corporations.

The NRA is not the only counterexample to arguments like those from Zingales. Auto dealers are a constituency that is powerful not necessarily due to its raw size but through its dispersed nature. At the state level, almost every political district has an auto dealership (and the owners are some of the wealthiest and best-connected individuals in the area). It’s no surprise then that most states ban the direct sale of cars from manufacturers (i.e., you have to go through a dealer). This results in higher prices for consumers and lower output for manufacturers. But the auto dealership industry is not highly concentrated at the national level. The dealers don’t need to spend millions of dollars lobbying federal policymakers for special protections; they can do it on the local level — on a state-by-state basis — for much less money (and without merging into consolidated national chains).

Another, more recent, case highlights the factors besides money that may affect political decisions. President Trump has been highly critical of Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post (which Bezos owns) since the beginning of his administration because he views the newspaper as a political enemy. In October, Microsoft beat out Amazon for a $10 billion contract to provide cloud infrastructure for the Department of Defense (DoD). Now, Amazon is suing the government, claiming that Trump improperly influenced the competitive bidding process and cost the company a fair shot at the contract. This case is a good example of how money may not be determinative at the margin, and also how multiple “monopolies” may have conflicting incentives and we don’t know how they net out.

Politicizing antitrust will only make this problem worse

At the FTC’s “Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute advocated using antitrust to counter the political power of economically powerful firms:

[T]he main practical goal of antimonopoly is to extend checks and balances into the political economy. The foremost goal is not and must never be efficiency. Markets are made, they do not exist in any platonic ether. The making of markets is a political and moral act.

In other words, the goal of breaking up economic power is not to increase economic benefits but to decrease political influence. 

But as the author of one of the empirical analyses of the relationship between economic and political power notes the asserted “solution” to the unsupported “problem” of excess political influence by economically powerful firms — more and easier antitrust enforcement — may actually make the alleged problem worse:

Economic rents may be obtained through the process of market competition or be obtained by resorting to governmental protection. Rational firms choose the least costly alternative. Collusion to obtain governmental protection will be less costly, the higher the concentration, ceteris paribus. However, high concentration in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to induce governmental protection.

The result that rent-seeking activity is triggered when firms are affected by government regulation has a clear implication: to reduce rent-seeking waste, governmental interference in the market place needs to be attenuated. Pittman’s suggested approach, however, is “to maintain a vigorous antitrust policy” (p. 181). In fact, a more strict antitrust policy may exacerbate rent-seeking. For example, the firms which will be affected by a vigorous application of antitrust laws would have incentive to seek moderation (or rents) from Congress or from the enforcement officials.

Rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration. And imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives (as many proponents of these arguments desire), would also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so. 

And if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? With an expanded basis for increased enforcement, the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might find that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules. All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying irony of claims that we need to diminish the economic content of antitrust in order to reduce the political power of private firms: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results.

[TOTM: The following is the first 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 Steven J. Cernak, Partner at Bona Law and Adjunct Professor, University of Michigan Law School and Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School. This paper represents the current views of the author alone and not necessarily the views of any past, present or future employer or client.

When some antitrust practitioners hear “the politicization of antitrust,” they cringe while imagining, say, merger approval hanging on the size of the bribe or closeness of the connection with the right politician.  Even a more benign interpretation of the phrase “politicization of antitrust” might drive some antitrust technocrats up the wall:  “Why must the mainstream media and, heaven forbid, politicians start weighing in on what antitrust interpretations, policy and law should be?  Don’t they know that we have it all figured out and, if we decide it needs any tweaks, we’ll make those over drinks at the ABA Antitrust Section Spring Meeting?”

While I agree with the reaction to the cringe-worthy interpretation of “politicization,” I think members of the antitrust community should not be surprised or hostile to the second interpretation, that is, all the new attention from new people.  Such attention is not unusual historically; more importantly, it provides an opportunity to explain the benefits and limits of antitrust enforcement and the competitive process it is meant to protect. 

The Sherman Act itself, along with its state-level predecessors, was the product of a political reaction to perceived problems of the late 19th Century – hence all of today’s references to a “new gilded age” as echoes of the political arguments of 1890.  Since then, the Sherman Act has not been immutable.  The U.S. antitrust laws have changed – and new antitrust enforcers have even been added – when the political debates convinced enough that change was necessary.  Today’s political discussion could be surprising to so many members of the antitrust community because they were not even alive when the last major change was debated and passed

More generally, the U.S. political position on other government regulation of – or intervention or participation in – free markets has varied considerably over the years.  While controversial when they were passed, we now take Medicare and Medicaid for granted and debate “Medicare for all” – why shouldn’t an overhaul of the Sherman Act also be a legitimate political discussion?  The Interstate Commerce Commission might be gone and forgotten but at one time it garnered political support to regulate the most powerful industries of the late 19th and early 20th Century – why should a debate on new ways to regulate today’s powerful industries be out of the question? 

So today’s antitrust practitioners should avoid the temptation to proclaim an “end of history” and that all antitrust policy questions have been asked and answered and instead, as some of us have been suggesting since at least the last election cycle, join the political debate.  But now, for those of us who are generally supportive of the U.S. antitrust status quo, the question is how? 

Some have been pushing back on the supposed evidence that a change in antitrust or other governmental policies is necessary.  For instance, in late 2015 the White House Council of Economic Advisers published a paper on increased concentration in many industries which others have used as evidence of a failure of antitrust law to protect competition.  Josh Wright has used several platforms to point out that the industry measurement was too broad and the concentration level too low to be useful in these discussions.  Also, he reminded readers that concentration and levels of competition are different concepts that are not necessarily linked.  On questions surrounding inequality and stagnation of standards of living, Russ Roberts has produced a series of videos that try to explain why any such questions are difficult to answer with the easy numbers available and why, perhaps, it is not correct that “the rich got all the gains.” 

Others, like Dan Crane for instance, have advanced the debate by trying to get those commentators who are unhappy with the status quo to explain what they see as the problems and the proposed fixes.  While it might be too much to ask for unanimity among a diverse group of commentators, the debate might be more productive now that some more specific complaints and solutions have begun to emerge

Even if the problems are properly identified, we should not allow anyone to blithely assume that any – or any particular – increase in government oversight will solve it without creating different issues.  The Federal Trade Commission tackled this issue in its final hearing on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century with a panel on Frank Easterbrook’s seminal “Limits of Antitrust” paper.  I was fortunate enough to be on that panel and tried to summarize the ongoing importance of “Limits,” and advance the broader debate, by encouraging those who would change antitrust policy and increase supervision of the market to have appropriate “regulatory humility” (a term borrowed from former FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen) about what can be accomplished.

I identified three varieties of humility present in “Limits” and pertinent here.  First, there is the humility to recognize that mastering anything as complex as an economy or any significant industry will require knowledge of innumerable items, some unseen or poorly understood, and so could be impossible.  Here, Easterbrook echoes Friedrich Hayek’s “Pretense of Knowledge” Nobel acceptance speech. 

Second, there is the humility to recognize that any judge or enforcer, like any other human being, is subject to her own biases and predilections, whether based on experience or the institutional framework within which she works.  While market participants might not be perfect, great thinkers from Madison to Kovacic have recognized that “men (or any agency leaders) are not angels” either.  As Thibault Schrepel has explained, it would be “romantic” to assume that any newly-empowered government enforcer will always act in the best interest of her constituents. 

Finally, there is the humility to recognize that humanity has been around a long time and faced a number of issues and that we might learn something from how our predecessors reacted to what appear to be similar issues in history.  Given my personal history and current interests, I have focused on events from the automotive industry; however, the story of the unassailable power (until it wasn’t) of A&P and how it spawned the Robinson-Patman Act, ably told by Tim Muris and Jonathan Neuchterlein, might be more pertinent here.  So challenging those advocating for big changes to explain why they are so confident this time around can be useful. 

But while all those avenues of argument can be effective in explaining why greater government intervention in the form of new antitrust policies might be worse than the status quo, we also must do a better job at explaining why antitrust and the market forces it protects are actually good for society.  If democratic capitalism really has “lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine thinkable, enlarged the range of human choice” as claimed by Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, we should do more to spread that good news. 

Maybe we need to spend more time telling and retelling the “I, Pencil” or “It’s a Wonderful Loaf” stories about how well markets can and do work at coordinating the self-interested behavior of many to the benefit of even more.  Then we can illustrate the limited role of antitrust in that complex effort – say, punishing any collusion among the mills or bakers in those two stories to ensure the process works as beautifully and simply displayed.  For the first time in decades, politicians and real people, like the consumers whose welfare we are supposed to be protecting, are paying attention to our wonderful world of antitrust.  We should seize the opportunity to explain what we do and why it matters and discuss if any improvements can be made.

The operative text of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 is a scant 100 words:

Section 1:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal. Every person who shall make any contract or engage in any combination or conspiracy hereby declared to be illegal shall be deemed guilty of a felony…

Section 2:

Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony…

Its short length and broad implications (“Every contract… in restraint of trade… is declared to be illegal”) didn’t give the courts much to go on in terms of textualism. As for originalism, the legislative history of the Sherman Act is mixed, and no consensus currently exists among experts. In practice, that means enforcement of the antitrust laws in the US has been a product of the evolutionary common law process (and has changed over time due to economic learning). 

Over the last fifty years, academics, judges, and practitioners have generally converged on the consumer welfare standard as the best approach for protecting market competition. Although some early supporters of aggressive enforcement (e.g., Brandeis and, more recently, Pitofsky) advocated for a more political conception of antitrust, that conception of the law has been decisively rejected by the courts as the contours of the law have evolved through judicial decisionmaking. 

In the last few years, however, a movement has reemerged to expand antitrust beyond consumer welfare to include political and social issues, ranging from broadly macroeconomic matters like rising income inequality and declining wages, to sociopolitical concerns like increasing political concentration, environmental degradation, a struggling traditional news industry, and declining localism. 

Although we at ICLE are decidedly in the consumer welfare camp, the contested “original intent” of the antitrust laws and the simple progress of evolving interpretation could conceivably support a broader, more-political interpretation. It is, at the very least, a timely and significant question whether and how political and social issues might be incorporated into antitrust law. Yet much of the discussion of politics and antitrust has been heavy on rhetoric and light on substance; it is dominated by non-expert, ideologically driven opinion. 

In this blog symposium we seek to offer a more substantive and balanced discussion of the issue. To that end, we invited a number of respected economists, legal scholars, and practitioners to offer their perspectives. 

The symposium comprises posts by Steve Cernak, Luigi Zingales and Filippo Maria Lancieri, Geoffrey A. Manne and Alec Stapp, Valentin MirceaRamsi Woodcock, Kristian Stout, and Cento Veljanoski.

Both Steve Cernak and Zingales and Lancieri offer big picture perspectives. Cernak sees the current debate as, “an opportunity to explain the benefits and limits of antitrust enforcement and the competitive process it is meant to protect.” He then urges “regulatory humility” and outlines what this means in the context of antitrust.  

Zingales and Lancieri note that “simply “politicizing” the current antitrust regime would be very dangerous for the economic well-being of nations.” More specifically, they observe that “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.” Nonetheless, they argue that nuanced changes to the application of antitrust law may be justified because, “as markets become more concentrated, incumbent firms become better at distorting the political process in their favor.”

Manne and Stapp question the existence of a causal relationship between market concentration and political power, noting that there is little empirical support for such a claim.  Moreover, they warn that politicizing antitrust will inevitably result in more politicized antitrust enforcement actions to the detriment of consumers and democracy. 

Mircea argues that antitrust enforcement in the EU is already too political and that enforcement has been too focused on “Big Tech” companies. The result has been to chill investment in technology firms in the EU while failing to address legitimate antitrust violations in other sectors. 

Woodcock argues that the excessive focus on “Big Tech” companies as antitrust villains has come in no small part from a concerted effort by “Big Ink” (i.e. media companies), who resent the loss of advertising revenue that has resulted from the emergence of online advertising platforms. Woodcock suggests that the solution to this problem is to ban advertising. (We suspect that this cure would be worse than the disease but will leave substantive criticism to another blog post.)

Stout argues that while consumers may have legitimate grievances with Big Tech companies, these grievances do not justify widening the scope of antitrust, noting that “Concerns about privacy, hate speech, and, more broadly, the integrity of the democratic process are critical issues to wrestle with. But these aren’t antitrust problems.”

Finally, Veljanovski highlights potential problems with per se rules against cartels, noting that in some cases (most notably regulation of common pool resources such as fisheries), long-run consumer welfare may be improved by permitting certain kinds of cartel. However, he notes that in the case of polluting firms, a cartel that raises prices and lowers output is not likely to be the most efficient way to reduce the harms associated with pollution. This is of relevance given the DOJ’s case against certain automobile manufacturers, which are accused of colluding with California to set emission standards that are stricter than required under federal law.

It is tempting to conclude that U.S. antitrust law is not fundamentally broken, so does not require a major fix. Indeed, if any fix is needed, it is that the CWS should be more widely applied both in the U.S. and internationally.

An oft-repeated claim of conferences, media, and left-wing think tanks is that lax antitrust enforcement has led to a substantial increase in concentration in the US economy of late, strangling the economy, harming workers, and saddling consumers with greater markups in the process. But what if rising concentration (and the current level of antitrust enforcement) were an indication of more competition, not less?

By now the concentration-as-antitrust-bogeyman story is virtually conventional wisdom, echoed, of course, by political candidates such as Elizabeth Warren trying to cash in on the need for a government response to such dire circumstances:

In industry after industry — airlines, banking, health care, agriculture, tech — a handful of corporate giants control more and more. The big guys are locking out smaller, newer competitors. They are crushing innovation. Even if you don’t see the gears turning, this massive concentration means prices go up and quality goes down for everything from air travel to internet service.  

But the claim that lax antitrust enforcement has led to increased concentration in the US and that it has caused economic harm has been debunked several times (for some of our own debunking, see Eric Fruits’ posts here, here, and here). Or, more charitably to those who tirelessly repeat the claim as if it is “settled science,” it has been significantly called into question

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

The most recent — and, I believe, most significant — corrective to the conventional story comes from economists Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg of Princeton University. As they write in a recent paper titled, “The Industrial Revolution in Services”: 

We show that new technologies have enabled firms that adopt them to scale production over a large number of establishments dispersed across space. Firms that adopt this technology grow by increasing the number of local markets that they serve, but on average are smaller in the markets that they do serve. Unlike Henry Ford’s revolution in manufacturing more than a hundred years ago when manufacturing firms grew by concentrating production in a given location, the new industrial revolution in non-traded sectors takes the form of horizontal expansion across more locations. At the same time, multi-product firms are forced to exit industries where their productivity is low or where the new technology has had no effect. Empirically we see that top firms in the overall economy are more focused and have larger market shares in their chosen sectors, but their size as a share of employment in the overall economy has not changed. (pp. 42-43) (emphasis added).

This makes perfect sense. And it has the benefit of not second-guessing structural changes made in response to technological change. Rather, it points to technological change as doing what it regularly does: improving productivity.

The implementation of new technology seems to be conferring benefits — it’s just that these benefits are not evenly distributed across all firms and industries. But the assumption that larger firms are causing harm (or even that there is any harm in the first place, whatever the cause) is unmerited. 

What the authors find is that the apparent rise in national concentration doesn’t tell the relevant story, and the data certainly aren’t consistent with assumptions that anticompetitive conduct is either a cause or a result of structural changes in the economy.

Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg point out that increased concentration is not happening everywhere, but is being driven by just three industries:

First, we show that the phenomena of rising concentration . . . is only seen in three broad sectors – services, wholesale, and retail. . . . [T]op firms have become more efficient over time, but our evidence indicates that this is only true for top firms in these three sectors. In manufacturing, for example, concentration has fallen.

Second, rising concentration in these sectors is entirely driven by an increase [in] the number of local markets served by the top firms. (p. 4) (emphasis added).

These findings are a gloss on a (then) working paper — The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms — by David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson, and John Van Reenan (now forthcoming in the QJE). Autor et al. (2019) finds that concentration is rising, and that it is the result of increased productivity:

If globalization or technological changes push sales towards the most productive firms in each industry, product market concentration will rise as industries become increasingly dominated by superstar firms, which have high markups and a low labor share of value-added.

We empirically assess seven predictions of this hypothesis: (i) industry sales will increasingly concentrate in a small number of firms; (ii) industries where concentration rises most will have the largest declines in the labor share; (iii) the fall in the labor share will be driven largely by reallocation rather than a fall in the unweighted mean labor share across all firms; (iv) the between-firm reallocation component of the fall in the labor share will be greatest in the sectors with the largest increases in market concentration; (v) the industries that are becoming more concentrated will exhibit faster growth of productivity; (vi) the aggregate markup will rise more than the typical firm’s markup; and (vii) these patterns should be observed not only in U.S. firms, but also internationally. We find support for all of these predictions. (emphasis added).

This is alone is quite important (and seemingly often overlooked). Autor et al. (2019) finds that rising concentration is a result of increased productivity that weeds out less-efficient producers. This is a good thing. 

But Hsieh & Rossi-Hansberg drill down into the data to find something perhaps even more significant: the rise in concentration itself is limited to just a few sectors, and, where it is observed, it is predominantly a function of more efficient firms competing in more — and more localized — markets. This means that competition is increasing, not decreasing, whether it is accompanied by an increase in concentration or not. 

No matter how may times and under how many monikers the antitrust populists try to revive it, the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm remains as moribund as ever. Indeed, on this point, as one of the new antitrust agonists’ own, Fiona Scott Morton, has written (along with co-authors Martin Gaynor and Steven Berry):

In short, there is no well-defined “causal effect of concentration on price,” but rather a set of hypotheses that can explain observed correlations of the joint outcomes of price, measured markups, market share, and concentration. As Bresnahan (1989) argued three decades ago, no clear interpretation of the impact of concentration is possible without a clear focus on equilibrium oligopoly demand and “supply,” where supply includes the list of the marginal cost functions of the firms and the nature of oligopoly competition. 

Some of the recent literature on concentration, profits, and markups has simply reasserted the relevance of the old-style structure-conduct-performance correlations. For economists trained in subfields outside industrial organization, such correlations can be attractive. 

Our own view, based on the well-established mainstream wisdom in the field of industrial organization for several decades, is that regressions of market outcomes on measures of industry structure like the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index should be given little weight in policy debates. Such correlations will not produce information about the causal estimates that policy demands. It is these causal relationships that will help us understand what, if anything, may be causing markups to rise. (emphasis added).

Indeed! And one reason for the enduring irrelevance of market concentration measures is well laid out in Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg’s paper:

This evidence is consistent with our view that increasing concentration is driven by new ICT-enabled technologies that ultimately raise aggregate industry TFP. It is not consistent with the view that concentration is due to declining competition or entry barriers . . . , as these forces will result in a decline in industry employment. (pp. 4-5) (emphasis added)

The net effect is that there is essentially no change in concentration by the top firms in the economy as a whole. The “super-star” firms of today’s economy are larger in their chosen sectors and have unleashed productivity growth in these sectors, but they are not any larger as a share of the aggregate economy. (p. 5) (emphasis added)

Thus, to begin with, the claim that increased concentration leads to monopsony in labor markets (and thus unemployment) appears to be false. Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg again:

[W]e find that total employment rises substantially in industries with rising concentration. This is true even when we look at total employment of the smaller firms in these industries. (p. 4)

[S]ectors with more top firm concentration are the ones where total industry employment (as a share of aggregate employment) has also grown. The employment share of industries with increased top firm concentration grew from 70% in 1977 to 85% in 2013. (p. 9)

Firms throughout the size distribution increase employment in sectors with increasing concentration, not only the top 10% firms in the industry, although by definition the increase is larger among the top firms. (p. 10) (emphasis added)

Again, what actually appears to be happening is that national-level growth in concentration is actually being driven by increased competition in certain industries at the local level:

93% of the growth in concentration comes from growth in the number of cities served by top firms, and only 7% comes from increased employment per city. . . . [A]verage employment per county and per establishment of top firms falls. So necessarily more than 100% of concentration growth has to come from the increase in the number of counties and establishments served by the top firms. (p.13)

The net effect is a decrease in the power of top firms relative to the economy as a whole, as the largest firms specialize more, and are dominant in fewer industries:

Top firms produce in more industries than the average firm, but less so in 2013 compared to 1977. The number of industries of a top 0.001% firm (relative to the average firm) fell from 35 in 1977 to 17 in 2013. The corresponding number for a top 0.01% firm is 21 industries in 1977 and 9 industries in 2013. (p. 17)

Thus, summing up, technology has led to increased productivity as well as greater specialization by large firms, especially in relatively concentrated industries (exactly the opposite of the pessimistic stories):  

[T]op firms are now more specialized, are larger in the chosen industries, and these are precisely the industries that have experienced concentration growth. (p. 18)

Unsurprisingly (except to some…), the increase in concentration in certain industries does not translate into an increase in concentration in the economy as a whole. In other words, workers can shift jobs between industries, and there is enough geographic and firm mobility to prevent monopsony. (Despite rampant assumptions that increased concentration is constraining labor competition everywhere…).

Although the employment share of top firms in an average industry has increased substantially, the employment share of the top firms in the aggregate economy has not. (p. 15)

It is also simply not clearly the case that concentration is causing prices to rise or otherwise causing any harm. As Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg note:

[T]he magnitude of the overall trend in markups is still controversial . . . and . . . the geographic expansion of top firms leads to declines in local concentration . . . that could enhance competition. (p. 37)

Indeed, recent papers such as Traina (2018), Gutiérrez and Philippon (2017), and the IMF (2019) have found increasing markups over the last few decades but at much more moderate rates than the famous De Loecker and Eeckhout (2017) study. Other parts of the anticompetitive narrative have been challenged as well. Karabarbounis and Neiman (2018) finds that profits have increased, but are still within their historical range. Rinz (2018) shows decreased wages in concentrated markets but also points out that local concentration has been decreasing over the relevant time period.

None of this should be so surprising. Has antitrust enforcement gotten more lax, leading to greater concentration? According to Vita and Osinski (2018), not so much. And how about the stagnant rate of new firms? Are incumbent monopolists killing off new startups? The more likely — albeit mundane — explanation, according to Hopenhayn et al. (2018), is that increased average firm age is due to an aging labor force. Lastly, the paper from Hsieh and Rossi-Hansberg discussed above is only the latest in a series of papers, including Bessen (2017), Van Reenen (2018), and Autor et al. (2019), that shows a rise in fixed costs due to investments in proprietary information technology, which correlates with increased concentration. 

So what is the upshot of all this?

  • First, as noted, employment has not decreased because of increased concentration; quite the opposite. Employment has increased in the industries that have experienced the most concentration at the national level.
  • Second, this result suggests that the rise in concentrated industries has not led to increased market power over labor.
  • Third, concentration itself needs to be understood more precisely. It is not explained by a simple narrative that the economy as a whole has experienced a great deal of concentration and this has been detrimental for consumers and workers. Specific industries have experienced national level concentration, but simultaneously those same industries have become more specialized and expanded competition into local markets. 

Surprisingly (because their paper has been around for a while and yet this conclusion is rarely recited by advocates for more intervention — although they happily use the paper to support claims of rising concentration), Autor et al. (2019) finds the same thing:

Our formal model, detailed below, generates superstar effects from increases in the toughness of product market competition that raise the market share of the most productive firms in each sector at the expense of less productive competitors. . . . An alternative perspective on the rise of superstar firms is that they reflect a diminution of competition, due to a weakening of U.S. antitrust enforcement (Dottling, Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018). Our findings on the similarity of trends in the U.S. and Europe, where antitrust authorities have acted more aggressively on large firms (Gutierrez and Philippon, 2018), combined with the fact that the concentrating sectors appear to be growing more productive and innovative, suggests that this is unlikely to be the primary explanation, although it may important in some specific industries (see Cooper et al, 2019, on healthcare for example). (emphasis added).

The popular narrative among Neo-Brandeisian antitrust scholars that lax antitrust enforcement has led to concentration detrimental to society is at base an empirical one. The findings of these empirical papers severely undermine the persuasiveness of that story.

Antitrust populists have a long list of complaints about competition policy, including: laws aren’t broad enough or tough enough, enforcers are lax, and judges tend to favor defendants over plaintiffs or government agencies. The populist push got a bump with the New York Times coverage of Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in which she advocated breaking up Amazon and applying public utility regulation to platforms. Khan’s ideas were picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for similar public utility regulation and promised to unwind earlier acquisitions by Amazon (Whole Foods and Zappos), Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram), and Google (Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick).

Khan, Warren, and the other Break Up Big Tech populists don’t clearly articulate how consumers, suppliers — or anyone for that matter — would be better off with their mandated spinoffs. The Khan/Warren plan, however, requires a unique alignment of many factors: Warren must win the White House, Democrats must control both houses of Congress, and judges must substantially shift their thinking. It’s like turning a supertanker on a dime in the middle of a storm. Instead of publishing manifestos and engaging in antitrust hashtag hipsterism, maybe — just maybe — the populists can do something.

The populists seem to have three main grievances:

  • Small firms cannot enter the market or cannot thrive once they enter;
  • Suppliers, including workers, are getting squeezed; and
  • Speculation that someday firms will wake up, realize they have a monopoly, and begin charging noncompetitive prices to consumers.

Each of these grievances can be, and has been, already addressed by antitrust and competition litigation. And, in many cases these grievances were addressed in private antitrust litigation. For example:

In the US, private actions are available for a wide range of alleged anticompetitive conduct, including coordinated conduct (e.g., price-fixing), single-firm conduct (e.g., predatory pricing), and mergers that would substantially lessen competition. 

If the antitrust populists are so confident that concentration is rising and firms are behaving anticompetitively and consumers/suppliers/workers are being harmed, then why don’t they organize an antitrust lawsuit against the worst of the worst violators? If anticompetitive activity is so obvious and so pervasive, finding compelling cases should be easy.

For example, earlier this year, Shaoul Sussman, a law student at Fordham University, published “Prime Predator: Amazon and the Rationale of Below Average Variable Cost Pricing Strategies Among Negative-Cash Flow Firms” in the Journal of Antitrust Enforcement. Why not put Sussman’s theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? The discovery process would unleash a treasure trove of cost data and probably more than a few “hot docs.”

Khan argues:

While predatory pricing technically remains illegal, it is extremely difficult to win predatory pricing claims because courts now require proof that the alleged predator would be able to raise prices and recoup its losses. 

However, in her criticism of the court in the Apple e-books litigation, she lays out a clear rationale for courts to revise their thinking on predatory pricing [emphasis added]:

Judge Cote, who presided over the district court trial, refrained from affirming the government’s conclusion. Still, the government’s argument illustrates the dominant framework that courts and enforcers use to analyze predation—and how it falls short. Specifically, the government erred by analyzing the profitability of Amazon’s e-book business in the aggregate and by characterizing the conduct as “loss leading” rather than potentially predatory pricing. These missteps suggest a failure to appreciate two critical aspects of Amazon’s practices: (1) how steep discounting by a firm on a platform-based product creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power than discounting on non-platform goods and (2) the multiple ways Amazon could recoup losses in ways other than raising the price of the same e-books that it discounted.

Why not put Khan’s cross-subsidy theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? Surely there’d be a document explaining how the firm expects to recoup its losses. Or, maybe not. Maybe by the firm’s accounting, it’s not losing money on the discounted products. Without evidence, it’s just speculation.

In fairness, one can argue that recent court decisions have made pursuing private antitrust litigation more difficult. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly requires an antitrust plaintiff to show more than mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence in order to move forward to discovery. Decisions in matters such as Ashcroft v. Iqbal have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain antitrust claims. Wal-Mart v. Dukes and Comcast Corp v Behrend subject antitrust class actions to more rigorous analysis. In Ohio v. Amex the court ruled antitrust plaintiffs can’t meet the burden of proof by showing only some effect on some part of a two-sided market.

At the same time Jeld-Wen indicates third party plaintiffs can be awarded damages and obtain divestitures, even after mergers clear. In Jeld-Wen, a competitor filed suit to challenge the consummated Jeld-Wen/Craftmaster merger four years after the DOJ approved the merger without conditions. The challenge was lengthy, but successful, and a district court ordered damages and the divestiture of one of the combined firm’s manufacturing facilities six years after the merger was closed.

Despite the possible challenges of pursuing a private antitrust suit, Daniel Crane’s review of US federal court workload statistics concludes the incidence of private antitrust enforcement in the United States has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s — in the range of 600 to 900 new private antitrust filings a year. He also finds resolution by trial has been relatively stable at an average of less than 1 percent a year. Thus, it’s not clear that recent decisions have erected insurmountable barriers to antitrust plaintiffs.

In the US, third parties may fund private antitrust litigation and plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to work under a contingency fee arrangement, subject to court approval. A compelling case could be funded by deep-pocketed supporters of the populists’ agenda, big tech haters, or even investors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s takedown of Gawker. Before that, the savings and loan crisis led to a number of forced mergers which were later challenged in court, with the costs partially funded by the issuance of litigation tracking warrants.

The antitrust populist ranks are chock-a-block with economists, policy wonks, and go-getter attorneys. If they are so confident in their claims of rising concentration, bad behavior, and harm to consumers, suppliers, and workers, then they should put those ideas to the test with some slam dunk litigation. The fact that they haven’t suggests they may not have a case.

Wall Street Journal commentator, Greg Ip, reviews Thomas Philippon’s forthcoming book, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets. Ip describes a “growing mountain” of research on industry concentration in the U.S. and reports that Philippon concludes competition has declined over time, harming U.S. consumers.

In one example, Philippon points to air travel. He notes that concentration in the U.S. has increased rapidly—spiking since the Great Recession—while concentration in the EU has increased modestly. At the same time, Ip reports “U.S. airlines are now far more profitable than their European counterparts.” (Although it’s debatable whether a five percentage point difference in net profit margin is “far more profitable”). 

On first impression, the figures fit nicely with the populist antitrust narrative: As concentration in the U.S. grew, so did profit margins. Closer inspection raises some questions, however. 

For example, the U.S. airline industry had a negative net profit margin in each of the years prior to the spike in concentration. While negative profits may be good for consumers, it would be a stretch to argue that long-run losses are good for competition as a whole. At some point one or more of the money losing firms is going to pull the ripcord. Which raises the issue of causation.

Just looking at the figures from the WSJ article, one could argue that rather than concentration driving profit margins, instead profit margins are driving concentration. Indeed, textbook IO economics would indicate that in the face of losses, firms will exit until economic profit equals zero. Paraphrasing Alfred Marshall, “Which blade of the scissors is doing the cutting?”

While the concentration and profits story fits the antitrust populist narrative, other observations run contrary to Philippon’s conclusion. For example, airline prices, as measured by price indexes, show that changes in U.S. and EU airline prices have fairly closely tracked each other until 2014, when U.S. prices began dropping. Sure, airlines have instituted baggage fees, but the CPI includes taxes, fuel surcharges, airport, security, and baggage fees. It’s not obvious that U.S. consumers are worse off in the so-called era of rising concentration.

Regressing U.S. air fare price index against Philippon’s concentration information in the figure above (and controlling for general inflation) finds that if U.S. concentration in 2015 was the same as in 1995, U.S. airfares would be about 2.8% lower. That a 1,250 point increase in HHI would be associated with a 2.8% increase in prices indicates that the increased concentration in U.S. airlines has led to no significant increase in consumer prices.

Also, if consumers are truly worse off, one would expect to see a drop off or slow down in the use of air travel. An eyeballing of passenger data does not fit the populist narrative. Instead, we see airlines are carrying more passengers and consumers are paying lower prices on average.

While it’s true that low-cost airlines have shaken up air travel in the EU, the differences are not solely explained by differences in market concentration. For example, U.S. regulations prohibit foreign airlines from operating domestic flights while EU carriers compete against operators from other parts of Europe. While the WSJ’s figures tell an interesting story of concentration, prices, and profits, they do not provide a compelling case of anticompetitive conduct.

A spate of recent newspaper investigations and commentary have focused on Apple allegedly discriminating against rivals in the App Store. The underlying assumption is that Apple, as a vertically integrated entity that operates both a platform for third-party apps and also makes it own apps, is acting nefariously whenever it “discriminates” against rival apps through prioritization, enters into popular app markets, or charges a “tax” or “surcharge” on rival apps. 

For most people, the word discrimination has a pejorative connotation of animus based upon prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia. One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary reflects this. But another definition is a lot less charged: the act of making or perceiving a difference. (This is what people mean when they say that a person has a discriminating palate, or a discriminating taste in music, for example.)

In economics, discrimination can be a positive attribute. For instance, effective price discrimination can result in wealthier consumers paying a higher price than less well off consumers for the same product or service, and it can ensure that products and services are in fact available for less-wealthy consumers in the first place. That would seem to be a socially desirable outcome (although under some circumstances, perfect price discrimination can be socially undesirable). 

Antitrust law rightly condemns conduct only when it harms competition and not simply when it harms a competitor. This is because it is competition that enhances consumer welfare, not the presence or absence of a competitor — or, indeed, the profitability of competitors. The difficult task for antitrust enforcers is to determine when a vertically integrated firm with “market power” in an upstream market is able to effectively discriminate against rivals in a downstream market in a way that harms consumers

Even assuming the claims of critics are true, alleged discrimination by Apple against competitor apps in the App Store may harm those competitors, but it doesn’t necessarily harm either competition or consumer welfare.

The three potential antitrust issues facing Apple can be summarized as:

There is nothing new here economically. All three issues are analogous to claims against other tech companies. But, as I detail below, the evidence to establish any of these claims at best represents harm to competitors, and fails to establish any harm to the competitive process or to consumer welfare.

Prioritization

Antitrust enforcers have rejected similar prioritization claims against Google. For instance, rivals like Microsoft and Yelp have funded attacks against Google, arguing the search engine is harming competition by prioritizing its own services in its product search results over competitors. As ICLE and affiliated scholars have pointed out, though, there is nothing inherently harmful to consumers about such prioritization. There are also numerous benefits in platforms directly answering queries, even if it ends up directing users to platform-owned products or services.

As Geoffrey Manne has observed:

there is good reason to believe that Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to vigorously compete and to decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content to partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and offer its own answers to users’ queries in its stead. 

Here, the antitrust case against Apple for prioritization is similarly flawed. For example, as noted in a recent article in the WSJ, users often use the App Store search in order to find apps they already have installed:

“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple said in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.” 

If a substantial portion of searches within the App Store are for apps already on the iPhone, then showing the Apple app near the top of the search results could easily be consumer welfare-enhancing. 

Apple is also theoretically leaving money on the table by prioritizing its (already pre-loaded) apps over third party apps. If its algorithm promotes its own apps over those that may earn it a 30% fee — additional revenue — the prioritization couldn’t plausibly be characterized as a “benefit” to Apple. Apple is ultimately in the business of selling hardware. Losing customers of the iPhone or iPad by prioritizing apps consumers want less would not be a winning business strategy.

Further, it stands to reason that those who use an iPhone may have a preference for Apple apps. Such consumers would be naturally better served by seeing Apple’s apps prioritized over third-party developer apps. And if consumers do not prefer Apple’s apps, rival apps are merely seconds of scrolling away.

Moreover, all of the above assumes that Apple is engaging in sufficiently pervasive discrimination through prioritzation to have a major impact on the app ecosystem. But substantial evidence exists that the universe of searches for which Apple’s algorithm prioritizes Apple apps is small. For instance, most searches are for branded apps already known by the searcher:

Keywords: how many are brands?

  • Top 500: 58.4%
  • Top 400: 60.75%
  • Top 300: 68.33%
  • Top 200: 80.5%
  • Top 100: 86%
  • Top 50: 90%
  • Top 25: 92%
  • Top 10: 100%

This is corroborated by data from the NYT’s own study, which suggests Apple prioritized its own apps first in only roughly 1% of the overall keywords queried: 

Whatever the precise extent of increase in prioritization, it seems like any claims of harm are undermined by the reality that almost 99% of App Store results don’t list Apple apps first. 

The fact is, very few keyword searches are even allegedly affected by prioritization. And the algorithm is often adjusting to searches for apps already pre-loaded on the device. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to conclude consumers are being harmed by prioritization in search results of the App Store.

Entry

The issue of Apple building apps to compete with popular apps in its marketplace is similar to complaints about Amazon creating its own brands to compete with what is sold by third parties on its platform. For instance, as reported multiple times in the Washington Post:

Clue, a popular app that women use to track their periods, recently rocketed to the top of the App Store charts. But the app’s future is now in jeopardy as Apple incorporates period and fertility tracking features into its own free Health app, which comes preinstalled on every device. Clue makes money by selling subscriptions and services in its free app. 

However, there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about retailers selling their own brands. If anything, entry into the market is normally procompetitive. As Randy Picker recently noted with respect to similar claims against Amazon: 

The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws… I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.

If anything, Apple is in an even better position than Amazon. Apple invests revenue in app development, not because the apps themselves generate revenue, but because it wants people to use the hardware, i.e. the iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. The reason Apple created an App Store in the first place is because this allows Apple to make more money from selling devices. In order to promote security on those devices, Apple institutes rules for the App Store, but it ultimately decides whether to create its own apps and provide access to other apps based upon its desire to maximize the value of the device. If Apple chooses to create free apps in order to improve iOS for users and sell more hardware, it is not a harm to competition.

Apple’s ability to enter into popular app markets should not be constrained unless it can be shown that by giving consumers another choice, consumers are harmed. As noted above, most searches in the App Store are for branded apps to begin with. If consumers already know what they want in an app, it hardly seems harmful for Apple to offer — and promote — its own, additional version as well. 

In the case of Clue, if Apple creates a free health app, it may hurt sales for Clue. But it doesn’t hurt consumers who want the functionality and would prefer to get it from Apple for free. This sort of product evolution is not harming competition, but enhancing it. And, it must be noted, Apple doesn’t exclude Clue from its devices. If, indeed, Clue offers a better product, or one that some users prefer, they remain able to find it and use it.

The so-called App Store “Tax”

The argument that Apple has an unfair competitive advantage over rival apps which have to pay commissions to Apple to be on the App Store (a “tax” or “surcharge”) has similarly produced no evidence of harm to consumers. 

Apple invested a lot into building the iPhone and the App Store. This infrastructure has created an incredibly lucrative marketplace for app developers to exploit. And, lest we forget a point fundamental to our legal system, Apple’s App Store is its property

The WSJ and NYT stories give the impression that Apple uses its commissions on third party apps to reduce competition for its own apps. However, this is inconsistent with how Apple charges its commission

For instance, Apple doesn’t charge commissions on free apps, which make up 84% of the App Store. Apple also doesn’t charge commissions for apps that are free to download but are supported by advertising — including hugely popular apps like Yelp, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Even apps which are “readers” where users purchase or subscribe to content outside the app but use the app to access that content are not subject to commissions, like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Audible. Apps for “physical goods and services” — like Amazon, Airbnb, Lyft, Target, and Uber — are also free to download and are not subject to commissions. The class of apps which are subject to a 30% commission include:

  • paid apps (like many games),
  • free apps that then have in-app purchases (other games and services like Skype and TikTok), 
  • and free apps with digital subscriptions (Pandora, Hulu, which have 30% commission first year and then 15% in subsequent years), and
  • cross-platform apps (Dropbox, Hulu, and Minecraft) which allow for digital goods and services to be purchased in-app and Apple collects commission on in-app sales, but not sales from other platforms. 

Despite protestations to the contrary, these costs are hardly unreasonable: third party apps receive the benefit not only of being in Apple’s App Store (without which they wouldn’t have any opportunity to earn revenue from sales on Apple’s platform), but also of the features and other investments Apple continues to pour into its platform — investments that make the ecosystem better for consumers and app developers alike. There is enormous value to the platform Apple has invested in, and a great deal of it is willingly shared with developers and consumers.  It does not make it anticompetitive to ask those who use the platform to pay for it. 

In fact, these benefits are probably even more important for smaller developers rather than bigger ones who can invest in the necessary back end to reach consumers without the App Store, like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Kindle. For apps without brand reputation (and giant marketing budgets), the ability for consumers to trust that downloading the app will not lead to the installation of malware (as often occurs when downloading from the web) is surely essential to small developers’ ability to compete. The App Store offers this.

Despite the claims made in Spotify’s complaint against Apple, Apple doesn’t have a duty to deal with app developers. Indeed, Apple could theoretically fill the App Store with only apps that it developed itself, like Apple Music. Instead, Apple has opted for a platform business model, which entails the creation of a new outlet for others’ innovation and offerings. This is pro-consumer in that it created an entire marketplace that consumers probably didn’t even know they wanted — and certainly had no means to obtain — until it existed. Spotify, which out-competed iTunes to the point that Apple had to go back to the drawing board and create Apple Music, cannot realistically complain that Apple’s entry into music streaming is harmful to competition. Rather, it is precisely what vigorous competition looks like: the creation of more product innovation, lower prices, and arguably (at least for some) higher quality.

Interestingly, Spotify is not even subject to the App Store commission. Instead, Spotify offers a work-around to iPhone users to obtain its premium version without ads on iOS. What Spotify actually desires is the ability to sell premium subscriptions to Apple device users without paying anything above the de minimis up-front cost to Apple for the creation and maintenance of the App Store. It is unclear how many potential Spotify users are affected by the inability to directly buy the ad-free version since Spotify discontinued offering it within the App Store. But, whatever the potential harm to Spotify itself, there’s little reason to think consumers or competition bear any of it. 

Conclusion

There is no evidence that Apple’s alleged “discrimination” against rival apps harms consumers. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be the case. The regulatory discrimination against successful tech platforms like Apple and the App Store is far more harmful to consumers.