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Speaking about his new book in a ProMarket interview, David Dayen inadvertently captures what is perhaps the essential disconnect between antitrust reformers (populists, neo-Brandeisians, hipsters, whatever you may call them) and those of us who are more comfortable with the antitrust status quo (whatever you may call us). He says: “The antitrust doctrine that we’ve seen over the last 40 years simply does not match the lived experience of people.”

Narratives of Consumer Experience of Markets

This emphasis on “lived experience” runs through Dayen’s antitrust perspective. Citing to Hal Singer’s review of the book, the interview notes that “the heart of Dayen’s book is the personal accounts of ordinary Americans—airline passengers, hospital patients, farmers, and small business owners—attempting to achieve a slice of the American dream and facing insurmountable barriers in the form of unaccountable private monopolies.” As Singer notes in his review, “Dayen’s personalized storytelling, free of any stodgy regression analysis, is more likely to move policymakers” than are traditional economic arguments.

Dayen’s focus on individual narratives — of the consumer’s lived experience — is fundamentally different than the traditional antitrust economist’s perspective on competition and the market. It is worth exploring the differences between the two. The basic argument that I make below is that Dayen is right but also that he misunderstands the purpose of competition in a capitalist economy. A robustly competitive market is a brutal rat race that places each individual on an accelerating treadmill. There is no satiation or satisfaction for the individual consumer in these markets. But it is this very lack of satisfaction, this endless thirst for more, that makes competitive markets so powerful, and ultimately beneficial, for consumers. 

This is the fundamental challenge and paradox of capitalism. Satisfaction requires perspective that most consumers often don’t feel, and that many consumers never will feel. It requires the ability to step off that treadmill occasionally and to look how far society and individual welfare has come, even if individually one feels like they have not moved at all. It requires recognizing that the alternative to an uncomfortable flight to visit family isn’t a comfortable one, but an unaffordable one; that the alternative to low cost, processed foods, isn’t abundant higher-quality food but greater poverty for those who already can least afford food; that the alternative to a startup being beholden to Google’s and Amazon’s terms of service isn’t a market in which they have boundless access to these platforms’ infrastructures, but one in which each startup needs to entirely engineer its own infrastructure. In all of these cases, the fundamental tradeoff is between having something that is less perfect than an imagined ideal of it, and not having it at all

What Dayen refers to as consumers’ “lived experience” is really their “perceived experience.” This is important to how markets work. Competition is driven by consumers’ perception that things could be better (and by entrepreneurs’ perception that they can make it so). This perception is what keeps us on the treadmill. Consumers don’t look to their past generations and say “wow, by nearly every measure my life can be better than theirs with less effort!” They focus on what they don’t have yet, on the seemingly better lives of their contemporaries.

This description of markets may sound grotesquely dehumanizing. To the extent that it really is, this is because we live in a world of scarcity. There will always be tradeoffs and in a literally real way no consumer will ever have everything that she needs, let alone that she wants. 

On the flip side, this is what drives markets to make consumers better off. Consumers’ wants drive producers’ factories and innovators’ minds. There is no supply curve without a demand curve. And consumers are able to satisfy their own needs by becoming producers who work to satisfy the wants and needs of others. 

A Fair Question: Are Markets Worth It?

Dayen’s perspective on this description of markets, shared with his fellow reform-minded anti-antitrust crusaders, is that the typical consumers’ perceived experience of the market demonstrates that markets don’t work — that they have been captured by monopolists seeking to extract every ounce of revenue from each individual consumer. But this is not a story of monopolies. It is more plainly the story of markets. What Dayen identifies as a problem with the markets really is just the markets working as they are supposed to.

If this is just how markets work, it is fair to ask whether they are worth it. Importantly, those of us who answer “yes” need not be blind to or dismissive of concerns such as Dayen’s — to the concerns of the typical consumer. Economists have long recognized that capitalist markets are about allocative efficiency, not distributive efficiency — about making society as a whole as wealthy as possible but not about making sure that that wealth is fairly distributed. 

The antitrust reform movement is driven by advocates who long for a world in which everyone is poorer but feels more equal, as opposed to what they perceive as a world in which a few monopolists are extremely wealthy and everyone else feels poor. Their perception of this as the but-for world is not unreasonable, but it is also not accurate. The better world is the one with thriving, prosperous, markets,in which consumers broadly feel that they share in this prosperity. It may be the case that such a world has some oligopolies and even monopolies — that is what economic efficiency sometimes looks like. 

But those firms’ prosperity need not be adverse to consumers’ experience of the market. The challenging question is how we achieve this outcome. But that is a question of politics and macroeconomic policy, and of corporate social policy. It is a question of national identity, whether consumers’ perception of the economic treadmill can pivot from one of perceived futility to one of recognizing their lived contributions to society. It is one that antitrust law as it exists today contributes to answering, but not one that antitrust law on its own can ever answer.

On the other hand, were we to follow the populists’ lead and turn antitrust into a remedy for the perceived maladies of the market, we would risk the engine that improves consumers’ actual lived experience. The alternative to an antitrust driven by economic analysis and that errs on the side of not disrupting markets in favor of perceived injuries is an antitrust in which markets are beholden to the whims of politicians and enforcement officials. This is a world in which litigation is used by politicians to make it appear they are delivering on impossible promises, in which litigation is used to displace blame for politicians’ policy failures, in which litigation is used to distract from socio-political events entirely unrelated to the market. 

Concerns such as Dayen’s are timeless and not unreasonable. But the reflexive action is not the answer to such concerns. Rather, the response always must be to ask “opposed to what?” What is the but-for world? Here, Dayen and his peers suffer both Type I and Type II errors. They misdiagnose antitrust and non-competitive markets as the cause of their perceived problems. And they are overly confident in their proposed solutions to those problems, not recognizing the real harms that their proposed politicization of antitrust and markets poses.

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Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC: Technology & Reform Project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology.

For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off. Continue Reading…

Below is the text of my oral testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee, at its November 7, 2013 hearing on “Demand Letters and Consumer Protection: Examining Deceptive Practices by Patent Assertion Entities.” Information on the hearing is here, including an archived webcast of the hearing. My much longer and more indepth written testimony is here.

Please note that I am incorrectly identified on the hearing website as speaking on behalf of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP). In fact, I was invited to testify soley in my personal capacity as a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, given my academic research into the history of the patent system and the role of licensing and commercialization in the distribution of patented innovation. I spoke for neither George Mason University nor CPIP, and thus I am solely responsible for the content of my research and remarks.

Chairman McCaskill, Ranking Member Heller, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today.

There certainly are bad actors, deceptive demand letters, and frivolous litigation in the patent system. The important question, though, is whether there is a systemic problem requiring further systemic revisions to the patent system. There is no answer to this question, and this is the case for three reasons.

Harm to Innovation

First, the calls to rush to enact systemic revisions to the patent system are being made without established evidence there is in fact systemic harm to innovation, let alone any harm to the consumers that Section 5 authorizes the FTC to protect. As the Government Accountability Office found in its August 2013 report on patent litigation, the frequently-cited studies claiming harms are actually “nonrandom and nongeneralizable,” which means they are unscientific and unreliable.

These anecdotal reports and unreliable studies do not prove there is a systemic problem requiring a systemic revision to patent licensing practices.

Of even greater concern is that the many changes to the patent system Congress is considering, incl. extending the FTC’s authority over demand letters, would impose serious costs on real innovators and thus do actual harm to America’s innovation economy and job growth.

From Charles Goodyear and Thomas Edison in the nineteenth century to IBM and Microsoft today, patent licensing has been essential in bringing patented innovation to the marketplace, creating economic growth and a flourishing society.  But expanding FTC authority to regulate requests for licensing royalties under vague evidentiary and legal standards only weakens patents and create costly uncertainty.

This will hamper America’s innovation economy—causing reduced economic growth, lost jobs, and reduced standards of living for everyone, incl. the consumers the FTC is charged to protect.

Existing Tools

Second, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and courts have long had the legal tools to weed out bad patents and punish bad actors, and these tools were massively expanded just two years ago with the enactment of the America Invents Act.

This is important because the real concern with demand letters is that the underlying patents are invalid.

No one denies that owners of valid patents have the right to license their property or to sue infringers, or that patent owners can even make patent licensing their sole business model, as did Charles Goodyear and Elias Howe in the mid-nineteenth century.

There are too many of these tools to discuss in my brief remarks, but to name just a few: recipients of demand letters can sue patent owners in courts through declaratory judgment actions and invalidate bad patents. And the PTO now has four separate programs dedicated solely to weeding out bad patents.

For those who lack the knowledge or resources to access these legal tools, there are now numerous legal clinics, law firms and policy organizations that actively offer assistance.

Again, further systemic changes to the patent system are unwarranted because there are existing legal tools with established legal standards to address the bad actors and their bad patents.

If Congress enacts a law this year, then it should secure full funding for the PTO. Weakening patents and creating more uncertainties in the licensing process is not the solution.

Rhetoric

Lastly, Congress is being driven to revise the patent system on the basis of rhetoric and anecdote instead of objective evidence and reasoned explanations. While there are bad actors in the patent system, terms like PAE or patent troll constantly shift in meaning. These terms have been used to cover anyone who licenses patents, including universities, startups, companies that engage in R&D, and many others.

Classic American innovators in the nineteenth century like Thomas Edison, Charles Goodyear, and Elias Howe would be called PAEs or patent trolls today. In fact, they and other patent owners made royalty demands against thousands of end users.

Congress should exercise restraint when it is being asked to enact systemic legislative or regulatory changes on the basis of pejorative labels that would lead us to condemn or discriminate against classic innovators like Edison who have contributed immensely to America’s innovation economy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the benefits or costs of patent licensing to the innovation economy is an important empirical and policy question, but systemic changes to the patent system should not be based on rhetoric, anecdotes, invalid studies, and incorrect claims about the historical and economic significance of patent licensing

As former PTO Director David Kappos stated last week in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee: “we are reworking the greatest innovation engine the world has ever known, almost instantly after it has just been significantly overhauled. If there were ever a case where caution is called for, this is it.”

Thank you.