Archives For Crony Capitalism

On September 28, the American Antitrust Institute released a report (“AAI Report”) on the state of U.S. antitrust policy, provocatively entitled “A National Competition Policy:  Unpacking the Problem of Declining Competition and Setting Priorities for Moving Forward.”  Although the AAI Report contains some valuable suggestions, in important ways it reminds one of the drunkard who seeks his (or her) lost key under the nearest lamppost.  What it requires is greater sobriety and a broader vision of the problems that beset the American economy.

The AAI Report begins by asserting that “[n]ot since the first federal antitrust law was enacted over 120 years ago has there been the level of public concern over the concentration of economic and political power that we see today.”  Well, maybe, although I for one am not convinced.  The paper then states that “competition is now on the front pages, as concerns over rising concentration, extraordinary profits accruing to the top slice of corporations, slowing innovation, and widening income and wealth inequality have galvanized attention.”  It then goes on to call for a more aggressive federal antitrust enforcement policy, with particular attention paid to concentrated markets.  The implicit message is that dedicated antitrust enforcers during the Obama Administration, led by Federal Trade Commission Chairs Jonathan Leibowitz and Edith Ramirez, and Antitrust Division chiefs Christine Varney, Bill Baer, and Renata Hesse (Acting) have been laggard or asleep at the switch.  But where is the evidence for this?  I am unaware of any and the AAI doesn’t say.  Indeed, federal antitrust officials in the Obama Administration consistently have called for tough enforcement, and they have actively pursued vertical as well as horizontal conduct cases and novel theories of IP-antitrust liability.  Thus, the AAI Report’s contention that antitrust needs to be “reinvigorated” is unconvincing.

The AAI Report highlights three “symptoms” of declining competition:  (1) rising concentration, (2) higher profits to the few and slowing rates of start-up activity, and (3) widening income and wealth inequality.  But these concerns are not something that antitrust policy is designed to address.  Mergers that threaten to harm competition are within the purview of antitrust, but modern antitrust rightly focuses on the likely effects of such mergers, not on the mere fact that they may increase concentration.  Furthermore, antitrust assesses the effects of business agreements on the competitive process.  Antitrust does not ask whether business arrangements yield “unacceptably” high profits, or “overly low” rates of business formation, or “unacceptable” wealth and income inequality.  Indeed, antitrust is not well equipped to address such questions, nor does it possess the tools to “solve” them (even assuming they need to be solved).

In short, if American competition is indeed declining based on the symptoms flagged by the AAI Report, the key to the solution will not be found by searching under the antitrust policy lamppost for illumination.  Rather, a more thorough search, with the help of “common sense” flashlights, is warranted.

The search outside the antitrust spotlight is not, however, a difficult one.  Finding the explanation for lagging competitive conditions in the United States requires no great policy legerdemain, because sound published research already provides the answer.  And that answer centers on government failures, not private sector abuses.

Consider overregulation.  In its annual Red Tape Rising reports (see here for the latest one), the Heritage Foundation has documented the growing burden of federal regulation on the American economy.  Overregulation acts like an implicit tax on businesses and disincentivizes business start-ups.  Moreover, as regulatory requirements grow in complexity and burdensomeness, they increasingly place a premium on large size – only relatively larger businesses can better afford the fixed costs needed to establish regulatory compliance department than their smaller rivals.  Heritage Foundation Scholar Norbert Michel summarizes this phenomenon in his article Dodd-Frank and Glass-Steagall – ‘Consumer Protection for Billionaires’:

Even when it’s not by nefarious design, we end up with rules that favor the largest/best-funded firms over their smaller/less-well-funded competitors. Put differently, our massive regulatory state ends up keeping large firms’ competitors at bay.  The more detailed regulators try to be, the more complex the rules become. And the more complex the rules become, the smaller the number of people who really care. Hence, more complicated rules and regulations serve to protect existing firms from competition more than simple ones. All of this means consumers lose. They pay higher prices, they have fewer choices of financial products and services, and they pretty much end up with the same level of protection they’d have with a smaller regulatory state.

What’s worse, some of the most onerous regulatory schemes are explicitly designed to favor large competitors over small ones.  A prime example is financial services regulation, and, in particular, the rules adopted pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act (other examples could readily be provided).  As a Heritage Foundation report explains (footnote citations omitted):

The [Dodd-Frank] act was largely intended to reduce the risk of a major bank failure, but the regulatory burden is crippling community banks (which played little role in the financial crisis). According to Harvard University researchers Marshall Lux and Robert Greene, small banks’ share of U.S. commercial banking assets declined nearly twice as much since the second quarter of 2010—around the time of Dodd–Frank’s passage—as occurred between 2006 and 2010. Their share currently stands at just 22 percent, down from 41 percent in 1994.

The increased consolidation rate is driven by regulatory economies of scale—larger banks are better suited to handle increased regulatory burdens than are smaller banks, causing the average costs of community banks to rise. The decline in small bank assets spells trouble for their primary customer base—small business loans and those seeking residential mortgages.

Ironically, Dodd–Frank proponents pushed for the law as necessary to rein in the big banks and Wall Street. In fact, the regulations are giving the largest companies a competitive advantage over smaller enterprises—the opposite outcome sought by Senator Christopher Dodd (D–CT), Representative Barney Frank (D–MA), and their allies. As Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently explained: “More intense regulatory and technology requirements have raised the barriers to entry higher than at any other time in modern history. This is an expensive business to be in, if you don’t have the market share in scale.

In sum, as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.

More generally, as Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint and Heritage Action for America CEO Mike Needham have emphasized, well-connected businesses use lobbying and inside influence to benefit themselves by having government enact special subsidies, bailouts and complex regulations, including special tax preferences. Those special preferences undermine competition on the merits by firms that lack insider status, to the public detriment.  Relatedly, the hideously complex system of American business taxation, which features the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world (which can better be manipulated by very large corporate players), depresses wages and is a serious drag on the American economy, as shown by Heritage Foundation scholars Curtis Dubay and David Burton.  In a similar vein, David Burton testified before Congress in 2015 on how the various excesses of the American regulatory state (including bad tax, health care, immigration, and other regulatory policies, combined with an overly costly legal system) undermine U.S. entrepreneurship (see here).

In other words, special subsidies, regulations, and tax and regulatory programs for the well-connected are part and parcel of crony capitalism, which (1) favors large businesses, tending to raise concentration; (2) confers higher profits on the well-connected while discouraging small business entrepreneurship; and (3) promotes income and wealth inequality, with the greatest returns going to the wealthiest government cronies who know best how to play the Washington “rent seeking game.”  Unfortunately, crony capitalism has grown like topsy during the Obama Administration.

Accordingly, I would counsel AAI to turn its scholarly gaze away from antitrust and toward the true source of the American competitive ailments it spotlights:  crony capitalism enabled by the growth of big government special interest programs and increasingly costly regulatory schemes.  Let’s see if AAI takes my advice.

On March 31, a federal judge gave the city of Boston six months to rectify the disparities between the way it treats Transportation Network Companies (“TNC”) (such as Uber and Lyft) and taxicab companies. This comes pursuant to an order by US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in a suit filed by members of the Boston taxi industry against the city and various officials. The suit is an interesting one because it reveals unusual fault lines in the ongoing struggle between taxi companies, local regulators, and the way that federal law recognizes and respects property and economic rights.

The three chief claims by the Boston taxi medallion holders are that the city had wronged them by by devaluing their medallions in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on regulatory takings, by discriminating against them in favor of TNCs under the equal protection clause (“EPC”) of the Fourteenth Amendment, and by violating Massachusetts law under a theory of promissory estoppel.

On the federal claims, the court seems to get it half right, and half wrong.  In sum, Judge Gorton seems to get the takings argument more or less correct. He notes:

The exclusivity of medallion owners’ access to the market prior to the arrival of TNCs existed by virtue of the City’s regulatory structure rather than the medallion owners’ property rights.  Medallion owners have no property interest in the enforcement of Rule 403 against others  … If a person who wishes to operate a taxicab without a medallion is prevented from doing so, it is because he or she would violate municipal regulations, not because he or she would violate medallion owners’ property rights.

Indeed. The plaintiff’s takings argument essentially amounts to a claim that the government, by virtue of creating the medallion system, is thereby disabled from ever regulating in a way that disrupts medallion owners from making a profit. Efficiency concerns, consumer safety concerns, and the like be damned! takings can be a fairly complicated body of law, but it seems highly unlikely that the plaintiff’s view is right—for one thing, a medallion is much more like a business license subject to health and safety considerations than it is like a property right— and Judge Gorton handily disposes of the plaintiff’s claims.

However, on the EPC analysis Judge Morton’s analysis goes off the rails. He first properly notes that, as an economic rights claim, the EPC analysis is controlled by rational basis review. As the legally trained reader will already know,  “[r]ational basis review simply requires that there be “any reasonably conceivable set of facts justifying the disparate treatment.”

According to the Supreme Court:

[B]ecause we never require a legislature to articulate its reasons for enacting a statute, it is entirely irrelevant for constitutional purposes whether the conceived reason for the challenged distinction actually motivated the legislature.

And as Clark Neily, a constitutional litigator from the Institute for Justice, has noted: “Not only is the government invited to dream up entirely post hoc rationalizations for challenged legislation, it has “no obligation to produce evidence” in support of those rationalizations either.” (citing Heller v. Doe).

In short, rational basis review is an exceedingly easy burden for the government to meet when one of its regulations is challenged.

In this case, Boston offered a number of reasons that it decided to regulate TNCs and taxi companies differently, including a very strong one that doing so “enhances the city’s interest in increasing the availability and accessibility of cost-effective transportation[.]” Nonetheless, Judge Morton disagreed, holding that

[T]he Court finds persuasive plaintiffs’ argument that many of the obvious differences between taxis from TNCs, such as the kind of vehicle used and the fact that taxicabs must be clearly labeled, are caused by the City’s application of the requirements of Rule 403 to taxi operators but not to TNCs.  The City may not treat the two groups unequally and then argue that the results of that unequal treatment render the two groups dissimilarly situated and, consequently, not subject to equal protection analysis.  Such circular logic is unavailing.

The judge pegged his opinion to the fact that Rule 403 — which regulates “hackney carriages” — defines the subject of its regulations as “used or designed to be used for the conveyance of persons for hire from place to place within the city of Boston.” Both TNCs and taxi cabs arguably fit into this definition, thus for Judge Morton, despite the fact that the city offered at least two policy goals for its differential regulations, “[n]either objective is … rationally related to any distinction between taxi operators and TNCs.”

This just has to be wrong under current federal law. As I noted above, rational basis review requires “any reasonably conceivable set of facts”  and, even though the city created the distinctions itself through its regulations, the reasons it states for doing so — including increasing availability of transportation for its citizens — are definitely rationally related to its distinction between the two types of consumer carriers. Sure, Rule 403 provides a scope of regulatory power for the city that sweeps in both TNCs and taxicabs, but within that regulatory scope the City then has the power to “rationally” assign rules as it sees fit (unless someone comes up with a fundamental right here that is more important than economic interests, of course).

I get it, rational basis review of economic regulations is frustrating and often just provides a free pass to protectionist regulators. Nevertheless, it is the law, and I think that Judge Morton got the equal protection claim wrong.

The real lesson here? Don’t get into bed with government and expect a virtual monopoly to protect you indefinitely. It’s no secret that federal law provides scant little protection for economic liberty, so when the government decides it wants to do something that harms the industry that it was previously cozy with it’s just too bad. Maybe there is a future world in which courts will recognize the right to earn a living is as deeply important as the right to speak or practice your religion or vote — but that is not the world we live in today.

Moreover, when an industry depends upon the government to explicitly protect it from competitors it is the worst kind of cronyism, and, at least in this case, represents an economic mindset that is badly aging. As upstart competitors like Uber and Lyft discover new ways to deploy cost-effective (and generally just more effective) technology to manage different industries, the fig leaf of legitimate government intervention is stripped away and revealed for what it often is: protectionism.

So to some extent, I sympathize with  Judge Gorton’s instinct in the equal protection claim: it should be the case that the government is not allowed to pick winners and losers in the economy based on its own taking of the political temperature. But the larger lesson is the opposite of the plaintiff’s intention, in my opinion. The government should roll back the regulations that created the medallion industry in the first place, and find a way to strike a politically feasible deal that eases the taxi companies out of their well-painted corner. We need more competition and more service in pursuit of consumer choice, and we need much less industry control guided in a top-down manner by state fiat.

Paul H. Rubin and Joseph S. Rubin advance the provocative position that some crony capitalism may be welfare enhancing. With all due respect, I am not convinced by their defense of government-business cronyism.  “Second best correction” arguments can be made with respect to ANY inefficient government rule.  In reality, it is almost impossible to calibrate the degree of the distortion created by the initial regulation, so there is no way of stating credibly that the “counter-distortion” is on net favorable to society.  More fundamentally, such counter-distortions are the products of rent-seeking activities by firms and other interest groups, which care nothing about the net social surplus effects of the first and counter-distortion.  The problem with allowing counter-distortions is that firms that are harmed thereby (think of less politically connected companies that are hurt when a big player takes advantage of Export-Import Bank subsidies) either will suffer, or will lobby (using scarce resources) for “third-line” or “tertiary” distortions to alleviate the harmful effects of the initial counter-distortions.  Those new distortions in turn will spawn a continuing series of responses, causing additional unanticipated consequences and attendant welfare losses.

It follows that the best policy is not to defend counter-distortions, which very seldom if ever (and then only through sheer chance) appropriately offset the initial distortions.  (Since the counter-distortions will be rife with new regulatory complexities, they are bound to be costly to implement and highly likely to be destructive of social surplus.)  Rather, the best, simplest, and cleanest policy is to work to get rid of the initial distortions.  If companies complain about other policies that hurt them (generated, for instance, by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or by Food and Drug Administration regulatory delays), the answer is to reform or repeal those bad policies, not to retain inherently welfare-distortive laws such as the Ex-Im Bank authorization.  The alternative approach would devolve into a justification for a web of ever more complex and intrusive federal regulations and interest group-generated “carve-outs.”

This logic applies generally.  For example, the best solution to the welfare-reducing effect of particular Obamacare mandates is not to create a patchwork of exceptions for certain politically-favored businesses and labor groups, but, rather, to repeal counterproductive government-induced health care market distortions.  Similarly, the answer to an economically damaging tax code is not to create a patchwork of credits for politically-favored industries, but, rather, to simplify the code and apply it neutrally, thereby promoting economic growth across industry sectors.

The argument that Ex-Im Bank activities are an example of a “welfare-enhancing” counter-distortion is particularly strained, given the fact that most U.S. exporters gain no benefits from Ex-Im Bank funding, while the American taxpayer foots the bill.  Indeed, capital is diverted away from “unlucky” exporters to the politically connected few who know how to play the Washington game (well-capitalized companies that are least in need of the taxpayer’s largesse).  As stated by Doug Bandow in Forbes, “[n]o doubt, Exim financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.  Unfortunately, it is easier to see the benefits of the former than the costs of the latter.”  In short, the recitation of Ex-Im Bank’s alleged “benefits” to American exporters who are “seen” ignores the harm imposed on other “unseen” American companies and taxpayers.  (What’s more, responding to Ex-Im Bank, foreign governments are incentivized to impose their own subsidy programs to counteract the Ex-Im Bank subsidies.)  Thus, the case for retaining Ex-Im Bank is nothing more than another example of Bastiat’s “broken window” fallacy.     

In sum, the goal should be to simplify legal structures and repeal welfare-inimical laws and regulations, not try to correct them through new inherently flawed regulatory intrusions.  In my view, the only examples of rent-seeking that might yield net social benefits are those associated with regulatory reform (such as the expiration of the Ex-Im Bank authorization) or with the creation of new markets (as Gordon Brady and I have argued).