Archives For hipster antitrust

A panelist brought up an interesting tongue-in-cheek observation about the rising populist antitrust movement at a Heritage antitrust event this week. To the extent that the new populist antitrust movement is broadly concerned about effects on labor and wage depression, then, in principle, it should also be friendly to cartels. Although counterintuitive, employees have long supported and benefited from cartels, because cartels generally afford both job security and higher wages than competitive firms. And, of course, labor itself has long sought the protection of cartels – in the form of unions – to secure the same benefits.   

For instance, in the days before widespread foreign competition in domestic auto markets, native unionized workers of the big three producers enjoyed a relatively higher wage for relatively less output. Competition from abroad changed the economic landscape for both producers and workers with the end result being a reduction in union power and relatively lower overall wages for workers. The union model — a labor cartel — can guarantee higher wages to those workers.

The same story can be seen on other industries, as well, from telecommunications to service workers to public sector employees. Generally, market power on the labor demand side (employers) tends to facilitate market power on the labor supply side: firms with market power — with supracompetitive profits — can afford to pay more for labor and often are willing to do so in order to secure political support (and also to make it more expensive for potential competitors to hire skilled employees). Labor is a substantial cost for firms in competitive markets, however, so firms without market power are always looking to economize on labor (that is, have low wages, as few employees as needed, and to substitute capital for labor wherever efficient to do so).

Therefore, if broad labor effects should be a prime concern of antitrust, perhaps enforcers should use antitrust laws to encourage cartel formation when it might increase wages, regardless of the effects on productivity, prices, and other efficiencies that may arise (or perhaps, as a possible trump card to hold against traditional efficiencies justifications).

No one will make a serious case for promoting cartels (although Former FTC Chairman Pertshuk sounded similar notes in the late 70s), but the comment makes a deeper point about ongoing efforts to undermine the consumer welfare standard. Fundamental contradictions exist in antitrust rhetoric that is unmoored from economic analysis. Professor Hovenkamp highlighted this in a recent paper as well:

The coherence problem [in antitrust populism] shows up in goals that are unmeasurable and fundamentally inconsistent, although with their contradictions rarely exposed. Among the most problematic contradictions is the one between small business protection and consumer welfare. In a nutshell, consumers benefit from low prices, high output and high quality and variety of products and services. But when a firm or a technology is able to offer these things they invariably injure rivals, typically smaller or dedicated to older technologies, who are unable to match them. Although movement antitrust rhetoric is often opaque about specifics, its general effect is invariably to encourage higher prices or reduced output or innovation, mainly for the protection of small business. Indeed, that has been a predominant feature of movement antitrust ever since the Sherman Act was passed, and it is a prominent feature of movement antitrust today. Indeed, some spokespersons for movement antitrust write as if low prices are the evil that antitrust law should be combatting.

To be fair, even with careful economic analysis, it is not always perfectly clear how to resolve the tensions between antitrust and other policy preferences.  For instance, Jonathan Adler described the collision between antitrust and environmental protection in cases where collusion might lead to better environmental outcomes. But even in cases like that, he noted it was essentially a free-rider problem and, as with intrabrand price agreements where consumer goodwill was a “commons” that had to be suitably maintained against possible free-riding retailers, what might be an antitrust violation in one context was not necessarily a violation in a second context.  

Moreover, when the purpose of apparently “collusive” conduct is to actually ensure long term, sustainable production of a good or service (like fish), the behavior may not actually be anticompetitive. Thus, antitrust remains a plausible means of evaluating economic activity strictly on its own terms (and any alteration to the doctrine itself might actually be to prefer rule of reason analysis over per se analysis when examining these sorts of mitigating circumstances).

And before contorting antitrust into a policy cure-all, it is important to remember that the consumer welfare standard evolved out of sometimes good (price fixing bans) and sometimes questionable (prohibitions on output contracts) doctrines that were subject to legal trial and error. This was an evolution that was triggered by “increasing economic sophistication” and as “the enforcement agencies and courts [began] reaching for new ways in which to weigh competing and conflicting claims.”

The vector of that evolution was toward the use of  antitrust as a reliable, testable, and clear set of legal principles that are ultimately subject to economic analysis. When the populists ask us, for instance, to return to a time when judges could “prevent the conversion of concentrated economic power into concentrated political power” via antitrust law, they are asking for much more than just adding a new gloss to existing doctrine. They are asking for us to unlearn all of the lessons of the twentieth century that ultimately led toward the maturation of antitrust law.

It’s perfectly reasonable to care about political corruption, worker welfare, and income inequality. It’s not perfectly reasonable to try to shoehorn goals based on these political concerns into a body of legal doctrine that evolved a set of tools wholly inappropriate for achieving those ends.

Are current antitrust tools fully adequate to cope with the challenges posed by giant online “digital platforms” (such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook)?  Yes.  Should antitrust rules be expanded to address broader social concerns that transcend consumer welfare and economic efficiency, such as income inequality and allegedly excessive big business influence on the political process?  No.  For more details, see my January 23 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled Antitrust and the Winner-Take-All Economy.  That Memo concludes:

[T]he U.S. antitrust laws as currently applied, emphasizing sound economics, are fully capable of preventing truly anticompetitive behavior by major Internet platform companies and other large firms. But using antitrust to attack companies based on non-economic, ill-defined concerns about size, fairness, or political clout is unwarranted, and would be a recipe for reduced innovation and economic stagnation. Recent arguments trotted out to use antitrust in such an expansive manner are baseless, and should be rejected by enforcers and by Congress.

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?