Antitrust Triangulation

Sometimes it’s useful to introduce useless bills. The Prohibiting Anti-Competitive Mergers Act , sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), is a case in point. It bans mergers larger than $5 billion, not indexed for inflation. It has a near-zero chance of passing, and top antitrust hawks like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) did not cosponsor it. And yet, this doomed bill can be politically useful. The reason lies in an old political strategy called triangulation, made famous by former President Bill Clinton.

Triangulation is a rhetorical technique that can make yourself appear moderate, even if you aren’t. For nearly every policy position, it’s possible to point to other proposals to both your right and your left, and paint those as radical. Your proposal will always be the middle point of that triangle. That relative center position makes a position look moderate, even if in absolute terms, it isn’t.

The Warren-Jones merger bill’s usefulness is that it can serve as that left flank to Klobuchar and Cicilline’s own antirust bill, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA, S. 2992). On the right flank, populist Republicans are in full culture-warrior mode against Big Tech, adding their special mix of tragedy and comedy to the drama. Together, they make the radical AICOA appear moderate in comparison. It’s classic triangulation.

Don’t fall for the trap. Sen. Klobuchar and the bill’s other sponsors seem to know their bill is ideologically loaded. That may be one reason why they never held a formal committee hearing for it. Instead, they held a markup session behind closed doors. Even there, many of the “yes” votes came with reservations about voting for the final bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

One reason for such reservations is that AICOA’s ban on self-preferencing by online sellers would create countless aggravations for consumers. If voters find out who is responsible, there will likely be significant backlash. As my colleague Jessica Melugin pointed out recently:

Consider just a few possible consequences: Amazon would not be able to offer free-shipping services on certain items; Google would not be able to display its map at the top of search results for local businesses; Facebook would be prevented from showing you a friend’s Instagram story at the top of your news feed; and Apple’s App Store wouldn’t suggest the apps that might be the best fit for users. Microsoft would even be swept up by the bill’s prohibitions, too, by no longer being allowed to integrate LinkedIn contact info with Microsoft Office 365.

For context, self-preferencing has been standard practice in physical retail for decades. Costco’s Kirkland brand is the most famous example. Walmart and Target have their own house brands, as does nearly every grocery store chain. Self-preferencing has helped those companies’ markets remain competitive and innovative. Doing the same thing, but online, is no different. Klobuchar and her cosponsors’ legislation does not change that.Just because AICOA appears moderate in comparison to the Warren-Jones merger bill on the left and the culture warriors on the populist right, that doesn’t mean it is actually moderate. Whatever its relative position, an absolutely bad idea is an absolutely bad idea.

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