Category Archives: Antitrust

Not the Strongest Case: DOJ’s Google Antitrust Complaint

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an antitrust complaint against Google. It marks the beginning of the first major monopolization case since the 1998-2002 Microsoft case. The filing’s timing and content are heavily politicized, and the quality of the complaint reflects this.

My colleague Jessica Melugin has a piece about the case in the Financial Times. Besides arguments about regulatory capture and the difficulty of sorting competitive from anticompetitive behavior, she points out an embarrassing shortcoming in the DOJ’s case:

It takes three steps to switch the default search on an iPhone from Google to another search engine. If, as is alleged, Google is acting as a gatekeeper to the internet, three clicks is not a very robust gate. 

Over at National Review’s Capital Matters site, I share some of my initial findings on the complaint. Their case does not look very rigorous:

Language matters. According to the complaint, Google doesn’t monopolize search, but rather “general search.” This phrasing allows the government to elide major portions of Google’s relevant market.

This is the relevant market fallacy. To strengthen their case, regulators often accuse a company of monopolizing a market far narrower than its actual relevant market.

In this case, the complaint even gives its own examples, on pages 9-10. 

Read Jessica’s Financial Times piece here. My National Review piece is here.

See also the recent CEI studies “The Case against Antitrust Law” and “Terrible Tech 2.0,” and CEI’s dedicated antitrust web site, antitrust.cei.org.

The House Judiciary’s Antitrust Reports and Predatory Pricing

It is human nature to fear what we do not understand. And if there is anything politicians do not understand, it is markets. This is clearly shown in the 449-page report issued this week by the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, headed by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, and its 19-page companion report from Republican Rep. Ken Buck.

The current state of affairs in Washington reflects what the Nobel economist Ronald Coase wrote in his 1972 paper “Industrial Organization: Proposal for Research,” before the revolution in law and economics scholarship became mainstream:

If an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or another—that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation. And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be very large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation frequent.

In that spirit, the Democratic report advocates for breaking up the biggest tech companies, expanding antitrust laws with new legislation, banning most tech mergers, and flipping the burden of proof to presumption of guilt in many instances. The Republican report doesn’t go quite that far, but as is often the case in the Trump era, the difference between Republican and Democratic policies is pretty small.

This post will focus on predatory pricing. My colleagues and I will discuss other facets of antitrust policy elsewhere.

Predatory pricing involves selling products deliberately at a loss in order to force competitors out of the market. When the predator has the market to itself, it can then raise the price to unfair levels. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all been accused of predatory pricing at some point.

Predatory pricing is already illegal. But the Supreme Court admitted in the 1986 Matsushita case that it has never been able to find an instance of it. After that, courts essentially gave up on their quest. The law in that area is now unenforced, on purpose.

The Democratic report seeks to bring it back by amending the Sherman Act to specifically ban predatory pricing. The Republican report shares the Democrats’ goal, but only recommends “a thoughtful plan,” which it does not specify, and “further committee hearings.”

There is a reason the Supreme Court has never found proof of predatory pricing. That reason is math. A predator has to lose money. The larger that predator’s market share, the more money it has to lose before driving competitors out. And as soon as the predator raises its prices, it also raises an opening for competitors to come back into the market.

It’s easy for many former competitors to reenter the market when the predator’s price goes back up. They already know what they’re doing, and have the infrastructure. And if the predator raises its prices super-high in order to make back its losses, the door opens to even more new competitors who take note of the predator’s unusually high profit margins.

In order for the predator to take back its monopoly, it will once again have to lose money, then raise prices to recoup the losses, which lets competitors back in. And on it goes in a potentially endless loop.

The counterargument goes that a company can sustain predatory prices forever if it subsidizes its losses with profits from elsewhere in the company. But this makes the company less competitive in those other markets. And taking resources away from a profitable product to subsidize a loss-making product is not exactly a profit-maximizing strategy.

So, despite progressives and populist conservative wishes, the Supreme Court’s Matsushita decision’s despair at the lack of predatory pricing is unlikely to change. That is, unless the definition of “predatory pricing” itself is changed via new legislation or what the Nobel economist Oliver Williamson called “creative lawyering” in the courts. That is what to look out for.

For more on antitrust policy, see Wayne Crews’s and my paper, and CEI’s dedicated antitrust site at antitrust.cei.org.

New Paper: Antitrust Regulation is #NeverNeeded

My colleague Jessica Melugin and I, along with our former colleague Patrick Hedger, have a new paper out today, “Repeal #NeverNeeded Antitrust Laws that Hinder COVID-19 Response: Smokestack-Era Laws Favor Established Interests and Do Not Encourage Competition.” The tech companies that regulators are targeting have made a difficult pandemic easier to endure. Antitrust lawsuits would not help the COVID-19 response. Since the real cost of antitrust policy is its chilling effect on new innovations, ramping up antitrust enforcement would leave the country less resilient against the next crisis.

Amazon has made it easy for people to get no-contact deliveries of household supplies and groceries—and spurred competitive responses from Walmart, Target, and other retailers. Facebook makes it easy for people to stay in touch while staying socially distant. Google makes it easy to find information about the virus and stay up to date. As the paper concludes:

Antitrust investigations at the federal and state level should be suspended during the COVID-19 crisis and, ideally, abandoned permanently. The unintended consequences of market distortion and chilled innovation are the last thing consumers and businesses need right now—or ever. This is no time for politicians and government lawyers to promote their own careers through the posturing of antitrust enforcement. Consumer benefit and business resiliency must be preserved and antitrust enforcement must not be prioritized or expanded.

Read the whole thing here. For more on antitrust, see Wayne Crews’s and my paper “The Case against Antitrust Law” and CEI’s dedicated antitrust site, antitrust.cei.org.

In the News: Antitrust and Amazon

Over at Digital Commerce 360, Don Davis has a thorough writeup about the potential antitrust case against Amazon. He also quotes me a few times. Read the whole thing here.

In the News: Antitrust Hearings

Young Voices’ Casey Givens quotes me on the antitrust hearings in an otherwise-excellent Washington Times op-ed:

Rep. Cicilline was perhaps the worst offender on the former point. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Young points out, the congressman claimed that “Amazon controls 70 percent of ‘online marketplaces,’” when in fact that is, “equivalent to about 4 or 5 percent of retail sales.” The congressman also made some questionable claims about Google’s market share, conflating its search engine with all searches on the internet.

Read the whole thing here.

Observations from the Tech Antitrust Hearing

This post collects some observations from yesterday’s lengthy House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law hearing with the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

  • The parties had different conversations, as they often do. The Republicans mostly talked about political bias. Democrats mostly talked about concentrated power. Despite the different charges, their verdict was the same: guilty.
  • On net, the hearing likely hurt any future antitrust case. For example, as Mike Masnick pointed out, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) demanded that Facebook take down certain content—minutes after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) demanded that the same content be kept up. Judges tend not to look kindly on such incoherence.
  • The hearing had limited fact-finding value. The CEOs’ answers to questions were often interrupted after just a few seconds. The committee members appeared more interested in getting tough questions on camera than in building a case. Alternatively, since many antitrust cases tend not to survive careful scrutiny, perhaps the members knew a proper dialogue would not be in their interest, and avoided one intentionally. Neither possibility reflects well on the legislators.
  • Republicans have forgotten a basic rule of politics: Never give yourself powers you don’t want the other side to have. Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Greg Steube (R-FL) all argued for the federal government to regulate political speech in their party’s favor. If they succeed, Democrats will almost inevitably use that same power in their party’s favor when they are in power. The GOP’s Trump wing’s shortsightedness is quietly making some of their opponents very happy. As the saying goes, never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake.
  • There were no gaffes on the level of an 83-year old Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) 2006 description of the Internet as “a series of tubes” or Mark Zuckerberg’s “Senator, we run ads” response in 2018 to former Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), then 84, on how Facebook makes money despite not charging its users.
  • In fact, yesterday’s oldest member, 77-year old Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who is retiring after this term, came off comparatively well. He briefly defended the consumer welfare standard in his opening remarks, stated his belief that current antitrust laws do not need to be changed, then mostly stayed out of the fray.
  • The lack of meme-worthy gaffes does not mean the committee members are well versed in technology. The Committee’s average Democrat is age 57, the average Republican is 52, and frankly, it shows. For example, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-MD), 60, seemed to not know how cookies work. On at least one occasion, an angry Republican confused Twitter and Facebook, requiring Zuckerberg to point out the difference.
  • Members, who typically spend most of their careers in government, apparently know little about how retail works. Amazon came under fire for selling self-branded products at cheaper prices than name-brand equivalents, and placing them prominently in searches. Nearly every grocery store and retail chain in the country does the same thing. House brands with low prices and guaranteed shelf space have been standard practice in groceries and retail since the pre-World War II heyday of A&P—which was itself the target of dubious antitrust cases.
  • There was little, if any, discussion of regulatory capture or rent-seeking. This is an important unintended consequence of antitrust enforcement. Many established companies would be happy to comply with adverse antitrust judgments if it meant putting up barriers to entry against competitors. In the long run, cartels can only survive with government help.
  • My colleague Jessica Melugin writes, “Surely, politicians can find a better use of their time than harassing the companies that have helped so many Americans make 2020 a little more bearable.” Antitrust enforcement requires proof of consumer harm, yet this was rarely discussed at the hearing. Search engines make it easier to keep up with the latest news about the virus. Social networks help people stay in touch. Online retail and delivery services help keep people fed and supplied while social distancing. Other tech companies provide entertainment, access to medical care, and make it easier to work or learn from home. We will likely never know how many lives have been saved by these services, many of which are free of charge.
  • A running theme of the hearing was that the current big tech companies have enough market power to squash competitors—and then presumably raise their prices. But Zoom, which was not represented at the hearing, shows that the tech industry is still engaging in creative destruction. Six months ago, almost nobody had heard of it. Now, giants such as Microsoft-owned Skype are already essentially legacy services. The Committee’s own technical troubles with its older video conferencing software, which required the Committee to take a recess, underlined the point. Other tech companies are well aware of creative destruction. Facebook’s once-hip user base now has an average age of 46. More than two thirds of TikTok users, by contrast, are between ages 13 and 25.
  • Language matters. And some congressmen are slippery with it. For example, Rep. Cicilline stated that Amazon controls 70 percent of “online marketplaces.” This is a non-standard term that Rep. Cicilline did not define. It almost certainly has a much narrower definition than most people would assume when thinking of a company’s market share. Cicilline’s 70 percent of “online marketplaces” is equivalent to about 4 or 5 percent of retail sales. If people were not listening carefully to Rep. Cicilline’s boutique phrasing, they would get the impression that Amazon has a larger share of its relevant market than it actually holds—by more than an order of magnitude. Does Rep. Cicilline’s terminology include Amazon’s major competitors, such as Walmart, Target, grocery stores, electronics stores, book stores, and more? For more on this type of error, see Patrick Hedger’s recent post and my earlier one on the relevant market fallacy.
  • Rep. Cicilline argued that Google controls 85 percent of Internet searches. This is also misleading. Google does not power many common Internet searches people perform daily. Netflix famously hosted an open competition for developers to design a new search algorithm for its searches that would deliver results tailored to each viewer’s likes and dislikes. Other streaming services also use their own search technology, not Google’s. Amazon product searches use an in-house algorithm. Internet dating sites use proprietary search algorithms as selling points. Internal searches in Word documents or PDF files do not use Google. Were these included in Rep. Cicilline’s statistic? Or is this another example of the relevant market fallacy?
  • Though the hearing lasted for six hours, members missed some opportunities to score valid points. For example, Rep. Mary Scanlon (D-PA) briefly discussed price gouging. She did not bring up, as I recently did, that Amazon’s support of federal price gouging legislation has a potential anti-competitive rent-seeking component. The extensive tax breaks Amazon is receiving for its new second headquarters are another example of anti-competitive corporate welfare. Of course, the blame for these is on politicians as well as companies. This may be why they were downplayed.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public support for heavier regulations for his company has a similar rent-seeking dynamic. Regulations often favor incumbents and lock out potential competitors. Facebook can afford expensive content moderation and privacy regulations; its startup competitors often cannot, or would be discouraged from even trying. Regulations, which Facebook would likely help to write, would likely lock in its leading position in a way that consumers would never allow.
  • Google’s sometimes-accommodating behavior to the Chinese government’s censorship and human rights policies is questionable. At the very least, the company should do more to stand up against illiberal governments. This, however, is not an antitrust issue.

In short, committee members addressed a lot of things they shouldn’t have, and did not address some things they perhaps should have. If this hearing has a part seven (yesterday was actually part six), it should have fewer threats to regulate political speech and fewer common analytical mistakes. And it should focus on how tech companies affect consumers, for both good and bad, and on likely consequences of antitrust enforcement, such as regulatory capture.

For a broader view of antitrust regulation, see Wayne Crews’s and my paper. A new #NeverNeeded paper on tech regulation during COVID-19 by my colleagues Jessica Melugin, Patrick Hedger, Michelle Minton, and John Berlau is here. Jessica’s thoughts on the hearing are here. More resources are at antitrust.cei.org.

Time for a Federal Price Gouging Law?

Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, calls for a federal price gouging law in a recent post over at Amazon’s in-house blog. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

One is that there are already effective ways to reduce price gouging without regulation. At Amazon, Huseman writes, “We deploy dynamic automated technology to proactively seek out and pull down unreasonably priced offers, and we have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating unfairly priced products that are now in high demand, such as protective masks and hand sanitizer.”

This should be a competitive selling point for Amazon, not a call for more regulation. Regulations, remember, are made by the government we have, not the government we want. Amazon’s technology and in-house policies are almost certainly more effective than what Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell would enact during an election year and a pandemic. Company-level policies are also more adaptable than federal-level policies as technology and circumstances change.​

In fact, if Amazon isn’t already doing so, it could license or sell its anti-price gouging technology to competitors for a profit. Price gouging is unpopular, and companies that fight against it look good to customers. Amazon does not need federal regulations to force this business opportunity into being.

Looking at price gouging legislation from Amazon’s perspective, but without the public relations filter, they stand to gain three things from a federal price gouging law:

  1. Regulatory certainty. One federal standard is easier to follow than dozens of state standards.
  2. Liability protection. Amazon will face fewer price gouging lawsuits if the company is cooperative with legislators, or even has a hand in crafting the rules.
  3. Rent-seeking, which is economists’ term for using government for unfair advantage. Price gouging legislation is a way for Amazon to raise rivals’ costs without having to improve its own offerings. Amazon has already invested in artificial intelligence algorithms (AI) and in enforcing guidelines for its third-party sellers. Many of Amazon’s competitors have not, especially the smaller ones.

There is something to be said for the first two items, though there are also arguments against them. But the third item, rent-seeking, is anti-competitive behavior at its worst. One of the primary reasons CEI opposes antitrust regulation, for example, is that antitrust regulations themselves are a major rent-seeking opportunity. Big companies routinely game the rules to thwart competition. Price gouging legislation is another example of the same rent-seeking process. These initiatives happen when companies compete in Washington, rather than the marketplace.

Other Factors

Amazon’s call for a price gouging bill might be part of a larger effort to get itself out of antitrust crosshairs. Ironically, such a bill would make retail less competitive. Not only would Amazon raise rivals’ costs, legislation would prevent companies from competing with each other to offer price gouging policies their customers most prefer.

The timing is as bad as the idea itself. Retail sales declined by 16.4 percent in the month of April, the worst ever recorded—for the second month in a row. Retailers have enough to deal with without having to spend resources complying with new rules their competitor helped to write.

There is a federalism angle, as well. A federal rule would impose standards on more than a dozen states that intentionally refuse them.

Prices Are More than Money

As any good economist will tell you, money isn’t everything. Prices are a lot more than money. Every good has a mix of both money and non-money prices. Price gouging legislation is ultimately ineffective because it only reduces ­money prices during a crisis. Tamping down on those means more severe non-money price increases. These cannot be legislated away.

A high money price causes people who don’t urgently need toilet paper or hand sanitizer to hold off until later, when the price goes back down. That leaves more left over for people who need it now. This matters a great deal during an emergency. On the other side of the equation, that same money price increase also induces producers and distributors to go the extra mile, often literally.

What about non-money prices? One example of a non-money price is when a good becomes harder to find. You might have to drive to a store further away or do some deep digging online for some potentially shady sources. Queuing and waiting lists emerge or shipping times might take longer. These things don’t cost money, but they still have a price. They are not measured in dollars, but in wasted time, extra hassle and stress, and lost opportunities. These non-money price increases leave people with less time left over for other things such as job searches, home schooling, or even taking some time for self-care.

Shortages will happen during a crisis. That is unavoidable. The question is how to deal with them. Just as pushing on a balloon doesn’t change how much air is in it, squeezing down on money prices with a price gouging regulation doesn’t actually do anything to stop price increases. It mostly just redirects them to non-money areas.

What is the correct mix of money- and non-money prices? That is a subjective value judgment. There is no truly right or wrong answer, which is another reason why federal price gouging legislation is bad policy.

Public opinion is pretty well set against price gouging. Importantly, though, most anti-price gouging activists have likely not considered the tradeoffs they would pay in steeper non-money prices. Some of them would likely change their mind if they did. Pollsters should find out. Corporate PR departments would likely change their tune quite a bit based on the results.

Federal price gouging legislation would not stop price increases or alleviate shortages. It would sharply increase non-money prices during emergencies and drive some economic activity into black markets. Companies can set their own price gouging policies without regulation, as Amazon has proven with a mix of AI and sanctions against violating sellers. The rent-seeking aspect of potential price gouging legislation is worth considering for people concerned about business ethics and about large companies gaining an unfair advantage over smaller rivals.

In short, a price gouging bill is #NeverNeeded. Congress has already passed enough harmful flash policy. There’s no need for still more.

Antitrust Enforcement in 4-D

Antitrust regulators have long concerned themselves with horizontal and vertical competition, as well as the depth of market concentration. Now they are entering the fourth dimension: time.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday ordered Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Google owner Alphabet Inc. to provide detailed information about their acquisitions of fledgling firms over the past 10 years.” These deals, which regulators approved at the time, might be undone after the fact.

This is likely illegal. Both federal and state governments are prohibited from making ex post facto laws punishing past actions that were legal when committed. This is a complicated legal question, however. Antitrust law usually comes in the form of judicial decisions, not congressional legislation. The Sherman Act, for example, is only two pages long. Its use of key terms is so vague that judges have been defining and redefining those terms at will for more than a century. In an antitrust case, it is not enough to have truth, justice, and the merits on your side. You must also have the judge.

If regulators follow through with their ex post facto threats and judges agree, they will create enormous uncertainty in the mergers and acquisitions market. Buyers risk prosecution if a deal works out better than expected. The potential chilling effect on competitive behavior is obvious.

Moreover, many of the technologies from years-old acquisitions are so thoroughly merged with the buyer’s operations that unwinding the deals is simply unfeasible. It would be like trying to turn a book back into a tree.

The whole scheme highlights fundamental problems with antitrust law. To see why, let’s step back and take a larger four-dimensional view.

Time

Companies have long risked prosecution for both present and future behavior. But to reach back into the past ex post facto is something new. For example, if a company’s present size is too big for regulators’ tastes, they might break it up. That in-the-moment concern motivated Standard Oil’s 1911 breakup despite its declining market share. It also ended the government’s protection of AT&T’s monopoly in 1984, when regulators decided to allow competition, although in a weird, top-down way. Those cases did not create new offenses out of years-ago actions that were legally permissible at the time.

Antitrust regulators are also concerned with the future. If a company is doing nothing wrong now but might do something bad in the future, some regulators believe they have cause to act now. This is called the incipiency doctrine. For example, if Sprint and T-Mobile merge, will the wireless market become too concentrated, leading to potential future bad behavior? Regulators asked the question. Courts said no, and my colleague Jessica Melugin agrees. Other mergers have been blocked because of possible future effects, as has happened twice with Staples and Office Depot.

Now the distant past is coming into play. Over the last decade, the bigger tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, have bought out as many as 400 startups that had developed promising new products, technologies, or business models. Many of the deals fell below the minimum dollar-value threshold for an antitrust investigation. Regulators approved all of the deals they did examine.

Most of these deals ended up being duds; the rule of thumb is a 90 percent failure rate. But after a decade or so, some of the acquisitions turned out to be important to the bigger companies’ success. Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram is one example. As Facebook’s primary user base gets older and grayer, Instagram is keeping the company relevant with younger people. Countless algorithms and other under-the-hood technologies that now power different parts of Google and Amazon’s operations were originally developed at acquired firms. Now regulators are mulling undoing these past deals, which were previously approved.

The Horizontal, Vertical, and Depth Dimensions

Regulators should instead use a simpler framework with fewer dimensions. To show why, it is worth asking basic questions about business organization. What if Google or Facebook had come up with the successful technologies in-house, rather than having bought them from elsewhere? Would that be an offense? If not, why should developing them via buyouts be treated differently? This is similar to the lesson from economist David Friedman’s Iowa Car Crop story. It is a distinction without a difference.

My theory is that these sorts of multi-dimensional concerns are rationalizations that distract from the main issue: size. In our extended (and imperfect, but useful) analogy, this is equivalent to the depth dimension. Arguments about ex post facto enforcement or different horizontal and vertical arrangements are, in the end, really about size, or the depth of market competition. What appears to be four-dimensional regulation actually concerns one dimension.

Distractions from the Real Issue: Size

Many members of the Neo-Brandeisian antitrust revival are open about believing, like Justice Louis Brandeis, that large size is an inherent antitrust offense. The arguments investigators are floating about different past, present, and future actions, or about different places along the horizontal and vertical dimensions, are only intended to apply to companies of a certain size or to markets with fewer than a certain number of competitors.

Even the number of competitors in a market is a problematic measure. (I earlier gave two reasons why here and here.) A third way to look at it is this: In a way, startup tech entrepreneurs eager to sell out are similar to independent contractors, similar to the way a company might outsource its payroll to an outside contractor or a family might outsource household repairs to a handyman. Sometimes doing something in-house is better. Sometimes it’s not. Every case is different. But doing something in-house means fewer, and larger, firms in the market. Outsourcing means more, and smaller, firms. One arrangement is not inherently more competitive than the other, yet antitrust regulators treat them differently. This is not a coherent position.

Circumstances also change over time. Maybe a company’s in-house R&D team loses a key person or is stuck in a rut. Sometimes a fresh perspective from an outsider might be helpful. Maybe a contractor is too far away from her customers to communicate with them effectively. Maybe a company is having trouble coordinating multiple outside contractors. In these cases, bringing the contractors in-house could make the companies more competitive, even as it reduces the number of firms in the market.

Competition Is a Spectrum and a Process, Not an On/Off Switch

Even within the outside contractor model, there are lots of places along this vertical dimension. Maybe one company contracts with a startup. Another licenses a startup’s technology and brings it in-house but doesn’t buy the company itself. Maybe the license is exclusive; maybe it isn’t. A third company hires the outside person with the bright idea but doesn’t buy her company. Maybe that person’s team and their equipment are necessary to make the most of that idea. If that’s the case, maybe a buyout is easier, and likely cheaper, than hiring away one or two key people. Maybe another company makes overtures to a horizontal competitor or certain of its employees.

Here we find there are angles between the purely horizontal and the purely vertical. Again, competition is not a binary switch, fully on or fully off. It is a spectrum with all kinds of in-betweens. Competition is a complicated, evolving process with nuances that don’t neatly fit into categories.

Every case is different. Nobody knows in advance which possible course of action is the right one—or if there even is a right one. Remember, as noted, mergers have about a 90 percent failure rate—and each and every one was entered into with confidence.

Here is another way to put it. A company with in-house counsel has essentially bought its own law firm. For antitrust purposes, how is that conceptually different from using an outside attorney? These are two different places on the spectrum of vertical integration, but they irrelevant to market competition.

There are similar concerns for the horizontal spectrum. Some cases require multiple attorneys. What if attorneys from competing firms collaborate on the same side of a case? What if some mix of in-house and outside attorneys work together? The result is the same. People or companies who need legal services buy them in the manner of their choosing. That is not a proper antitrust issue.

Same goes with the mishmash of mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures that have characterized the tech industry for decades. Regulators are only making incoherent multidimensional arguments now because the companies are bigger on the one dimension they really care about: size.

Conclusion

Whatever names we give to the ways big and small companies interact with each other, the end results are not that different. Someone sells something and someone else buys it. The sellers might get paid as employees, vendors, or contractors, or maybe they just take the money and move on to something else.

Why some of these arrangements are considered legitimate antitrust questions while others are not is an important question. Regulators have not given a compelling answer, nor are they likely to.

A final point worth remembering: The reason firms exist in the first place is not to enable or restrict competition. It is to reduce transaction costs. There is no magic number of firms that accomplishes that goal. And if there were, it would constantly move as tastes and technology change. It would certainly move faster than the speed of antitrust litigation. Competition is an ongoing discovery process.

Antitrust regulation fails along all four dimensions—the vertical, the horizontal, depth, and time. It should be entirely repealed. At the very least, the Justice Department should immediately stop its search for ex post facto offenses against Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

For more problems with antitrust regulation, see Wayne Crews’ and my paper, “The Case against Antitrust Law.”

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

The East India Company (EIC) was one of history’s largest monopolies. Its story is relevant to today’s antitrust debate, and the larger question of where the private sector ends and the public sector begins. Dalrymple seems eager to paint a portrait of capitalist and corporate greed, but the facts won’t quite allow it. He grudgingly allows that the EIC was not a free-market institution, but he often insists on treating it that way just the same.

The EIC was a public-private partnership from the start, and received government bailouts. It had de facto taxing authority in India, a power no fully private company enjoys. The EIC had its own 200,000-strong army, twice the size of the British army. The East India Company was a government in everything but name, and it acted like it, to the point of toppling India’s existing government in 1765 and replacing it with itself.

Contemporary economists and philosophers such as Adam Smith and even the conservative Edmund Burke opposed empire and its accoutrements not just on moral grounds, but on fiscal grounds. Ventures such as the EIC cost the government more than they made from it.

Dalrymple doesn’t go into this as much as he should, but the EIC’s story shows that there is no bright line where the private sector ends and government begins. This kind of philosophical discussion would have been very useful for clarifying his message.

The lessons from the East India Company’s story apply to today’s climate of too-big-to-fail, bailouts for politically connected industries, and subsidy programs for businesses big and small. All of these nearly always come with political strings attached, and mix together the public and private in ways few outside of the economics profession expected. Beneficiary companies become executors of government policy, rather than engines of value creation.

In the EIC’s case, this meant corruption, coups, atrocities, war crimes, and racially motivated mass murders. Today’s rent-seekers’ interests are mostly limited to greed, fortunately. But they are still worth fighting about, and EIC’s cautionary tale is useful for that fight.

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

A corporate history of Google from its founding up until 2011 or so. This book was written with the cooperation of Google’s founders, so it is not an objective history, nor should it be treated as such. It is still useful. A sequel may also be in order before too long. Since this book was published, Google has created its own parent company, Alphabet, and diversified into areas from video to maps to driverless cars. It is also undergoing multiple antitrust investigations, and growing ire from right and left populists could have massive consequences for consumer welfare, innovation, and for competition policy going forward.

Google has changed quite a bit since its early days, but anything violating the consumer welfare standard is difficult to find in here—though, again, this book is not an objective history. If anything, fear of regulatory reprisal put a damper on some of Google’s innovative ideas almost as soon as they realized the company would be a success. That, as opposed to market share for searches or advertising, is evidence of consumer harm.

Some of Google’s early mistakes and learning experiences still loom large today, such as its acquiescence to Chinese censorship.

Levy also has a forthcoming book on Facebook out in January 2020.