Marc Levinson – The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America
This is an excellent history that is playing out again in today’s antitrust revival. A&P was the first nationwide grocery store chain. Though it barely exists today, in its prime it was the nation’s largest retailer. A&P inspired fear among its competitors and outrage among populists.
People made many of the same arguments against A&P in the popular press and in antitrust cases that people make today against Walmart, Amazon, and other big companies. The word choices, hyperbole, and breathless tone are almost identical. And yet, A&P was no match for consumer preferences, which eventually shifted elsewhere. The company chose not to adapt, and today exists on roughly the same scale as Blockbuster Video, which is down to a single store in Oregon.
Some of the very same charges, such as A&P’s selling self-branded products at lower prices than outside brands, are being revived today against Amazon. A&P-era arguments are even being repurposed to argue against Apple and Google’s app stores and search results. Not only were their business practices never anti-competitive, they clearly weren’t enough to save A&P from the competitive process. Nor will it be enough to save today’s big tech companies. Consumers are harsh sovereigns, and as soon as someone does it better, they’ll move on.
History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Levinson digs up some of the lost stanzas of a poem being rebooted all over Washington today. There are lots of lessons here for people on both sides of the antitrust revival.
On Monday, I talked about antitrust policy on Paul Molloy’s Freedom Works show based in Tampa, FL.
I also taped a conversation on Rick Trader’s Conservative Commandos show today where we discussed today’s jobs report, the COVID-19 recovery, antitrust policy, and other topics. It should air sometime soon.
I’ll post links to audio (and video for the Conservative Commandos segment) if I find them online.
This press release was originally posted on cei.org.
A coalition of more than 30 states and territories today filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging the search engine has abused its power in markets ranging from voice assistants to digital advertising in an attempt to maintain a monopoly over internet searches. The antitrust lawsuit is the third filed against Google since October.
CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young said:
“Today’s antitrust lawsuit, the third against Google since October, has a major flaw: the dozen keystrokes argument. It is not difficult to type bing.com or duckduckgo.com into your browser. Google pays Apple as much as $12 billion per year to Apple to have Google be its default search engine. This is apparently not enough to prevent Apple from reportedly building up its own search engine.
“Nor was Microsoft’s similar default status for its Internet Explorer browser enough to stave off competition from Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and other browsers. Just as Microsoft never actually controlled the browser market, Google does not control the search market. Consumers do.”
In early November, I was invited on Bob Zadek’s show for a thoughtful hour-long conversation on antitrust law. Audio and an AI-generated transcript are here.
In late October, I was on Jim Blasingame’s Small Business Advocates radio show, also to talk about antitrust.
Earlier this week, I spoke to One News Now’s Chris Woodward about regulations.
This is a press statement originally posted at cei.org.
The State of Texas announced today it is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging the company’s online advertising platform harms competition and allows Google to fix prices for advertising.
CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:
“A company has monopoly power if it can raise prices, restrict supply, and still keep its dominance. Despite Google’s growth, digital ad prices have fallen by half over the last decade. At the same time, print ad prices have been increasing. Some newspapers have doubled their rates. Google and Facebook, which hold similar market shares, have made the ad market more competitive. Their innovation and price-cutting has made advertising more affordable than ever for small businesses who are struggling to find customers at a difficult time. Attorney General Paxton’s lawsuit would harm consumers and small businesses—precisely the opposite of what antitrust regulation is intended to do.”
Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin said:
“It’s hard to take seriously Attorney General Paxton’s claim that Google has, ‘harmed every person in America.’ Consumers have benefited from Google’s products, services and innovations, often for free. This suit is costly solution in search of a problem.”
This is a press statement originally posted at cei.org.
The European Union today announced new rules it claims will change the way technology companies operate. The EU says the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act “will create a safer digital space for users” and “level the playing field so that digital businesses can grow.”
Vice President for Strategy Iain Murray said:
“The European Union’s proposed new powers allow it to treat American tech firms as cash cows, to be fined whenever it finds them guilty of providing too much discretion to consumers or allowing too much speech. Its proposed veto on acquisitions will also chill innovation in the European tech sector as it will make the prospect of significant rewards for an acquisition-based business strategy less likely. Europe will act as an anchor on tech innovation, slowing progress and reducing consumer welfare worldwide. The incoming Biden administration should avoid making the same mistakes.”
Senior Fellow Ryan Young said:
“The European Union’s two proposed tech regulation bills have two fatal flaws. One is that, on purpose or not, they are trade protectionism under another name. Many of their provisions are aimed at the large U.S. tech companies. Taking them down a notch would give an opening to EU-based tech companies, the thinking goes. As with President Trump’s trade wars, this will harm consumers without actually helping the industry. The two bills also leave in place the EU’s stifling regulatory culture that is the root cause of Europe’s lack of tech sector innovation.
“The second fatal flaw is that the EU’s proposals would actually lock in the existing American firms’ dominance. They are the only companies that can afford the massive content moderation costs the EU is demanding, or the large fines. Startups that might one day dethrone today’s giants cannot afford these costs, and may not even bother trying to compete.”
In this month’s issue of Reason magazine, I have a feature-length article on the bipartisan push to revive antitrust enforcement. If you don’t have the print edition, it is now online. Here is the introduction:
Mark Zuckerberg was having one of 2020’s worst Zoom meetings. It was July 29, and one of the most influential men in the world was sitting, pale and perspiring, in a sparse white room getting attacked by members of Congress from both parties. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, was scolding the Facebook CEO about the “content moderators that you employ [who] are out there disadvantaging conservative content.”
But before Zuckerberg could offer much in the way of a response, he was attacked from the left, as Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline castigated Zuckerberg for not taking down the same content. For Cicilline, “the problem is Facebook is profiting off and amplifying disinformation that harms others because it’s profitable.”
For good measure, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, asked Zuckerberg why Facebook temporarily took down Donald Trump Jr.’s account over a post promoting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Zuckerberg pointed out that the incident happened on Twitter.
After discussing how conservatives’ and progressives’ ideological priors are warping the antitrust debate, I point to a better way: abolish antitrust regulation outright. Or at the very least, require proof of consumer harm before unleashing it.
Read the whole thing here. See also CEI’s dedicated antitrust site, antitrust.cei.org.
George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute has released a 1,361-page Report on the Digital Economy.
This is a press release originally posted at cei.org.
The European Commission today announced it was charging Amazon with antitrust violations, accusing the retailer of using data from third-party sellers to benefit its own retail offerings.
CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:
“Whether intentionally or not, the EU’s antitrust case against Amazon is trade protectionism by another name, at a time when the global economy cannot afford it.
“It also falls for the relevant market fallacy. This is using fancy terminology to say that Amazon dominates an unrealistically narrow market. In this case, the EU argues that Amazon dominates ‘marketplace services’ and ‘online platforms.’ Amazon is, in fact, a low-margin retailer. And it has a roughly 1 percent global market share. It sells things in a variety of ways, and people can buy them in a variety of ways—or not, as they choose.
“Amazon has made retail more competitive. Amazon’s third-party seller services give smaller businesses access to a global market they did not previously have. Traditional large retailers, such as Walmart and Target in the U.S., have expanded their online options to compete against Amazon. So have grocery stores—which is important in the age of COVID. It is difficult to make an argument that these developments have harmed consumers or producers.”
This Sunday, November 8, I’ll be on the Bob Zadek Show to talk about the Google antitrust case. I’ll be on for the whole hour, starting at 8:00 AM PT/11:00 ET.
Bob’s website is here. If audio is put online afterwards, I’ll post a link.