Tuesday 30 July 2019

Reinvigorating Competition Law in the United States: A Path Forward?

In late 2018, Professor Timothy Wu at Columbia University Law School published a short, readable and nicely priced book at about 140 pages titled, “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the Gilded Age.”  This ambitious and accessible book lays out and defends the general thesis that American antitrust law (competition law) has gone astray.  He essentially attacks the narrow focus on the consumer welfare theory of antitrust law as failing to completely encompass other values, particularly related to the protection of democracy from influence by a concentrated private sector relying on the work of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis.  He traces the history of antitrust enforcement in the United States from the “Gilded Age” and notes that the remedy of breakup of concentration has historically led to more innovation, and an important harm of the narrow Chicago/Harvard School approach to antitrust is a failure to find actionable concentration enough and that “bigness” in and of itself is harmful.  Indeed, concentration leads to those benefiting from it doing whatever necessary to preserve their position, which includes suppression of innovation through raising rival costs, mergers and cloning, and exercising control over government.  Cloning is essentially copying of the features of smaller rivals, particularly in the technology/internet industry.  It seems that intellectual property protection may provide some cover for small firms from abuse.  He points to the lack of enforcement by the George W. Bush administration (and also points the finger at the Obama Administration, but gives them the excuse of the background of a judiciary that has adopted the Chicago/Harvard School approach--perhaps the W Bush Administration may benefit a bit from the same excuse) that led to a significant amount of concentration across several industries.  Interestingly, the Trump administration recently approved the Sprint/T-Mobile merger

Professor Wu is particularly concerned about the technology sector and specifically critiques the behavior of Google, Facebook and Amazon.  Professor Wu points to several policy prescriptions: 1) reinvigorate merger review, including “a simple but per se ban on mergers that reduce the number of major firms to less than four”; 2) "democratization of the merger process"; 3) taking on big cases (he lauds the EU's approach); 4) using the breakup remedy; 5) adopting a “market investigation” practice similar to the United Kingdom; and 6) essentially “abandoning ‘consumer welfare’ as the lodestone of antitrust law” and adopting a standard based on the “protection of competition” that is process oriented in nature.  Notably, other additional values worth protecting could include individual privacy and even more difficult to cabin in today's age--national security.  Professor Wu’s book lays out a strategy for approaching antitrust issues in the Internet Age and perhaps he will be the one to lead the next Democratic administration’s antitrust enforcement.  The book is available for purchase, here, for around $12 new and $8 used. 

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