The election of a longtime Washington insider to the presidency was, if anything, supposed to mark a return to competent, reality-based government. The astonishing failure of the administration to predict—or adequately plan for—the rapid collapse of the Afghan government this summer is hinting that the new administration is not all that much more competent than the last.
There are warning signs in Biden’s antitrust policy as well. His executive order on competition, for example, misleadingly cited as authority academic sources that either didn’t support the order, or suggested it would fail. And now we learn that the administration actually thinks it can use antitrust action to reduce inflation caused by pandemic-induced supply chain disruption. Oh my.
Antitrust won’t stop inflation caused by supply chain disruption because the profits that firms generate from supply chain disruptions are scarcity profits, not monopoly profits. They are the product of actual scarcity, not the artificial scarcity that antitrust can alleviate by promoting more competition. Only an administration that doesn’t know its Antitrust 101 would miss this.
Indeed, competent progressivism doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes. Take John Maynard Keynes. He was all for killing off the rentier—the earner of the kind of economic profits that supply-chain-induced inflation is dealing to many corporations these days—but he never thought antitrust would do the trick.
Because, like most progressives of his generation—and the competent progressives in ours—he understood that rent is a problem of competition, not monopoly.
The rentier doesn’t need to smash his competitors; he just lies on his fainting couch and watches the numbers tick up in his bank account because he happens to own a uniquely productive resource, one that competitors can’t beat, even if competitors are allowed to try their hardest.
Similarly, the big corporations charging high prices today don’t need to smash their competitors to charge those prices, because their competitors don’t have access to better sources of supply either. No matter how hard these firms compete with each other, there is just not enough production capacity in the supply chain to enable them to ramp up output and therefore no firm has an incentive to reduce prices and increase profits through increased market share.
That is not to say that these corporations are not earning rents, meaning profits in excess of what they need to be ready, willing, and able to produce and sell their wares on the market. They are. Rental car companies, for example, are charging multiples of what they used to charge for a car, while at the same time facing much lower costs than they ever did, because they are unable to expand their fleets. It follows that the price premia rental companies are charging are pure profits that the rental companies do not strictly need in order to remain in business.
But the profits are not a result of anticompetitive conduct. They are due, instead, to shortage. The rental car companies are not expanding their fleets, because a microchip shortage means there aren’t any cars available for them to buy. So, while they wait, the companies ration access to the cars that they do have by charging high prices for them, ensuring that those consumers with the largest pocketbooks get access to cars, and those with less means have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the shortage to end.
Unless it is reformed to adopt pricing remedies—and there is no indication the Biden Administration is seeking to do that—Antitrust has nothing to bring to this situation but trouble. To the extent that Biden’s antitrust initiatives translate into actual cases and the imposition of actual antitrust remedies, we can expect costs that will be passed on to consumers in every competitive market that the Administration mistakenly targets. The costs will be legal costs and also those associated with unnecessary remedies—the firm that actually worked better when it was whole hacked to peaces to please the angry antitrust god.
But the biggest danger posed by the use of antitrust to deal with supply chain disruption is that antitrust will be completely ineffective at actually getting prices down.
Smash three big rental car companies into twenty small ones, but you still won’t increase the number of available cars, and so you won’t, actually, increase competition, or bring prices down. Each of the smaller companies will know that it can raise prices without losing market share to the other nineteen, because the other nineteen don’t have any additional cars to rent out to customers either.
Failing to get prices down would be bad, however, because prices can and should be made to come down. For, as noted above, the fact that prices are currently high due to shortage does not imply that they must be high in order to induce firms to continue to compete and produce as best they can. The rental car companies could just as easily cover their costs by charging the rock bottom prices they charged last summer because the companies are, after all, still fielding the same fleets they fielded last summer. They are charging higher prices because the shortage (but not their own anticompetitive conduct) shields them from additional competition.
How, then to get prices down without antitrust? Keynes’s elegant solution was the euthanasia of the rentier. This was understood by Keynes to mean that the central bank could use monetary policy to drive down interest rates, thereby depriving the rentier of the ability to earn a fat return on his investments.
But the euthanasia of the rentier actually has a deeper meaning. For an actual rentier could always respond to low interest rates in financial markets by using his money to invest directly in actual businesses, especially businesses earning large rents due to shortages. What makes this impossible, and really does euthanize the rentier, is that the lower interest rates created by monetary policy induce large numbers of businesspeople to borrow money and invest it in new businesses, and this investment ultimately eliminates shortages across the economy, driving rents down and killing off the rentier.
But it takes time for money invested in new businesses to eliminate shortages and drive prices down. To get prices down now, before supply-chain disruptions can be eliminated, there are two other options.
The first is direct price regulation. Government could impose price controls in industries subject to pandemic-driven supply chain disruptions. President Biden could order rental car companies to revert to charging their low summer 2020 prices, for example. President Nixon imposed price controls in the 1970s; it can be done.
The second is taxation. Congress could vote a special corporate tax aimed at hoovering up the rents generated by firms enjoying pandemic-driven shortages. That would not bring respite directly to consumers, who would continue to pay high prices, but Congress could vote to redistribute the proceeds of the tax to deserving groups, or spend the money on projects like infrastructure that benefit everyone, rather than leaving it to firms to pay it out to wealthy shareholders to stimulate the market for yachts.
I am having trouble deciding whether the Biden Administration’s obsession with antitrust as cure-all is the legacy of President Biden’s long career as a centrist Democrat or a result of the meathead radicalism that the Trump Administration inspired in some progressives.
Either way, like relying on the Afghan government to defend Kabul, he can’t say no one warned him it wasn’t going to work.