Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

More on the Warren Platform Fallacy

I have argued elsewhere that Elizabeth Warren’s proposed rule that firms not be allowed to compete on their own platforms makes no sense because a platform is just a production input, and all firms must own at least some of their inputs in order to exist. Does your company own its own office computers? Then it competes on its own platform.

But even when a company doesn’t compete on its own platform, the company will often have exactly the same incentive to favor some platform users over others that Warren seems to want to eliminate through her proposed rule.

Consider a shopping mall. The owner of the mall will not typically own any of the stores that lease space in the mall. So the mall owner doesn’t compete on its own platform. (At least not on the mall platform, but certainly on others. The mall owner doubtless owns a few computers.)

But even so, the mall owner does still have an incentive to favor some of its lessees over others, just as the owner would have an incentive to favor its own stores over those of competitors if the owner were to integrate downstream into retail and compete on its own platform. Suppose, for example, that the mall owner has a history of being able to negotiate more favorable lease terms from one restaurant in the mall than from another. The mall owner might then have an incentive not to renew the lease of the other restaurant, in order to make way for expansion of the first.

The lesson here is that whether a platform owner competes on its own platform or not, the owner will have a financial interest in all of the firms that do compete on the owner’s platform (because they all must pay the owner for access), and that interest is unlikely to be equal across all competitors on the platform. Indeed, a platform owner’s financial interest in a particularly profitable client is no different in effect than a platform owner’s financial interest in a business that the owner owns.

If we are not troubled by the fact that a platform owner that does not compete on its own platform will regularly use its power to pick winners–which is just was a mall owner does when it refuses to renew the lease of one shop, but continues that of another–then we should not be troubled by the fact that a platform owner that does compete on its own platform will sometimes favor its own businesses over those of competitors.

It seems fairly clear that what really bothers Warren is not that as a general matter platforms have an incentive to pick winners, whether themselves or others, on their own platforms, but rather that some specific platforms, like Amazon, may not be wielding that power wisely, or perhaps have so much power that government oversight of their decisionmaking is appropriate.

But the solution to that problem is not to gin up a broad general principle, like the one that no firm should be able to compete on its own platform, and then let that principle loose to wreak havoc across the economy. The solution is to empower a regulatory agency to supervise the platform in question, and decide, in light of the specifics of that particular business, whether intervention to supervise the platform’s choices is warranted.

That’s what the FCC did forever with respect to AT&T, back when AT&T was the nation’s only telecommunications platform. And that’s what can be done with Amazon, or other tech giants, to address concerns about possible arbitrary use of platform power.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

When the Food Section Gets Bigness, but the Business Section Doesn’t

It’s a good thing that The New York Times’ Food department hasn’t gotten the small-is-beautiful memo.

On the same day that the paper ran another flawed installment in its crusade against bigness, this time targeting Google for bringing competition to wireless-speaker-maker Sonos, the Times’ food section ran a paean to behemoths of the restaurant business–chains like IHOP and Applebee’s–that highlights many of the reasons why size is often a good thing, both for workers and consumers.

Sonos

Let’s start with the Times’s wrongheaded defense of Sonos.

As the paper did in an earlier defense of cloud-computing startup Elastic, the Times here continues to confuse harm to competitors with harm to competition. Google, the paper suggests, is competing unfairly with Sonos, by “flooding the market with cheap speakers that [Google] subsidize[s] because [the speakers] are not merely conduits for music, like Sonos’s devices, but rather another way to sell goods, show ads and collect data.”

The Times is talking about Home, Google’s answer to Amazon’s Echo, which includes a high-definition speaker that plays music, but also provides access to Assistant, Google’s AI-powered virtual assistant, which allows users to run internet searches, buy products, order food, and do much more by conversing with the speaker system.

The Times weeps that Sonos can’t turn a profit selling its speakers–which only play music–for less than $200, whereas Google sells Home for $50. The implication is that Google is engaged in predatory pricing–sales of products below their cost of production–for purposes of driving competitors from the market. That’s always possible in an abstract sense, and would be an antitrust violation if some other criteria were also met.

But there’s an obvious alternative explanation staring the Times in the face, one that doesn’t involve anticompetitive conduct: that Google isn’t in the market to sell speakers, Google is in the market to sell virtual assistants that also happen to play music.

And when you count up all the different ways Google is able to generate revenue from its product, including commissions Google earns on goods purchased through Home, revenues Google generates from selling ad-targeting services using the data generated by Home, and, of course the $50 purchase price of a Home unit itself, those revenues probably cover Google’s costs, including the cost of making the speakers that go into Home.

We don’t say that a hotel that offers guests free breakfast is engaged in predatory pricing designed to drive the local Starbucks out of business, even though a breakfast price of $0 is definitely below the cost of making the breakfast. Because the hotel is not selling breakfasts. The hotel is selling a package, and the hotel includes the cost of the breakfast in the price the hotel charges for the room. If the local Starbucks wants to compete, then either Howard Schultz needs to get into the hospitality business, or Starbucks needs to offer better coffee than the hotel. (Have you ever skipped out on a free breakfast to go somewhere better? I have.)

The same goes for Sonos. To beat Google, Sonos can try to field its own virtual assistant. Admittedly unlikely, but not a reason to condemn Google, for reasons to be discussed in a moment. Or Sonos can build better speakers than the ones Google bundles with Home, speakers that are enough better to make music lovers willing to choose them over, or in addition to, Home.

The Times makes much of the fact that Google may have used information Google collected from its partnership with Sonos to copy Sonos’s speakers. But as I have emphasized in relation to other reporting by the Times, copying is good for competition, not bad, and is certainly no antitrust violation. If Google copies Sonos’s speakers, making Google’s own as good as Sonos’s, that will have the competitive result of preventing Sonos from leveraging the superiority of its products to charge monopoly prices for them.

Of course, we want innovators to reap some rewards for innovating, which is why the patent laws prevent copying for a limited period of time. Sonos is suing Google for patent infringement, and if Google has infringed, then the court will award Sonos lost profits, as it should. But such patent litigation is about enabling firms to preserve the legislatively-sanctioned monopoly that is a patent on a desirable product. Patent litigation is not about preserving competition.

The Times also makes much of the fact that Sonos’s CEO confessed to being frightened about suing Google, because Google might respond by terminating a partnership with Sonos that allows Sonos owners to use their Sonos speakers, in lieu of Home, to communicate with Google’s Assistant.

But that’s just business. If Sonos postponed suing Google for patent infringement because Sonos wanted to continue to be able to have access to consumers wishing to buy virtual assistants, rather than just speakers, then Sonos was effectively licensing its speaker patents to Google at a price equal to the extra profits that Sonos was generating from the virtual assistant business. If Sonos is asserting its patents now, that means that Sonos thinks it can make more from court-ordered licensing than from the informal exchange of access to its technologies for access to Google’s Assistant.

Standing behind the Times’s article is the unspoken assumption that without the ability to offer access to virtual assistants through its speakers, Sonos is doomed, regardless how good its speakers may be, because consumers don’t care enough about great speakers to be willing to buy them in lieu of, or in addition to, speakers bundled with a virtual assistant, such as Google Home. That may be true, and sad for Sonos, but the ultimate cause must be that Sonos is simply less technically savvy than Google.

Google invested in the search and AI it needed to produce a virtual assistant. Sonos didn’t. True, Sonos may have pioneered wireless speaker technology that Google was not able to match without licensing that technology (informally so far, perhaps formally, under court order, in future) from Sonos. But Sonos could have taken the same tack against Google, reverse-engineering Google’s search algorithms and Assistant AI to create its own virtual assistant. If Sonos wasn’t able to do that, because it would have required too much time and money, then that’s evidence that what Google has achieved in search and AI is much more of a technological advance than are Sonos’s speakers.

Which takes us back to the basic point that to the extent that Sonos is failing to compete effectively against Google it’s because Google is doing a better job than Sonos at giving consumers what they want, not because Google is restraining competition. Once again, the Times has mistaken a textbook case of effective competition for an example of monopoly.

It’s also worth noting that Google has not actually yet retaliated by cutting Sonos off from access to Assistant, no doubt because Google recognizes that Sonos is better at making speakers than is Google, and Google can build its virtual assistant market share by reaching consumers who care about getting great speakers through Sonos.

That, too, is how markets are supposed to work. If Google can make its product better by combining it with rival technology, Google will do that. The fact that Sonos might not be able to survive without Google but Google can survive without Sonos means that Google can drive a hard bargain with Sonos and absorb most of the gains from trade. But Google can’t drive such a hard bargain as to make Sonos unwilling to go on, because then Google will lose the customers it can only get through Sonos.

That means that Sonos will not turn into the next tech giant. But with 1,500 employees and a billion dollars in annual sales (which the Times rather humorously tries to downplay as “a nice little business”), Sonos is doing just fine, even with the short end of the stick. We don’t all get to be the next tech fairy tale. (And if Google does pull the plug on its partnership with Sonos, the company can always compete to supply its speaker technology to Google for incorporation into Home. Indeed, Sonos’s patent suit may be a prelude to a transition into that new business model.)

The Times’ piece on Sonos is also a sobering reminder of the extent to which the paper’s business pages have become a mouthpiece for writers’ self-interested war on Google, Facebook, and Amazon, three companies that writers see as having tanked their earnings in recent years, as I have argued in depth elsewhere.

It’s not just the rhetoric that belongs more comfortably in a polemic than a news feature (Sonos is “under the thumb of Big Tech,” according to the Times). It’s also the sourcing.

The Times tells us that “congressional staff members have discussed [Sonos CEO Patrick Spence’s] testifying to the House antitrust subcommittee soon about his company’s issues with them,” but fails to mention that those hearings have been convened by a Congressman who is simultaneously sponsoring legislation pushed by the News Media Alliance, an industry trade group, that would give newspapers an exemption from the antitrust laws. The Times also quotes an employee of the Open Markets Institute describing Sonos’s fear of Google as “real,” without revealing that Open Markets is run by a journalist with ties to an organization that advocates on behalf of writers. More on both connections here.

But do you think that the Times would care to ask an actual antitrust law scholar whether Google’s conduct is anticompetitive? Nuh-uh. The article couldn’t have been written more critically of Google if Open Markets, or the House antitrust subcommittee, had authored the article itself and issued it as a press release.

IHOP

Thank goodness neither Google, Facebook, nor Amazon is in the restaurant business. Because in that case it would be hard to imagine the Times publishing Priya Krishna’s recent love letter to massive chain restaurants, “Current Job: Award-Winning Chef. Education: University of IHOP.”

According to Krishna’s piece in the Times:

Chain restaurants are often accused of a sterile uniformity and a lack of attention to quality ingredients, nutrition and the environment. But for anyone trying to enter the restaurant business, they have particular attractions: formalized training, efficient operations, predictable schedules and corporate policies that claim to discourage the kind of abuses that have come to light in the #MeToo era. The pay is sometimes better than at independent restaurants, and the Affordable Care Act requires companies with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance.

The article highlights several “acclaimed chefs [at independent restaurants] who prize the lessons they learned . . . in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain restaurants,” from the influential chef who eats at Waffle House to Jacques Pepin, who spent ten years working at Howard Johnson’s.

Chain restaurants provide workplaces that are, it turns out, less heirarchical than independent restaurants. Because egalitarianism is more efficient. At Applebee’s, for example, there isn’t “a strict heirarchy . . . because the kitchen [isn’t] centered on a chef, as in many independent restaurants. ‘There is this understanding that every person is important to making the restaurant run smoothly . . . Nobody thought the dishwasher was a lower status than them.'”

According to the article, “[s]everal chefs point to rigorous customer-service standards of the chains where they worked. ‘It was pretty much that the customer is always right,'” said one chef, who observed to the Times that “[i]t’s a level of hospitality he doesn’t always see in fine-dining restaurants.”

Another chef reported having had to “make sacrifices: lower pay, or forgoing pay while training” when she moved to working at independent restaurants.

She also had to put up with abuse. The article quotes her as recalling that when it took her too long to run food to a table at an independent restaurant, “‘the chef threw a potato and it hit me in the head. . . . That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in a chain restaurants [sic] because of corporate structure. You tend to be treated more fairly.'”

Shortly after reading this article, I went to a small family-run butcher’s shop to get a thinly-sliced cut of meat that my wife needed for a dish she was preparing. The slicing machine was in a back room into which a small internal window had been cut. I could just make out through the glare that the butcher was handling the meat with his bare hands.

I didn’t complain, but I did make my next stop a Kroger’s, the largest grocery store chain in the world. Economics teaches that if this firm were a monopoly, it should have lower quality standards than firms on the competitive fringe, like the family-owned butcher shop I had just left. I went to the meat section and asked for the same cut. The slicing machines were all directly behind the counter, in full view of customers. And the first thing the butcher did was to put on some gloves. True, he wasn’t as friendly as the folks in the family store. But when I got home, I gave only the cuts from Kroger’s to my wife. Big is not always bad.

Small businesses are a good thing, in my view, but only when they are actually better than big businesses. Thousands of independent restaurants survive, particularly in the luxury space, despite treating their labor less well than do the chains, because they provide a shot at top-chef fame for employees and a unique dining experience for customers that chains haven’t yet been able to match. The success of independent coffee shops in resisting Starbucks by taking coffee connoisseurship to another level is also a great example.

But when a smaller firm fields a product that isn’t better than what its rival has to offer, when a firm tries to sell speakers to consumers who would rather buy speakers-plus-virtual-assistants, the solution is not to try to use the antitrust laws to shelter the smaller firm.

The solution is to let the company up its game, or clear out.

Categories
Antitrust

The Times’ Elastic Conception of Monopoly

Pressure groups, too, used ideological symbols for selfish ends, sometimes to mask operations that were completely at variance with the professed ideals. [That] made it difficult to follow the struggle, define positions, and identify the participants.

Ellis W. Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly 36 (Fordham Univ. Press 1995) (1966).

As I have been arguing for some time now, the press’s antitrust crusade against Amazon, Google, and Facebook is about protecting competitors, not competition. The press is only really interested in protecting two groups of competitors in particular, newspapers and publishers, the firms that give a livelihood to the writers who have created this crusade.

But movements grow through the building of coalitions, and writers have worked feverishly to sell their crusade as protection for all competitors of Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and not just those that hire writers in particular. The result has been a series of articles about small businesses and startups that have felt competitive pressures from the three tech giants.

The most recent of these illustrates beautifully writers’ failure to understand that harm to competitors, whether writers or anyone else, is not the same thing as harm to competition.

Prime Leverage: How Amazon Wields Power in the Technology World,” which appeared in The New York Times, tells the story of Elastic, a cloud-computing startup that introduced an innovative search tool that Amazon at the time did not offer. What happened next is exactly what you would expect of a healthy, competitive market. But the Times finds it all very sinister.

When Amazon saw that Elastic had created a superior product, Amazon did what competitors are supposed to do in competitive markets. Amazon copied the product as best it could, and introduced its own version into the market.

Copying, so far from being evidence of monopolization, is actually the market economy’s principle defense against monopolization. When a firm introduces a superior product, the firm in effect takes consumers hostage, because consumers face only inferior products as alternative purchase options. That allows the innovative firm to charge consumers a monopoly price for the superior product.

Copying naturally limits the innovator’s monopoly power. As competitors copy or even improve upon the innovator’s product, consumers start to enjoy an increasing number of alternatives of equal or superior quality, and the prices the innovator is able to charge for the product fall.

Amazon’s move to copy Elastic’s product limited Elastic’s pricing power, preventing the company from charging monopoly prices for the tool. No doubt that made Elastic’s founders very sad. Tech startup culture has accustomed startup founders to the expectation that they will be able to generate monopoly profits from their innovations, and become fabulously wealthy as a result.

But as progressives have been arguing for a long time now, such out-sized profits are neither necessary incentives to induce entrepreneurs to innovate, nor fair. The presence of large incumbents in startup markets who are able to compete away monopoly profits quickly is good for the economy, and the distribution of wealth. Note that to win the competition with Elastic, Amazon can’t charge monopoly prices for its version of Elastic’s search tool, so neither Amazon nor Elastic generate monopoly profits from this technology. Consumers are the principal beneficiaries of Amazon’s ability to copy competitors’ products quickly and effectively.

Now, one might worry that Amazon’s copying of Elastic’s product might ultimately harm competition by driving prices so low that Elastic is not able to recoup its costs of innovating, effectively sending a signal to the market that innovation no longer pays because Amazon will steal the fruits.

But this concern isn’t about the presence of excessive monopoly power–Amazon’s or anyone else’s–but rather a concern about excessive competition. Indeed, it’s a concern about the ability of innovators to capture the benefits they confer on the economy despite competitive pressures.

If an innovation is too easy to copy, then the innovator will enjoy only a very short period of exclusivity in the market, and may not be able to recoup its development costs before competition sets in and prices fall to modest levels. The law handles this problem by creating intellectual property rights, which allow innovators to enjoy legally-guaranteed exclusivity for a set period of time or under certain circumstances. Elastic clearly was not able to patent its search tool, and Amazon was clearly able to invent around any trade secret or copyright protections enjoyed by Elastic.

What this all means is that the intellectual property laws don’t view Elastic’s tool as the kind of innovation that needs extra legal protection from copying. From the law’s perspective, Elastic will do just fine on its own, thanks to the low cost of developing new software tools and the advantages in brand recognition and follow-on innovation that Elastic enjoys from being a first mover with respect to this technology.

That is just what seems to have actually happened in Elastic’s case. Although the first paragraphs of the Times article lead the reader to expect news of Elastic’s bankruptcy by the end of the story, the paper is forced eventually to admit that “Elastic . . . went public last year and now has 1,600 employees,” up from 100 when Amazon first copied its tool. So Elastic didn’t need intellectual property protection to earn enough from its innovations to thrive, despite competition from Amazon. (The article informs us that Amazon did violate Elastic’s trademark by giving its tool the same name as Elastic’s. Trademark law will provide Elastic with compensation, in the form of lost profits, for that infringement.)

This is exactly how you want competition to function. New firms enter markets by introducing innovative products, and competition from incumbents struggling to catch up prevents the new firms from growing into monopolies themselves, but at the same time does not drive them out of the market.

The story of Elastic is a story of healthy competition that benefits society as a whole, but not, of course, Elastic, which would much rather have faced no competition from Amazon at all. The Times notes that startups refer to Amazon as engaging in “strip mining” when the firm copies the products of competitors. Of course, every firm would prefer that competitors never be allowed to copy their products, because that would give every firm a permanent monopoly in the technologies that the firm innovates. To the startup entrepreneur who wants an easy path to tech riches, all competition is “strip mining.”

But preventing copying is not good for America. That the Times would seem to be promoting this sort of innovation-based monopolization, despite the paper’s advocacy of antitrust enforcement against Amazon, reflects the contradictions inherent in any attempt to use the antitrust laws to protect competitors rather than competition. Protecting competitors means giving them monopolies. Protecting competition, by contrast, means leaving competitors to sink or swim.

There are more contradictions. The Times seems, for example, not to realize that the fact that Amazon dominates cloud computing must surely have resulted in more protection, and less competition, for Elastic, than Elastic would have enjoyed in a less concentrated market. The less concentrated the market, the greater the number of firms in a position to copy an innovation, and the more severe the resulting price competition is likely to be.

Because Elastic’s only competitor was Amazon, the market was a duopoly, and duopoly market pricing can be much closer to the highs of monopoly pricing than to the lows of competitive pricing. That might explain why Elastic was able to recoup its development costs, grow exponentially, and successfully go public despite Amazon’s sale of an essentially identical product to that offered by Elastic.

The Times also suggests that the fact that Amazon both owns the cloud servers used by most internet firms, including Elastic, and also competes in the market to provide software services for use on those servers, is inherently anticompetitive. The notion that firms should not be allowed to compete on their own platforms is probably the most embarrassing and superficial effusion of the press’s crusade against Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

For all businesses are nothing more than collections of platforms, from the vast majority of which every business excludes competitors (think of office space). To prohibit competition on one’s own platform is to prohibit productive activity entirely. The fact that Amazon has decided to throw open its cloud servers–which the firm initially developed exclusively for its own use–to competitors is an act of great pro-competitiveness, not the opposite.

That Amazon may have used information about Elastic’s tool that Amazon could only have generated from its administration of the servers that Elastic used to run the tool is hardly anticompetitive. To the contrary, that allowed Amazon to accelerate the copying process and introduce competition into the market for that tool more quickly than the company might otherwise have been able to do. If that is too much competition for Elastic, then the intellectual property laws can be changed to provide software tools with more protection than they receive today. The fact that Elastic did not succumb to this competition, but thrived, suggests, however, that more intellectual property protection–more monopoly for Elastic–would not be appropriate.

One problem with the press’s crusade against Amazon, Google, and Facebook has been a failure to recognize that these companies’ size makes them more efficient, and that breaking them up would therefore result in a net loss for society. From this perspective, the press is calling for more competition where competition would not be a good thing. But in the Times’s defense of Elastic, there is something quite different: the promotion of monopoly–saving Elastic from competition from Amazon–where competition would be more appropriate.

The only way to understand the press’s adherence to these inconsistent positions–promoting competition here, monopoly there–is as a desire to have the antitrust laws pick winners and losers in the market according to the press’s own particular set of special interests and political preferences.

Is the press aware that it is ultimately trying to do that?

You bet.

Categories
Antitrust

Power in Profiles

One strategy that the press has deployed in its war on Amazon, Google, and Facebook is the profile. Because profiles legitimate, and what the press’s war on these companies lacks is legitimate intellectual support. Readers assume that if The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal chooses to write about you, then you must know something, and that causes bureaucrats, legislators, other journalists, and even some academics, all of whom read the papers, to start treating you like you do.

The Times’s profile two years ago of a recent law school graduate who had written a student note attacking Amazon appears to have had this effect.

The Wall Street Journal’s profile of Dina Srinivasan today seems to be trying to do the same thing.

The profile pitches Srinivasan as having made a surprisingly successful academic case for antitrust intervention against Facebook. But one strains to find anything in the profile that distinguishes Srinivasan other than the fact that she titled a law review article she wrote as “The Antitrust Case against Facebook.”

Is Srinivasan an antitrust expert? No. As the article beguilingly informs us, when she wrote her paper Srinivasan had “neither any institutional affiliation or a law license,” though she did have a law degree from Yale that she had “never put to use” (until now, apparently). Indeed, we learn that until recently she’s been unemployed, having “quit her job as a digital advertising executive two years ago.”

Was the article in question published in a top law review? No. It was published in a specialty law review, rather than the general interest law reviews that make up the first tier of outlets for legal academic work. The Journal tries, appallingly, to make this placement sound like a coup, by saying that the law review in question published her “unsolicited article.” But in law virtually all articles appearing in academic law reviews are unsolicited.

Is this pioneering work? No. Srinivasan’s argument that Facebook charges users a price denominated in data rather than dollars is nothing new. In 2017, when Srinivasan wrote her piece, the concept of the data price was literally everywhere one turned in antitrust circles. Two years earlier, in fact, John Newman, a genuine antitrust scholar, made that argument in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, a top-tier academic journal. Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, antitrust scholars at Oxford and the University of Tennessee, respectively, had just published a book saying the same thing. Germany’s antitrust enforcers had undertaken a major investigation of Facebook based on exactly that premise. And a graduate student, Elias Deutscher, was presenting a paper advancing exactly this argument with a great deal more sophistication. No doubt more examples can be found.

But only Srinivasan wrote the idea up as “The Antitrust Case against Facebook.”

Has Srinivasan’s paper in particular met with an unusual level of academic acclaim? No. We are told that she has presented her paper at the “American Antitrust Institute’s annual conference.” AAI is a politically moderate advocacy organization, not an academic forum, and presenting at one of its meetings, while nice, is hardly a high-prestige affair within antitrust circles, let alone a reason to stop the presses. But if you’re not impressed by that (which you shouldn’t be), news flash: the Journal informs readers that Srinivasan “is presenting her work at an international antitrust conference in Brussels this week.” I wish every time I attended an international conference, which I and dozens, if not hundreds, of antitrust scholars do every year, the Journal would write me up.

The paper does little to hide the fact that Srinivasan is no authority on antitrust because the point of this profile is not to report. But to create. And for that all you really need is publicity.

If you aren’t convinced yet that this profile is about advancing the press’s narrow competitive interest in the demise of Facebook, just read the article through to the end. Srinivasan, we learn, is employed again. She is “currently working with The Wall Street Journal’s parent company, News Corp.”

Categories
Antitrust

Qualcomm in One Diagram

The district court’s opinion in the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Qualcomm is 233 pages long, but it really comes down to a single diagram. Because the case is really just this: that Qualcomm excluded rival chip makers from the market by refusing to license patents either to rivals for bundling with their chips or to chip buyers so that the buyers could assemble the bundle on their own.

The licenses are for “standard-essential patents,” meaning patents necessary for chip buyers, who manufacture cell phones, to make phones that comply with industry standards. Chip buyers must, therefore, acquire the licenses to function. Qualcomm sold licenses in a bundle along with its chips, but refused to sell them any other way, either directly to cell phone makers who might want to combine them with chips purchased from Qualcomm’s chip-selling rivals (the “no license no chips” policy), or to rival chip makers who might want to bundle them with their own chips and sell them on to cell phone makers. That made the chips supplied by rival makers undesirable to cell phone makers, because the rival chips did not come with patent licenses and the cell phone makers could not obtain those licenses independently.

The diagram describes a supply chain, with patent licenses, which amount to an essential input into the production a usable chip product for cell phone makers, at the top of the chain. Cell phone makers must acquire both this input and chips themselves to function. The second, middle, level in the supply chain is the physical chip itself. Qualcomm competes in this market, and uses its control over the essential patent input to exert power over rivals in this market. Cell phone makers are just as happy buying licenses and chips separately and assembling them on their own, or buying licenses bundled with chips. Qualcomm excludes rival chip makers by making it impossible for either rival chip makers or cell phone makers to acquire the license and bundle it with rivals’ chips.

The diagram reflects this by putting Xs through supply arrows leading from patent licenses directly to cell phone (“equipment”) makers and from chip patents to rival chip makers. Because Qualcomm nixed these supply routes for patent licenses, the only way for cell phone makers to obtain licenses was through purchases of Qualcomm chips. Because cell phone makers couldn’t get the licenses independently or through rival chip makers, they had no reason to buy chips from rival chip makers, wiping out those rivals of Qualcomm in the chip market.

Analogy to Pencils and Erasers

It’s as if a pencil manufacturer that also happened to be the world’s exclusive producer of erasers were to refuse to supply erasers to competing pencil makers and also refuse to sell them directly to consumers. The only way to obtain an eraser for use with a pencil would be to purchase an eraser-tipped pencil from the pencil manufacturer. Competing pencil makers would be unable to compete, because most pencil users want to be able to erase.

Actually, the case against Qualcomm is a lot clearer than would be the case against this hypothetical pencil conduct. What ultimately drives antitrust liability in single firm conduct cases is whether the input supplier’s decisions about how to route supply results in an end product that is ultimately better for buyers than alternatives. The inputs here are the patent licenses, and the question is therefore whether Qualcomm’s insistence on only supplying licenses alongside its own chips made those chips better.

The answer has got to be no: a patent license is just a piece of paper– really, just an idea–the guarantee that the licensor won’t sue for infringement. Combining this bit of ephemera with the chips creates no value greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t make the chips run faster, or sip less power, or process more data. It adds nothing at all to the product sold by Qualcomm. Cell phone makers can do just as good a job combining the license with Qualcomm’s chips as can Qualcomm, and rival chip makers can do just as good a job combining the license with their chips as can Qualcomm.

By contrast, the pencil maker might be better at affixing erasers to pencils than any other firm in the business, or indeed than pencil consumers, in which case the pencil maker’s insistence on reserving its entire eraser supply to itself might actually make consumers better off. The pencil maker can defend its decision not to treat erasers as a standalone component and supply it to others as necessary for it to improve its end product. Qualcomm just can’t make that kind of argument.

So Qualcomm should lose on the economic merits. Buyers suffer the harmful consequences, in the form of higher chip prices, that come from Qualcomm’s freezing-out of rival chip makers. But buyers enjoy none of the advantages in the form of improvements in the quality of the product offered by Qualcomm, because no such improvements follow from Qualcomm’s bundling of licenses with chips.

At least, the economic case is clear before you take into account that licenses are not normal production inputs, but rather government-granted rights of exclusivity the purpose of which is to aid the grantee in excluding competitors from markets. Patents fail by design to add anything to the products with which firms combine them. Their whole purpose is to exclude, nothing more. Treating a firm’s decision to license only its own products as monopolization in violation of the antitrust laws simply because the license does nothing to enhance the value of the product would make all exercises of patent rights illegal monopolization.

The Importance of the Standards Context

If a refusal to license patents were all there was to this case, the FTC would surely not have brought it. What makes this case special is that Qualcomm’s patents are essential inputs into chip production only because standard-setting bodies chose to incorporate Qualcomm’s patented technologies into industry standards. This matters, because we respect the monopoly power created by a patent only because we assume that it derives from the fact that the patented technology represents an innovation that competitors have failed to match. We assume that what makes a patent necessary for competitors to be in the market is that the patent covers some invention that makes the product better. The patent, and the monopoly power that flows from it, then serves to reward innovative activity, creating incentives for all firms to innovate and improve their products.

But when a patent is a necessary input because a standards body has incorporated it into an industry standard, we cannot be sure that the patent’s essentiality ultimately derives from the fact that the patented invention is better than alternatives. Standard setting bodies often have a menu of technologies that they may incorporate into a standard, each of which is equally innovative and equally suited to accomplishing a given task. That is to say, standard-setting bodies often choose from a menu of competing technologies, none of which is essential precisely because other technologies on the menu accomplish the same task. The standards body must choose only one technology, however, because that’s the point of establishing a technical standard, and it is that step of adopting the technology for the standard, and not the technology’s superiority or uniqueness, that makes the standard essential. All the firms in the industry must adhere to the standard, and the decision of the standards body therefore eliminates all competing, equally innovative technologies, from the field.

The source of the technology’s essentiality, of its ability to confer monopoly power, is therefore the decision of the standard setting body to use the technology, not the fact that the technology is superior to other existing technologies. That eliminates the basic rationale for which the antitrust laws usually allow patent holders to refuse licenses to competitors. The monopoly power that results cannot, in the case of standards-essential patents, be assumed to reward superior performance. It follows that in this unique context, it is proper to proceed to the next step of asking whether a patentee’s decision to lock up access to its patents does anything to improve the products it sells, and to conclude from the fact that it cannot that consumers are harmed.

The Prior Dealings Wrinkle

While the case against Qualcomm is therefore clear as an economic matter, it is less clear as a legal matter. The trouble is that Chicago School influence over the antitrust laws has restricted the ability of the courts to decide antitrust cases on the economic merits. The Supreme Court’s Aspen Skiing and Trinko cases suggest that a firm’s decision to lock others out of its supply chain (as Qualcomm has done in effectively supplying patent licenses only to itself in its production of bundles of chips and licenses for sale to cell phone makers) can violate the law only when the decision represents a termination of a prior profitable course of dealing.

That is, unless the firm has a history of voluntarily supplying the input (here patent licenses) to competitors, the firm’s decision not to supply the input cannot violate the antitrust laws.

Thus when a termination of a prior profitable course of dealing does exist, the courts are free to get to the economic merits and decide whether the termination made the product better. But when a termination does not exist, the courts must kill the case, even if the termination does nothing for the product, and therefore must harm consumers. So much is true, at least, if the Supreme Court really meant this to be a hard and fast rule of law. Courts see the existence of a termination as a signal that the firm’s refusal to deal might be motivated by anticompetitive intent, and that is in turn some evidence that the move does not improve the product. Rather than parse through all cases looking for product improvements or the lack thereof, courts prefer to devote their attention only to those in which the existence of a termination suggests that a lack of product improvement is likely. The courts assume that the rest of the cases involve benign, product-improving, conduct.

The FTC has tried to get around this problem by arguing that Qualcomm’s contractual commitment to license its patents to rival chip makers, which Qualcomm made as part of its participation in the organizations that set cell phone standards, amounted to a prior course of dealing. The FTC advances this argument even though at the time that Qualcomm made this commitment, Qualcomm never actually licensed its patents to competing chip makers. Indeed, Qualcomm never did license these patents to competitors, the company only ever promised to do so. If that promise counts as prior dealing, then Qualcomm’s subsequent refusal to carry out its promise and license its patents would constitute a termination of a prior dealing. And, argues the FTC, that prior dealing was notionally profitable because Qualcomm’s commitment included a promise only to license at fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms, which means profitable terms.

The FTC’s argument is obviously an abuse of the concept of a termination of a prior profitable course of dealing. Because a promise to deal profitably in the future is not in fact a prior profitable course of dealing. They are different things. But that does not mean that the FTC should lose, only that the rule toward which the Supreme Court gestured in Aspen Skiing and Trinko is not a great rule, and should not be treated as hard and fast by the courts.

Where, as in the Qualcomm case, the essentiality of a patent to competitors results from the actions of a standards body and not from the innovative superiority of the patented invention, and the firm’s refusal to license did not improve the product as an economic matter, and therefore must have harmed consumers, the courts must hold the defendant liable for monopolization in violation of the Sherman Act.

The courts can continue to treat a termination of a prior profitable course of dealing as suggestive of the potential for consumer harm in a refusal to deal. But when the courts encounter a case in which the essentiality of a patent arises by administrative fiat, rather than market forces, they shouldn’t kill the case on account of the absence of a termination of a prior profitable course of dealing.

Which is why the district court got this case right, and the Ninth Circuit should affirm.

(The FTC has also tried to get around the termination of a prior profitable course of dealing requirement by arguing that Qualcomm’s refusal to license directly to cell phone makers is a separate antitrust violation, distinct from Qualcomm’s refusal to license to rival chip makers. While there is some basis in law for treating this conduct (which amounts to tying) as an independent basis for liability for monopolization, I see it as just an indirect way of refusing to sell to rival chip makers, one to which the termination of a prior profitable course of dealing requirement could apply. Licensing directly to cell phone makers is equivalent to having Qualcomm license to chip makers and then having the chip makers ask cell phone makers to pay a portion of the purchase price of their chips directly to Qualcomm. A willingness on the part of Qualcomm to license either directly to cell phone makers or to rival chip makers would amount to a willingness to supply an input essential to rival chip makers’ success, and Qualcomm’s refusal to license through both channels therefore amounts to a refusal to supply an essential input to competitors. This behavior should count, either way, as a refusal to deal with competitors, and be considered under the legal rules governing such refusals.)

Categories
Antitrust

Is Go the Ultimate Antitrust Boardgame?

Scsc, Gofin, (Ramsi Woodcock added arrows and text to the image.) CC BY-SA 3.0

In the ancient game of Go, players compete by placing stones on a grid board with the goal of enclosing the greatest amount of territory with their stones. Think of the board as a two-dimension product space. For breakfast cereals, for example, one axis might be sweetness and the other crunchiness. The goal of a firm is to field a product that has few close substitutes, that faces competition from products that are quite unlike it, and therefore unlikely to lure away consumers of the firm’s product, allowing the firm to raise prices without worrying about triggering a reduction in demand. The goal of a firm, therefore, is to reserve the largest possible extent of product space to itself. But that’s just what a Go player seeks to do: to exclude his opponent from the largest possible expanse of the Go board.

We can think of the stones that a Go player places on the board as differentiated products. A stone’s location on the board corresponds to a particular combination of the two product attributes represented by the Go board as two-dimensional product space. In the cereal example, a stone placed at the center of the board would represent a breakfast cereal that is half sweet and half crunchy. A stone in one corner might represent a cereal that is very sweet and not crunchy at all.

At the start of a game of Go, players place their stones in separate areas, trying to stake out control of whole quadrants of the board, just as firms strive to introduce products that have no close substitutes, ensuring that consumers will be forced to buy the firm’s product at high prices (an animated picture of how a game of Go develops may be found here). We can think of each node in the Go board grid as representing a consumer with a preference for a product with attributes that correspond to that node. If no product has precisely those attributes, the consumer will purchase the product with the closest set of attributes, meaning the product represented by the Go stone on the nearest node to the consumer’s. Placing a stone in an empty quadrant of the board means that the player will get the business of all of the consumers in that quadrant. (Those familiar with the Hotelling location model of differentiated product competition will recognize that this account of Go is just the Hotelling model expanded from one dimension to two. We’re not talking about pizza places along the line that is the Coney Island boardwalk, but pizza places on the grid that is midtown Manhattan.)

Now, firms pioneering a new technology may decide to stop innovating, stop introducing new product flavors, and just coexist in oligopolistic harmony. One of the extraordinary things about Go is that, like firms, the players can stop the game at any time. Whenever both players agree to stop, they count up the territory enclosed by each and the player with the largest territory wins. Just so, when firms collude, the firm with the most desirable product–the product that controls the greatest share of consumer demand–will profit most from the oligopoly.

When to keep fighting and contesting competitors’ markets, and when instead to try to respect competitors’ markets and seek accommodation, is an important question in business strategy. Just as it is in Go. At the start of the game, both players usually believe they can achieve advantage through continued play, and so the game goes on. Competition at the inception of an innovative technology, when a new product space opens up, is often fierce. Think of the competition in streaming video today.

Firms take the battle to each other by striving to make very close substitutes of their competitors’ offerings, cutting into demand for competitors’ products and increasing demand for their own. So it is in Go, too. The players invade each others’ quadrants by placing stones right next to their opponents’, just like firms trying to siphon off rivals’ demand. At the extreme, a firm may create a set of products that so well captures all of the attributes that consumers value in a competitor’s product that demand for the competitor’s product eventually withers and the product is driven from the market. In Go, that happens when one player has placed stones that fully encircle a stone belonging to his opponent. When that happens, the opponent’s stone is removed from the board and the player gains a point. We can think of that point as representing profits enjoyed from having permanently locked up the demand of the consumer represented by the strangled node.

Firms sometimes succeed by driving competing products from the market. But they also often succeed by building up a wall of differentiated products that competitors cannot penetrate. Indeed, the FTC famously alleged in the 1970s that Kellogg did precisely that with breakfast cereals by proliferating the number of cereal flavors that the firm offered. In Go, this is reflected in prolonged struggles between the players to wall off territory (text in Wikipedia accompanying the featured image of this post provides a nice overview of how players control space through these struggles).

Differentiated product competition is the only kind of competition that we have in the real world. If Go is a game of differentiated product competition, does it tell us anything about how to regulate real world competition through antitrust?

Play it and find out.

Categories
Antitrust

The Antitrust Laws Give Chicago Cabbies a Remedy

The New York Times is reporting that New York taxi companies bought hundreds of Chicago taxi medallions–enough to jack up medallion prices–and then turned around and sold them to cabbies, earning monopoly profits. Many cabbies borrowed to buy the medallions and have gone bankrupt.

If the New York companies’ purchase of large numbers of medallions really did give them the power to raise prices, then those companies achieved monopoly power for purposes of the antitrust laws, which define it as the power profitably to raise prices.

It’s not illegal to charge monopoly prices. But it is a violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act to assemble a monopoly through asset acquisitions, such as the purchase of taxi medallions.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission have the power to challenge anticompetitive acquisitions after the fact. And they can seek disgorgement of profits, which here would mean an order requiring the New York companies to compensate cabbies for the inflated prices that they paid. The article suggests that in some cases those prices may have been eight times the competitive prices, or $350,000 in monopoly excess per medallion.

The Times suggests that much of the alleged conduct took place six or more years ago. But for civil antitrust actions brought by the government, there is no statute of limitations.

It may also be possible to challenge this conduct as fraud, or market manipulation. But this is a case of the raw acquisition of monopoly power, without any semblance of an efficiency justification, placing it squarely within the core of the antitrust laws. It would be nice to see those laws earn their keep here.

And to see antitrust enforcers return to policing local and regional monopoly power.

Categories
Antitrust

Google’s DNS-Over-TLS Is Good Because Competition in Advertising Is Bad

AT&T and Comcast are complaining to House antitrust investigators that Google’s plan to encrypt DNS, the internet’s addressing system, will prevent AT&T and Comcast from snooping on web traffic that will remain transparent to Google, giving Google a competitive advantage in targeting advertising to consumers.

AT&T and Comcast may be right that DNS-Over-TLS will give Google a competitive advantage, but that’s good for consumers, not bad. Because advertising undermines consumer sovereignty, and more competition in the targeting of advertisements means more targeted advertising.

That is the irony of antitrust scrutiny of Google’s power in the advertising market more generally. Advocates of greater antitrust enforcement seem to think that smashing Google’s advertising monopoly will somehow increase privacy and benefit the public. They’re wrong.

It is a staple of antitrust economics that more competition means more output, and in the market to use consumer data to target advertisements, that means more targeted advertising. Google, Comcast, and AT&T will race to hoover up every last bit of consumer information, subject it to the most sophisticated data analysis methods known to science, and use the insights generated thereby to induce consumers to buy their clients’ brands. (Of course, Google, Comcast, and AT&T may compete with each other to offer privacy protections to users, but that can go only so far, because they also compete with each other for advertising dollars based on the amount of data on consumers they can leverage to target ads.)

Competition is great in markets that produce products that benefit consumers. But it is terrible in markets that produce products that harm consumers, because it makes those markets more productive. That’s why the tobacco oligopoly was a good thing. And that’s why the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, gave the states the power to promote monopolization of the distribution of alcohol.

And targeted advertising really is bad for consumers. As I pointed out not long ago (summary here), the information age has eliminated the sole economic justification for advertising–that it provides consumers with useful product information that they cannot find anywhere else–leaving advertising with a single functional use for firms: to manipulate consumers into buying products that they do not really prefer (otherwise the advertising wouldn’t be needed to induce them to buy the products). Targeted advertising magnifies this manipulative power.

As recently as the late 1970s, antitrust enforcers in the United States understood that advertising’s manipulative function harms competition, by putting firms that produce products that consumers do in fact prefer at a competitive disadvantage. In that period, the FTC brought, and sometimes won, a series of cases against large advertisers, arguing that their attempts to promote their products were anticompetitive.

The FTC did not bring those cases against firms that distribute advertising, which at that time were mostly newspaper and television companies. The FTC brought those cases against the firms that paid those newspaper and television companies to distribute their advertising. Because the FTC understood that the competitive threat posed by advertising is not that the platforms that distribute ads tend toward monopoly, but that the advertising those platforms distribute itself undermines competition in the markets in which advertised products are sold.

In other words, in the 1970s, antitrust enforcers understood which level of the advertising distribution chain to target in order to benefit consumers. Today, the House seems fixated on the wrong level, on the platforms that distribute advertising rather than the markets in which advertising is deployed to harm competition.

That fixation may be due to the influence exerted by the newspaper industry on the House investigation. The market to distribute advertising tends toward monopoly because size is an advantage: the more eyeballs you can reach, the more valuable is your platform to advertisers. For most of the 20th century, newspapers ran the advertising distribution monopolies. But Google beat them–and took over as advertising monopolist–by offering a better product to advertisers. The newspapers look to have turned to antitrust enforcers to try to get back into the game.

That should make consumers, and anyone worried about privacy, very concerned. Because it means that the new antitrust movement isn’t about consumer welfare, or privacy, but about ensuring that newspapers and telecoms get their fair share of consumer data and consumer exploitation.

And that brings me back to DNS-Over-TLS. Today, the non-encryption of DNS lets any firm on the internet, including Google, AT&T, and Comcast, snoop on your internet usage. DNS-Over-TLS would limit the snoopers to Google. That’s a net gain for consumers, and anyone concerned about privacy, which is why it is supported by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox web browser, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. To the extent that DNS-Over-TLS helps Google protect its advertising distribution monopoly against new entrants like AT&T, the technology harms competitors, and will allow Google to continue to extract high fees from firms that buy advertising. But higher fees mean fewer ads, which is good for consumers.

If we see the House move against this technology, we’ll know for sure whose side it is on.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization Regulation

Cost Discrimination

One hears constantly about the power of technology to enable the consumer-harmful practice of price discrimination, which is the charging, to each consumer of a given product, of a price equal to the maximum that the consumer is willing to pay for that product. But one hears very little about the power of technology to enable the consumer-beneficial practice of cost discrimination, which is the foisting upon each firm of a price equal to the minimum that firm is willing to accept in exchange for selling a given product.

That’s not because the technology isn’t there. In fact, because big business invested in supply chain automation long before the tech giants made possible the snooping needed to identify consumer willingness to pay, the technology needed for cost discrimination is more developed than the technology needed for price discrimination. The reason we don’t hear about cost discrimination is that the technology needed to implement it is in the hands of firms, rather than the consumers who would benefit from cost discrimination.

This state of affairs isn’t surprising, since firms are few relative to consumers, and therefore more likely to have the pooled resources and capacity for unified action needed to invest in and implement a discrimination scheme. Yes, consumers have review websites, and price aggregators, but that’s a far cry from the centralized acquisition and analysis of data, and the ability to bargain as a unit based upon it, that firms enjoy.

One way for consumers to implement cost discrimination would be by organizing themselves into data-savvy cooperatives for purposes of negotiating prices with firms. Another would be for startups to step in as middlemen, taking a cut from consumers in exchange for engaging in data-based bargaining on their behalf.

But another solution is for the government to create an administrative agency with the power to regulate consumer prices. It turns out that there is ample precedent for government price regulators to dictate cost-discriminatory prices.

Here, for example, is an account of the Federal Power Commission doing just that for wellhead natural gas rates in 1965:

Pricing designed to encourage supply could also create “economic rents” (profits above a normal return) for gas producers with old, inexpensive reserves. Neither the producers’ brief for fair field prices nor the staff’s preference for rates based on average historical costs seemed acceptable or sufficient. It was the young economist Alfred Kahn, serving as an expert witness, who suggested a two-tied pricing structure: separate prices for old gas and new gas. Here, from the commission’s perspective, was an ideal political, and perhaps economic, solution. “The two-price system,” wrote the commission, “thus holds out a reward to encourage producers to engage in further exploration and development while preventing excess and unnecessary revenues from the sale of gar developed at a period when there was no special exploratory activity directed to gas discovery.”

Richard H.K. Vietor, Contrived Competition: Regulation and Deregulation in America 113-14 (1994).

The old gas here corresponds to inframarginal units of production and the new gas corresponds to marginal units of production. Economists were once acutely aware of the problem that even under perfect competition the inframarginal units can enjoy a windfall at the competitive price, so long as the cost to their owners of producing those units happens to be below the cost of the marginal units, which determine the competitive price.

David Ricardo famously explained all of English aristocratic wealth in these terms. The aristocrats take the best land by force, he observed, and cultivation of that land is relatively inexpensive, because it is the best land. The rest take land that is more expensive to cultivate. Because the competitive price for agricultural goods must be high enough to pay the higher cost of cultivating the poorer-quality, hence marginal, land, the price must then be above the cost to the aristocracy of cultivating the best land, leaving the aristocracy with great profits.

Just so, the FPC worried that the producers of the old gas, who had come upon the gas only as an accident as part of explorations for oil, and therefore had incurred a gas exploration cost of zero, would enjoy a windfall if prices were set to cover the costs of bringing new gas from the ground through dedicated and costly explorations. So the FPC approved prices that discriminated against the old gas producers based on their lower exploration costs.

Consumers don’t know enough about the costs incurred by the firms that sell to them to insist on low prices when buying from firms with low costs. Which is why I suspect that government price regulation will be the only way for consumers eventually to enjoy some of the pricing-based fruits of the information age.

Categories
Antitrust

John Bates Clark’s Peculiar Case for the Distributive Justice of the Perfectly Competitive Market

The argument for the efficiency of the perfectly competitive market is familiar: large numbers of firms selling an undifferentiated product will compete price to marginal cost, ensuring that everyone who can afford to pay the cost of production gets access to the product.

But is the distribution of wealth between buyers and sellers that is created by marginal cost pricing fair?

Today, economists agree that the distribution of wealth created by marginal cost pricing is entirely arbitrary. For the distribution of wealth is determined by inframarginal units of production, not marginal units. The benefit to me of the tenth unit of production of a particular good might be $10, and that might be just equal to the marginal cost of producing the tenth unit, making the market price under perfect competition in turn $10. But the gain I get from buying all ten units is determined by the value to me of each of the first nine units I purchase, not the marginal tenth, and the value I get from the first nine may be very much higher than $10. If I get $20 of enjoyment from each of the first nine units, then my gain from my purchase of ten units, net of the price of $10 that I pay for each unit, is $90. If the marginal cost of production is a constant $10 over all units, the gain to the producer is $0. That’s hardly fair to the producer. All of the gains from trade, defined as the difference between the value conferred on consumers by production and the costs of that production, go to me. Even though price is set equal to marginal cost.

It is for this reason that a century ago economists rejected the promotion of competition as a means of guaranteeing a fair distribution of wealth. They embraced competition because it is efficient–I am able to purchase every unit for which I am willing to pay the cost of production, so the economy produces all of the gains from trade of which it is capable–but they recognized that some other means was needed to achieve a fair distribution of wealth. That other means was the tax system. Raise my taxes by $45 and reduce the producer’s by $45 and now the gains from trade are distributed equally between us.

Given our current understanding of the distributive importance of inframarginal units of production, it is startling to discover that a century ago John Bates Clark, a giant of conservative economics, made a vigorous case not just for the efficiency but also for the distributive justice of perfectly competitive markets. His distributive case was rejected almost as soon as it was made, and has since sunk into obscurity. But that leaves me wondering: How could Clark have been unaware of the fact that the distribution of wealth is determined by inframarginal units, not marginal units? Did he just not understand marginalist economics? The few contemporary scholarly discussions of Clark’s work that I have encountered fail to explain.

The answer, it turns out, is that Clark understood marginalism, and the argument that inframarginal units determine the distribution of wealth. But he thought he had a convincing rejoinder. Here he is in his magnum opus, The Distribution of Wealth:

The man that we are studying is a society in himself: he makes things and he alone uses them. [The value to him of the last unit that he produces] measures the effective utility of everything that he makes. Though [the value to him of the first unit that he produces] may measure the absolute benefit conferred by the loaf that satisfies hunger, the real importance of having that loaf is far less. If this necessary article were taken away, the man would devote a final hour to bread-making, and would go without the article otherwise secured by that final increment of work. Destroy his day’s supply of food, and what he goes without will be luxuries naturally secured by the terminal period of labor. [The value to him of the last unit that he produces] measures the utility of those luxuires, and it measures therefore the effective service rendered by the supply of necessaries that are produced in an equal period of work. Any [inframarginal unit] will have a true importance measured by [the value to him of the last unit that he produces]; since, if it were lost, there would be diverted to the replacing of it some work that would otherwise secure an article having an importance measured by [the value to him of the last unit that he produces]. As it is of no more real consequence to the man to keep one of these articles than it is to keep any other, [the value to him of the last unit that he produces] measures the subjective value of each of them. . . . Bread and the other necessaries of life are absolutely more important than jewelry and other luxuries; but in effective utility the complements are all on a par, since, if any one of them were destroyed, the result would be to make the community go without the last.

John Bates Clark, The Distribution of Wealth: A Theory of Wages, Interest, and Profits 385, 388 (1914).

Clark’s argument is that if any one of the inframarginal units (Clark calls this bread, or another necessity, to illustrate that it is valued more highly than the marginal unit) is destroyed, the only actual unit that disappears from production is the marginal unit (Clark calls the marginal unit a luxury good to illustrate the fact that the consumer values it less than inframarginal units), because one unit is subtracted from output. Because consumers lose the value of the marginal unit when the inframarginal unit is destroyed, it follows, according to Clark, that the true value of the inframarginal unit is actually the value to the consumers of the marginal unit.

That allows Clark to treat all inframarginal units as having no value to the consumer that is separate from the value of the marginal unit, which is to say that it allows him to ignore entirely the value of inframarginal units and to treat the value to the consumer of the marginal unit as the entire value of production. It then follows that because the competitive price equals both the value of the marginal unit to the consumer and the marginal cost of producing that additional unit, there is in fact no surplus generated by any transaction, and the consumer pays a price exactly equal to the value the consumer receives from production and the producer is paid a price exactly equal to the producer’s cost of production. Thus the problem of distributive justice is not so much resolved in a fair way by competitive markets as it is eliminated entirely, because under competition there are, according to Clark, no gains from trade at all, just a buyer and a seller who both subsist on a knife’s edge, buying and selling at a competitive price that leaves both just as well off as each would be had neither entered the market at all.

But is Clark right to argue that inframarginal units have no real value to consumers, because their disappearance would, individually, deprive the consumer only of the marginal unit?

Of course not. The enjoyment you get from eating your first scoop of ice cream is real, whether you eat a second scoop or not. And the enjoyment you get from eating your first scoop of ice cream really is greater than the enjoyment you get from eating your second scoop of ice cream, notwithstanding the fact that if your first scoop is somehow clawed back, you won’t be able to eat that second scoop and get the lesser enjoyment from it. Indeed, once that first scoop is clawed back, your second scoop becomes your first scoop, and your enjoyment of it goes up. That’s why monopolies restrict output. They know consumers place a higher value on the first few units they consume, allowing monopolies to charge them higher prices.

Clark’s argument implies that the more you eat, the less valuable your meal is to you, because the less valuable is your last bite. That’s highly counterintuitive. Few would prefer a cracker for dinner to a four course meal, even if the last bite of that four course meal is worth less to them than would the first bite of that cracker. So why did Clark come up with such a view?

It seems to me that the strangeness of Clark’s theory is a measure of the level of disappointment felt by those who believed in the justice of competitive markets at the implication of the marginalism that the distribution of wealth in competitive markets is arbitrary. True, marginalism validated the Adam Smithian faith in the efficiency of competitive markets. But what had always been at stake in economic debates was the morality of the market, and this marginalism could not prove.

Clark’s failure to prove the distributive justice of the competitive market is a warning to those today who would promote greater antitrust enforcement and competition more generally as a solution to economic inequality. Indeed, the progressives of Clark’s own day, who were profoundly concerned about economic inequality, tended to reject antitrust and competition as solutions.