In the modern age, we have trouble taking ideas seriously. We prefer to think in terms of dumb mechanism. We need oil for energy. It is in limited supply. Therefore we fight over it. Therefore we have conflict in the Middle East, which has a lot of oil. We apply this sort of economic logic to everything.
The view that ideas determine social behavior seems, by contrast, wishy washy. Does anyone need an idea in the way he needs energy and hence oil to live? Why would two groups that are otherwise well fed and well clothed fight over a figment of the mind?
To the extent that we credit ideas with power, we do so only by seeing them as snare and delusion—weapons in our quest for physical resources. Ideas are spin. They are the Viceroy butterfly’s colors, which mimic those of the bitter-tasting Monarch, warding off predators. Ideas are psyops, nothing more.
The ancients didn’t have this problem. Ideas, for them, were quite obviously everything, which is why people got worked up about religious dogma, as when the greens and the blues came to blows over the question whether Jesus was mostly human or mostly god. (We still do occasionally get violent over religion today, but we see that as a shame and a throwback.)
As I have argued before, the irony of our modern disdain for the power of ideas is that one of our greatest modern inventions—the computer—is an object lesson in the importance of ideas relative to physical mechanisms. No one questions the importance of software. No one questions its influence over the behavior of our machines.
And yet we are somehow certain that our own software—ideas—is mere epiphenomenon.
Antimonopolism as Mere Idea
So it is that when I point out to progressives that antimonopolism is bad for the movement because it leads, ultimately, to a vindication of the justice of the free market, I am told not to worry because antimonopolism is just good progressive psyops. Yes, I am told, free markets are themselves engines of inequality, but being an antimonopolist isn’t the same thing as being a free marketer.
Instead, I am told, antimonopolism is a way of affirming that business interests are the enemy. It’s a way of marshaling support for government intervention. And that is all. Once progressives have ridden a wave of antimonopoly sentiment into power, I am told, they will be free to achieve progressive goals however they want, and that may or may not include more markets and more competition.
This view of antimonopoly as psyops has been most on display in progressive calls to use antitrust to fight inflation. So far as I know, a century of progressive economics had never taken the position that inflation is caused by monopolization or that antitrust might be a useful remedy.
Keynes, for example, thought inflation’s flip side—deflation—had little to do with market structure. He thought Roosevelt’s first New Deal, which was about using cartelization of markets to fight deflation, was a mistake. He invented macroeconomics because microeconomics—tinkering with market structure—was a dead end. It stands to reason that, if he thought deflation wasn’t a problem of market structure, he didn’t think inflation was either.
Progressive economists no doubt understand that the link between inflation and monopolization is tenuous at best. And yet here, for example, was Paul Krugman writing a year ago when this debate was flaring:
Give Biden and his people a break on their antitrust crusade. It won’t do any harm. It won’t get in the way of the big stuff, which is mostly outside Biden’s control in any case. At worst, administration officials will be using inflation as an excuse to do things they should be doing in any case. And they might even have a marginal impact on inflation itself.
Paul Krugman, Why Are Progressives Hating on Antitrust?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2022).
In other words, arguing that inflation is an antitrust problem is good psyops, allowing progressives to leverage concern about inflation to achieve an unrelated agenda.
Well, there are costs to this kind of instrumental use of ideas—costs that arise because, at the end of the day, ideas aren’t just weapons for striking the other side. They are the software that governs the behavior of those who harbor them. If you hold onto ideas when they’re no good, you are going to do the wrong thing.
When you run bad software, the computer does bad things.
The New York Price Gouging Regulations
The peril of harboring bad ideas is reflected in the rather peculiar interpretation of New York’s new price gouging law proposed by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
The law itself is a good one. It prohibits “unconscionably excessive” pricing during any “abnormal disruption” of a market for a good or service that is “vital and necessary for the . . . welfare of consumers”.
The language is capacious enough to allow New York to institute generalized price controls to reign in supply-chain-driven inflation, including today’s inflation. After all, a supply chain disruption is an “abnormal” disruption. And all goods are, by definition, necessary to the “welfare of consumers.”
But only if the Attorney General interprets the law that way. And here is where the power of bad ideas rears its head.
As the Attorney General acknowledges, half a dozen states—including such conservative climes as Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana—consider any increase in the price of covered necessities during a time of emergency to be presumptive price gouging. The price of gas can go up by a penny or ten dollars—either way, the burden is on the seller to prove that it is not price gouging.
The New York Attorney General decided, however, to take a different tack. Instead of applying the presumption to any amount of price increase by any firm, the Attorney General decided to apply it only to any amount of price increase by firms having either a 30% market share or competing in a market with five or fewer “significant competitors.” In all other cases, only a price increase in excess of 10% will trigger the presumption of price gouging.
That’s right, New York’s price gouging presumption is actually going to be narrower than Mississippi’s, because it only applies to big firms.
Answer: bad software.
Whether they genuinely believe in antimonopolism, or think it is mere psyops, progressives have antimonopolism on the brain. Every economic problem appears to them to be a problem of monopoly. And every solution appears to them again to be a solution to a monopoly problem.
They do not see a statute that prohibits the charging of high prices as an opportunity to redistribute wealth in areas of economic life that antimonopoly policy cannot touch. Instead, they see it as an invitation to extend antimonopoly ideology into new areas.
In their minds, making such a connection actually broadens the statute, by tying it to what they are sure is the root cause of all economic injustice.
Except it isn’t. And they end up narrowing the statute instead.
So they take a statute that could be interpreted presumptively to ban all above-cost pricing attributable to supply chain disruption and use it instead presumptively to ban only above-cost pricing by big firms.
Price Gouging Is about Scarcity, Not Monopoly (and Yes, Those Are Two Different Things)
The pity of using a market concentration requirement to limit a great price gouging law is that price gouging really has zilch do to with monopoly.
Price gouging is, instead, about scarcity. Or one might say that monopoly is about artificial scarcity whereas price gouging is about the exploitation of natural scarcity.
We fear the monopolist because, in the absence of competition, the monopolist can restrict output and raise price without losing market share.
By contrast, we hate price gouging because it involves taking advantage of an involuntary restriction in supply.
When demand for food spikes before a hurricane, the public knows that supermarkets don’t have the inventory to meet demand. But the public also knows that the supermarkets originally expected to sell the inventory that they do have at normal prices. Those eggs were already on the shelves before the impending hurricane was announced. When the supermarkets raise prices, it is therefore obvious to the public that the surcharge is pure profit. That’s what makes the public mad and gives rise to price gouging laws. The manufacturing of a voluntary shortage plays no role here. No one thinks the supermarket is holding back eggs—or choosing not to order more.
Monopoly is famine while grain rots in silos. Price gouging is your neighbor demanding your house in exchange for a slice of bread—after lightning striking the silos.
That’s why price gouging statutes kick into gear only during an emergency—or, as in the case of New York’s law, during a period of “abnormal disruption” of markets. A monopolist’s decision voluntarily to restrict output and jack up prices is plenty evil, but one thing it isn’t is the sort of supply chain disruption that triggers a price gouging statute.
Confusing Scarcity with Monopoly
So what is a market concentration requirement doing in regulations implementing a price gouging statute?
The Attorney General relies on a passage in the price gouging law that identifies “an exercise of unfair leverage” as a factor in determining whether a firms has engaged in price gouging. But the phrase “unfair leverage” could just as easily refer to (natural) scarcity power as it could to monopoly power.
The Attorney General’s comments shed more light on her rationale. They explain that “firms in concentrated markets pose a special risk of price gouging because they can use their pricing power in conjunction with an abnormal market disruption to unfairly raise prices.”
This seems to articulate a category mistake. She has confused scarcity power with monopoly power.
The pricing power upon which price gouging is based is scarcity power. It is the power that arises because an act of god has eliminated part of the supply that would otherwise exist in the market. The pricing power enjoyed by “firms in concentrated markets” is not (natural) scarcity power. It’s monopoly power (artificial scarcity)—the power voluntarily to restrict supply.
A firm in a concentrated market can use its monopoly power whenever it wants, including during an “abnormal market disruption.” But whenever the firm chooses to use it, the firm isn’t using (natural) scarcity power to raise prices. It’s using monopoly power to raise prices.
If, thanks to the abnormal market disruption, the firm is able to raise prices higher than the firm otherwise might, then that extra increment is price gouging due to (natural) scarcity power. But any price increase that the firm would be able to bring about without the aid of the market disruption is due to an artificial restriction in supply and remains an exercise of monopoly power.
So it makes little sense to say that firms with monopoly power pose a “special risk” during periods of market disruption because they can use their monopoly power “in conjunction” with their scarcity power to raise prices. Firms with monopoly power pose the same risk that all firms pose during periods of disruption: the risk that they will use the additional power conferred on them by disruption-triggered scarcity further to raise prices.
If we worry that (natural) scarcity is going to tempt a monopolist to raise prices we should be equally worried that it will tempt a non-monopolist to raise prices: (natural) scarcity gives both firms the exact same kind of power—the power to exploit scarcity to raise prices.
Non-Monopoly Price Gougers Probably Do More Harm
Indeed, one would expect that the harm that a firm that lacks monopoly power can do by exploiting scarcity would generally be greater than the harm that a monopolist can do by exploiting (natural) scarcity because, before the disruption, the monopolist will already have artificially restricted output to try to raise prices to the most profitable extent.
If a monopolist has already artificially restricted supply to the most profitable extent, any additional involuntary restriction caused by the disruption may be unprofitable for the monopolist and the monopolist may, therefore, choose not to exploit it by raising prices further.
As some have long suggested, the first increase in price above costs is always the most harmful to consumers, precisely because when price equals cost, output is at a maximum and consumers reap the greatest benefit from production. They therefore have the most to lose. Subsequent price increases play out over progressively lower sales volumes, inflicting smaller and smaller amounts of harm.
But what kind of firms are induced by an abnormal market disruption to make a first increase in price above costs?
Firms in hypercompetitive markets start out with prices at or near costs before an abnormal market disruption gives them power to price gouge.
Monopolists facing abnormal disruptions have already raised their prices above costs long ago, when they first acquired their monopoly position. To the extent that they increase prices due to a market disruption, that will be far from the first increase in their prices above costs.
Disruptions Operate at the Level of Markets, Not Individual Firms, So Price Gouging Is Not Worse In Concentrated Markets
The Attorney General seems to think that because a monopolist has a large market share relative to a non-monopolist, any price increase by the monopolist will tend to cause more harm because it will apply to a higher volume of sales. She writes that large firms “have an outsized role in price setting.”
This is the sort of mistake that comes from thinking in terms of firms instead of markets.
A market disruption does not enable price gouging by striking a single firm. If a single firm’s output is restricted but no restriction is placed on the market as a whole, other firms in the market will bring more inventory to market to offset the loss of the firm’s output and no firm will have the opportunity to raise prices.
Instead, a market disruption enables price gouging by striking the entire market. If the output of the market as a whole is restricted, then restrictions on the output of some firms won’t be made up by increased sales by other firms. As a result—and this is key—all firms in the market, and not just the firms that have suffered a restriction in output, will be able to raise prices.
That’s because the higher prices are a rationing mechanism: they allocate the restricted market supply to the consumers who have the highest willingness to pay for it.
If any firm in the market doesn’t raise prices, consumers will all try to buy from that one firm. But because there isn’t enough supply in the market to satisfy them all, that one firm won’t have enough to satisfy them all either. The firm will sell the same volume as the firm would have sold at the higher prices. But the firm will earn less profit. So the firm will prefer to just charge the higher prices.
That’s why only market-level disruptions enable price gouging.
What this means is that a supply disruption that is concentrated in a large firm doesn’t affect more consumers than a supply disruption that hits smaller firms instead. Regardless where the disruption is felt, all prices, charged by all firms in the market, rise—so long, that is, as the disruption is a market-level event in the sense that other participants in the market are unable instantaneously to make up for the reduction in the firm’s supply.
And, as I pointed out above, in markets with large numbers of small, hypercompetitive firms, those price increases are likely to be more harmful precisely because prices are likely to start out lower than in concentrated markets.
One must, therefore, scratch one’s head at the Attorney General’s further observation that “the profit maximizing choice for a smaller competitor in an industry with [a larger] seller will often be to match the larger company’s price,” as if that establishes that price gouging is more severe in markets that have larger competitors.
When industry supply is restricted, the profit maximizing choice for a smaller competitor will be to raise price to match smaller competitors’ price increases, as well. All firms, regardless of size, will find it profit-maximizing to raise price in order to ration the industry’s limited output.
The point of a rule against price gouging is to prevent the market from using high prices to ration access to goods in short supply. The rule effectively requires the market to ration based on the principle of first-come-first-served instead.
Price gouging enforcers target only a small subset of firms in any given market for enforcement. But the goal of the a rule against price gouging is not, ultimately, to regulate the conduct of individual firms but rather to get the market price down to cost. Enforcement against individual firms is meant to have a deterrent effect on the pricing behavior of all firms in the market.
While targeting the biggest firms for enforcement might send a stronger warning to the market than targeting a smaller firm, prosecutors do not need a regulation making it easier to bring cases against big firms in order to pursue such a strategy. Indeed, such a regulation makes it harder for them to bring cases in markets in which there are no big firms.
Does Plenty Really Make Firms More Likely to Collude?
The Attorney General’s theory seems to be that market disruptions enhance monopoly power, enabling a monopoly to leverage scarcity to increase prices in response to a market disruption to a greater extent than could a non-monopolist.
The Attorney General seems to have in mind that market disruptions facilitate collusion. “[I]t may be easier for big actors to coordinate price hikes during an inflationary period, even without direct communication,” she writes.
One would, of course, expect that firms in concentrated markets that are prone to tacit collusion would be able to raise prices after a market disruption. The disruption by definition reduces the amount of output in the industry in the short term, as discussed above.
That allows the firms in the market to raise prices. But such price increases are due to the increased scarcity of output, not to the collusion.
In order for the collusion to be responsible for the price increase, output would have to fall further. The firms would need to engage in collusion that enables them voluntarily to restrict supply above and beyond both the involuntary restrictions created by the market disruption and any voluntary restrictions that the firms were capable of impose absent the disruption.
Presumably the argument is that the impetus to raise prices independently that is created by the supply disruption puts firms in the frame of mind required for them further to restrict supply and raise prices in tacit collusion with other firms.
That’s a pretty slim psychological reed upon which to hang a theory of harm. And one can easily imagine alternative psychologies.
Plenty tends to make us self-involved and egomaniacal. Hardship, if not too great, makes us generous and cooperative. It would seem to follow that the profit opportunities created by a market disruption should undermine cooperation between firms, rather than promote it.
I don’t know if this story is any more likely to be true than the one that the Attorney General seems to favor. The point is that psychological arguments of this sort do not provide a strong basis for carving out special treatment for large firms under a price gouging rule.
More Confusion of Scarcity with Monopoly
The only other argument the Attorney General makes for special treatment reprises the Attorney General’s confusion of scarcity and monopoly power.
The Attorney General argues that
the risk of firms taking advantage of an abnormal disruption may be greater where certain market characteristics reduce the likelihood of new entry—for example, where supply chains are disrupted or key inputs are scarce or where high concentration makes investment less attractive in a particular market. . . . Incumbents are insulated from the credible threat of new competition to discipline prices during abnormal market disruptions.
The Attorney General seems not to understand what a “disruption” is. It is, well, a disruption. Supply is destroyed. Or, equivalently, it is insufficient to meet a surging demand. By definition, there can be no entry. If there were entry by other firms into the market, then supply would not be insufficient anymore!
It follows that the extent to which before the disruption the market is already protected against entry due to the deterrent effect created by high concentration is irrelevant.
If such a deterrent existed before the disruption, and firms took advantage of it, then output would already have been artificially restricted in advance of the disruption. The disruption may destroy additional supply, and firms may raise prices in response, but that destruction won’t be due to market concentration but instead to the disruption.
To be sure, if the market were less concentrated and there were no concommitant entry deterrent, then prices in the market would be lower over the period of the disruption. And, moreover, the extent of the price increase created by the disruption might be different—either greater or lesser depending on the shape of the demand curve.
But that increase would still be attributable to scarcity and not to monopoly. And the ability of firms to enter the market to eliminate the scarcity would be controlled by the nature of the disruption and not any deterrent power wielded by incumbent firms.
The disruption destroys production that already existed notwithstanding the incumbents’ monopoly power. It follows that this output could not otherwise have been precluded through incumbent firms’ deterrent power—otherwise it would not have been there to be destroyed by the disruption.
Anyway, Small Amounts of Harm Are Small Amounts of Harm, Whether the Perpetrator Could Do More Harm or Not
But suppose the Attorney General were right that monopolists cause more harm through price gouging. Would it make sense to treat any price increase by a monopolist as presumptively unlawful but only increases by non-monopolists in excess of 10% as presumptively unlawful?
Of course not.
That’s like saying that it should be battery if a semi bends your fender but it should not be battery if a Prius bends your fender.
Harm is harm whether it’s inflicted by someone who could have done you a lot more harm or by someone who could only have done you a little more harm. A 5% increase in price above cost is a harm to consumers, whether that 5% markup is charged by a firm that could have, under some circumstances, charged you $100 more or only a dollar more.
A Lesson in the Perils of Antimonopolism
Antimonopoly framing may appeal to progressives because they are pushing back against two generations of market fetishism in economics. The framing lets progressives assert that markets aren’t free without having to go to the trouble of rejecting markets in the abstract.
That might feel like a powerful move.
First, it’s true: there’s a lot of monopolization in the economy.
Second, it means progressives don’t need to get into theoretical battles about the virtue of markets in the abstract.
But because antimonopolism sidesteps the theoretical problem of the market, it’s a compromise, not a power play. And a bad play at that.
In order to score points on means antimonopolists concede ends. To curry support for government intervention in business they concede that the end of intervention should be (truly) free markets.
But progressives have known for more than a century that the free market is the problem, not just in practice but in its abstract, idealized form. There’s no guarantee that really, truly, perfectly competitive markets will distribute wealth fairly. Instead, they arbitrarily distribute wealth to those who happen to own relatively productive resources or who happen to place a relatively high value on what they consume.
As David Ricardo pointed out, if you happen to own land having relatively good soil, you will earn a profit, because the price of agricultural produce needs to be high enough to cover the higher cost of tilling less fertile land. Your costs—including any reward needed to induce you to make your land more fertile—are lower, so you will generate revenues in excess of costs. That excess isn’t necessary to keep you in the market or to fertilize your soil. It’s a pure distribution of wealth based on the arbitrary fact that someone else in the market doesn’t have costs as low as your own.
Indeed, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out, the source of the explosion of inequality in recent decades has nothing to do with “market imperfection[s]” like monopolization. It has to do with markets.
There’s no way to divorce the gains progressives make on the means from the losses they suffer on the ends. If you succeed at convincing Americans that every market is monopolized, then Americans’ response is going to be: deconcentrate markets.
It’s not going to be to use every means available, including tax and transfer and price regulation, to redistribute wealth.
But, more importantly in the context of the New York price gouging law, the habit of proving market concentration in order to appease conservative priors regarding the benefits of markets can take on a life of its own.
It makes progressives forget that market concentration is far from the only source of inequality. And they end up casting aside or hamstringing policies aimed at those other sources.
That’s what may have happened here.