By Francisco Beneke*
Last week I read a book called Concrete Economics by two Berkeley professors, Stephen Cohen and Bradford DeLong. The general theme of the book is simple and straightforward: economic policy redesign throughout US history has been successful to the extent that it has been pragmatic, not based on abstract theories of how markets behave but on concrete thinking of what the economy needed. The authors argue that it had been that way until the last redesign of the 1980s when ideology prevailed and nobody had a good idea about the supposed benefits of moving the US away from manufacturing and toward what were believed to be higher value-added activities (finance, insurance, and real estate).
The point applies to the debate on some issues in antitrust analysis. Competition policy can take many shapes within the same country during different periods of times, as in the US, and also differ to a significant degree across important jurisdictions––say, the EU, US and China. The discussion of what is the right approach turns sometimes ideological. Take the debate surrounding digital markets for example. Some people advocate for a loose stance on big tech companies because of the fragility of their position. Google’s competition is one click away and Facebook took the field that was already dominated by other social networks. We can describe a position to be ideological if it’s based on a myopic view of the facts. What about the companies’ jaw-dropping share in online-advertising or the fact that true challengers only appear to succeed in certain niche markets? (think of the success of Snapchat with teenagers in the US). Some commentators like to oversimplify the discussion and throw general arguments such as that intervention dampens innovation. If only things were so simple. The question we should ask is which specific type of intervention we are talking about in order to make an educated guess on the effects we may expect to see.
Another topic on which the debate is highly ideological concerns my main area of research: do we need to adjust competition policy and analysis to the different characteristics and needs of developing countries? A big point of the discussion is about keeping consumer welfare as the north of the compass and ditch other considerations that would make antitrust an instrument of industrial policy. There are good points on both sides, and I must confess that my own research does not depart from the consumer welfare paradigm. What is certainly true is that purists, as professor Ariel Ezrachi calls them, claim a higher intellectual ground. Theirs is the economic approach. In that way, the debate turns ideological too.
There are good questions to ask around the purpose of competition policy in countries ridden with poverty and weak institutions. They are not populist and they are grounded in economic concepts. The desirability of focusing on consumer welfare rests on assumptions that look shaky, to say the least, in the case of developing countries. One such assumption is the flexibility of the workforce. If imports take a market by storm, the displaced workers will have a harder time being relocated to new activities because of their lower average education and skills development. Does that mean that developing countries should close their borders to imports? The point of this post and the book I read is that this is the wrong question to ask. It sounds ideological, not concrete because it is formulated too generally.
Concrete Economics has some important lessons for moving away from this ideology trap. First, in applying the book’s approach to tech markets or adjusting competition policy to unique economic and social contexts requires us to borrow some techniques from the medical profession. We can’t prescribe a treatment without a diagnosis (a point advocated by Jeffrey Sachs in his book “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time”). That means not only compiling information but the right kind of it. Second, we have to paint a clear picture of the results that we are aiming for––in the authors’ words, what you see is what you get. And third, Cohen and DeLong favor a pragmatic approach of trying the policies that seem to have the best chance of succeeding, observing their results, ditching what does not work and keeping what does. This is what they argue happened during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration amid the Great Depression.
Granted, all of this is easier said than done, but worth the effort. A good start is asking the right questions. In the case of developing countries, for example, an important one is the following: what are the most pressing matters for the well being of the population and on which competition policy can make a significant contribution? Poor countries have an urgent need of education reform, but it is hard for me to picture a way in which antitrust can have a significant impact on the subject. On the other hand, vital infrastructure such as energy and telecommunications have important competition components that determine their coverage rate. Finally, we should come up with good evaluation methods––a practice that is scarce in competition policy––to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. As Cohen and DeLong admit, no one has the right formula, but that does not mean that we should not do anything.
Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust