23 February 2017

Monopolies Are Always Bad

The only question is whether or not the alternative is worse.

First we have the case study of the results AT&T's 1956 anti-trust consent decree, where it was required to release its patents to the general public:
To answer these questions, we study one of the most important antitrust rulings in US history, namely, the 1956 consent decree against the Bell System. This decree settled a seven-year old antitrust lawsuit that sought to break up the Bell System, the dominant provider of telecommunications services in the US, because it allegedly monopolised “the manufacture, distribution, and sale of telephones, telephone apparatus and equipment” (Antitrust Subcommittee 1958: 1668). Bell was charged with having foreclosed competitors from the market for telecommunications equipment because its operating companies had exclusive supply contracts with its manufacturing subsidiary Western Electric and because it used exclusionary practices such as the refusal to license its patents.

The consent decree contained two main remedies. The Bell System was obligated to license all its patents royalty free, and it was barred from entering any industry other than telecommunications. As a consequence, 7,820 patents, or 1.3% of all unexpired US patents, in a wide range of fields became freely available in 1956. Most of these patents covered technologies from the Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), the research subsidiary of the Bell System, arguably the most innovative industrial laboratory in the world at the time. The Bell Labs produced path-breaking innovations in telecommunications such as cellular telephone technology or the first transatlantic telephone cable. But as Figure 1 shows, 58% of Bell's patent portfolio had its main application outside of telecommunications because of Bell's part in the war effort in WWII and its commitment to basic science. Researchers at Bell Labs are credited for the invention of the transistor, the solar cell, and the laser, among other things.


Our research shows that compulsory licensing increased follow-on innovation that builds on Bell patents. We measure follow-on innovation by the number of patent citations Bell Labs patents received from other companies that patent in the US. We find that in the first five years, follow-on innovation increased by 17%, or a total of around 1,000 citations. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the additional patents other companies filed as a direct result of the consent decree had a value of up to $5.7 billion in today's dollars.3

More than two-thirds of the increase in innovation can be attributed to young and small companies and individual inventors unrelated to Bell. This is in line with the hypothesis that patents can act as a barrier to entry for small and young companies who are less able to strike licensing deals than large firms (Lanjouw and Schankerman 2004, Galasso 2012, Galasso and Schankerman 2015). Compulsory licensing removed this barrier in markets outside the telecommunications industry, arguably unintentionally so. This fostered follow-on innovation by young and small companies and contributed to long run technological progress in the US.
Patent exclusivity frequently hinders, rather than helps, progress in the short term.

More generally, consequences of our increasingly monopolistic economy are, explained in detail by Barry C. Lynn:
There are many competing interpretations for why Hillary Clinton lost last fall’s election, but most observers do agree that economics played a big role. Clinton simply didn’t articulate a vision compelling enough to compete with Donald Trump’s rousing, if dubious, message that bad trade deals and illegal immigration explain the downward mobility of so many Americans.

As it happens, Clinton did have the germ of exactly such an idea—if one knew where to look. In an October 2015 op-ed, she wrote that “large corporations are concentrating control over markets” and “using their power to raise prices, limit choices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and hold back competition from startups and small businesses. It’s no wonder Americans feel the deck is stacked for those at the top.” In a speech in Toledo last fall, Clinton assailed “old-fashioned monopolies” and vowed to appoint “tough” enforcers “so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger.”

Clinton’s words were in keeping with Bernie Sanders’s attacks on big banks, but went further, tracing how concentration is a problem throughout the economy. It was a message seemingly tailor-made for the wrathful electorate of 2016. Yet after the Ohio speech, Clinton rarely touched again on the issue. Few other Democrats even mentioned the word monopoly.

The pity is that Clinton’s stance wasn’t simple campaign rhetoric. It was based on a substantial and growing body of research that confirms that consolidation is at the root of many of America’s most pressing economic and political problems.

These include the declining fortunes of rural America as farmers struggle against agriculture conglomerates. It includes the fading of heartland cities like Memphis and Minneapolis as corporate giants in coastal cities buy out local banks and businesses. It includes plunging rates of entrepreneurship and innovation as concentrated markets choke off independent businesses and new start-ups. It includes falling real wages, as decades of mergers have reduced the need for employers to compete to attract and retain workers.

Monopoly is a main driver of inequality, as profits concentrate more wealth in the hands of the few. The effects of monopoly enrage voters in their day-to-day lives, as they face the sky-high prices set by drug-company cartels and the abuses of cable providers, health insurers, and airlines. Monopoly provides much of the funds the wealthy use to distort American politics.
It comes as no surprise that when Reagan packed the Supreme Court in the 1980s, he chose Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg:  They both cut their teeth on the academic side of anti-trust law, which had been captured, largely through things like endowing chairs, by the right wing actors

They transformed the consensus, and the black letter law, on anti-trust from the idea of protecting a free and open market to a narrow view where regulation can only be justified through the showing of direct harm and immediate harm to consumers.

This has unleashed monopolies, and monopolies unleashed have lots of money to spend on politicians, which leads to more support for monopolies. (Our recent trade deals have been about expanding the reach of pharma and content monopolies, for example.)

Rinse, lather, repeat.


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