A Rising Antitrust Movement, And The Inevitable Pushback

Monopolistic companies may be near a tipping point where people (and governments) want them reigned in.

Any french competition in sight?
Noah Smith

NEW YORK — The outcry over monopoly power has gone mainstream. A few years ago, concerns over increasing market concentration began to appear in the economics profession, and a few scattered activists began to make the issue a central priority. But while academics and think tanks continue to speak out about antitrust and monopolies, more and more economics writers are now also sounding the alarm. Law professor Tim Wu went so far as to warn that widespread monopoly could lead to the death of democracy itself. The Economist has an entire special report covering many aspects of the issue. Author and private-sector economist Jonathan Tepper has a new book entitled "The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition" that could bring the problem into the public eye.

And a few politicians on both sides of the aisle are starting to take up the cause. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would expand the set of considerations that antitrust authorities use to block mergers — instead of simply worrying about higher consumer prices, the senator's bill would direct regulators to consider wages, product quality and innovation. Several key Republicans have offered their support.

But the new antitrust crusaders are beginning to encounter pushback from a formidable set of opponents. Many of these critics come from the law-and-economics field — the nexus of legally trained economists and economics-trained lawyers that rose to prominence in the 1970s. In a new paper, Joshua Wright, Jonathan Klick, Jan Rybnicek and Elyse Dorsey heap scorn on those who want to redefine antitrust to be about more than just consumer prices, calling it "hipster antitrust."

In a blog post summarizing their objections, they write: "Industrial concentration could reflect a decline in competition but could equally reflect the forces of competition at work…focusing only on consumer prices provides a disciplined and objective framework for courts…the Hipster Antitrust proposals will inevitably fail due to theocratical flaws and lack of empirical support."

This has gotten the attention of some on the political right, with the conservative Daily Caller and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch both adopting the epithet of "hipster antitrust." The battle lines appear to be drawn for a confrontation over antitrust more public, political and intense than anything seen in the past few decades.

Stuck in the middle of all this is the Federal Trade Commission, the agency charged in 1914 with overseeing antitrust cases. Demonstrating that the increased concern over monopoly power hasn't fallen on deaf ears, the FTC has held an impressive series of 10 hearings this year on competition and consumer protection, covering both conventional topics from mergers and antitrust and newer issues like data privacy, common ownership via index funds, and digital platforms.

They are up against an entrenched nexus of lawyers, bureaucrats, economists and companies.

But some say that the FTC's neutrality is compromised. Tepper, for example, has argued that a revolving door between companies, lobbyists and the government gives FTC staffers an incentive to go easy on monopolists. Some high-profile cases certainly do seem to warrant concern. For example, Andrew Smith, who was recently appointed to head the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, will have to recuse himself from cases being investigated by the agency, because he has financial ties to the companies being investigated. A significant number of the experts at the recent FTC hearings have financial ties to Google.

Professor Tim Wu (right) is a helping to lead the charge against Monopolies. Photo: New America

Others have noted the ideological links between the FTC, the law-and-economics movement and pro-business organizations. Neil Chilson, who was the acting chief technologist at the FTC and served the agency in a variety of other roles, recently left and accepted a post as a researcher at the Charles Koch Institute, a libertarian think tank. A number of former FTC staffers have accepted posts at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, which has accepted large donations from the Koch Foundation. Joshua Wright, the first author on the paper condemning so-called hipster antitrust, works at Scalia, and the FTC's hearing on competition and consumer protection was actually held at the school.

Both the new antitrust activists and the economists growing increasingly concerned about competition and market power therefore have their work cut out for them. They are going up against an entrenched nexus of lawyers, bureaucrats, economists and companies that has spent the last several decades creating a merger-friendly regulatory environment.

The movement has the weight of evidence on its side.

But don't expect the antitrust wave to break on the rocks of the establishment. The new opponents of market power are not just hipsters — they have considerable intellectual firepower on their side, including a lot of very smart economists and some lawyers of their own. Although much of the antitrust issue doesn't concern big tech companies, the spectacular dominance of behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook gives activists a highly visible target to rally against. And the growing political movement to reform the way corporations are governed, bolstered by the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, will provide a tailwind to their efforts.

Furthermore, the new antitrust movement has the weight of evidence on its side so far. Wright et al."s defense of the consumer-welfare standard — the idea that only consumer prices should be considered in antitrust cases — is weak, especially given recent research indicating the importance of market power in holding down wages. Nor can the mounting evidence of correlation between industrial concentration and a variety of negative market outcomes be dismissed out of hand simply because causality is inherently hard to prove.

In other words, the new antitrust movement has only begun to fight.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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