Has the Obama Justice Department Reinvigorated Antitrust Enforcement?

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Daniel Crane entitled Has the Obama Justice Department Reinvigorated Antitrust Enforcement?. Professor Crane assesses antitrust enforcement in the Obama and Bush administrations using several empirical measures:

The Justice Department’s recently filed antitrust case against Apple and several major book publishers over e-book pricing, which comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s successful challenge to the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, has contributed to the perception that the Obama Administration is reinvigorating antitrust enforcement from its recent stupor. As a candidate for President, then-Senator Obama criticized the Bush Administration as having the “weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century” and vowed to step up enforcement. Early in the Obama Administration, Justice Department officials furthered this perception by withdrawing the Bush Administration’s report on monopolization offenses and suggesting that the fault for the financial crisis might lie at the feet of lax antitrust enforcement. Even before the AT&T and Apple cases, media reports frequently suggested that antitrust enforcement is significantly tougher under President Obama.

For better or worse, the Administration’s enforcement record does not bear out this impression. With only a few exceptions, current enforcement looks much like enforcement under the Bush Administration. Antitrust enforcement in the modern era is a technical and technocratic enterprise. Although there will be tweaks at the margin from administration to administration, the core of antitrust enforcement has been practiced in a relatively nonideological and nonpartisan way over the last several decades.

He concludes:

Two points stressed earlier should be stressed again: (1) statistical measures of antitrust enforcement are an incomplete way of understanding the overall level of enforcement; and (2) to say that the Obama Administration’s record of enforcement is not materially different than the Bush Administration’s is not to chide Obama for weak enforcement. Rather, it is to debunk the claims that antitrust enforcement is strongly dependent on politics.

This examination of the “reinvigoration” claim should not be understood as acceptance that tougher antitrust enforcement is always better. Certainly, there have been occasions when an administration would be wise to ease off the gas pedal. At present, however, there is a high degree of continuity from one administration to the next.

Read the full article, Has the Obama Justice Department Reinvigorated Antitrust Enforcement? by Daniel Crane, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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1 Response

  1. Jarod Bona says:

    I look forward to reading this article. Antitrust is interesting in that the current-day purpose of it is to foster competition. But that is a delicate balance because over-enforcement in many instances actually hurts competition more than just leaving things alone. A simple example is predatory pricing. While it is theoretically possible for a firm with market-power to price below its costs, wait for its rivals to perish, then raise prices to monopoly levels, in the real world this isn’t very successful. But government and civil enforcement of predatory pricing (or other pricing practices centered on reduced prices like bundling, loyalty discounts, etc.) may itself hurt competition because companies with market power will be deterred from cutting prices. This is the simplied version, but it is a very interesting area.