Week 1 introduces the problem of economic concentration in the United States and its legal and ideological roots. According to Lina Khan, “the decline in competition is so consistent across markets that excessive concentration and undue market power now look to be not an isolated issue but rather a systemic feature of America’s political economy.” The COVID-19 pandemic shed tragic new light on private monopolies’ stranglehold over core parts of the U.S. and global economy and society—from health care and food provision to the manufacture and distribution of lifesaving vaccines. As an Open Markets Institute report put it, “Monopoly power is all around us.”
The first set of readings highlights monopoly power’s influence on the COVID-19 response. The second section details the extent of the “concentration crisis” in the U.S. and other Western economies and its impacts on consumers, workers, and economic dynamism and innovation. In the third section, legal scholars explore the legal doctrines and ideological projects that have weakened antitrust enforcement and other anti-monopoly and regulatory tools. This includes the transformation of antitrust law—from a tool created to prevent extreme concentrations of private power, to a tool centered around a narrow conception of “consumer welfare” that promotes the consolidation of corporate property and economic power at the expense of fair competition and democratic coordination. The optional readings offer additional analysis of the legal infirmities of today’s antitrust and anti-monopoly regime, as well as additional empirical findings on the scope and depth of monopoly concentration in the economy.
The lecture video features Suresh Naidu and Sandeep Vaheesan. Professor Naidu surveys the recent economic evidence of rising market power across a variety of industries, including increasing markups, increasing concentration, low business churn, and declining wages relative to productivity. Together, this evidence demonstrates the extent to which antitrust’s consumer welfare standard and enforcement regime have failed even on their own terms. In response, Professor Naidu puts forward an “economic democracy standard” to replace the consumer welfare approach. Vaheesan discusses the legal foundations of anti-monopoly policy’s failures and calls on us to rethink what we mean by competition: What forms of competition and coordination do we want in different sectors? Competition is not a categorical good. For example, U.S. labor law recognizes the value of coordination among workers to counterbalance coordination among owners of capital. Vaheesan makes the case that the content of market rules are political questions best decided through the democratic process, not by “unelected technocrats” or judges.