Contextualizing Competition Policy in an Ever Changing World

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

When I joined the FTC, I never imagined that antitrust would become the hot topic it is today. The Democrats have made robust competition policy an integral part of its “Better Deal” platform with its explicit goal of “cracking down on corporate monopolies and the abuse of economic and political power.” Today, the conversation on the left around competition policy has shifted to its role in addressing economic growth, inequality, and the consolidation of corporate power.

The two years I spent immersed in merger regulation gave me a front row seat to see the scope and limits of antitrust law. Each case I worked on was an opportunity to dive deep into a new industry and piece together the business practices that take a product from the development stage to competing in the marketplace. Through interviews with business owners, competitors, and customers, the work became meaningful as I learned what was at stake for these individuals. The work fed my intellectual curiosity, and I have a much greater appreciation for the work that goes into providing consumer goods and services now.

Just as rewarding was the opportunity to work alongside some of the most intelligent and hardworking people who reinforced the value of working in public service. Together with attorneys and economists, we built robust cases for recommended courses of merger enforcement. During my time at the FTC, I learned a great deal about the relationship between policymaking and regulation through the law. Because merger enforcement operates through the legal system, the impact of the work is ultimately tangible through court outcomes. It was challenging, high-stakes work, and the dedication of my coworkers was inspiring. We owed it to the public to get things right, not only because of the potential ramifications but also because of the essential nature of public service—our jobs were to serve the public, and given limited resources, it was important that we made the right decision based on the evidence we had and not frivolously use government resources.

The importance of the work was obvious. In simplest terms, if antitrust agencies did not intervene by preventing anticompetitive mergers, consumers suffered at the mercy of monopolists. Competition policy has widespread breadth—it touches on everything from healthcare, groceries, and utilities. With every merger, there was the potential for consumers to bear higher costs or a loss of quality in product or service. Being able to see the scope of competition policy’s impact on the general public was a huge part of what drew me to the field.

Nonetheless, it was obvious that competition policy didn’t address some of the issues that came up in the investigations we conducted; competition policy was only meant to address anticompetitive issues. Competition policy may touch on and even complement other policy areas. Mergers, for example, may be blocked for reasons completely outside of antitrust law: just this September, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) stopped a deal between Lattice Semiconductor Corporation and Canyon Bridge Capital Partners LLC based on national security concerns.

How, then, can policy address issues like growing inequality that politicians are currently raising? Competition policy may be one tool utilized in the solution, but is it the best tool? What are other policies that may be leveraged in conjunction with or in lieu of competition policy? These are the questions that have led me to my current role at New America’s Open Technology Institute. Competition policy is integrated into U.S. telecommunications policy, but it is not the only policy tool leveraged in this space. For instance, telecommunications policy also encompasses a broadcast public interest standard. I look forward to exploring how competition policy may work in tandem with other policy areas to craft holistic and effective policy solutions through my work with OTI.

Author:

Becky Chao is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Open Technology Institute. Chao is a native New Yorker who graduated from Duke University, where she studied public policy studies, linguistics, and economics.