Investing in Research to Inform a New Paradigm

02. 23. 2022

To rein in concentrated private power, we need a clear, empirical understanding of the mechanisms that monopolies use to maintain their dominance.

There is no better time to invest in antimonopoly scholarship.

Leading economists, advocates, and even the White House are revisiting age-old wisdom about how our economy works. They are raising questions that point to the threat of concentrated private power. On the horizon is Congress’ attempt to modernize our antitrust laws through legislation that addresses the gatekeeping power and anticompetitive abuses of the dominant Big Tech platforms. With the elevation of several rigorous scholars of the antimonopoly tradition to key positions of power throughout the current administration, we have an unprecedented alignment of political will to tackle this problem.

We recognize that academic scholarship plays a critical role in informing paradigm and policy shifts, especially in the antimonopoly field. Research seeds novel theories of harm that can then be applied in litigation against anticompetitive abuses. It identifies high level trends and gaps to inform enforcement priorities and strategies. Lastly, it introduces new ways of thinking about the problems we’re trying to solve for — so that we may be more creative, systematic, and principled when tackling solutions to rein in concentrated private power and build a more equitable economy.

That’s why we’ve invested $750,000 in 26 proposals to respond to the unique antimonopoly moment. This outstanding cohort consists of 41 researchers from 33 different institutions. They reflect the diversity of disciplines and lines of inquiry needed to broaden the antimonopoly field to more fully dissect the taxonomy of harms perpetuated by concentrated private power, so that we may better understand and think more creatively and rigorously about what’s needed to solve this problem.

Collectively, these proposals help us better define the contours of the antimonopoly field and explore the broader, transformative goals embedded in it — including outlining a new, post-neoliberal paradigm beyond the limitations of a law-and-economics approach. This slate of proposals makes it clear that antitrust is an important — but certainly not the only — tool to construct, structure, and regulate markets. All of these proposals grapple with the central theme of power and raise important questions about the democratic values worth prioritizing in a fair, competitive economy.

We believe that reining in concentrated private power is a necessary next step to move toward a more fair and democratic economy. To ensure we are working in tandem with the field, we must advance a clear, empirical understanding of the mechanisms that monopolies use to maintain their dominance and exploit key constituencies. Here are the key pieces that unite our vision and shape our understanding of the road ahead:

We must embrace a new, post-neoliberal paradigm to tackle concentrated private power. The last four decades of deregulation and lax antitrust enforcement coinciding with the rise of neoliberalism have let just a small number of firms flourish and establish market dominance. This neoliberal paradigm, embedded within the limits of the law-and-economics approach, has erased and obscured the role that corporations have had in not only shaping markets but also the legal and regulatory regimes that govern them. To move toward a new paradigm, we must interrogate the neoliberal assumptions embedded in our current regulatory regime and move toward one that embodies democratic accountability.

  • By seeking to understand the impact that a reliance on quantification has had on antitrust enforcement and more broadly on our regulatory approach through cost-benefit analysis, Frank Pasquale (Brooklyn Law School) and Jay Varellas (University of California, Berkeley) will unpack the unique burdens that corporate concentration and lack of regulation have imposed on marginalized communities, workers, consumers, and other groups under-represented in the political process.
  • Julie E. Cohen (Georgetown University) and Ari Ezra Waldman (Northeastern University) will develop a framework for understanding how deference to industry in a regulatory context creates managerial power by defaulting to corporate norms and policy-setting in governance. They will also make recommendations for reversing this trend so that we can subjugate corporations to the rule of law and democratic accountability.

Though it’s not the only tool to structure markets, we need to strengthen antitrust enforcement to check market power. In recent years, scholars are paying attention to gaps in our current enforcement and identifying trends that we might otherwise miss. For instance, current Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan’s groundbreaking research encouraged us to scrutinize the consumer welfare standard. Economist John Kwoka’s retrospective on consummated mergers and antitrust enforcement raised serious questions about the effectiveness of our merger policy and identified lax merger enforcement as a problem.

  • Laura Alexander (American Antitrust Institute) and Oscar Valdés Viera (Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund) will study the impact of private equity roll-up strategies on competition, concentration, quality, and prices.
  • Jangho Yang (University of Waterloo) and Ilan Strauss (UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose) will study the extent of Big Tech’s dominance in key intangible input markets, with a focus on patents and the role of mergers and acquisitions in acquiring them.
  • Zach Y. Brown (University of Michigan) and Alexander MacKay (Harvard University) will investigate the impact of pricing algorithms on online price competition to better understand how these algorithms can directly impact market structure, leading to increased concentration, greater price dispersion, and increased prices.

Understanding the relationship between the taxonomy of harms and market structure is critical to reining in the unchecked power of Big Tech. Given the myriad harms across a range of issues that the dominant tech platforms perpetuate — anticompetitive abuses, misinformation, privacy violations, and more — we’ll need more than just antitrust enforcement to solve for the excessive power of Big Tech over our economy, society, and democracy. But nonetheless, understanding how these harms are connected to — and are exacerbated by — market structure and dominance is key to tackling concentrated private power in the tech sector.

  • Madiha Zahrah Choksi (Cornell Tech) and Ari Ezra Waldman (Northeastern University) are investigating the connection between misinformation and its contribution to concentrated economic power. They focus on how private corporations — particularly platforms that host misinformation — are leveraging law and technology to concentrate and amplify their power, spreading misinformation that is then leveraged by legal institutions to subordinate marginalized populations.
  • Elettra Bietti (New York University School of Law, Cornell Tech), Friso Bostoen (KU Leuven), and Jacquelene Mwangi (Harvard Law School) are investigating how decentralized infrastructures can be compatible with a functional, democratic public sphere, equal basic rights to speech and privacy, inclusivity, and innovation. Their project will explore the tensions between an antitrust approach that emphasizes decentralized protocols and a utility approach that emphasizes regulated centralization through a comparative approach focused on three regions: the United States, European Union, and select African countries.
  • Paul Ohm (Georgetown University Law Center) will convene academics and policy experts to propose and develop novel, more effective consent decree proposals, focusing on how these remedies could bring about meaningful reform, especially in the intersecting issues of competition, privacy, and civil rights.
  • Chase Foster (Hochschule für Politik at the Technical University of Munich) and Melike Arslan (Harvard University) will examine the relationship between state aid to industry through investment incentives and the growing levels of market concentration in the United States and the European Union.
  • Marita Freimane (KU Leuven) is studying the trade-offs implicit in antitrust regulations aimed at reducing the power imbalance between tech platforms and the news media industry. This research will use the Australian News Media Bargaining Code as a case study.

Antimonopoly work must also address the policy choices that have led to systemic, racialized inequities in our political economy. How we structure our markets and set up our economy has a visceral impact on how people — especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color — experience power and agency in their day-to-day lives. We’re committed to integrating a racial impact framework into antimonopoly work, building on the work we’ve supported across the broader antimonopoly ecosystem to support 1) Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative’s research on the impact of market power on racial and income inequality and 2) Liberation in a Generation’s work to break down silos between organizers and policy makers by creating a policy and research agenda for antimonopoly that works for people of color. With increasing interest in exploring how antitrust enforcement could be used to tackle systemic racism among FTC commissioners and the antitrust bar, the research we’re funding will help inform how policymakers and enforcers can move past a “race-neutral” framework.

  • Seeta Peña Gangadharan (London School of Economics and Political Science) will use collaborative, participatory research methods to study community power in the face of platform power at Amazon fulfillment centers. This project narrows in on safety and belonging as an organizing principle of social and political change in light of uncertainties arising from convergence of racial capitalism, worker power, and workplace surveillance.
  • Erin McElroy (University of Texas at Austin) will expand the Landlord Tech Watch project, which examines the property technologies that automate the eviction, gentrification, and carcerality processes, to integrate new components of studying the monopolization of both data and real estate prevalent in the property tech industry.
  • Sonja Solomun (McGill University) will study the environmental impact on communities of color and historically marginalized populations as Amazon expands its geographic footprint, focusing on the warehouse and logistics hubs it builds in poor, racialized, and predominantly immigrant neighborhoods in the United States and Canada.
  • Robin Feldman (UC Hastings College of Law) will study the impact of market power in the pharmaceutical industry on disparities in access, availability, and out-of-pocket pricing for prescription medicines across race, gender, and income status.

We must be informed by a historical perspective. The antimonopoly tradition is not new, and is core to many of the laws that govern our market structures. Arguably, our antitrust laws were instituted by Congress with the explicit goal of dispersing economic power. As we seek to reinstitute antimonopoly values, we can look to well-known historical precedents of trust busting from the railroads to the AT&T Bell System and other examples throughout history to evaluate more democratic forms of market coordination and market structures.

  • By examining the roots of antimonopoly thought and contributions from women, unpropertied workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and more, Richard John (Columbia University) will define the antimonopoly project as a transnational political economy project beyond the constraints of neoliberalism grounded in a historical overview.
  • Branden Adams (UC Santa Barbara) will exploring the historical relationship between pro-labor and antimonopoly thinking by looking at the United Mine Workers case, adding a labor context to the commodities clause of the Hepburn Act that will help build the theoretical foundation for how to think about labor unions as a vehicle for coordination.

Strengthening worker power to foster both political and economic democracy is key to the antimonopoly project. Over the last few years, a focus on the imbalance of power between employers and workers has emerged. There is increasing evidence that concentrated private power harms workers, and the market power that employers hold — sometimes referred to as “monopsony” — has entered many mainstream policy conversations. Building worker power touches on more than just antitrust; it also implicates other areas of law and policy, including labor and employment law, franchising regulations, and more. While a majority of the existing literature focuses on worker wages, we seek to understand the extent to which employers are exercising control over their workers, such as by limiting mobility in the labor market, surveillance, and more. Key to achieving a more democratic and fair economy is also exploring methods of re-allocating economic coordination rights, both within markets and within firms and enterprises, such as through including unionization, worker representation in corporate governance, and moving away from shareholder primacy.

  • Brian Callaci (Open Markets Institute) and Marshall Steinbaum (University of Utah) will investigate how increased buyer concentration and buyer power has affected worker health and safety across the supply chain, looking beyond direct labor monopsony harms (i.e., harms to the monopsonist’s employees).
  • Hiba Hafiz (Boston College Law School) will study employer power in the context of geographic inequality, focusing on distressed and rural labor markets — labor markets in rural areas and deindustrialized cities, suburbs, and towns that have suffered declining growth or contraction.
  • Peter Norlander (Loyola University Chicago) will investigate the extent of non-solicitation clauses in public sector supply chain networks. Non-solicitation clauses are anticompetitive, collusive clauses that employers use to reduce worker power and restrict competition for workers.
  • Lenore Palladino (University of Massachusetts Amherst) will interrogate how to strike the balance between market power and the necessary social conditions for economic innovation and worker power through a case study of a critical industry: electric vehicles.
  • Kevin Devereux (Peking University) and Blair Long (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) will examine the impact of labor market concentration and unionization on wages.

We must seek novel, creative ways of understanding the mechanisms that concentrated private power relies on to maintain dominance outside of markets themselves. The dominance of a handful of corporate firms across our economy has implications beyond market outcomes. For instance, concentrated private power also drives the monopolization of knowledge production. As researcher and activist Meredith Whittaker writes in “The Steep Cost of Capture” about the artificial intelligence (AI) field, “the monopolistic control of these [concentrated corporate] resources gave a handful of tech companies the authority to (re)define the AI field, while enclosing knowledge about AI systems behind corporate secrecy.” Staying creative in how we define monopoly power will help us better understand the systems and root causes that help dominant firms maintain their power.

  • Shobita Parthasarathy (University of Michigan) will explore the impact of “epistemological power” — the power to shape the directions of scientific inquiry and ultimately technological development — that innovation policy institutions embody and exert and its influence on economic power and structural inequality.
  • Loka Ashwood (University of Kentucky), Mary Hendrickson (University of Missouri), Phil Howard (Michigan State University), and Andy Pilny (University of Kentucky) will explore a new method of studying power in the industrial agriculture sector using Social Network Analysis (SNA) to analyze key players, the presence of core-periphery structures, and agricultural consolidation.

Given the global reach and impact of concentrated private power in today’s economy, we must learn from the international context. While our scope is focused on the United States, understanding the international interplay of regulatory regimes and concentrated private power will help us better hold power to account, especially as people in the Global South are a key constituency harmed by dominant corporations. This approach is particularly important given how U.S. antitrust law is often exported to other parts of the world, particularly competition policies in developing nations.

  • Simon Roberts (University of Johannesburg) and Sumayya Goga (University of Johannesburg) will map corporate control in agro-food businesses and its impact on market outcomes, linking concentration internationally with market outcomes in Africa. Their focus will be on exploring key principles that competition authorities across African countries can apply in dealing with mergers, including assessing cases and inquiries, institutional capabilities, and the legal standards and economic tests applied.
  • Erik Peinert (Brown University) will examine the role of antitrust policies in inserting legally protectionist terms into the domestic regulations of signatory countries that sign onto contemporary trade agreements.
  • Vellah Kedogo Kigwiru (Hochschule für Politik at the Technical University of Munich) and Zlatina Georgieva (Hochschule für Politik at the Technical University of Munich) will build on recent scholarship showing how the dominant tech platforms are taking advantage of unregulated territories and disadvantaged populations in Africa to conduct digital experiments and extract data to increase their global market dominance. Their project will explore regulatory solutions in the context of African competition agencies using a comparative approach that looks at the U.S. and E.U. digital markets regulatory policies.

Together, these research projects will help us become sharper and more disciplined as we rise up to the challenge of reining in concentrated private power and building a more fair, democratic, and egalitarian economy. Follow along as these scholars conduct their research, and watch this space for opportunities to engage with their work and the antimonopoly ecosystem more broadly.