Trust-Busting Shows New Signs of Life

May 15th, 2009 by Phil Mattera

varney2“Everywhere you look, powerful forces are driving American industries to consolidate into oligopolies—and the obstacles are less formidable.” That’s the way a February 25, 2002 front page story in the Wall Street Journal began, and for the following seven years those obstacles grew yet more feeble.

With a few notable exceptions, such as the Federal Trade Commission’s long-running effort to block Whole Foods from acquiring its rival Wild Oats Markets, major mergers have sailed through. Last fall the Bush Justice Department issued a policy paper on antitrust that was so soft on anti-competitive practices that three FTC commissioners took the unusual step of issuing a public statement denouncing it.

Now the Obama Administration is repudiating the policy. Christine Varney (photo), head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, gave identical speeches to the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce heralding the change of course. She made a telling comparison to the late 1930s, arguing that today, as then, the tightening of competition policy is part of the way government should respond to an economic crisis.

She reinforced this principle by separately stating that the Antitrust Division would work with federal agencies to prevent contractors from unlawfully profiting from stimulus projects funded by the $787 billion Recovery Act signed by the President in February.

Varney’s declarations were all the more significant in that they were soon followed by the announcement of a record antitrust fine – the equivalent of about $1.5 billion – imposed by the European Commission on Intel for unfairly dominating the computer chip market.  During the Bush Administration U.S. officials had declined to go after Intel.

It would be a wonderful thing for the United States to rejoin Europe and take the enforcement of competition laws seriously. Varney is talking a good line now, but the Obama Administration has to make up for an overly tolerant stance toward certain oligopolies—above all in banking policy, where Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has accepted the notion that the likes of Citigroup and Bank of America are too big to fail and, rather than cutting them down to a reasonable size, wants to go on propping them up with taxpayer funds. And in the health care arena, the Administration seems to take it for granted that the giant health insurance carriers, who use their power to deny as much care as possible, will go on playing a central role.

At a time when an increasing number of Americans recognize the shortcomings of giant corporations, the federal government cannot afford to be seen to support any oligopolies. And if it really wanted to promote competition, the Justice Department should go after the biggest antitrust scofflaw of them all: Wal-Mart.

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