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July 23, 2014

How Sega Came Out of Nowhere to Leapfrog Near-Monopolist Nintendo



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Source of book image: http://images.eurogamer.net/2014/usgamer/original.jpg/EG11/resize/958x-1/format/jpg



(p. C10) "Console Wars" tells how Sega, an unremarkable Japanese manufacturer of games played in arcades, came out of nowhere to challenge Nintendo for dominance of the videogame world in the first half of the 1990s. Nintendo, which had revived the stagnant home videogame category a few years earlier, had something close to a monopoly in 1990 and behaved accordingly, dictating terms to game developers and treating retailers as peons. Sega, in Mr. Harris's telling, was a disruptive force in a highly concentrated market, introducing more advanced gaming technology, toppling Nintendo from its perch and becoming the largest seller of home videogame hardware in the U.S. by late 1993.

Mr. Harris's hero is a former Mattel executive named Tom Kalinske, who became president of Sega of America, then a small subsidiary, in 1990. Mr. Kalinske assembled a team of crack marketers who would not have gone near Sega but for his reputation and persuasiveness. Within a year and a half, according to Mr. Harris, Mr. Kalinske's leadership, along with a new gaming system called Genesis and a marketing assist from a mascot named Sonic the Hedgehog, made Sega the U.S. market leader in videogames.

And then, after only three years at the top, Sega fell from its pedestal. Sega's management in Japan, suffering mightily from not-invented-here syndrome, rejected Mr. Kalinske's proposals to collaborate with Sony and Silicon Graphics on new gaming systems. Instead, over his objections, Sega pushed out its ill-conceived Saturn game console in 1995. While Saturn flopped, Sony struck gold with its PlayStation; Silicon Graphics sold its chip with amazing graphics capabilities to Nintendo; and the game, so to speak, was over.


. . .


The author admits he has taken liberties: "I have re-created the scenes in this book using the information uncovered from my interviews, facts gathered from supporting documents, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the historical record," he writes. The result is more a 558-page screenplay than a credible work of nonfiction.



For the full review, see:

MARC LEVINSON. "Sonic Boom; How a no-name company took on Nintendo, tied its fate to a hyperactive hedgehog, and--briefly--won." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 24, 2014): C10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 23, 2014, an has the title "Book Review: 'Console Wars' by Blake J. Harris; How a no-name company took on Nintendo, tied its fate to a hyperactive hedgehog, and--briefly--won.")


The book under review is:

J., Harris Blake. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.






May 7, 2014

A&P Case Shows that Size Can Bring Economies of Scope and Scale



(p. A9) The claim that large, profit-driven firms are harmful to society has a venerable history in the United States. Perhaps no company was ever more vilified for its bigness than the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., which from 1920 to the 1960s was the largest retailer in the world. From the 1910s to the 1950s, as it cut out wholesalers and demanded volume discounts from food manufacturers, A&P was criticized for destroying the local merchants that formed the backbone of small-town America and the satisfying jobs they provided. Federal and state governments tried to cripple its business by prohibiting discounting; the Justice Department even won an antitrust case claiming that the company was selling food too cheaply. The fact that A&P's economies of scope and scale saved shoppers 15% or 20% on groceries didn't get much respect, just as Ms. Heffernan doesn't much value the role that big businesses play in lowering costs today.

Yes, competition drives many companies to act in socially harmful ways, and competition within firms can get in the way of collaboration. But the fact that competition can be dysfunctional does not mean that scope and scale are economists' fictions. Size does matter, and competition, while no panacea, does force people to find better ways of doing business.



For the full commentary, see:

MARC LEVINSON. "BOOKSHELF; When Size Does Matter; We glorify the local, but smallness didn't stop the country's savings and loans from needing a federal bailout in the 1980s." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., April 18, 2014): A9.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 17, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'A Bigger Prize' by Margaret Heffernan; We glorify the local, but smallness didn't stop the country's savings and loans from needing a federal bailout in the 1980s.")


Levinson's own book (not the one he is reviewing in the passages quoted above), is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.






April 18, 2014

In the Gilded Age Moguls Cleaned Up Their Own Mess and the Economy Was Not Hurt



HarrimanVSHillBK2014-04-09.jpg












Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.






(p. A13) Takeover wars seem to have lost their sizzle. What happened to the battles of corporate goliaths? Where have they gone, those swaggering deal makers? "Harriman vs. Hill" is a corporate dust-up that takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when tycoons who traveled by private rail merrily raided each other's empires while the world around them cringed.


. . .


Mr. Haeg conveys a vivid picture of the Gilded Age in splendor and in turmoil. Champagne still flowed in Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, but fistfights erupted on the floor of the exchange, and a young trader named Bernard Baruch skirted disaster with the help of an inside tip, then perfectly legal. There were scant rules governing stock trading, the author reminds us--no taxes, either. "If you won in the market, you kept it all."

In that era, moguls were left to clean up their own mess.   . . .


. . .


Though hardly a cheerleader, Mr. Haeg is admiring of his cast, nostalgic for the laissez-faire world they inhabited. Observing that the economy wasn't upset by the stock market's mayhem, he concludes that, "in a perverse way, the market had worked."



For the full review, see:

ROGER LOWENSTEIN. "BOOKSHELF; When Titans Tie the Knot; Businessmen of a century ago didn't place 'competition' on a revered pedestal. Merger and monopoly were considered preferable." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Feb. 14, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 13, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Harriman vs. Hill,' by Larry Haeg; Businessmen of a century ago didn't place 'competition' on a revered pedestal. Merger and monopoly were considered preferable.")


The book under review is:

Haeg, Larry. Harriman Vs. Hill: Wall Street's Great Railroad War. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.






April 11, 2014

Edison, Not Antitrust, Reduced Power of Hated Gas Monopolies




Counterbalancing the angst of those hurt by the death of an old technology is sometimes the triumph creative destruction provides to those who were less well-served by the old technology. Some look to governments to restrain a dominant technology; but sometimes a more effective way is to replace the old technology through creative destruction's leapfrog competition.


(p. 84) Gaslight monopolies had few friends outside of the ranks of shareholders. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, gaslight had been viewed as pure and clean; seventy years later, its shortcomings had become all too familiar: it was dirty, soiled interior furnishings, and emit-(p. 85)ted unhygienic fumes. It was also expensive, affordable for indoor lighting only in the homes of the wealthy, department stores, or government buildings. The New York Times almost spat out the following description of how gas companies conducted business: "They practically made the bills what they pleased, for although they read off the quantity by the meter, that instrument was their own, and they could be made to tell a lie of any magnitude.... Everybody has always hated them with a righteous hatred."

Edison credited the gas monopoly for providing his original motivation to experiment with electric light years before in his Newark laboratory. Recalling in October 1878 his unpleasant dealings years earlier with the local gas utility, which had threatened to tear out their meter and cut off the gas, Edison said, "When I remember how the gas companies used to treat me, I must say that it gives me great pleasure to get square with them." The Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed an editorial titled "Revenge Is Sweet" in which it observed that the general public greatly enjoyed the discomfort of the gas companies, too: "To see them squirm and writhe is a public satisfaction that lifts Edison to a higher plane than that of the wonderful inventor and causes him to be regarded as a benefactor of the human race, the leading deity of popular idolatry."



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)






March 2, 2014

Incentives Limit Collusion



(p. 476) Carnegie's business strategy was the one he had followed twenty years earlier: keep production steady by accepting orders at any price. In early (p. 477) October, he notified Frick that the time had come to leave the rail pool. "I confess I can see nothing so good for us as a 'free hand'" in setting prices. He was willing to lower his prices and profit margin on rails if that was the only way to get the orders he needed to keep his works running. "By this policy we shall keep our men at work." Carnegie had never been entirely happy as a member of the rail pool, especially after Illinois Steel was allocated a greater share than Carnegie Steel. "For my part," he now declared, "I do not wish to play second fiddle in the rail business any longer. I get no sweet dividend out of second fiddle business, and I do know that the way to make more money dividends is to lead.... I am sure that The Carnegie Steel Co. can make more dollars, even next year, and certainly in future years, by managing its own business in its own way, free from all understandings with competitors, than by continuing in any combination that possibly can be formed. Now having made my speech, which I trust you will read to all my partners, I take my seat and imagine the loud applause with which my sentiments are greeted."


Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: underlines and ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






November 10, 2013

If Feds Stalled Skype Deal, Google Would Have Been "Stuck with a Piece of Shit"




Even just the plausible possibility of a government veto of an acquisition, can stop the acquisition from happening. The feds thereby kill efficiency and innovation enhancing reconfigurations of assets and business units.


(p. 234) . . . , an opportunity arose that Google's leaders felt compelled to consider: Skype was available. It was a onetime chance to grab hundreds of millions of Internet voice customers, merging them with Google Voice to create an instant powerhouse. Wesley Chan believed that this was a bad move. Skype relied on a technology called peer to peer, which moved information cheaply and quickly through a decentralized network that emerged through the connections of users. But Google didn't need that system because it had its own efficient infrastruc-(p. 235)ture. In addition, there was a question whether eBay, the owner of Skype, had claim to all the patents to the underlying technology, so it was unclear what rights Google would have as it tried to embellish and improve the peer-to-peer protocols. Finally, before Google could take possession, the U.S. government might stall the deal for months, maybe even two years, before approving it. "We would have paid all this money, but the value would go away and then we'd be stuck with a piece of shit," says Chan.


Source:

Levy, Steven. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






October 31, 2013

After 25 Years of Government Harassment, A&P Was Finally Allowed to Lower Prices for Consumers




The two main types of creative destruction are: 1.) new products and 2.) process innovations. Much has been written about the new product type; much less about the process innovation type. Marc Levinson has written two very useful books on process innovations that are important exceptions. The first is The Box and the second is The Great A&P.


(p. A13) A prosecutor in Franklin Roosevelt's administration called it a "giant blood sucker." A federal judge in Woodrow Wilson's day deemed it a "monopolist," and another, during Harry Truman's presidency, convicted it of violating antitrust law. The federal government investigated it almost continuously for a quarter-century, and more than half the states tried to tax it out of business. For its strategy of selling groceries cheaply, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company paid a very heavy price.


. . .


A&P was Wal-Mart long before there was Wal-Mart. Founded around the start of the Civil War, it upset the tradition-encrusted tea trade by selling teas at discount prices by mail and developing the first brand-name tea. A few years later, its tea shops began to stock spices, baking powder and canned goods, making A&P one of the first chain grocers.

Then, in 1912, John A. Hartford, one of the two brothers who had taken over the company from their father, had one of those inspirations that change the course of business. He proposed that the company test a bare-bones format at a tiny store in Jersey City, offering short hours, limited selection and no home delivery, and that it use the cost savings to lower prices. The A&P Economy Store was an instant success. The Great A&P was soon opening one and then two and then three stores per day. By 1920, it had become the largest retailer in the world.


. . .


While shoppers flocked to A&P's 16,000 stores, small grocers and grocery wholesalers didn't share their enthusiasm. The anti-chain-store movement dates back at least to 1913, when the American Fair-Trade League pushed for laws against retail price-cutting.


. . .


Thanks in good part to the Hartfords' tenacity, the restraints on discount retailing began to fade away in the 1950s. Chain-store taxes were gradually repealed, and state laws limiting price competition to protect mom and pop were taken off the books. By 1962, when Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, and other modern discount formats were born, the pendulum had swung in consumers' favor.



For the full commentary, see:

MARC LEVINSON. "When Creative Destruction Visited the Mom-and-Pops; The A&P grocery company may be nearing its sell-by date, but a century ago it was a fresh, revolutionary business." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 12, 2013): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 11, 2013, and had the title "Marc Levinson: When Creative Destruction Visited the Mom-and-Pops; The A&P grocery company may be nearing its sell-by date, but a century ago it was a fresh, revolutionary business.")


Levinson's book on A&P is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.






July 24, 2013

Laws to Protect Car Dealers, Keep Car Prices High



TeslaGalleryVirginia2013-07-23.jpg "Tesla 'galleries' such as this one in McLean, Va., can show but not sell cars." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) RALEIGH, N.C.--Elon Musk made a fortune disrupting the status quo in online shopping and renewable energy. Now he's up against his toughest challenge yet: local car dealers.

Mr. Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal and now Tesla Motors Inc., wants to sell his $70,000 Tesla electric luxury vehicles directly to consumers, bypassing franchised automobile dealers. Dealers are flexing their considerable muscle in states including Texas and Virginia to stop him.

The latest battleground is North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled state Senate last month unanimously approved a measure that would block Tesla from selling online, its only sales outlet here. Tesla has staged whiz-bang test drives for legislators in front of the State House and hired one of the state's most influential lobbyists to stave off a similar vote in the House before the legislative session ends in early July.

The focus of the power struggle between Mr. Musk and auto dealers is a thicket of state franchise laws, many of which go back to the auto industry's earliest days when industry pioneer Henry Ford began turning to eager entrepreneurs to help sell his Model T.

Dealers say laws passed over the decades to prevent car makers from selling directly to consumers are justified because without them auto makers could use their economic clout to sell vehicles for less than their independent franchisees.



For the full story, see:

MIKE RAMSEY and VALERIE BAUERLEIN. "Tesla Clashes With Car Dealers; Electric-Vehicle Maker Wants to Sell Directly to Consumers; Critics Say Plan Violates Franchise Laws." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., June 18, 2013): B1-B2.






May 15, 2013

Were Phone Phreaks Creative Incipient Entrepreneurs or Destructive "Sophomoric Savants"?



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Source of book image: http://img1.imagesbn.com/p/9780802120618_p0_v2_s260x420.JPG



(p. C6) Mr. Lapsley also describes John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, who was probably the most celebrated of the phreakers; his nickname derived from the fact that whistles that used to come in Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes happened to generate the key 2600-Hz tone used in long-distance switching. . . .

The phone-phreak netherworld was introduced to a mass audience by the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine, which included what has to be (at least indirectly) one of the most influential articles ever written: Ron Rosenbaum's "Secrets of the Little Blue Box." Not only did it turn phreakers into folk heroes, but it inspired two young men, Steve Wozniak (who provided the foreword for this book) and Steve Jobs, to construct and sell blue boxes. Going door to door in Berkeley dorms, they managed to sell several dozen at $170 each. The "two Steves" savored this mix of clever engineering and entrepreneurial hustle: As Mr. Lapsley quotes Jobs saying: "If we hadn't made blue boxes, there would have been no Apple." (Mr. Rosenbaum's article also put the "phreak" into "phone phreak.")

. . .: By the 1980s, computerized phone systems and fiber-optic cables rendered many of the old phreaking modes obsolete. In addition, I can't help suspecting that the breakup of AT&T in 1984--the result of an antitrust lawsuit filed by the federal government--deeply discouraged the hard-core phreaks. Surreptitiously penetrating one of the shriveled new regional phone companies must have seemed a paltry caper compared with taking on mighty, majestic AT&T.


. . .


I must, however, take issue with one of Mr. Lapsley's conclusions. In reflecting on the phreaks' legacy, he writes: "The phone phreaks taught us that there is a societal benefit to tolerating, perhaps even nurturing (in the words of Apple) the crazy ones--the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers." Is that truly what they taught us? . . .

Wilt Chamberlain supposedly once said that "nobody roots for Goliath." Perhaps. But the lesson to be learned from those waging guerrilla war against giants like the phone company and the Internet is that sophomoric savants who tamper with society's indispensable systems ultimately harm all too many innocent people.



For the full review, see:

HOWARD SCHNEIDER. "BOOKSHELF; Playing Tricks on Ma Bell." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 2, 2013): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 1, 2013.)



The book under review, is:

Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. New York: Grove Press, 2013.






March 1, 2013

Google's Eric Schmidt Saw that "Regulation Prohibits Real Innovation"



(p. A13) Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gave a remarkable interview this month to The Washington Post. So remarkable that Post editors preceded the transcript with this disclosure: "He had just come from the dentist. And he had a toothache."

Perhaps it was the Novocain talking, but Mr. Schmidt has done us a service. He said in public what most technologists will say only in private. Whatever caused him to speak forthrightly about the disconnects between Silicon Valley and Washington, his comments deserve wider attention.

Mr. Schmidt had just given his first congressional testimony. He was called before the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee to answer allegations that Google is a monopolist, a charge the Federal Trade Commission is also investigating.

"So we get hauled in front of the Congress for developing a product that's free, that serves a billion people. OK? I mean, I don't know how to say it any clearer," Mr. Schmidt told the Post. "It's not like we raised prices. We could lower prices from free to . . . lower than free? You see what I'm saying?"


. . .


"Regulation prohibits real innovation, because the regulation essentially defines a path to follow," Mr. Schmidt said. This "by definition has a bias to the current outcome, because it's a path for the current outcome."


. . .


Washington is always slow to recognize technological change, which is why in their time IBM and Microsoft were also investigated after competing technologies had emerged.

Mr. Schmidt recounted a dinner in 1995 featuring a talk by Andy Grove, a founder of Intel: "He says, 'This is easy to understand. High tech runs three times faster than normal businesses. And the government runs three times slower than normal businesses. So we have a nine-times gap.' All of my experiences are consistent with Andy Grove's observation."

Mr. Schmidt explained there was only one way to deal with this nine-times gap, which this column hereby christens "Grove's Law of Government." That is "to make sure that the government does not get in the way and slow things down."

Mr. Schmidt recounted that when Silicon Valley first started playing a large role in the economy in the 1990s, "all of a sudden the politicians showed up. We thought the politicians showed up because they loved us. It's fair to say they loved us for our money."

He contrasted innovation in Silicon Valley with innovation in Washington. "Now there are startups in Washington," he said, "founded by people who were policy makers. . . . They're very clever people, and they've figured out a way in regulation to discriminate, to find a new satellite spectrum or a new frequency or whatever. They immediately hired a whole bunch of lobbyists. They raised some money to do that. And they're trying to innovate through regulation. So that's what passes for innovation in Washington."



For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "INFORMATION AGE; Google Speaks Truth to Power; About the growing regulatory state, even Google's Eric Schmidt--a big supporter of the Obama administration--now feels the need to tell it like it is." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., October 24, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to Schmidt quote, in original WSJ commentary.)


The original Eric Schmidt interview with the Washington Post, can be read at:

http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-10-01/national/35278181_1_google-chairman-eric-schmidt-regulation-disconnects







January 25, 2013

ExxonMobil's "Honorable If Rigid Corporate Culture"



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Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited way below.






(p. C12) From Indiana to Indonesia, ExxonMobil is the multinational corporation that people love to hate. John D. Rockefeller's creation is famed and feared for its discipline, its disregard for public opinion and its ability, year after year, to pump out the largest profits of any corporation on the planet. In "Private Empire," Steve Coll provides a rare exploration of what makes a modern corporate giant tick and shows why the world looks different to the executives in the "God Pod" at ExxonMobil's Texas headquarters than it might to you or me.


For the full review essay, see:

Marc Levinson. "Boardroom Reading of 2012." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C12.

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)



From another review of the same book:


"Private Empire" is meticulous, multi-angled and valuable. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, despite all the dark facts I have dumped above, impartial. Mr. Coll and his phlegmatic research assistants have interviewed more than 400 people, including Exxon Mobil's longtime chief executive Lee R. Raymond, a legendarily hard character.

It's among this book's achievements that it attempts to view a dysfunctional energy world, as often as not, through Exxon Mobil's eyes. The company is portrayed here, some egregious missteps aside, as possessing an honorable if rigid corporate culture that seeks to supply a product (unlike tobacco companies, to which it is often compared) that a functioning society actually must have.



For this full review, see:

DWIGHT GARNER. "Oil's Dark Heart Pumps Strong." The New York Times (Sat., April 27, 2012): C25 & C32(?).

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date April 26, 2012 and has the title "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Oil's Dark Heart Pumps Strong; 'Private Empire,' Steve Coll's Book on Exxon Mobil.")



The book under review, is:

Coll, Steve. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.






November 3, 2012

"Richly Researched" Study of "Ironies of Antitrust Policy" in Retailing



(p. 819) Levinson's book opens up a crucial discussion on the role of integrated retailer-distributors in shaping the twentieth-century U.S. economy. As he rightly notes in the book's conclusion, A&P was in many ways the Walmart of its day: it used its buying power to squeeze inefficiencies out of supply chains, it was widely reviled for upending small-town business patterns and bitterly fighting union organizers, and yet it drew waves of customers who appreciated its low prices. While we have many business histories of mass-production industries, we have only a handful of richly researched studies of the mass retailers that have, in the words of historian Nelson Lichtenstein (2009), "become the key players in the worldwide marketplace of our time." Levinson has produced a valuable book for business and economic historians interested in retailing, supply chains, and the ironies of antitrust policy. As a former editor for The Economist, furthermore, Levinson is particularly effective at translating challenging economic concepts into language that lay audiences and undergraduate students can grasp.


For the full review, see:

Hamilton, Shane. "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 3 (Sept. 2012): 818-19.

(Note: italics in original.)


The book under review is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.


The Lichtenstein book mentioned is:

Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. hb ed. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.






June 2, 2012

In Antitrust, as in Medicine, First Do No Harm



(p. 94) Western Union's lawyers carne up with a dusty old New York Stale law, dated 1905, that said no one could buy more than 10 percent of a telegraph company chartered in that state without the approval of Albany lawmakers. Hard to believe, but it was right there in black and white and there was no possibility of getting the New York State legislature to understand why it was vital to build digital highways.

Talk about unintended consequences!

(p. 95) Originally, the law was written to stop Western Union from monopolizing the telegram business, but the law backfired and was used by the monopolist for its own protection.



Source:

Wyly, Sam. 1,000 Dollars and an Idea: Entrepreneur to Billionaire. New York: Newmarket Press, 2008.





May 23, 2012

First Principle for Trustbusters Should Be "Do No Harm"



(p. A2) In essence, Justice says that, beginning in 2008, several plankton, in the form of five publishers, conspired against a whale, Amazon, whose monopoly clout had imposed a $9.99 retail price for e-books.

The deal the publishers eventually reached with Apple unfixed the price of e-books by linking their prices to the cover price of the print version. More importantly, publishers could begin to reclaim the right to set e-book retail prices generally.


. . .


Apple, with 15% of the e-book market, is no monopolist. The five publishers, though Justice insists they dominate trade publishing, account for only about half of e-book sales. Crucially for antitrust, the barriers to entry are zilch: Amazon, with 60% market share, could create its own e-book imprint tomorrow and begin bidding for the most popular authors.


. . .


Let's go back to "per se" vs. "rule of reason." Because the 1890 Sherman Act is so sweeping and almost any business arrangement could be read as prohibited, courts understandably evolved a "rule of reason" to distinguish the permissible from the impermissible. Unfortunately, the result has been antitrust as we know it: wild and fluctuating discretion masquerading as law. Retail price maintenance alone has been embraced and dumped so many times by the courts that it must feel like Jennifer Aniston.

"Do no harm" would be a better principle for trustbusters.



For the full commentary, see:

HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. "BUSINESS WORLD; Washington vs. Books; What about piracy, low barriers to entry and the fact that literature isn't chopped liver?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 14, 2012): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated April 13, 2012.)






December 20, 2011

A&P Sold Consumers Better and Lower-Priced Food



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Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.








(p. A15) Mr. Levinson's history centers on the two Hartford sons who followed their father into the business. They would spend their entire working lives at the company being known simply as "Mr. George" and "Mr. John." Thoughtful and studious, Mr. George's idea of excitement was a good jigsaw puzzle; Mr. John, somewhat more outgoing, liked the horses but also a daily lunch of milk and crackers. Together the brothers, neither of whom had finished high school, built what would be, for 40 years, the largest retail outlet in the world.

The brothers' business philosophy was simple, writes Mr. Levinson: "If the company keeps its costs down and prices low, more shoppers would come through its doors, producing more profits than if it kept prices high." The more stores they could open, the greater the take.

But the Hartfords had a public-relations problem. Since the nation's earliest days, small family stores had served as community anchors. There were thousands across the country. Mom and pop knew every customer who came through their door; they extended credit to families down on their luck. If low-priced chains drove out such stores, what would happen to small-town America?

In fact, many mom-and-pop operations were inefficiently and incompetently run. A&P might be coldly corporate by comparison, but it offered consumers far more variety and fresher, better-quality goods at less cost to the family budget.



For the full review, see:

PATRICK COOKE. "BOOKSHELF; How a Grocer Bagged Profits; At its peak, the chain had nearly 16,000 stores. Critics charged it with competing unfairly by offering too-low prices." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 29, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)



The book under review is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.





December 13, 2011

Steve Jobs on Public School System Monopoly



(p. A15) These days everyone is for education reform. The question is which approach is best. I favor the Steve Jobs model.

In 1984 Steve introduced the Mac with a Super Bowl ad. It ran only once. It ran for only one minute. And it shows a female athlete being chased by the helmeted police of some totalitarian regime.

At the climax, the woman rushes up to a large screen where Big Brother is giving a speech. Just as he announces, "We shall prevail," she hurls her hammer through the screen.

If you ask me what we need to do in education, I would point you to that ad.


. . .


Steve Jobs knew all about competitive markets. He once likened our school system to the old phone monopoly. "I remember," he said in a 1995 interview, "seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell Logo on it and it said 'We don't care. We don't have to.' And that's what a monopoly is. That's what IBM was in their day. And that's certainly what the public school system is. They don't have to care."

We have to care. In this new century, good is not good enough. Put simply, we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn't work or gets in the way. And to make our bet that if we can engage a child's imagination, there's no limit to what he or she can learn.



For the full commentary, see:

RUPERT MURDOCH. "OPINION; The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform; If we can engage a child's imagination, there's no limit to what he or she can learn.." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 15, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






February 10, 2011

Mackey Reduced Role in Whole Foods after Being "Drained" by Antitrust Battle



MackeyJohnWholeFoods2011-02-05.jpg














"Higher existing-store sales powered Whole Foods earnings. Above, co-founder John Mackey juggles apples in a New York store last November." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. B6) Whole Foods Market Inc. reported Wednesday that fiscal second-quarter profits had more than doubled and raised its full-year earnings forecast. The company also shook up its management team, naming a co-chief executive, though current CEO and co-founder John Mackey said he expects to work "for another decade or so."


. . .


Mr. Mackey in December resigned as Whole Foods' chairman after a year of controversy. Last summer, he wrote a controversial opinion article for The Wall Street Journal on his views of health care reform that led to boycotts of the natural grocer by some of his most loyal shoppers. Last spring, the Fair Trade Commission ordered the sale of 37 former Wild Oats Markets Inc. stores, a multi-year battle that Mr. Mackey says left him drained and influenced his decision to appoint Mr. Robb as co-CEO.



For the full story, see:

TIMOTHY W. MARTIN. "Profit Soars at Whole Foods; Grocery Chain Forecasts Sharply Higher Profit, Promotes Two Veteran Executives." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., MAY 13, 2010): B6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the first paragraph quoted above has slightly different wording in the online version than the print version; the second paragraph quoted is the same in both.)





October 22, 2010

Competitors Have "Incentive to Misuse the Government to Obtain an Advantage"



(p. A15) Today's technology behemoth risks becoming tomorrow's dinosaur, and competitors sometimes plead for government intervention to obtain what they fail to achieve in the market. As a former head of a competition agency, I offer . . . principles to guide competition policy toward successful innovators.

. . . , be wary of competitor complaints. When a competitor tells government that its rival acts unfairly, the complaint should be viewed with great suspicion. Competitor complaints are driving recent EU investigations into companies that include Qualcomm, Google, Oracle and IBM. Competitors can provide valuable information about marketplace realities, but they have every incentive to misuse the government to obtain an advantage that is otherwise unattainable.


. . .


. . . , don't create disincentives for innovation. Complaining competitors often want innovators to be forced to share the source of their success, regardless of intellectual property rights. Nothing could be more destructive to the incentives for future innovation than rules that prevent innovators from reaping the full benefits of their work. As a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court said in its 2004 Verizon v. Trinko decision, "[f]irms may acquire monopoly power by establishing an infrastructure that renders them uniquely suited to serve their customers."



For the full commentary, see:

TIMOTHY J. MURIS. "Antitrust in a High-Tech World; The first rule of regulators should be to be wary of complaints from competitors.." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., August 12, 2010): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)






July 13, 2009

Justice Department is Creating Barriers to Companies Trying to Create New Technologies



BarrettCraigIntel2009-06-20.jpg















Intel CEO Craig Barrett. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A9) Craig Barrett is spending the last days of his tenure as Intel chairman the same way he spent his previous 35 years at the corporation: moving at a superhuman pace that leaves exhausted subordinates in his wake.

Mr. Barrett has maintained this lifestyle since he replaced Andrew Grove as CEO of Intel in 1998. "Was it hard to follow a legend?" he asks himself in his typical blunt way, adding, "What do you think?" Mr. Barrett barely broke pace when he became chairman in 2005, and shows no sign of slowing even now, at age 69, as he faces retirement.


. . .


The latest thing that has him animated is the record $1.45 billion antitrust fine levied against Intel by the European Union this week. Mr. Barrett shakes his head and says, "The antitrust rules and regulations seem designed for a different era. When you look at high-tech companies, with the high R&D budgets, specialization and market creation they need to hold their big market shares, it's so very different from the old world of oil companies and auto makers that the antitrust regulations were designed for. They are out of sync with reality.

"And how do you reconcile European regulators, who don't believe that any company should have more than 50% market share -- even a market that company created -- with the way we operate here? Of course, now it seems as if our Justice Department is preparing to march in lock-step behind Europe. In the end, all they are going to do is create barriers to companies growing, entering into new markets, and bringing new technologies into those markets. And when we stop being the land of opportunity, all of those smart immigrant kids getting their Ph.D.s here are going to start heading home after they graduate. Then watch what happens to our competitiveness."



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL S. MALONE. "OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Craig Barrett; From Moore's Law to Barrett's Rules; Intel's chairman on antitrust silliness and the secrets of high-tech success." Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 16, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





March 27, 2009

Google Not Likely to Be "An Unstoppable Juggernaut"


PlanetGoogleBK.jpg













Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.




(p. A25) But Messrs. Page and Brin, when they launched Google, had no idea how to make money from it. Two years into their venture, they developed a service that delivered small text ads based on the search terms that a user submitted. As Randall Stross notes in "Planet Google," his even-handed and highly readable history of the company, the service proved to be a turning point in the history of advertising, offering ads tailored for "an audience of one at the one best moment, when a relevant topic was on the user's mind." It also proved to be a goldmine for Google. The company started serving up ads in 2000. In 2002, it had revenues of $400 million; in 2005, $6.1 billion; in 2007, $16.5 billion. Roughly 99% of its income stills springs from those modest text ads that appear at the top of Google's results page.

. . .

Is Google an unstoppable juggernaut fated not only to "organize all information" -- as the company has itself put its goal -- but to control it as well? Mr. Stross poses the question but does not answer it. He notes that one of Google's ambitions is to usher in an age of "cloud computing," in which all the work we do on our personal computers would actually take place on servers that Google owns. The servers would hold the programs we use and store our data. That image -- Google as Skynet from the "Terminator" movies -- is a mite unsettling.

Yet the evidence in "Planet Google" suggests that this eventuality is less likely than Googlers might hope. Outside its core search and advertising business, Google has had few successes. Its home-grown products, such as Orkut, Knols and Google Checkout (knockoffs of Facebook, Wikipedia and PayPal, respectively), have largely been failures. Google's biggest successes have come from acquisitions. Google bought YouTube only after its own attempt at video on the Web, Google Video, crashed and burned. And even the "successful" acquisitions that Google has made -- Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Docs and Blogger were all purchases, too -- have taken up resources without creating significant revenue.

. . .

Remember, people thought that Microsoft was fated to rule the world, too. Today, the once-feared operating-system giant is fighting to stay relevant. And the evolutionary parallels between Google and Microsoft are strikingly similar: Both hit upon a Big Idea at the perfect moment; both parlayed it into a mountain of cash; and both used the money to embark on a string of expansions that paid few dividends. The years have brought Microsoft back to Earth. They'll probably do the same to Planet Google.



For the full review, see:

Last, Jonathan V. "BOOKS; Search for Tomorrow." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 17, 2008): A25.

(Note: ellipses added.)


he book under review is:

Stross, Randall E. Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know. New York: Free Press, 2008.





August 30, 2008

European Bureaucrat Forces Businesses to Make "a Smart Business Decision"



If open standards are always "a smart business decision" why do business managers need government bureaucrats to force that decision on them (through fining firms, like Microsoft, that sometimes favor proprietary standards)?

In fact, there are circumstances in which open standards are better for customers, and there are also circumstances in which proprietary standards are better.

To better understand these issues consult Shapiro and Varian's Information Rules and Christensen and Raynor's The Innovator's Solution.

(p. C8) BRUSSELS -- The European Union's competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, delivered an unusually blunt rebuke to Microsoft on Tuesday by recommending that businesses and governments use software based on open standards.

Ms. Kroes has fought bitterly with Microsoft over the last four years, accusing the company of defying her orders and fining it nearly 1.7 billion euros, or $2.7 billion, on the grounds of violating European competition rules. But her comments were the strongest recommendation yet by Ms. Kroes to jettison Microsoft products, which are based on proprietary standards, and to use rival operating systems to run computers.

"I know a smart business decision when I see one -- choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed," Ms. Kroes told a conference in Brussels. "No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to choose a closed technology over an open one."



For the full story, see:

JAMES KANTER. "Harsh Words for Microsoft Technology." The New York Times (Weds., June 11, 2008): C8.


References mentioned:

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.





June 17, 2008

Optimal Size of a Firm Depends on Trial and Error and Changing Circumstances


Rosenberg and Birdzell give an uncommon reason for economies of scale. This illustrated that the common list of reasons is not written in stone. As trial and error yields new ways of organizing business, the optimal size firm will shift back and forth.

(p. 157) The increase in both size and complexity of ironworks that followed throughout the nineteenth century was motivated by a desire to achieve economies in the use of fuel. As to size, within the practical limits of construction, large furnaces lose less heat by radiation than small furnaces and so are more fuel-efficient.

Source:

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.




June 12, 2008

Competition in an Ice Cream Duopoly


GoodHumorIceCreamTruck.jpg "Jose Martinez parked his Good Humor truck Tuesday at an Upper West Side corner that is said to be Mister Softee territory." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C13) On Tuesday afternoon, new battle lines were drawn on the Upper West Side at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 83rd Street, where Ceasar Ruiz, 50, the Mister Softee man, said he had been selling ice cream without any competition for more than eight years.

He said his routine was the same every season. He arrives at the corner by about 2:30 each afternoon, mostly to catch the students getting out of Public School 9 and the Anderson School, just a few yards from the corner. He stays for about an hour and a half, then moves to his next location, he said.

But Tuesday afternoon was different. When he arrived, there sat the freshly painted Good Humor truck and Mr. Martinez, decked out in a crisp uniform, ringing his bell.

"I sell Good Humor, too," Mr. Ruiz said. "But his is more cheap. I sell bar for $2. He might sell for $1.50. Not good. Not good."

Over the din of children clamoring for Dora the Explorer ice cream bars and Mega Missile Pops (red, white and blue rocket-shaped popsicles), Mr. Martinez rang his bell louder, openly competing for customers.

"I'm trying to make a dollar just like he is," said Mr. Martinez, his voice rising loud enough for the other driver to hear. "He's telling me I have to go. But he doesn't own this spot."

. . .

About five minutes before 4 o'clock, Mr. Ruiz leaned out of his Mister Softee truck, looking over at Mr. Martinez.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to beat him here," he said. "I'll be the first one here."


For the full story, see:

TRYMAINE LEE. "It's Still Spring, but the Ice Cream Truck War Revs Up." The New York Times (Weds., May 14, 2008): C13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




April 20, 2008

Google Does Evil: How to Succeed by Lobbying the Regulators


(p. A14) You're saying to yourself, haven't Google and friends been gnashing their teeth over the landline practices of the Verizons and Comcasts, demanding "net neutrality" regulations to be erected against crimes to be named later? Yes, and without much success. Consider a recent Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute study that found that imposing Google's idea of "net neutrality" (i.e., restricting a network operator's ability to prioritize urgent and non-urgent data) would end up cutting a network's peak capacity in half.

Now Google and friends are turning to wireless, which they hope will prove a softer target. Here operators traditionally have built networks for the restricted purpose of letting customers make voice calls with an operator-supplied cellphone. But most operators have also started rolling out all-purpose broadband on their wireless networks, albeit high-priced and painfully slow (evidence of their need to ration capacity carefully to protect higher-priority voice traffic).

Verizon offers BroadbandAccess, a service that allows a customer, with a laptop card, to use Verizon's wireless network for Web surfing. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint offer similar services. Likewise, Sprint and Clearwire are building out a new kind of wireless network, WiMax, for truly fast mobile broadband.

That's not good enough for Google and its allies, who want the government to require wireless operators to provide unrestricted Web surfing to buyers of basic phone plans. Don't be misled by the "net neutrality" and "open access" masquerades. This is nothing but business-model chauvinism, aided not a little by the mental clottedness of regulators, who evidently can be led to believe that any network operating on digital principles must be packaged and sold to customers in only one way.

. . .

Make no mistake: Google understands that restricting a wireless operator's ability to design its own business model can, by definition, only reduce its incentive to invest. But Google has bigger fish to fry. It wants to make sure it can continue to free-ride on your broadband subscription bills, even in the mobile world. It wants to make sure it won't have to share the proceeds of its massive search and advertising dominance with suppliers of network capacity.

Most of all, it wants to replicate in mobile search and advertising the overpowering position it has achieved in the fixed broadband world -- something that might not be possible if wireless operators are left any opportunity to carve out a business model other than as simply suppliers of the proverbial "dumb pipe."


For the full commentary, see:

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. "Business World: Sort of Evil." Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 18, 2007): A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




August 11, 2007

Easily Available Capital and Technology Lower Barriers to Entry in Oil Industry

 

CobaltOilDataAnalysis.jpg   "Cobalt scientists analyze data to help pinpoint oil deposits."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. 1)  HOUSTON.  JOSEPH H. BRYANT, still boyish-looking at 51, jostles with glee among tens of thousands of people here at the Offshore Technology Conference, one of the energy industry’s biggest trade fairs. He is surrounded by newfangled technologies occupying more than half a million square feet of display space: drills stuffed with electronic sensors, underwater wells shaped like Christmas trees, mini-submarines and pipes, pumps, tubes, gauges, valves and gadgets galore.

“There is every little gizmo you need to make this business work,” Mr. Bryant says, joyously. He stops at a plastic model of an offshore oil rig, an exact replica of a huge platform he commissioned while running BP’s business in Angola a few years ago. “I love this stuff.”

Like the pieces of a giant puzzle, the parts showcased here could fit together and build an oil company — and that’s exactly what Mr. Bryant set out to do two years ago after a 30-year career directing energy projects for the likes of Amoco, Unocal and BP. With a team composed largely of retired energy executives, he wants to hunt for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or offshore West Africa, challenging Big Oil in its own backyard.

The American oil patch, once left to languish during an extended period of low oil prices, is on the rebound. Wildcatters like Mr. Bryant are ready to pounce. With oil prices now hovering around $60 a barrel — three times higher than they were throughout the 1990s — the industry is expanding at a pace last seen decades ago.

“The oil industry has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” Mr. Bryant says. “Barriers to entry have dropped significantly. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the business 100 years or 100 days.”

Easily available capital and technology, once the preserve of traditional oil companies, are reordering the business. Investors are lining up to finance energy projects while leaps in computing power, imaging tech-(p. 7)nology and collaborative online networks now allow the smallest entities to compete on an equal footing with the biggest players.

“There’s a lot of money out there looking for opportunities,” said John Schaeffer, the head of the oil and gas unit at GE Energy Financial Services. “It seems like everyone wants to own an oil well now.”

Still, oil exploration remains a costly business fraught with peril. While the odds have improved, success is elusive; three-quarters of all exploration wells come up dry, either because there is no oil or because geologists miss its exact location. All of which means that Mr. Bryant’s start-up, Cobalt International Energy, which plans to begin drilling next year, faces formidable hurdles.

“There’s no sugar-coating this — at the end of the day, it’s a high risk venture,” Mr. Bryant says. “Financially, we’re definitely wildcatting. It’s either all or nothing.”

 

For the full story, see: 

JAD MOUAWADA.  "Wildcatter Pounces; Oil Riches Lure the Entrepreneurs."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., May 20, 2007):  1 & 7.

 

 BryantJosephOilWildcatter.jpg   Wildcatter entrepreneur "Joseph H. Bryant started Cobalt."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




April 17, 2007

Anti-Wal-Mart is Anti-Free-Choice

     Source of logo/header:  http://www.muddycup.com/mudlane/img/header.jpg

 

The article excerpted below reveals the soul of much of the anti-Wal-Mart movement.  It is not anti-big; it is anti-competition and anti-free-choice.

 

How in the world did a guy who started his first coffee shop on Staten Island six years ago and now runs five others in far-flung Hudson Valley towns become the moral equivalent of Wal-Mart and Starbucks? “Well, it’s now official,” he announced last month on the Web site that promotes his Muddy Cup coffeehouses. “I am now head of the evil empire.”

. . .

And now the talk of New Paltz has to do with something far more important than mere marriage — coffee. More specifically it’s whether Mr. Svetz is plotting an act of entrepreneurial imperialism by presuming to open one of his Muddy Cup coffeehouses next door to the ultimate green icon in town, the funky 60 Main coffee shop operated in conjunction with the nonprofit New Paltz Cultural Collective.

. . .

Little did he know. As word filtered out he began receiving a blizzard of e-mail messages from 60 Main proponents, reacting to an urgent appeal from the collective. The messages threatened a boycott and told him to stay home. “If we can stop Wal-Mart we can stop you,” said one.

“We do not want to become yet another small town taken over by huge corporations,” read another.

. . .

Mr. Svetz is still stunned by the whole thing, particularly his sudden status as a giant corporation. He says that just as lots of bars coexist in town, several coffee shops can too. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s not. He’s not Wal-Mart, but maybe it’s fair to ask how many artist-friendly coffeehouses the village can support. But it’s hard to argue when he says that even in New Paltz, businesses generally have to compete to survive, not find a way to build a Berlin Wall around town.

“When a community starts building walls and saying you don’t belong here or you don’t think like we do, that can’t be a good thing,” he said.

 

For the full story, see: 

PETER APPLEBOME.  "Coffee Puts Laid-Back Town on Edge."  The New York Times, Section 1  (Sun., March 4, 2007):  21. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




March 23, 2007

Would Consumers Be Better Off with No Satellite Radio?

   Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

It appears as though the market for satellite radio may not be big enough for two firms to profitably survive, although one merged "monopoly" firm might survive.  But the antitrust government authorities appear to seriously be considering to forbid the merger. 

If they do so, they will be presuming to tell the consumer that she is better off with no satellite radio, than with one merged "monopoly" satellite radio.

Note the secondary issue of whether it's appropriate to call a merged company a "monopoly."  If the "industry" is defined as "satellite radio," then the merged company would be a monopoly.  If the "industry" is more broadly defined as "broadcast radio," which would include AM, FM, and internet stations, then the merged firm would be a long way from a monopoly.

But either way, the government should stay out of it.

 

(NYT, A1)  The nation’s two satellite radio services, Sirius and XM, announced plans yesterday to merge, a move that would end their costly competition for radio personalities and subscribers but that is also sure to raise antitrust issues.

The two companies, which report close to 14 million subscribers, hoped to revolutionize the radio industry with a bevy of niche channels offering everything from fishing tips to salsa music, and media personalities like Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, with few commercials. But neither has yet turned an annual profit and both have had billions in losses.

. . .

Questioned last month about a possible Sirius-XM merger, the F.C.C. chairman, Kevin J. Martin, initially appeared to be skeptical, but later said that if such a deal were proposed, the agency would consider it.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Martin acknowledged that the F.C.C. rule could complicate a merger but said the commission would evaluate the proposal. “The hurdle here, however, would be high,” he said.

The proposed merger, first report-(p. C2)ed yesterday by The New York Post, promises to be a test of whether regulators will see a combination of XM and Sirius as a monopoly of satellite radio communications or whether they will consider other audio entertainment, like iPods, Internet radio and HD radio, to be competitors.

“If the only competition to XM is Sirius, then you don’t let the deal through,” said Blair Levin, managing director of Stifel Nicolaus & Company and a former F.C.C. chief of staff. But Mr. Blair said he expected the F.C.C. to approve the merger.

 

For the full NYT story, see:

RICHARD SIKLOS and ANDREW ROSS SORKIN.  "Merger Would End Satellite Radio’s Rivalry."  The New York Times  (Tues., February 20, 2007):  A1 & C2.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)  

 

(WSJ, p. A1)  But because XM and Sirius are the only two companies licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to offer satellite radio in the (p. A13) U.S., the deal is likely to face significant regulatory obstacles.

Broadcasters said yesterday that they will fight the proposed merger, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin released an unusually grim statement saying that the two companies will face a "high" hurdle, since the FCC still has a 1997 rule on its books specifically forbidding such a deal which would need to be tossed. The transaction also requires the Justice Department's blessing.

Indeed, XM and Sirius may be rushing into a deal because they sense the regulatory terrain will only get tougher. People close to the matter said that the two companies acted because the climate is already changing with the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress. Future developments -- such as the possibility of a Democratic president -- could make it even harder for the proposed merger to pass muster.

In their strategy, the two companies may be subtly acknowledging the risks before them: By conceiving their deal as a merger of equals and declining to say which company name would emerge ascendant, they minimize the business risks should the deal fall through. If, for example, the combined company were to be dubbed Sirius, XM could be vulnerable to a decline in sales during a regulatory review period that could last a year. A person familiar with the negotiations said the two companies have set March 1, 2008, as their "drop-dead date," after which either side can walk away if approval is not granted.

The coming regulatory battle is likely to focus on the definition of satellite radio's market. The two companies are expected to argue that the rules established a decade ago, which require two satellite rivals to ensure competition, simply don't apply in today's entertainment landscape.

Since 1997, a host of new listening options have emerged, making the issue of choice in satellite radio less important for consumers. Executives cite a new digital technology called HD radio, iPod digital music players, Internet radio and music over mobile phones as competitors that didn't exist when the satellite licenses were first awarded.

 

For the full WSJ story, see:

SARAH MCBRIDE, DENNIS K. BERMAN and AMY SCHATZ.  "Sirius and XM Agree to Merge, Despite Hurdles For Regulators, Deal Pits Competition Concerns Against New Technology."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., February 20, 2007):  A1 & A13.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

 SatteliteRadioSubscribersNYT.gif   Source of graphic on left:  online version of the NYT article cited above.  Source of graphic on right:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




November 14, 2006

Antitrust Cases Can Hurt (Even Those that Get Dropped)

The antitrust lawsuit against IBM was dropped, and that against Microsoft result in the imposition of only minor legal remedies.  So some may conclude that IBM and Microsoft bore little ill effects from the suits.  But such suits can reduce morale, result in loss of talent, and restrain the efficiency, innovativeness and competitiveness of the prosecuted companies. 

In the case of IBM, Lou Gerstner has made some strong, and plausible, comments on the deleterious effects of U.S. antitrust action:

 

(p. 118)  The other critical factor---one that is sometimes overlooked---is the impact of the antitrust suit filed against IBM by the United States Department of Justice on January 31, 1969, the final day of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.  The suit was ultimately dropped and classified "without merit" during Ronald Reagan's presidency, but for thirteen years IBM lived under the specter of a federally mandated breakup.  One has to imagine that years of that form of scrutiny changes business behavior in very real ways.

Just consider the effect on vocabulary---an important element of any culture, including corporate culture.  While IBM was subject to the suit, terms like "market," "marketplace," "market share," "competitor," "competition," "dominate," "lead," "win," and "beat" were systematically excised from written materials and banned at internal meetings."  Imagine the dampening effect on a workforce that can't even talk about selecting a market or taking share from a competitor.  After a while, it goes beyond what is said to what is thought.

 

The reference to the book, is: 

Gerstner, Louis V., Jr.  Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change. New York:  HarperCollins, 2002.

 




November 1, 2006

Mellon Allowed Great Innovation By Restraining Intrusive Government


(p. W4) Though scarcely known today, Andrew W. Mellon was a colossus in late 19th-century and early 20th-century America.  He would come to play a major role in the management of the American economy, but first he built one of the country's great fortunes, one that would rank him today with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  He is now the subject of a comprehensive, if slightly grudging, biography by David Cannadine, the distinguished British historian.

Mellon is not associated with any single industry, in the way that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are.  He was a venture and equity-fund capitalist, one of the first to function on a major scale.  He and his younger brother, Dick, took over their father's Pittsburgh-based investment and coal-mining business and expanded it into many fields, including copper, oil,  petrochemicals and aluminum (Alcoa).

No banker was as gimlet-eyed; Mr. Cannadine shows Mellon shrewdly and coldly calculating every investment prospect.  Yet few venture capitalists were as daring.  In the 1890s, when Rockefeller was ruthlessly monopolizing the petroleum industry, Mellon didn't flinch from setting up a competing refinery.  When Mellon finally sold out to Rockefeller, he did so at a considerable profit.  Several years later he came back to oil and eventually built Gulf into an industry giant.

Original Supply-Sider

But Mellon was more than an entrepreneurial industrialist.  In his mid-60s he became a famous -- and infamous -- public servant, performing as Treasury secretary under three presidents, from 1921 to 1932.  He was the original supply-sider, pushing tax cuts under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.  He argued that the high tax rates left over from World War I were depressing economic activity; that lower rates would turn the economy around; that high-income earners would end up paying more and that low-income earners would be removed from the tax roles entirely.

His program was a fantastic success.  The top rate was cut to 25% from 77%.  The rich did indeed pay more, while low- and middle-income earners saw their tax bills shrink to nothing or next to nothing.  The economy boomed.  The U.S. outstripped more heavily taxed nations, such as Britain and France.  Mellon also pushed painstakingly for the creation of an international monetary system to replace the one shattered by World War I.  The big challenge was huge Allied war debts to the U.S. and onerous German reparations.  Mellon negotiated the easiest terms that were politically possible so that trade and economies could revive.

We sometimes forget just how dynamic the 1920s were in America.  The automobile became a commonplace item for working Americans; labor-saving devices, such as the washing machine, grew ever more common as well; movies and radio provided mass entertainment as never before (an experimental television broadcast was carried out in 1927); and stock ownership widened to include more members of the middle class.

It was a time of great innovation and inventiveness, and in a sense Mellon presided over it all by allowing it to happen without intrusive government policies.

 

For the full review, see:

STEVE FORBES.  "BOOKS; The Man Who Made the Twenties Roar."  The Wall Street Journal    (Fri., October 6, 2006):  W4.

 

Reference for the book:

David Cannadine.  MELLON.  Knopf, 2006.  779 pages, $35

 

 MellonBK.jpg  Source of book image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




October 23, 2006

United States Cardiologists Fail to Prescribe Fish Oil, Despite Low Cost, Safety, and Evidence of Efficacy


  Source of graphic:  online verison of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


United States cardiologists are reluctant to prescribe fish oil, wanting more definitive data on efficacy.  But a lack of definitive data on efficacy doesn't stop them from performing costly and risky procedures such as the application of stents.  Possibly relevant:  installing stents is much more lucrative for cardiologists, than prescribing fish oil.  Doctors are not bad people, but like most of us, they respond to financial incentives.


(p. D5) ROME — Every patient in the cardiac care unit at the San Filippo Neri Hospital who survives a heart attack goes home with a prescription for purified fish oil, or omega-3 fatty acids.

“It is clearly recommended in international guidelines,” said Dr. Massimo Santini, the hospital’s chief of cardiology, who added that it would be considered tantamount to malpractice in Italy to omit the drug.

In a large number of studies, prescription fish oil has been shown to improve survival after heart attacks and to reduce fatal heart rhythms.  The American College of Cardiology recently strengthened its position on the medical benefit of fish oil, although some critics say that studies have not defined the magnitude of the effect.

But in the United States, heart attack victims are not generally given omega-3 fatty acids, even as they are routinely offered more expensive and invasive treatments, like pills to lower cholesterol or implantable defibrillators.  Prescription fish oil, sold under the brand name Omacor, is not even approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in heart patients.

“Most cardiologists here are not giving omega-3’s even though the data supports it — there’s a real disconnect,” said Dr. Terry Jacobson, a preventive cardiologist at Emory University in Atlanta.  “They have been very slow to incorporate the therapy.”


For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL  "In Europe It’ s Fish Oil After Heart Attacks, but Not in U.S."  The New York Times  (Tues., October 3, 2006):  D5.





October 2, 2006

Markets, Not Courts, Should Decide Intel Market Share

Intel executives, coming up on a pre-trial conference in a case that could decide their company's fate, should be looking with envy and admiration at Tiger Woods, and wondering how to make their business more like his.

If golf followed the same path as other businesses, Tiger could expect to face a lawsuit contending that his dominance of professional golf is based on unfair competition.  And in fact,  a few years back Sergio Garcia whined that Tiger got better practice times, favorable treatment around the course, more protection against distracting fans -- little things that could, Mr. Garcia intimated, explain Tiger's edge.  Sportswriters responded swiftly, deriding Mr. Garcia for looking to blame others for his being outcompeted.  They understood that sports contests belong on the field, not in the media or the courts.

The same should be true of business.  Market-based economies thrive on competition.  The competitive economy doesn't yield an infinite number of equally successful firms producing indistinguishable products, but lets winners and losers emerge from marketplace competition.  The (inevitably) temporary dominance of one product or one firm spurs others to compete harder.  Today, however, many businesses -- especially American ones -- find it easier to restrain a dominant competitor through the courts than to beat it in the market.

Take the case of Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, the dominant chipmaker for PCs and servers.  AMD for years played the role of Phil Mickelson to Intel Corporation's Tiger Woods -- the talented rival who keeps coming up short in head-to-head competition.  Last year, it decided to model Mr. Garcia rather than Mr. Mickelson, filing an antitrust action against Intel, charging it with a variety of unlawful actions.

. . .

AMD finds fault in Intel's continued market dominance:  Because Intel has had 80% or more of the x86 chip processor market for many years it must be doing something illegal to keep rivals out.  Yet, George Stigler, among others, long ago debunked the significance of market share as a measure of competition.  Duopoly markets, like the market for large commercial aircraft, can be fiercely competitive.  Ask anyone working at Boeing or Airbus.

Moreover, markets can change rapidly, especially high-tech markets, often in ways unanticipated by antitrust suits.  Witness the changes in computing that caused the government's antitrust case against IBM to implode.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

RON CASS.  "RULE OF LAW; Tigers by the Tail."  Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 23, 2006):  A7.

 




August 21, 2006

Big Business Is Often Bashed, But Is Not Always Bad

(p. 4) BUSINESS bashing by politicians in America has a long history, including rhetoric far more inflammatory than the denunciations being directed at Wal-Mart this year by some Democrats, who sometimes sound as if they are running against the company instead of another politician.

. . .

The company may not appreciate the honor, but its place in the political debate reflects its revolutionary effect on the American economy.

Put simply, the big winners as the economy changes have often been scary to many, particularly those with a stake in the old economic order being torn asunder.

“Twice as many Americans shop at Wal-Mart over the course of a year than voted in the last presidential election,” said H. Lee Scott Jr., the company’s chief executive, in a speech to the National Governors Association in February.

Wal-Mart’s success reflects its ability to charge less for a wide range of goods.  That arguably has reduced inflation and made the economy more efficient.  It has introduced innovations in managing inventory and shipping goods.

. . .

But the fact that Wal-Mart has more shoppers than any politician has voters shows that many of those workers — and many people higher on the income scale — find its prices irresistible.  That group no doubt includes some of the company’s critics.

Previous business targets of politicians have similarly been both popular and reviled.  The railroads enabled much of America to prosper, but to many people in the late 19th century they were viewed as villains.

They upset old economic relationships by making it possible to ship goods over much longer distances, thus introducing competition for local businesses and farms.

 

For the full commentary, see:

FLOYD NORRIS.  "THE NATION; Swiping at Industry From Atop the Stump."  The New York Times, Section 4  (Sun., August 20, 2006):  4.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

   Illinois protesters bashing Wal-Mart during the summer of 2006.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




June 21, 2006

Economic Efficiency Arguments Mattered in Clearing Whirlpool to Acquire Maytag

A few weeks ago, the Justice Department cleared Whirlpool's $1.7 billion acquisition of Maytag even though the new entity would have a dominating share of the marketplace, controlling about three-quarters of the market for some home appliances.

The department justified its decision by a combination of evidence and law.  That included confidential commercial information that the department says it cannot make public; a very broad definition of the marketplace to include foreign companies, some of which have yet to make a bigger push in the United States; and an expansive reading of the economic efficiency defense for permitting such deals.

The decision demoralized the career ranks of the antitrust division at the Justice Department, officials there have said.  And it left private antitrust practitioners in Washington wondering whether, in light of the decision and the flurry of corporate dealers, there are could really be any mergers that this administration would challenge.

 

For the full commentary, see:

Stephen Labaton.  "STREET SCENE: LEGAL BEAT; New View of Antitrust Law: See No Evil, Hear No Evil."  The New York Times (Friday, May 5, 2006):   C5.

 




June 12, 2006

Prices Can Be Lower When Few Firms in Industry

TabarrokAlex.jpg   Alex Tabarrok.  Source of image:  http://www.gmu.edu/centers/publicchoice/faculty.html

 

Price gouging can work only if firms have monopoly power -- so if gouging is the explanation for higher premiums, we would expect to see higher premiums in states with less competition. My student, Amanda Agan, and I tested this hypothesis in a study released two days ago by the Manhattan Institute. Contrary to the gouging hypothesis, we found that a 10% increase in industry concentration reduces premiums by $2,200. The result makes sense if we remember that, to increase market share, firms don't raise prices but rather lower them. Wal-Mart has grown into the nation's dominant retailer by lowering prices, not raising them.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ALEX TABARROK. "Rule of Law; Price Gouging Is Bad Medicine." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 20, 2006):  A9.

 




May 9, 2006

Europe's Antitrust Policies Based on "Pathological Revulsion" to Creative Destruction

One of the EU's findings is that Microsoft uses its desktop dominance to capture the market for Web server software, and now the EU further charges Microsoft with failing to honor its ruling.  So Microsoft's takeover of serverware proceeds apace?  Er, Brussels we have a problem.

At last count,  Apache-Linux had 62% of the market, Windows 25%,  with various others capturing smaller slices.  True, Microsoft saw a nearly five-point increase in market share last quarter thanks to GoDaddy.com shifting its 3.5 million hosted sites from Linux to Windows.  Maybe the EU should subpoena GoDaddy on grounds that for Microsoft to compete successfully for a customer is illegal.

The other pillar of Europe's case is Microsoft's alleged ability to foreclose the market to rival media-playing software.  This week, EU lawyers are trying to swat down the inconvenient fact that, since their ruling, Apple's iTunes and Macromedia's Flash Player have carved out big niches for themselves.  The Apple example is worth inspecting up close.  It demonstrates that people don't buy computers to run software, but to consume information and entertainment "content."  Apple gave them the music they wanted, and its software easily found a home on their computers.

Yet the EU simply rejects the example as irrelevant because it doesn't fit its mental category about what constitutes a "media player."  More than stupid -- this suggests a pathological revulsion against the kind of disorder in which an Apple can come along and upend all the procrustean assumptions of the EU's drearily youthful staff of economists and lawyers.  We're not kidding when we say there's a connection between the Microsoft case and the European 20-somethings who riot in the streets because they'd rather have no job than take a job from which they might fail and be fired.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.  "BUSINESS WORLD; The Land (and Antitrust Case) That Time Forgot."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., April 26, 2006):  A17.




March 27, 2006

The Case Against Privatizing the Post Office

 

The free market can be defended with a variety of plausible philosophical arguments. But most people care more about what "works" than what is "right." So in the constant struggle between free markets and the government, it may be useful to maintain the government's monopoly in delivering first class mail. That way when someone suggests a new intervention by the government, the free marketer can refute them with two persuasive words: "post office."

 

When it comes to first-class mail, the U.S. still does things the old-fashioned way, with one Postal Service. Not so in places like New Zealand and Sweden, which have opened their mail systems to private companies. The latest is Britain, where the Royal Mail lost its 350-year monopoly on delivery. At least 14 companies are now competing to sort and transport mail. British regulators believe competition will be good for the mail system. Japan is soon to follow. With the recent rise in U.S. stamp prices, expect more calls for privatization here too.

 

Source:

Lyric Wallwork Winik. "Intelligence Report; Is the Mailman Endangered?" Parade (Sun., March 19, 2006): 25.

 




September 5, 2005

Software Industry Exemplifies Creative Destruction

(p. 4)  In our view, Microsoft's dominant share in operating systems evolved legitimately from a free-market competitive process. The PC software industry was legally open and contained many talented players (Sun, Netscape, Novell, Oracle, Apple, IBM), some larger than Microsoft, some smaller. The market process in this industry has always been characterized by intense innovation, rapid growth, sharply falling prices, and bitter rivalry (and occasional cooperation) between rivals. The industry exemplifies Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter's vision of competition as a process of creative destruction. Microsoft achieved its market position by aggressively innovating and promoting an open, standardized operating system platform . . . 

 

Source: 

Armentano, Dominick T. Antitrust: The Case for Repeal. 2nd ed: Mises, 1999.

 




September 1, 2005

The Impossible Dream?

In Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich's amusing allegory about life in Washington, Reich laments that the Democratic Party -- and in particular the labor constituents in the party -- did not support his vision of education and training as a means of enabling the labor force to adapt to and flourish in a time of rapid economic change and dislocation. Instead, they constituted what Reich called the "Save the Jobs Party," which wanted to preserve the industry, the companies and the jobs that exist today.

I think there is a similar phenomenon in antitrust. Antitrust is about process, and a particularly arduous one at that. We are proud that antitrust "protects competition, not competitors". We say that the market has winners and losers and that that is good.

Unfortunately, process is less attractive, in the concrete world in which real disputes arise and real grievances are formed, than is a comforting end-state. And political actors, I fear, are generally more zealous in guarding the latter than in seeking the former.

So, I can imagine constituents and lobbyists and public interest groups demanding the intervention of antitrust authorities to prevent the BA/NYNEX merger, to open up Korea for more car exports, or to restrict the imports of Japanese television sets into the United States. And I can imagine constituents urging that competition authorities in the EC should leave the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger alone or that the antitrust agencies here should stop meddling with hospital mergers in Michigan. But it's hard to imagine tens of thousands of people gathered on the Mall, carrying placards with pictures of Joseph Schumpeter, and demanding that the government give them more "creative destruction."

 

Source:

A. DOUGLAS MELAMED. "International Antitrust in an Age of International Deregulation." Address Before George Mason Law Review Symposium: Antitrust in the Global Economy, Washington, D.C., October 10, 1997.

(Note: At the time, Melamed was Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice. Bold emphasis was added by Diamond.)

 




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