In 2012, when economist Thomas Philippon was looking into some data, something odd caught his attention.
His homeland, France, was undergoing another revolution, although a much different one: a revolution in the country’s telecommunication market. A new mobile operator, Free, had entered the market and disrupted it almost overnight. The new operator slashed prices, offering plans that hadn’t been seen before in France.
France’s three legacy mobile operators were forced to react and drop their own prices. It didn’t help. In only three months, Free’s market share reached 4 percent. At the end of the following year, its market share tripled. Today, Free controls 15 to 16 percent of the market, making it France’s third largest mobile operator. (If you add the six virtual operators to the mix — meaning companies who lease broadband space — you’ll get a total of 10 different mobile operators in a country with a population one-fifth the size of the United States.)
“Digging deeper into that crystallized everything for me,” says Philippon. “It was an oligopoly based on three legacy carriers that lobbied very hard to prevent anybody from getting a fourth (mobile) license. For 10 years they were successful. But then, in 2011, the regulator changed and gave a license [to] Free. It wasn’t a technological change or a change in consumers’ taste. It was purely a regulatory decision.”
For French consumers, this one decision changed everything. Instead of paying $55 for a 1-gigabyte plan, the new prices for much better plans cost half that. And prices continued to drop. Today, a Free 60-gigabyte plan costs only $12.
But Philippon wasn’t just interested in what the new competition in the French telecom industry said about French markets. Having lived in the United States since 1999, he compared the French telecom revolution to the American market. The numbers blew his mind. While in France the number of mobile operators was rising, in the US the number was getting smaller (and that number might even decline further, if the planned Sprint-T-Mobile merger goes through).
The result was a huge price gap between the two countries.
“France went from being much more expensive to much cheaper in two years,” he says. “The change in price was drastic — a relative price move of 50 percent. In such a big market with gigantic firms, that’s a big change. And it was not driven by technology, it was driven by pro-competition regulation.” He immediately adds, just to emphasize the irony: “It happened in France of all places, a country that historically had a political system that made sure there wasn’t too much competition. This is not the place where we expected this kind of outcome.”
The opposite was very surprising too: The level of competition in the United States, the role model of free-market democracy, was declining.
Philippon, an acclaimed professor of finance at the New York University Stern School of Business, kept pulling that thread. He gathered an overwhelming amount of data on various markets, took a few steps back to look at the big picture, and then identified a pattern. The result is “The Great Reversal,” his recent book, in which he explores and explains when, why, and how, as his subtitle puts it, “America Gave Up on Free Markets.”
The telecom story is just one of many examples Philippon provides throughout the book of non-competitive US markets, in which most or all of the power is concentrated in the hands of a few big companies. It’s a situation that makes it almost impossible for new competitors to enter and lower prices for consumers. The airline market is another example, as is the pharmaceutical industry, the banking system, and the big tech companies such as Google and Facebook, who have no real competition in the markets they operate in.
The book’s main argument has a refreshing mix of both right- and left-leaning economic thinking. It goes like this: During the last 20 years, while the European Union has become much more competitive, the United States has become a paradise for monopolies and oligopolies — with a few players holding most of the market share. As US companies grew bigger, they became politically powerful. They then used their influence over politicians and regulators, and their vast resources, to skew regulation in their favor.
The fight over net neutrality, to name one example, demonstrates it well.
“Guess who lobbied for that? It’s a simple guess — the people who benefited from it, the ISP’s [internet service providers]. And they are already charging outrageous prices, twice as high [as] any other developed country,” Philippon says.
This growing concentration of power in the hands of a few has affected everything and everyone. It has inflated prices because consumers have fewer options. Wages are stagnant because less competition means firms don’t have to fight over workers. Financial investment in new machinery and technology has plummeted because when companies have fewer competitors they lose the incentive to invest and improve. It has driven CEO compensation up, and workers’ compensation down. It has caused a spike in inequality, which in turn has ignited social unrest.
If all of this is too much to wrap your head around, Philippon puts a price tag on it: $5,000 per year. That’s the price the median American household pays every year for the lost competition. That’s the cost of the United States becoming a Monopoly Land.
How did this happen? According to Philippon, it’s a story with two threads. The European side of this story happened almost by mistake. The American side, on the contrary, was no coincidence.
When the European Union was formed in the early 1990s, there was a lot of suspicion between the member states, namely France and Germany. (Two World Wars tend to have that effect.) This mistrust birthed pan-European regulators who enjoyed an unprecedented amount of freedom, more powerful than any of the member countries’ governments.
“We did that mostly because we didn't really trust each other very much,” he says. Now, 20 years later, “it turns out that this system we created is just a lot more resilient towards lobbying and bad influences than we thought.”
At the same time in the United States, the exact opposite was happening. Adopting a free-market approach, regulators and legislators chose not to intervene. They didn’t block mergers and acquisitions, and let big companies get bigger.
This created a positive feedback loop: As companies grew stronger, the regulators got weaker, and more dependent on the companies they are supposed to regulate. Tens of millions of dollars were channeled into lobbying. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave corporate money even more political influence.
At some point, big companies started using regulation itself to prevent new competitors from entering the market.
The result wasn’t free markets, but “the opposite — market capture,” says Philippon, referring to a situation in which the regulator is so weak it depends completely on the companies it regulates to design regulation.
Philippon is not the only one who’s making these claims. A group of economists from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business holds a similar view. They are called Neo-Brandeisian, after the late Justice Louis Brandeis, who, a century ago, fought to broaden antitrust laws. They believe the big tech companies, for example, managed to rig the system, and fly under current antitrust regulation. They think it is time to break them apart.
But not everyone agrees with Philippon’s narrative or his conclusions. Economists like Edward Conard, author of “The Upside of Inequality,” thinks Philippon’s claim that big companies are evidence of less competition is upside down. According to his criticism, it’s exactly the opposite: These companies became big and powerful because they innovate and give a lot of value to consumers. He also argues that the conclusion that Europe is more competitive and innovative than the United States is preposterous, given that the biggest tech companies are American, not European.
Philippon addresses this counterclaim in his book. The United States is one giant market of English speakers. Theoretically, if you have a good idea for a new product and you can finance it, you have more than 300 million potential users on day one. In the EU, on the other hand, there are 28 countries, with residents who speak 24 different languages. It's not as simple.
Philippon, who by the age of 40 was named one of the top 25 promising economists by the International Monetary Fund, also differentiates himself from the Chicago school of thought in one important way: He’s not dogmatic, he’s pragmatic. Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, he suggests a more nuanced approach. This is exactly what makes his case both unique and somewhat tricky to grasp. His approach is neither right nor left.
“The idea that free markets and government intervention are opposites, that’s bogus. So half of me agrees with the Chicago School and half disagrees,” he says.
“But if you think that you can get to a free market without any scrutiny by the government, that’s crazy. That’s simply untrue empirically. We need to make entry easier to increase competition, that’s the objective,” he says. “And the way to do so sometimes means more government intervention.”
OK, but how do you do that? According to Philippon, each case is different.
“In some cases it will be by more intervention. Like maybe force Facebook to break from WhatsApp. And sometimes it will be by less intervention. Kill a bunch of regulations and requirements for small companies,” he says.
The first idea, at least, has caught a lot of public attention during the last year, and has been a talking point of the presidential campaigns of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recorded saying that if Warren wins, it will “suck for us.” Warren’s plan for the big tech companies, for example, includes “reversing mergers,” which means uncoupling WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook. Her plan would also forbid Amazon being both a marketplace and a vendor at the same time.
But can any of these interventions actually happen? And if so, what would they mean for American consumers? Those are more complicated questions.
If big tech companies were broken up, Philippon estimates that the average American consumer won’t be affected financially.
“Since people don’t pay these companies directly, it won’t change the bottom line for the middle class, it won’t have a big impact on people’s disposable income,” he says.
What would have a tremendous impact on Americans’ lives and income is to keep on going beyond the big tech companies. “We should go after the big ticket items — telecom, transport, energy, and healthcare. That’s where you want action, but there is much less bipartisan support for that,” he says.
Something similar to the French telecom revolution is still far from happening in the United States, but the fact that the 2020 campaign is already pushing competition-promoting ideas back into the public discourse is a reason for cautious optimism, according to Philippon. Nevertheless, he warns, we should not let this mild optimism mislead us.
“Free markets are like a public good: It is in nobody’s interest to protect them. Consumers are too dispersed and businesses love monopolies,” he says. “So to take free markets for granted, that’s just stupid.”
Shaul Amsterdamski is senior economics editor for Kan, Israel’s public broadcasting corporation.