The Biden administration’s antitrust policy depends too much on the dubious belief that industrial concentration leads to higher prices.
Some ideas that animate government regulators achieve what seems like universal belief purely due to the volume of repetition. For example, many proponents of antitrust regulation believe increased concentration will increase consumer prices, even though evidence does not solidly back this up.
The theory behind why concentration in a market would lead to increased prices is so ubiquitous most people could probably recite some version of it by memory. It goes something like this: A firm without enough competitors can more or less raise prices at will; with few alternatives, consumers just have to accept the price gouging and pay up.
That claim, espoused by regulators and policy makers, can often be found alongside a similar claim about profit. The White House went so far as to say, “In an economy without adequate competition, prices and corporate profits rise, while workers’ wages decrease.” That tired old song has also been sung by The New York Times and the Economic Policy Institute. Most recently, this claim has led many to insist that the primary driver of the inflation we have been suffering is corporate profits, or “greedflation.”
Former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and others have so much faith in the “greedflation” explanation that they insist the recent inflation is caused by increased concentration over the last few decades. Underlying the claim about concentration and prices is a claim about concentration and profits, which is the cost consumers pay minus the cost of production to industry. According to greedflation logic, corporate profits indicate that concentration is leading to higher consumer prices.
The problem for proponents of this theory is that studies on corporate profits and concentration are often flawed, or sometimes even find an inverse relationship to their “concentration=inflation” narrative. Out of the studies that find relationships between markups (which are essentially another way of measuring profits) and concentration, the methodology is often flawed, focusing too much on assumptions about market structure.
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Isaac Schick is with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on X @ConsumerPal.