Two fellows at Yale’s Thurmond Arnold Project, an antitrust research organization at the university, have resigned after it was revealed that a leading antitrust scholar and director of the project has been taking paid advisor roles for Apple and Amazon. Both companies are facing multiple antitrust investigations.
On Monday, The American Prospect explored how Fiona Scott Morton had failed to disclose consulting contracts with Apple and Amazon, which Morton defended by pointing to her criticisms of Facebook and Google. As author David Dayen points out in the piece, all these companies regularly conduct similar antitrust violations: there is little difference between Google prioritizing YouTube over rivals when searching for video and Amazon prioritizing its duplicate products over rival brands when shopping online. Nor is there any real difference between Facebook's strategy of "buying up potential rivals" and Apple "buying a company every two or three weeks on average."
Morton disclosed the contracts just last month, but has been consulting Amazon for several months now and Apple for several years. In a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, which is pegged to Facebook but references both Apple and Amazon, she dismissed calls to break up big tech platforms as "sloganeering” that was ignorant of antitrust law and unlikely to address any of the concerns those critics might have with the tech platforms.
Last week, Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School who researches corruption and antitrust law, said that Morton "cannot continue as the Director without undermining its integrity." On Thursday, Thurman Arnold Project (TAP) fellows and scholars Sanjukta Paul and Stacey Mitchell announced they were resigning from the project. Paul tweeted in her resignation announcement that she'd be focusing on "a current organizational effort among junior academics in the antitrust & antimonopoly space, defined by shared normative & methodological commitments."
Morton declined to comment for this article.
It may surprise some that the TAP, despite being named after one of the country’s boldest antitrust lawyers during the New Deal era, found itself compromised by the influence of the corporations it was formed to research and help regulate. However, it’s just one example in a wider trend of corporations funding the very academic institutions that ostensibly research and criticize them.
The day after Paul and Mitchell’s resignations, the New York Times published an extensive investigation into how Google, Amazon, and Qualcomm funded a George Mason University think tank that “worked closely with tech companies to fend off antitrust criticism,” aggressively courted top competition officials, and trained hundreds of foreign judges and regulators to adhere to a "hands-off approach” when regulating the industry. (George Mason has, for years, allowed donors to influence faculty appointments and turn its economics department into a libertarian safe space)
"People often point to the lobbying, which is certainly problematic. But there's this whole unseen world of soft behind-the-scenes influence that goes on,” Mitchell told Motherboard. “Take Amazon locating its second headquarters and 25,000 employees in Washington D.C. The benefits of all these Amazon employees being neighbors of—or sending their kids to the same school as—the people who staff the government is the sort of access you really can't buy since it comes naturally through those kinds of social networks geographically."
For Mitchell, there are a multitude of reasons why antitrust has become so weak over the past few years but great attention needs to be paid to the fact that "it has gone behind closed doors and become this domain of technocrats, economists, and lawyers.” Mitchell added that, as a result, it’s become “out of reach and out of view of the public. The practice of it, the way that agencies operate, the complex econometric modeling—it didn't use to be this way.”
Now that antitrust oversight is overrun with networks of private interests attempting to influence research and policy proposals, discussions concerning the businesses that essentially run daily life have largely been replaced with debates over whether it increases consumer welfare and how well regulators can anticipate whether a merger, acquisition, monopoly, or other type of anticompetitive behavior might affect consumer prices.
This has allowed anticompetitive behavior to proliferate and escape antitrust scrutiny even when there is evidence that this leads to wage suppression, a decay in working conditions, coercion of suppliers on platforms, and that the supposedly lower prices that justify anticompetitive behavior aren’t guaranteed to materialize.
"This allows corporations that have all the resources in the world to buy all these fancy economists and game the process. At the same time, it disadvantages the public who can't really understand what's going on and feels like they don't have a voice in this and don't understand it,” Mitchell told Motherboard. “All this works to the advantage of private interests. The money, the relationship between the economics, the legal profession, and scholarship is all tangled up in a system that's very undemocratic and has yielded an incredible imbalance of power."