Chillin'Competition

Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

The Friday Slot (2) – Bill Kovacic

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For this second edition of the Friday Slot, Bill Kovacic (George Washington University, former FTC Commissioner and Chairman)  has  kindly accepted to answer to our questions. I suppose Bill needs no further introduction to most of our readers. Yet, for those of you who have never seen Bill “live”, I have to say he belongs to the top five speakers on the antitrust conference circuit. A biography is attached at the end of this post. Thanks again to him for taking the time to answer our questions (with, as you will see, a great sense of humour and humility).

Question 1: “Oscar” of the best antitrust law book?  And of the best non-antitrust law book?

Here are two books which, owing to their age, may not be well known to new generations of competition economists and lawyers.  For the best antitrust law book, read Ellis Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly (Princeton University Press 1966).  Hawley provides essential background on the US antitrust system, and his discussion of antitrust in the 1930s has powerful relevance today.  For the best non-antitrust law book, read Marver Bernstein, Regulating Business by Independent Commission (Princeton University Press 1955).  Bernstein studies US experience with regulatory commissions, but his assessment has universal application.  Most honorable mention for category two: Richard Harris & Sidney Milkis, The Politics of Regulatory Change – A Tale of Two Agencies (Oxford University Press, 2d Edition, 1996).  Every newly appointed competition agency leader should read this book before the job begins.

Question 2: “Oscar” of the best case-law development in the past 5 years? “Oscar” of the worst case-law development?

My nominees for best and worst are FTC cases I worked on.  The envelope with my answers can be opened five years hence.

Question 3: Let’s do it like economists => assume that you could change 3 rules, principles, judgments, institutions in the current US antitrust system. What would you do?

Three institutional changes to the US system:

First, reform the criteria that academics, government officials, journalists, and practitioners frequently use to grade competition agencies.  Abandon performance measures that equate activity (cases filed, fines imposed, days in prison) with accomplishment.  Define agency effectiveness by the economic outcomes achieved by litigation and non-litigation policy tools.  When a competition agency official says “We’ve been very busy!,” respond “Have you been very effective?”

Second, bolster efforts by competition agencies and external researchers to measure the economic effects of antitrust policy.   Evaluating outcomes is a difficult, necessary task.   Distrust assertions that competition law is valuable economic policy, but there is no way to tell if it works.

Third, increase policy integration between the two federal antitrust agencies and among the federal authorities and the states.  Create a US equivalent of the European Competition Network.   Greater policy coherence at home is ever more important to influence norms abroad.

Question 4: Average working time/week?

To calculate such averages might reveal a faulty sense of proportion.  To answer indirectly, it is striking to see how much work you can do on overnight airplane flights – like adding a third shift.

Question 5: Why do you work in antitrust law? How did you first get into it?

I was hooked by the antitrust course I took in my first year of law school.  This was a natural home for someone keen on economics, history, and political science.  I received generous guidance from two faculty members, Harlan Blake and Harvey Goldschmid.  Blake arranged for me to spend a year as a research assistant for the US Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, chaired by Philip Hart.  Among other assignments, I worked on the measure adopted in 1976 as the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act.  This experience confirmed my interest in the field.

Question 6: Most interesting, intense or funny moment of your career?

Most Interesting: Working on a project with Andy Gavil in the mid-1990s on the development of Egypt’s competition law.  Touring the pyramids for a day at Giza with Andy and I deciding, in the shadow of the Sphinx, that it was time to write a new antitrust casebook.

Most intense:  Participating, as FTC General Counsel, in the litigation and legislative contests that led to the successful implementation of the FTC’s Do-Not-Call rule in 2003.

Most amusing:  In the early 1990s, I worked on a project to prepare Mongolia’s first competition law.  I gave a talk on merger policy in Ulanbator and said the US merger guidelines created a safe harbor for certain transactions.  My translator tugged my arm and cautioned that, because Mongolia was landlocked, the safe harbor metaphor had no meaning.  She paused and said many Mongolians earn their living by herding animals.  We would call these safety zones “peaceful pastures.”  I learned a lot that day about law reform, technical assistance, and national context.

Question 7: Your role model (if any) in the antitrust community? And outside of it?

Role models in the antitrust community:  Tim Muris, Jack Kirkwood, Ernie Gellhorn, and Philip Hart.

Role models outside the antitrust community: Charles McC. Mathias, Glenn Monroe, Dennis Smallwood, and Roszel Thomsen.

Question 8: What do you like the least about your job?

Grading examinations and marking papers.

Question 9: What do you like the most about your job?

Seeing hope for the future in the person of bright, enthusiastic, hardworking students.

Question 10: What you like the most about economics in antitrust law?

The power of basic principles to analyze legal rules and explain commerce.

Question 11: What you like the least about economics in antitrust law?

Modern quantitative techniques make many judges feel that economics is inaccessible.

Question 12: What career/personal achievement are you most proud of?

Helping good students achieve the fullest expression of their abilities.

Question 13: A piece of “counterfactual” analysis: what would you do if you weren’t in your current position?

The road not taken is writing for a living.  During undergraduate studies, I was a stringer for the New York Times.  My counterfactual life would be to try to write about business and management (aspiring to be Lucy Kellaway or Michael Lewis), sports (aspiring to be Roger Angell, Thomas Boswell, or John Feinstein), history for a wide audience (aspiring to be Eric Goldman, Max Hastings, John Keegan, Laura Hillenbrand, or David McCullough), or nonfiction of general interest (John McPhee).

Question 14: Besides being a “competition geek” (sorry for this one, but we all are), what are your hobbies?

Aviation, history, literature, ships, sports, and travel.

Question 15: Favorite movies?

To narrow a broad file, here are five with a connection to Washington, D.C. and its policy making process: In the Loop (2009), Thank You for Smoking (2006), Being There (1979), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951: the original).

Question 16: Favorite music style in general?

Just about anything written by Gershwin or Porter; sung by Astrud, Billie, Ella, Frank, Louis, and Nat; or presented more recently by Diana Krall.

Question 17: Your favorite motto?

From Earl Weaver, who managed the Baltimore Orioles baseball team from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.”

Question 18: Websites that you visit the most (besides Chillin’Competition)?

Antitrust & Competition Policy Blog, Department of Justice Antitrust Division, Federal Trade Commission, Truth on the Market.

Question 19: A piece of advice for junior competition professionals?

From Ernie Gellhorn: Treat every day as an opportunity to do something special – to write a great paper, to give a great talk, to learn something new, to help a colleague.  Try each day to paint a masterpiece.  Because you don’t know how many days you have.

For Bill’s biography, see link here.

Written by Nicolas Petit

16 December 2011 at 9:37 pm

Posted in The Friday Slot

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