Thursday, April 20, 2017

More Doctrinal and Partisan Economic Analysis at the FCC

            According to FCC Chairman Amit Pai and the partially dissenting judge in a key case, the FCC desperately needs more economists and their work product. See; and  If only these disciplined and intellectually honest non-lawyers were on the case, the FCC would better serve the public interest. See, e.g., Gerald R. Faulhaber, Hal J. Singer and Augustus H. Urschel, The Curious Absence of Economic Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission: An Agency in Search of a Mission, 11 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION, 1214–1233 (2017); available at:

            I don’t buy it one bit.

            The FCC has far more lawyers than economists, because much of the agency’s job requires statutory interpretation and implementation.  The Commission has an established body of case precedent from which it has a legal obligation to consult and apply absent changed circumstances, particularly in the frequent adjudications it performs.  Of course economists should participate in the FCC’s policy making process to assess whether and how circumstances have changed.  Additionally, laws occasionally do specifically require the FCC to conduct economic analysis such as assessing whether a market operates with “sufficient competition.”

            D.C. Circuit Court Judge Williams endorsed a statement attributed to former Chief Economist Professor Tim Brennan criticizing the FCC for ignoring economic analysis.  See Williams Partial Dissent at 41, citing

            Professor Brennan is no shrinking violet who somehow found himself ignored, if not shunned at the FCC.  What is sought by Chairman Pai, Judge Williams, incumbents and the legions of sponsored economists already participating in FCC proceedings is something quite different from legitimacy and a seat at the table.  They want doctrinal superiority.

            Doctrinal superiority means that the FCC should unconditionally accept the work product of specific economists and their particular views. Chairman Pai does not appear to want more robust and open economic analysis.  He appears to want a specific strain of economic doctrine to apply.  Unsurprisingly that doctrine supports a deregulary wish list of incumbent ventures so they can accrue more market power, profits and insulation from competition. 

            Chair Pai does not appear to embrace peer reviewed, disciplined economic analysis unfettered by specific, desired outcomes.  Instead, he seems to welcome economics that create unimpeachable rules that he endorses.  Lawyers surely can interpret law and parse its meaning, but economists do not even have to start with an underlying predicate. They can make it up as they go along.

            Free of having to start from case precedent and specific statutes, economists can state unequivocally that mergers and acquisitions “promote competition.”  Other Big Truths from sponsored telecommunications economists include the conclusion that:

●          markets only need 3 competitors to operate efficiently;
●          deregulation should start if a market might become competitive in the future;
●          vertical integration always helps a venture achieve scale and efficiency; and
●          incumbent common carriers should receive the same or greater compensation for having to                 lease capacity to a competitor than what would accrue if the carrier provided service to an end             user.

            Most economists I know have solutions to all of society’s ills.  Many have great confidence bordering on smugness, no doubt enhanced by their command of complex math.  Most have a particular agenda that colors their research converting it into advocacy that would not pass must with peer review.  The allure of easy and lucrative financial sponsorship from stakeholders converts most economic analysis submitted to the FCC into predictable, biased, partisan and doctrinal work product.  The FCC already receives tons of this kind of material in the proceedings for which it solicits public comments.

            I have little confidence that having more unsponsored, but likely partisan and doctrinal economists at the FCC will miraculously enhance the work product of the Commission.

            I’ll conclude with a lame joke about an economist who suddenly finds herself in a pit.  How does she get out of this dilemma?  She assumes a ladder.