Brian Deese Remarks on President Biden’s Competition Agenda
REMARKS AS PREPARED
Thank you, Vivian. I’m grateful to you, Cecilia, and everyone at the Aspen Institute for spotlighting President Biden’s competition agenda. It’s great to be here.
A little over a year ago, President Biden issued a landmark Executive Order on Competition. That day, he articulated both the opportunity and the challenge. “The heart of American capitalism,” the President explained, “is a simple idea: open and fair competition.” But he also warned that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation.”
This isn’t the first time an American President has trained his focus on competition. Theodore Roosevelt confronted an economy with industry after industry dominated by trusts. Franklin Roosevelt faced a highly cartelized economy struggling to recover from the Great Depression.
Both Roosevelts transformed antitrust enforcement in their time and set precedents for rising to this challenge on behalf of the American people. And both Roosevelts understood something important: antitrust policy doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it is interwoven with the fabric of the economy.
Consider one example. Teddy Roosevelt is of course remembered for “trust-busting”—in particular against railroads, meatpackers, and Standard Oil in the courts. But his insight was broader: not only was it necessary to vigorously enforce antitrust laws, but it was also critical to reshape the regulatory framework—to work with Congress and to create rules of the road (or rules of the rail) that kept these early common carriers from using their market position to privilege incumbents and discriminate against new entrants.
That basic insight—using tools from across the government to implement structural changes to enhance competition—is more relevant than ever today. We face an economy today with challenges impossible for the Roosevelts to imagine. But there are familiar echoes.
For President Biden, a strong competition policy is an indispensable part of an economic strategy for the twenty-first century. He believes driving structural changes that promote competition across the economy holds the prospect of generating more innovation, productivity, and opportunity in America, while lowering prices for consumers and raising wages for workers.
For decades, the competitive attributes of our economy have been atrophying. Most industries have become less competitive. Both consumers and workers have been left with fewer options.
Reversing these trends is a significant task. It amounts to turning around the proverbial aircraft carrier. But now, one year in, we can begin to see the ship turning in the right direction. We’ve already delivered on many key promises, with more announcements coming soon. And under the direction of the President’s executive order—and through our White House Competition Council—we are changing how the government approaches competition policy, and indeed economic policy. If done right, these changes will pay dividends for years to come as we continue the hard work of shifting course.
Today, I’d like to address the competition challenges we face, the progress we’ve made during the last year, and the work that lies ahead.
- Today’s Competition Challenges
Let’s talk, first, about the competition challenges we’re confronting.
A growing body of academic research has demonstrated our economy is suffering from a loss of competition and rising corporate concentration. Six years ago, my colleagues at the Council of Economic Advisers sounded the alarm around what they described as “increasing industry concentration, increasing rents accruing to a few firms, and lower levels of firm entry and labor market mobility.”
Those concerns emanated from stark realities: Over the prior decades, concentration had increased in more than three-quarters of U.S. industries, while both investment and labor’s share of the economy decreased. This occurred during a period of both low productivity growth and rising inequality.
The core problem involves what economists call excessive market power. Careful work by leading thinkers—including Jonathan Baker, Fiona Scott Morton and Nancy Rose—has documented the rise of market power. A striking conclusion comes from a landmark study by John Kwoka, which surveyed the impact of nearly four dozen major mergers. More than 80 percent of those mergers led to price increases. The average price increase was around 10 percent—and even more dramatic in some industries, like hospital care and airline tickets.
These studies have upended the long-held assumption in some academic quarters that mergers generally—or indeed inherently—increase efficiency and lower prices. The best research does not support that assumption, and that must inform our approach.
Recent research has also helped underscore how lack of competition can hurt workers—something that’s particularly important to President Biden. Because of work by economists like José Azar, Ioana Marinescu, Marshall Steinbaum, and Eric Posner, we can now see more clearly how fewer employers competing over the same talent pool reduces employees’ bargaining power. A recent Treasury Department report found that a lack of labor-market competition decreases wages by roughly 20 percent, as compared to a fully competitive market. This is one way that lack of competition has aggravated our inequality problems.
In addition, lack of competition can dampen innovation. The empirical research favors a competition policy that encourages rival companies to reduce costs, strengthen quality, and develop new products, while retaining rewards for innovation. No pressure, no diamonds.
In short, our competition challenges ripple across our economy, harming workers, consumers, small businesses, our economic growth and competitiveness. One study by Thomas Philippon aggregated the harms from higher prices and lower wages and found that lack of competition could be costing the median American household some $5,000 every year.
- President Biden’s Competition Executive Order
It was against this backdrop that President Biden issued his executive order last July.
This historic order has galvanized a government-wide effort to promote competition across our economy. At its core, it did three things:
First, it directed 72 specific actions by more than a dozen agencies to take on concrete competition problems—from non-compete agreements to unjustifiable occupational licensing requirements, to prescription drugs and Internet bills, to airline tickets and device repairs, to personal banking and meat-processing. Our agencies worked hard to deliver over the last year. Here are just a few examples of what’s changing as a result:
- The FDA is changing its regulations so that hearing aids for mild-to-moderate hearing loss can be sold over-the-counter. Roughly 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. We expect this to be a gamechanger—spurring innovation and reducing hearing-aid prices.
- The Agriculture Department is issuing a suite of new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act, including finally changing the unfair contracting system for poultry farmers.
- Just last week, the Patent and Trademark Office and FDA announced plans to scrutinize drug patents that are driving up prices.
These efforts aren’t just about opening up markets to promote competition. They’re about looking inward, too—because government regulations can themselves get in the way of innovation and entry. Indeed, sometimes powerful incumbents have enlisted government to entrench themselves—so we’re working to lift regulatory barriers to encourage challengers to enter markets and compete.
We’re proud that the vast majority of the actions we’re taking have attracted bipartisan support. They’re also spurring the private sector and state legislatures to act. After President Biden’s executive order endorsed a “right to repair,” Apple and Microsoft announced they’d allow people to fix their own devices, and New York just passed the nation’s first “Fair Repair Law.”
Second, the order called on the traditional antitrust agencies—the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission—to fully and vigorously enforce our antitrust laws. The President nominated Jonathan Kanter to head DOJ’s Antitrust Division and Lina Khan lead the FTC. Both received broad bipartisan support in the Senate and are now ably leading these efforts.
Their work requires developing sensible frameworks and pursuing cases zealously in a challenging legal environment. It requires thinking forward to new industries and new technologies—including the challenges posed by the rise of the dominant Internet platforms.
And it requires resources to rebuild capability. During just the last decade, our economic output increased by nearly half, and the annual number of completed mergers and acquisitions doubled. Yet total appropriations for DOJ’s Antitrust Division and the FTC have been essentially flat—and decreased in real terms. Keep in mind, these agencies’ core missions involve bringing complex cases against some of the best-resourced companies in the world.
Even under these constraints, our antitrust enforcement agencies have achieved important but underreported legal victories over the past year. The FTC, for example, worked with the Pentagon to challenge a vertical merger and keep the largest defense contractor from acquiring a major missile-component producer—likely saving taxpayers billions. And DOJ blocked a $30 billion merger between two of the world’s largest insurance brokers that would have raised prices.
It’s unacceptable for these agencies’ resources to lag so far behind the growth of the economy they’re charged with protecting. That’s why President Biden’s Budget calls for boosting funding for both agencies, and that’s why we’ve supported passing the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act. Congress should act swiftly to deliver these enhanced resources.
Finally, the executive order prioritized structural change in our competition policy by establishing the White House Competition Council. The Council, which I chair, currently includes 17 federal agencies, and their leaders meet with the President twice a year. This body institutionalizes competition policy as part of our overall economic policy.
This structural element of establishing a Competition Council may sound at first like government arcana—but in fact it’s profoundly important to turning this aircraft carrier around. Because what we need, at core, is capacity, creativity, and coordination across the federal government. And I want to take a moment to thank every cabinet secretary and leader of the 17 Council members for their leadership over the course of the last year.
This structure marks a fundamental innovation by President Biden—something that’s never been done before in history: Agencies are now working together to leverage all legally available tools to promote competition. That means not only more coordination and collaboration, but also a newfound ability to survey the entire economic landscape and assess how competition policy intersects with other areas, like trade policy and supply chains.
One year in, the Competition Council has spurred collaboration and cross-pollination between agencies. To take just one example, the Justice and Agriculture Departments together launched FarmerFairness.gov, a one-stop shop for reporting suspected legal violations in agriculture. Make no mistake, that’s not just another website—it reflects an innovative approach to enforcement, where these two departments now review every complaint together to assess how to best deploy both sets of legal authorities.
The Competition Council has also successfully set priorities in critical areas that are particularly important to our economy, like ocean shipping. Competition and performance issues in ocean shipping have spillover effects across the economy, because many businesses rely on it to transport their goods.
The ocean-freight system is dominated by three global alliances. The impact has been stark: during the pandemic, the price of shipping a container rose more than 10-fold. We’re proud that Congress answered President Biden’s call to crack down on these price hikes and unfair practices by passing the bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act—the most significant reform of ocean shipping rules in decades.
We’re putting forward an array of other priorities, too—from opening up labor markets to fighting misleading pricing. Another key area is promoting competition in the tech sector, to give small businesses and startups a better chance to compete on a level playing field. That’s why I want to reinforce our Administration’s call for Congress to pass bipartisan tech antitrust legislation.
Finally, the Competition Council is helping embed competition thinking into agencies’ operations. Our agencies are going beyond the executive order’s immediate directives to new frontiers. The Transportation Department just issued rules to make our new, federally funded electric-vehicle charging network open and interoperable. That wasn’t specified in the executive order, but thanks to the Competition Council’s work, we recognized the risks and potential and took action.
- Reinforcing the Case for Competition
Across each of these areas—concrete agency actions; reinvigoration of antitrust enforcement; and structural change in our approach to competition policy—we’ve made great progress.
But before we look forward, I want to pause to clarify some things we haven’t been doing.
First, we have not, and will not, adopt a blanket policy that “big is bad,” or that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to antitrust and competition policy. Not in E.O. 14036, and not in any of our work. We do take the view that market structure matters, and that we need be concerned about highly concentrated markets—particularly in an environment where our antitrust agencies have been under-resourced for so long. But that’s different from fighting bigness for bigness’s sake.
And second, we don’t see competition as the singular cure for inflation, nor do we see it as the driving cause of the global inflation we are dealing with today. At the same time, it is easier for firms to maintain higher prices in a market with just a few rivals. That’s why promoting competition is one tool—not the only one, but one tool—that can help lower price pressures in the economy across time.
Looking ahead, the case for bolstering competition is particularly powerful because it supports another important objective: resilience. A market with more competitors is usually better-equipped to handle disruptions and deliver to businesses and consumers what they need.
- After a cyberattack hit the country’s second-largest meat processing company last year, the company had to suspend production at its plants—which process one-quarter of America’s beef and one-fifth of its pork.
- And as we saw with infant formula this year, the closure of a single plant—owned by a company that controls almost half the market—created a national shortage.
This is one more reason sound competition policy belongs at the center of our economic policy. By addressing the underlying structural problem of competition, we make our supply chains more resilient—more capable of dealing with whatever shocks may come.
- Looking Ahead
I’ve talked about what we’ve done in the last year, and why. But there’s much more ahead.
In the coming months, we’ll deliver on more of the executive order’s commitments—everything from new rules to provide airline travelers and broadband customers with upfront information to comparison-shop, to the Treasury Department collaborating with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on fintech.
We’ll also keep pushing to institutionalize competition work across the government. Right now, we’re focused on bringing in the sharpest talent to drive this work. We’ll have more to say soon, but for all the economists, policy experts, and litigators out there—now is the time for you to consider public service. Your country needs you, and it’s an exciting and historic moment. Help us keep turning the ship.
America has boldly recalibrated its competitiveness before—and instituted durable, structural change. Teddy Roosevelt did it. Franklin Roosevelt did it, too. Today, we stand at another inflection point. It’s within our grasp to do it again.
We know that innovation and openness are part of America’s economic DNA. This is a nation that’s led technological revolutions across industries for two centuries, and repeatedly transformed the global economy for the better.
President Biden’s actions to promote competition carry that same spirit. We’re confronting decades of growing market power and corporate concentration. That won’t be reversed overnight. But we’re going to keep working tirelessly to turn this ship around—and set us on a course that better serves America’s economic dynamism.
Thank you—and I look forward to this conversation.
 Remarks by President Biden at Signing of an Executive Order Promoting Competition in the American Economy, White House (July 9, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/09/remarks-by-president-biden-at-signing-of-an-executive-order-promoting-competition-in-the-american-economy.
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 Cf. Sean Ennis, Pedro Gonzaga & Chris Pike, Inequality: A Hidden Cost of Market Power (OECD Working Paper No. DAF/COMP(2015)10, 2017), https://www.oecd.org/daf/competition/Inequality-hidden-cost-market-power-2017.pdf.
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 Exec. Order No. 14,036, 86 Fed. Reg. 36,987 (July 9, 2021), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021
 Id.; see also Fact Sheet: Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, White House (July 9, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/07/09/fact-sheet-executive-order-on-promoting-competition-in-the-american-economy.
 FDA Issues Landmark Proposal To Improve Access to Hearing Aid Technology for Millions of Americans, U.S. Food & Drug Admin. (October 19, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-issues-landmark-proposal-improve-access-hearing-aid-technology-millions-americans.
 One in Five Americans Has Hearing Loss, Johns Hopkins Med. (Nov. 14, 2011), https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/one_in_five_americans_has_hearing_loss.
 Biden-Harris Administration Announces New Actions To Strengthen Food Supply Chains, Level the Playing Field for Growers, and Lower Prices for American Consumers, U.S. Dep’t of Agric. (May 26, 2022), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2022/05/26/biden-harris-administration-announces-new-actions-strengthen-food.
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 Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture Launch Online Tool Allowing Farmers, Ranchers To Report Anticompetitive Practices, U.S. Dep’t of Justice (Feb. 3, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-and-us-department-agriculture-launch-online-tool-allowing-farmers-ranchers.
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 Departments of Justice and Labor Strengthen Partnership To Protect Workers, U.S. Dep’t of Justice (Mar. 10, 2022), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/departments-justice-and-labor-strengthen-partnership-protect-workers.
 E.g., CFPB Moves to Reduce Junk Fees Charged by Debt Collectors, Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau (June 29, 2022), https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-moves-to-reduce-junk-fees-charged-by-debt-collectors; Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees: Department of Transportation, Office of Mgmt. & Budget: Office of Info. & Regulatory Affairs, https://www.reginfo.gov/public/do/eAgendaViewRule
?pubId=202204&RIN=2105-AF10 (last visited July 14, 2022); FCC Acts To Empower Broadband Consumers Through Transparency, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n (Jan. 27, 2022), https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-acts-empower-broadband-consumers-through-transparency-0.
 Biden-Harris Administration Takes Key Step Forward in Building a National Network of User-Friendly, Reliable, and Accessible Electric Vehicle Chargers, U.S. Dep’t of Transp. (June 9, 2022), https://www.transportation.gov
 See U.S. Dep’t of Justice & Fed. Trade Comm’n, Horizontal Merger Guidelines §7.2 (2010), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/atr/legacy/2010/08/19/hmg-2010.pdf;Marc Ivaldi et al., The Economics of Tacit Collusion: Final Report for DG Competition, European Commission (2003), https://ec.europa.eu/competition/mergers/studies_reports/the_economics_of_tacit_collusion_en.pdf.
 See U.S. Dep’t of Agric., USDA Agri-Food Supply Chain Assessment: Program and Policy Options for Strengthening Resilience 12 (2022), https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media
/USDAAgriFoodSupplyChainReport.pdf; see also Jesse Newman & Jacob Bunge, Meat Supplies Tighten as Cyberattack on JBS Snarls Food Chain, Wall St. J. (June 2, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/jbs-meat-plants-face-slow-restart-after-cyberattack-11622633982.
 See, e.g., Julie Creswell & Madeleine Ngo, Baby Formula Shortage Has an Aggravating Factor: Few Producers, N.Y. Times (May 20, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/business/economy/baby-formula-shortage-market.html; Madison Muller & Leah Nylen, How US Baby Formula Monopolies Have Failed Families, Bloomberg (May 20, 2022), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-20/baby-formula-shortage-shows-risk-of-us-industry-concentration.
 See Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees: Department of Transportation, Office of Mgmt. & Budget: Office of Info. & Regulatory Affairs, https://www.reginfo.gov/public/do/eAgendaViewRule?pubId
=202204&RIN=2105-AF10 (last visited July 14, 2022).
 See FCC Acts To Empower Broadband Consumers Through Transparency, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n (Jan. 27, 2022), https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-acts-empower-broadband-consumers-through-transparency-0.
 See Exec. Order No. 14,036, 86 Fed. Reg. 36,987 (July 9, 2021), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021