The FTC Is Driving Away Good Economists In Favor Of Political Henchmen

from the let-them-speak dept

Shut up and get in line — that’s the message Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan recently broadcasted to FTC staffers. Within her first month as a new commissioner, Khan ordered a stop to all public speaking for “an all-hands-on-deck moment.” Evidently, she wants the FTC speaking with only one voice — her own. The gag order is going to run out the top economists and harm the FTC’s long-term effectiveness.

Khan rose to academic stardom at a young age as a vocal critic of Big Tech, especially Amazon. In her most famous writing, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, she argued for stronger antitrust enforcement even when companies are lowering prices for consumers. Khan’s preferred antitrust approach would be a complete overhaul of the current antitrust system and would require a lot of work. However, even if one agrees with Khan that antitrust needs to be rewritten and that this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, Khan’s current regime will make that impossible by running out her employees, especially Ph.D. economists.

Imagine yourself as a recent Ph.D. in economics from a hotshot university. You’re 30 years old, and you just spent 6 years in graduate school, earning $20,000. Before that, you may have spent two years as a research assistant to a professor, earning just as little. You’re a top student in your program and have lots of career options in front of you. You could go work at Amazon or Netflix and earn $200,000 a year, base salary. After living on a strict diet of research and Top Ramen in graduate school, that sounds pretty good.

Traditionally, federal agencies, like the FTC, compete for the best economists the same way universities compete. They can’t match the pay of an Amazon, but they can offer economists a valuable perk: the ability to do research and engage with the scientific community as part of the job.

For many economists, who have already demonstrated their passion for research by writing a dissertation and completing a Ph.D., doing research is a huge perk that most private companies don’t offer. The FTC knows this. In their own job postings for PhD economists, the FTC explicitly emphasizes their economists’ ability to do research. To date, that hiring strategy has worked pretty well for them. Many economists at the FTC are top-notch researchers, with thousands of citations, an impressive feat for a full-time researcher at a university. When the FTC hires new PhDs, they are saying “you can work in public service and still be a successful researcher.”

Khan’s recent policies signal the FTC is now less committed to research and independent thinking. Public academic seminars, where economists present their findings to colleagues throughout the profession, are a key part of the research and publication process. If you cut off economists’ ability to present their research and get feedback, you cut off the ability to do research.

The real damage will take some time to show itself. Even if the gag order does not run out the current economists, who may be loyal to the FTC after years, the order will still hurt the agency over time. Any successful agency needs to hire quality employees year in and year out. If this policy persists, the FTC will have trouble down the line hiring and retaining high-quality employees, especially economists.

Khan might not think she needs these economists right now; after all, she has made clear she opposes the economic approach to antitrust. But when the FTC takes companies to court, as we can expect it will do even more often under Khan, it needs expert witnesses to persuasively argue its case. The private companies pay $1,000 per hour for economists at the top of the profession. The FTC must hire top talent too.

If you were against antitrust enforcement and wanted to ruin the FTC from within, Khan’s strategy would be nearly perfect. Step 1: Run out all the competent lawyers and rigorous, scientific economists. Step 2: Bring forth a bunch of cases that are poorly argued and lack an economic defense. Step 3: Lose those cases at the current Supreme Court and set a bunch of precedents against the FTC.

Brian Albrecht is an assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota. He is a Young Voices contributor and writes a weekly economics newsletter (pricetheory.substack.com). Follow him on Twitter: @briancalbrecht.

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Comments on “The FTC Is Driving Away Good Economists In Favor Of Political Henchmen”

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23 Comments
That One Guysays:

So about those non-tech companies...

Hey, great to hear the FTC head is so gung-ho on anti-trust, I look forward to the slew of actions brought against telecom and other companies that aren’t tech related but are equally if not more often engaging in anti-customer actions using their positions and power in the market.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: So about those non-tech companies...

telecom and other companies that aren’t tech related

How do you figure that? The telephone is absolutely technology, and fairly recent technology at that (much newer than the wheel for example). But "telecom" is a broader term that encompasses very recent technologies too, including cellphones, 5G, fiber-optic networks, two-way cable networks, …. It’s hard to say these are not technology or not related to telecoms.

Thadsays:

Khan’s recent policies signal the FTC is now less committed to research and independent thinking. Public academic seminars, where economists present their findings to colleagues throughout the profession, are a key part of the research and publication process. If you cut off economists’ ability to present their research and get feedback, you cut off the ability to do research.

I’m seeing a lot of conjecture and very little to back it up. This feels a lot more like a partisan hit piece than policy criticism.

The real damage will take some time to show itself.

Well isn’t that convenient.

Samuel Abramsays:

Re: Re:

I’m tending to agree with Thad more so than That One Guy here. This article/blogpost seems like a hit piece. Here’s what I mean:

Imagine yourself as a recent Ph.D. in economics from a hotshot university. You’re 30 years old, and you just spent 6 years in graduate school, earning $20,000. Before that, you may have spent two years as a research assistant to a professor, earning just as little. You’re a top student in your program and have lots of career options in front of you. You could go work at Amazon or Netflix and earn $200,000 a year, base salary. After living on a strict diet of research and Top Ramen in graduate school, that sounds pretty good.

Nowhere is it mentioned that University Tuition used to cost a lot less, if anything. Now it’s an investment that many college-age kids are questioning if it’s worth the ultra-steep price. I was lucky to get tuition remission at my alma mater, New York University, but not everybody has lucked out like I have. Far too many people struggle to pay the bills in college when it should be a right and not a privilege.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

Looking at Albrecht’s Twitter page, it says he’s a contributor for Young Voices, which receives money from the last remaining Koch Bro and other conservative groups. Looking at his articles on Substack is like a laundry-list of the same handful of talking points that economists use to defend the current fucked-up status-quo. Albrecht is definitely a corporate mouthpiece.

danderbanditsays:

Is this a hit piece?

Is this a hit piece? I don’t know but it would help to know who Brian Albrecht is. This seems to be his only contribution to TechDirt and I’m to tired right now to do a deeper search. Does he have an ax to grind here or an informed opinion?

It would be helpful if TechDirt included something about who the author is when it isn’t one of the regular staff. I’ve seen it sometimes, I think it should be normal inclusion.

naschsays:

Re: Re: Is this a hit piece?

It would be helpful if TechDirt included something about who the author is when it isn’t one of the regular staff.

There’s this at the bottom:

"Brian Albrecht is an assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota. He is a Young Voices contributor and writes a weekly economics newsletter (pricetheory.substack.com). Follow him on Twitter: @briancalbrecht."

Michaelsays:

Horrible, dishonest take

I’m a dev who works in academia. I can easily double my salary by going to a large tech firm, but I like all the other perks of my job, like 40-hour work weeks, tons of vacation/sick leave, and healthcare for life after 15 years. You know, things that government jobs offer that major tech firms don’t.

I DO publish, but you know what would happen if I (having no tenure) were to publish about how much I disagree with my bosses? I’d be instantly fired. That’s how real life is.

Albrecht is being totally dishonest here. When you work for any company on earth OUTSIDE of academia (has he even done so?), you toe the company line or you get shitcanned. Why the hell would the FTC be any different? Because they hire PhDs? That’s just dumb.

Perhaps this is a politically driven, lame attempt at a hit piece. Or maybe Albrecht is bucking for a well-paid Amazon position. Whatever the case, Techdirt really should be better than this disingenuous, self-serving bullshit.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Horrible, dishonest take

like 40-hour work weeks, tons of vacation/sick leave, and healthcare for life after 15 years. You know, things that government jobs offer that major tech firms don’t.

I’m a programmer who’s never worked a weekend, nor worked much more than 40 hours a week, in private industry. When I’ve been at the office for about 8 hours, I leave, "crunch time" and free pizza be damned. When I was told to work a weekend, I just said no: no excuses, no plans, but I don’t work weekends (and for free?).

you toe the company line or you get shitcanned.

People think that, and perhaps companies wish to encourage that thinking, but I’ve had the opposite experience. Once, I got a promotion a month or two after refusing weekend work. And whenever I announce I’m quitting a job, vice-presidents show up to ask me if there’s anything that will keep me there (by which time it’s too late).

You’re right about having little vacation time, though it hardly matters if you can truly "double" your salary: everywhere I’ve worked has offered unpaid leave, even 6 or 12 months at a time. And they’ve all had short- and long-term disability insurance, and like 10-15 sick days a year?okay for one person, though people with children do come to work sick to save these days for the children (an obvious result of a dumb policy).

With respect to health care, well, it’s just sad that one might be desperate enough to stick around to the 15-year mark, at a job one may no longer like, to obtain it. Most other countries will give you that just for being born?or for immigrating (even as non-citizens), which takes a lot less than 15 years to arrange.

ECAsays:

points finger

I told ya so.

Told my brother long ago, I dont care Who is in office. If they make mistakes I complain about both sides about equal depending on How Much idiocy they have done.

https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2021/07/statement-ftc-chair-lina-khan-antitrust-division-acting-assistant

https://www.npr.org/2021/07/01/1011907383/new-ftc-chair-lina-khan-wants-to-redefine-monopoly-power-for-the-age-of-big-tech
"A federal judge on Monday gave the FTC 30 days to rewrite a blockbuster antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, after ruling that the commission had failed to make its case in its first attempt"

can someone tell her she is to late.. And starting at the TOP of the pyramid, Isnt a good thing.

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