Apple: Price Fixing and Collusion

In this essay I discussed how price fixing and collusion occurs regularly in the ‘free market’. Here is another recent example of what I discussed.

Here are some lowlights from the article in the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. accused Apple Inc. AAPL +0.41%and five of the nation’s largest publishers Wednesday of conspiring to raise e-book prices, in a case that could radically reorder the fast-growing business.

In a civil antitrust lawsuit, the Justice Department alleged that CEOs of the publishing companies met regularly in private dining rooms of upscale Manhattan restaurants to discuss how to respond to steep discounting of their e-books by Inc., AMZN +1.40%a practice they disliked. The executives also called and emailed each other to craft a solution to what one of them called “the wretched $9.99 price point,” the suit said.

The five publishers and Apple hatched an arrangement that lifted the price of many best-selling e-books to $12.99 or $14.99, according to the suit. The publishers then banded together to impose that model on Amazon, the government alleged.

As a result of this alleged conspiracy, we believe that consumers paid millions of dollars more for some of the most popular titles,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Three of the publishers settled with the Justice Department, agreeing to let Amazon and other retailers resume discounting of e-books. Settlement of a separate suit filed by 16 states and U.S. territories could lead to tens of millions of dollars in restitution to consumers who bought e-books at the higher prices.

A group of 16 states, led by Connecticut and Texas, filed their own suit Wednesday against Apple, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. The states said they have reached tentative settlement agreements with HarperCollins and Hachette. Those two publishers have agreed in principle to provide more than $51 million in restitution to e-book buyers, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said.

My working conclusion is that this happens much more often than many folks think that it does. I base this on my own anecdotal experience of decades in business and management and on cases already mentioned in which I cited specific examples. It may sound trite and clique but I know from personal experience that these guys at the top have huge, inflated egos and they do work out these types of situations in their country clubs and on their golf courses. The Justice Department only pursues a small percentage of these types of activities.

As per Jeff’s recent comment, pure capitalism or socialism does not exist. I have pointed this out in this essay. To think of them as polar opposites in practice is a bit naïve in my opinion. We are individuals and collectivities and as such incorporate both of these components in our politics and economics.

I have no problem per se with selfishness or self-interest. If selfishness or self-interest is given carte blanche in economics the rich and powerful will always make sure that they stay that way at the expense of those that are not. If capitalism is the unregulated or nominally regulated practice of selfishness then what is the practical difference between it and oligarchy, dictatorship, fascism (statist), communism or any system that rules from the top by the powerful?

If practical capitalism is to have a form of democracy (as in the ideal of competition) then the best real hope for impartial rules on how the game is played can only be made by government. To the degree that the rules allow the process to be more competitive is the same degree that capitalism approximates its ideal. As Jeff points out, to the degree that corporatism (crony capitalism) determine the rules is, in my opinion, one factor in turning capitalism into simply another name for the powerful consolidating their hold on power. I have also pointed out that this happens with or without government involvement.

The idea that the government is solely or primarily the culprit may have emotional appeal to some but as far as I can tell is not factual. In a democracy we get the government we deserve. If we prohibit government from intervening in the market with regulation we are effectively handing the market over to the rich and powerful. As Jeff points out they will try to use the government to protect their power but as I have pointed out they will not stop there. They have many tactics for staying in power (as I previously illustrated) and are not above using them.

Those that would have the government stay out of market regulation are effectively playing into the hands of the rich and powerful and doing exactly what they claim the government is doing in crony capitalism – making it easier for the rich and powerful to maintain their hold on power. To ‘hope’ that competition will reign in unregulated or nominally regulated capitalism appears to me to be more like a religious ideal than a realistic practicality. Government should be in the active business of making competition in capitalism real and effective, offering constraints to the monopolizing tendencies of power. Our job as voters is to elect politicians that produce results toward this end and fire those that make big business the real constituents that they serve. If we put the fox in charge of the hen house we should not be surprised when all the hens get eaten.

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