The Academic Niche Filled by the Utah Project
Since the 1980s, antitrust enforcement has retreated from its historical purpose. This was the result of a changing intellectual landscape in economics and law dating to the 1970s that advanced the belief that: (1) markets in almost every case are naturally self-correcting; (2) so-called consumer-welfare considerations (and low prices in particular) should take precedence over the welfare of workers, small businesses, vendors and suppliers; and (3) intervention in markets of any sort will inevitably only be counterproductive. The result of this influence that the American economy has become increasingly concentrated, income distribution has become more unequal, and economic opportunities have declined. These effects have been noticed and the pendulum has begun to swing back in the direction of more traditional antitrust policy goals. Thus, there is a need for wider economic and legal input in the debate about the future of antitrust.
Moreover, the dilution of effectiveness of the antitrust laws has led to greater emphasis and use of state and federal consumer protection laws. For example, following the Great Recession, Congress established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), tasking it with promoting fairness and transparency in mortgage loans, credit cards, debt collection, and other consumer finance. Despite some successes in consumer protection, the consolidation and power of giant money-center banks has continued. The growth of smartphones and online commerce has led to a new and complicated business landscape dominated by giant technology companies, as well as many smaller companies that use the global reach of the internet to perpetuate scams, identity theft, and other illegal activity. Economic analysis of these trends is a critical part of this debate. In the consumer protection area, economists study the consequences of asymmetric information in contracting, below-cost prices, and externalities. But little connection has been made between legal scholars in this sub area and economists.
Location of the Project in Utah
In October 2019, the University of Utah became a trailblazer in the antitrust field by organizing a conference of leading progressive legal scholars, economists and judges, featuring (among others) now FTC Chair Lina Khan. One outcome from that conference was the “Utah Statement: Reviving Antimonopoly Traditions for the Era of Big Tech - A new framework for holding private power to account,” which Professor Tim Wu, another featured speaker at the conference and special assistant for competition and technology policy at the White House, referred to as a groundbreaking document crystalizing the policy he’s now putting in place. The Utah Project will build on this momentum to develop an annual event that will attract international participation and recognition.
Prior to his retirement, Professor John Flynn at the law school (who was both a lawyer and an economist) championed the collective effort by economists and lawyers to end the domination of Chicago School advocates in antitrust policy. Although there are similar centers at other universities, none occupy the space that we have in mind for the Utah Project. The Utah Project contributes to President Randall’s goal of establishing the University of Utah as a top ten public university by enhancing the reputation and reach of the University's departments and programs. No other center would collect economists and legal scholars who advocate stronger competition, broad antitrust goals, and fairness in consumer markets.
The University of Utah is unusual in that it has both economics professors and law professors who focus their research on antitrust policy and consumer protection. Utah also has an active antitrust bar and several of its federal district court judges and its attorney general are antitrust specialists. Moreover, Utah’s “silicon slopes” is quickly becoming a node in the digital economy, with an especially influential role in IT services for banking, finance, and data storage.