January 7, 2006

Let’s Zappai the Whole Thing!

posted by Will Wilson @ 9:22 pm

The Attorneys General House of Antitrust Horrors has opened a new wing, the State Center. AG Watch is instinctively suspicious of government-assisting institutions—the SC gives grants to elected officials(?)—but we’ll bite our tongue until the babe gets out of short pants.

In the meantime, we offer our own assistance…

Haiku, like antitrust, suffers from simplicity. The bare elegance of the form deceives people into thinking that it is easy to do, that conformance to “rules” that appear basic and minimal is tantamount to the performance of the art itself. Many short poems that go by the name “haiku” are actually zappai—or, more likely, “pseudoku.” Similarly, much regulation that goes by the name “antitrust” is actually jurisdictional brinksmanship, governmental favoritism, or even outright extortion.

Given the general similarities between antitrust and haiku, perhaps George Swede’s five guidelines of haiku, read broadly, can illuminate state antitrust oversight as well:

1. haiku must be brief: one breath long
The 50-state antitrust review process would be an interminable nightmare. More than anything, citizens—shareholders and consumers—just want to know where they stand. A cacaphony of governing voices, echoing long after every merger or development, would create deadlocked confusion in the business world and would cuff the consumer benefits of efficiency.

2. haiku must express sense of awe or insight
Institutionally speaking, states are in no position to see the global forest for the local trees. Far from the awe-inspiring mountaintop (i.e., the federal/global level), the state vantage is necessarily parochial. Locals are prone to construe the competitive advantages of distant businesses as anticompetitive.

3. haiku must involve some aspect of nature other than human nature
In the nature of antitrust, the harshest regulator determines the rules for all players. It is, however, the human nature of attorneys general to want to be “effective” ostentatiously: enter, the one-way ratchet of dueling regulation; exit, sensible antitrust.

4. haiku must possess sense images, not generalizations
Just as 5-7-5 is a disinforming “rule” hawked by primary school marms and ersatz coffeeshop poets, so the “rules” of antitrust prove illusory in application. The line between “anticompetitive practices” and “best business practices” is thinner than a reed, and is as much sensed as calculated. Even the US and EU interpret the same particular instances in devilishly different ways. Because antitrust has few bright-line rules, fifty more analyses would only obscure the area further.

5. haiku must present an event as happening presently, not past or future
Antitrust, in theory and in practice, changes inexorably. International government regulators rarely move with the alacrity and dexterity of commercial innovations. Too often, today’s rulings based on yesterday’s information only trip over tomorrow’s situation. Adding fifty superfluous regulatory agencies to the mix doesn’t sound very streamlined, does it? How would they help governance keep pace with business, not to mention ever-changing antitrust theory?

The comparison may be contrived, but state-by-state antitrust oversight appears closer to pseudoku than haiku. And that AGs will be at the helm does not inspire confidence. This consumer pseudotrusts their consumer protection. Ah, let’s not mince words: we wanna zappai the works!