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Christine Varney, Obama’s recently-confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust at the Department of Justice, spoke yesterday at the Center for American Progress. Her speech gave us the first direct view into the direction Varney plans to take the Antitrust Division during her tenure. Varney’s thoughts, in sum: “In the last decade, the division has not been, in my opinion, as active as it could have been. It is time for the Antitrust Division to step up its efforts.”
Varney set the division’s first priority as “leading the development of competition policy.” Recognizing that “[t]here is no adequate substitute for a competitive market, particularly during difficult economic times,” she plans to move away from a “somewhat myopic focus on efficiencies” towards an approach which places more value on consumer protection.
Varney also heavily criticized over-reliance on industry self-regulation. She harkened back to the 1930s, when legislation was passed which “allowed industry-created codes of competition. These codes allowed industry to set prices, wages, production quotas, and restricted entry. They were, effectively, legal cartels.” This, in turn, produced “restricted output, higher prices, and reduced consumer spending.” By contrast, Varney pledged that the incoming antitrust administration would be more like the second Roosevelt administration, which saw a threefold increase in the number of antitrust cases filed by the government and was “the first sustained program of antitrust enforcement on a nationwide scale.”
The final question from the audience was about why the Antitrust Division doesn’t change its name to something a little more accessible to the 2009 public, like the “Pro-Consumer Division” or the “Competition Division.” While it didn’t sound like the idea of a name change had much traction, let us hope that Varney follows through on the far more important direction change, and that the Antitrust Division finds its direction driven by what Varney describes as “the ultimate goal of antitrust law: to protect consumer welfare.”