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J. Bradford DeLong
Professor of Economics
May 4, 1998
approx. 650 words
I cannot be the only Microsoft non-booster who was greatly disappointed at Robert Bork's May 4  New York Times op-ed attacking Microsoft.
Note that I have never purchased a Windows- or DOS-compatible personal computer. I have used Apples for fourteen years; I used Osbornes before that. I admit that I have--under duress--used Microsoft Word. I think the wrong guys won the struggle for dominance in PC operating systems. I think that Microsoft plays rough and unfair. I think it has violated the Sherman Act.
But I was disappointed with Bork.
I was disappointed, first, by his claimed list of exclusionary practices which seemed to show little knowledge of the technology or the industry. Microsoft's start-up screen has never hampered me, at least, in "us[ing]... competing browsers to search the internet" on any Windows computer I have used. Internet service providers and on-line services are not "forced to deal with Microsoft because of its monopoly": internet service providers and high-throughput websites for the most part do not themselves use Microsoft products: they have higher performance if and are more likely to be running UNIX than Windows NT as an operating system. They deal with Microsoft when they wish to give out Microsoft software--Internet Explorer--to their customers.
I was disappointed, second, because Robert Bork spends about fifty words (nearly seven percent of his short space) making fun of a critic who misspelled "soul" as "sole." To mock worried people who have sent you letters with misspelled words is fishy: a sign that you have run out of arguments. And, indeed, Robert Bork has no additional examples of exclusionary practices.
But I was most disappointed at the fact that Robert Bork makes no mention of his own principle--powerfully advocated in his book The Antitrust Paradox--that good antitrust policy is not policy in accord with fifty year-old legal precedents, or policy that makes the competitors of a dominant firm happy and rich, but is instead policy that enhances the welfare of consumers. In a technologically-dynamic increasing-returns industry like software, antitrust policy becomes an exercise in fishing in murky water. Actions to make the situation better are hard to devise. Random casts of the line make things worse. You want to tolerate dominant market positions that are the rewards of past successful innovations. You want to diminish dominant market positions that are unrelated to past innovations and are the source of extra-competitive profits. You want to reassure all that future competitive success will be applauded, so that firms will spend their money hiring more engineers rather than more antitrust lawyers.
Determining how to fish in these deep waters with the badly-designed reels and lures of antitrust is a complicated problem--a problem that Robert Bork's op-ed does not address, a discussion that his op-ed does not advance.
I do not know what antitrust action can be taken to curb Microsoft that will be effective in creating space for its competitors and will also turn out to make consumers better off in the long run. Many--many of them smarter than I am, many of whom have thought about this set of issues longer than I have--think there are such actions. I am eager to hear (and probably accept) their arguments. But I want to read--and the New York Times op-ed page ought to try to publish--pieces by people committed to thinking through the issues.
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Co-Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. From 1993 to 1995 he served the Clinton Administration's Treasury Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy. He is the author of, among other things, "The Case for Mexico's Rescue" (Foreign Affairs, 1996) and The Marshall Plan: History's Most Successful Structural Adjustment Programme (1993).
Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
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