Opening Remarks

Federal Trade Commission 90th Anniversary Symposium

Date:
By: 
Deborah Platt Majoras, Former Chairman

Good morning. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to our celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Federal Trade Commission.

In our daily routine, the urgency to address the immediate crisis or deadline generally presses us to focus on the present, with an occasional glimpse at the future. This week, however, we have chosen to reflect extensively on the past.

Our first aim is to celebrate the Commission's accomplishments and, more important, to honor the many individuals who have built and sustained the agency over the past nine decades. A great institution never forgets that it prospers only by the contributions of those who serve it. This week, scholarly, social, and ceremonial activities are a modest way to show our respect and gratitude for the people who invested years of their lives - sometimes entire careers - to create a better future for consumers. Government officials often are exhorted to pick the low-hanging fruit. This week, we thank the generations of FTC employees who planted the trees.

Although the perspective of our symposium is strongly historical, its second aim is emphatically forward-looking. We study the past to increase our understanding of what our agency must do today and tomorrow to improve the well-being of consumers. My predecessor, Tim Muris, who conceived this symposium, often emphasized the continuity of modern FTC policy and underscored the cumulative nature of good governance.(1) Tim stressed the theme that our greatest achievements have emerged far less from efforts marked by sharp, recurring discontinuities in philosophy than by the cumulative, progressive search for better practices.

Let me offer another metaphor that, I believe, is true to our history by its power to highlight how successful programs require continuous, evolutionary improvement. Properly viewed, those of us fortunate to hold government office are members of a relay team, not participants in individual events. From this perspective, success stems from the collective effort of the team, not from individual initiative alone.

For several reasons, I find this metaphor appealing, not just because I recently took the baton at the FTC. Rather, it illuminates the characteristics of good policy at the FTC and other government bodies. First, a good relay team demands superior effort from each individual member, but its overall performance is inherently a collaboration. No team member runs exactly the same, and no matter how well each performer runs, the significance of the individual contribution ultimately depends on the performance of the runners who have gone before or follow.

This should ring true to this audience. It does not take long for any public official to realize how much she depends on her predecessor and successor. Good policy-making is frequently and unmistakably cumulative. In the next two days, participants in our Symposium will examine successful and unsuccessful programs in protecting consumers. They will document the progression in antitrust enforcement from a focus on protecting competitors to an emphasis on protecting competition. They will analyze the continuing formulation and reformulation of the role of economic analysis in FTC thinking. In these and other areas, the cumulative nature of good policy-making stands out. A recurring admonition in the discrete historical episodes that will be described is that each leader of this institution should define success in terms of making contributions to the team's performance.

A second attractive feature of the relay metaphor is its recognition that success is a product of obvious and non-obvious achievement, alike. At some time, I suspect, all of us have watched a 4-by-100 meter relay. The sprinting ability of individual runners plainly is important to the team's success. The grace and power of each runner naturally seizes our attention in sequence as the race unfolds. Yet success often does not reside solely in the raw speed of individual runners, but instead depends vitally on a far more mundane exercise - the hand-off. During the Olympics in Athens, for example, we watched with disappointment as a collection of dazzling individuals faltered because of a botched exchange.

This, too, provides a powerful message for public leadership at the FTC and other government bodies. Key elements of good policy-making are not necessarily dramatic or flashy. There is an inevitable tendency for academics, practitioners, legislators, and even government officials to measure success by the frequency of the "big case." I do not denigrate the importance of the big case, no more than I would slight the value of a runner who could cover 100 meters in 9 seconds flat. By the very fact that the big case attracts great public interest or affects a large segment of the market, it is important to us. The lesson, however, is that the attention devoted to the big case or other headline-grabbing initiatives can deflect needed attention away from more subtle but equally necessary steps that agencies must take to achieve good policy results. Like corporate officers who must resist the temptation to focus only on the next quarterly results, we must resist the temptation to become heroes by focusing only on the next big, high-profile case.

Our obligation at the FTC is to identify and recognize the equivalents of good "hand-offs" in the formulation of competition and consumer protection policy. This Symposium demonstrates how we have achieved many of our greatest successes more through a series of incremental changes, using all of the policy instruments at our disposal, than through single, discrete, "big bang" events or measures. "Small" cases, of course, can make big law. In addition, the pivotal contributions from the application of non-litigation tools such as advocacy, education, and policy research and development have been significant. Not only is this integration of instruments a proven path to improvements, but the multidimensional approach to formulating competition and consumer protection policy is the realization of the model that Congress conceived 90 years ago.

As any junior lawyer or economist quickly learns, the reward for great work is new challenges. Undoubtedly, our discussions over the next two days will remind us that there is an enormous amount of work to be done to address current and oncoming policy challenges. As adjusted over time, the Commission's statutory authority and institutional design have provided an excellent platform for responding quickly to market changes and confronting new tactics that harm consumers. What specific challenges does our past experience teach us to anticipate, and what can we distill from our history about how to respond? I offer two observations.

First, we know that the FTC has a vital role to play in speaking for reliance on market processes and standing for consumer interests. As I mentioned in my confirmation testimony, our aim is to develop policies that recognize and take advantage of the remarkable consumer benefits inherent in the largely decentralized economic organization that is our market system. To serve their own purposes, however, there are many who try to drive a wedge between business and consumers, simplistically reducing the equation to good and bad, while ignoring the mutuality and complexity inherent in the relationship between the two. That false dichotomy is uniquely uninformative as a basis for deciding how and when the FTC should use its authority. Our central aim must be to make discriminating judgments that permit us to channel our energies toward challenging private and public measures that injure consumers.

To an important degree, successful FTC and Justice Department efforts to oppose private trade restraints have increased the attractiveness to some entities of pursuing public measures to protect them from the sometimes harsh competitive consequences of the free market. We live in a city to which all manner of folks flock in search of dispensation. They may say that they believe in free markets and that they must serve consumers to achieve success, but they are obligated to pursue their own interests. The FTC has a special charter - to speak for measures that protect the consumer and the vitality of market forces. The challenge to oppose public policies and actions that subvert consumer interests is unending. We must never lose our focus, despite pressure from those who seek exceptional treatment.

Second, our past informs us that effectively meeting future policy challenges depends on our willingness to invest great effort at improving our base of knowledge and then having the courage to put it into practice. From the time of its creation to the present, the FTC has lived in a highly dynamic policy environment. Each decade, we have encountered important changes in economic and legal theory, economic phenomena including technology that changes the complexion of commercial transactions, political conditions, and institutional arrangements for economic policymaking at home and abroad. The basic problems of public administration and analysis appear again and again, albeit with special and ever more demanding variations.

Our ability to account for these developments demands conscious, continuing efforts to understand them and to devise appropriate policy responses. We must keep up or, better yet, stay ahead. The process of regeneration and improvement demands an unflinching willingness to explore the consequences of our past initiatives, the openness to account for new developments, and a commitment to explore the interdependencies and infrastructure of policymaking within our own country and across jurisdictions. Only through a process of deliberate institutional renewal, self-assessment, and education will we be equal to the challenges that we are sure to face.

The need to improve our knowledge base and to incorporate that knowledge into our enforcement work proceeds with unequaled urgency today. We can take nothing for granted, save the need to improve. On countless occasions, by reason of our relatively long and collective experience, foreign competition and consumer protection authorities - especially newer agencies - use our experience to inform their own choices concerning institutional design and operational practice. To exercise leadership in a world of great jurisdictional complexity and dynamism, we must undertake a continuing process of self-assessment and improvement. Our opinions about competition and consumer protection policy will be influential only to the extent that foreign observers perceive the content and implementation of our policies to be worthy of emulation. Our capacity to persuade today hinges upon, and will continue to require, superior analysis and demonstrated achievement. Intellectual leadership and proven results, not the sheer volume of experience, comprise the global currency of policymaking of the present and the future.

And so I invite you to join me over the next two days not only in celebrating what we have accomplished, but in reflecting upon what we must do to serve consumers well in the future. Thank you.

Endnote:

1. Timothy J. Muris, Chairman, Federal Trade Commission, How History Informs Practice - Understanding the Development of Modern U.S. Competition Law, Remarks Before the Fall Forum of the Section of Antitrust Law of the American Bar Association, Washington, D.C. (Nov. 19, 2003), available at <http://www.ftc.gov/speeches/muris/murisfallaba.pd>; Timothy J. Muris, Chairman, Federal Trade Commission, Antitrust Enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission: In a Word - Continuity, Remarks Before the Section of Antitrust Law at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association, Chicago, Illinois (Aug. 7, 2001), available at <http://www.ftc.gov/speeches/muris/murisaba.htm>.