When President Biden took office, he sent several signals that he was ready to take on increasing corporate concentration. Among the clearest was appointing the consumer advocate Lina Khan — a prominent critic of monopoly power — to lead the Federal Trade Commission.
Instead, the takeovers have persisted under Biden’s watch. Last week brought the latest evidence that reducing corporate concentration will be more difficult than Biden might have hoped: U.S. courts rejected the F.T.C.’s attempts to block Microsoft from absorbing the video game company Activision Blizzard. Microsoft could finalize the deal in the coming months; a key deadline was extended this week.
The merger would be by far the biggest ever in video games, after adjusting for inflation. The game industry now accounts for significant chunks of the economy. It is larger than music, U.S. book publishing and North American sports combined. Microsoft’s game division and Activision Blizzard each make more money annually than all U.S. movie theaters. The two companies are among the biggest in games, as this chart by my colleague Ashley Wu shows:
The F.T.C. said that the Microsoft-Activision merger was anticompetitive and sued to stop it. The agency argued that the merger would give Microsoft, maker of the game console Xbox, too big of an advantage over its rival Sony, the maker of PlayStation. Of particular interest was Activision’s massive franchise, Call of Duty. A new edition of Call of Duty is consistently one of the best-selling games on Xbox and PlayStation each year. But if Microsoft owns Call of Duty, it could make the game exclusive to Xbox and rob Sony of one of gaming’s biggest attractions.
To address those concerns, Microsoft promised that it would put Call of Duty games on PlayStations for 10 more years. That was one reason the courts ruled against the F.T.C.: They found the agency had not shown that the deal would likely hurt competition.
With their ruling, the courts are allowing another big merger that will further consolidate a major industry. Many experts say that trend is ultimately hurting consumers by diminishing the kind of competition that lowers prices and improves quality for goods and services, even if the F.T.C. wasn’t able to prove all of that in this case.
Let’s zoom out. In the past several decades, markets have become more concentrated. The very biggest companies dominate most industries, as this chart shows:
Why does this matter? In simple terms, a lack of competition lets companies lower wages, increase prices and dilute the quality of their products. A classic example is internet service: Many Americans live in places with only one or two providers. These companies keep prices high, the internet can be spotty and the customer service is often bad. Since customers don’t have alternatives, providers can get away with those faults.
Corporate concentration deepens that kind of problem, experts say. One economist concluded that market concentration costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year. Progressives like Khan have argued that regulators need to take the issue more seriously.
Courts push back
The Biden administration released guidelines this week that seek to toughen antitrust law, which restricts anticompetitive practices. Under Khan, the F.T.C. has also pushed courts to effectively lower the burden of proof required to show that a merger is anticompetitive. There is merit to that approach, some experts argue: U.S. courts have raised the bar very high over the past few decades, surpassing standards in the U.K. and much of Europe.
“We can convict someone and send him to prison for murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence,” said Douglas Melamed, an expert on antitrust issues at Stanford Law School. “But it often seems that courts will not let plaintiffs win an antitrust case based on circumstantial evidence.”
The F.T.C. has yet to persuade the courts to ease their standards. The agency’s loss in the Microsoft-Activision case is the latest example. It also failed to block Meta’s acquisition of a virtual reality firm, Within. And it has even lost in its own administrative court, which ruled in favor of the gene-sequencing company Illumina in its acquisition of the firm Grail.
Khan’s cause still has potential. The last major shift in antitrust law, in the 1970s, came after decades of work by conservatives to push the law and courts in their direction. The movement that Khan helped popularize among progressives is only a few years old. If it persuades more of the public and, most importantly, judges, it could eventually succeed.
Related: The F.T.C.’s defeats have prompted fresh questions about Khan’s strategy. “All these court losses are making their threats look more like a paper tiger,” one chief executive said.
Britain’s Conservative Party lost two seats in special parliamentary elections, an ominous sign for the political future of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
War has compounded the suffering of Ukrainian children with cancer.
Under a dense forest in Mexico, archaeologists using lasers discovered the ruins of a Maya city.
Other Big Stories
The burden of medical paperwork is delaying care and making patients sicker, Dr. Chavi Karkowsky writes.
On the “Matter of Opinion” podcast, Times writers share their summer book recommendations.
Here are columns by Nicholas Kristof on the sex trade and Gail Collins on Joe Manchin.
Where we are: Young Arab Americans find community at a hookah lounge in Dearborn, Mich.
“Am I training my replacement?”: Call center workers are confronting A.I.’s threat to their jobs.
Modern Love: A father lost his memory but gained recognition of his child’s gender.
Lives Lived: After she was ousted from the U.S. military in 1963 for being a lesbian, Lilli Vincenz became an early crusader for gay rights in an era before the Stonewall riots. She died at 85.
WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
The older players once relied on MapQuest printouts. A younger one has never used a CD player. The U.S. team has a generation gap to overcome as it opens tournament play tonight against Vietnam.
The Vietnamese women are representing a soccer-obsessed country in its first World Cup.
The U.S. will take home more money than any team, no matter how it finishes, because of its labor agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
After losing its star player, Sam Kerr, to an injury, Australia beat Ireland, 1-0. Canada, a top contender, battled Nigeria to a scoreless tie. And Spain beat Costa Rica, 3-0.
OTHER SPORTS NEWS
Changing hands: N.F.L. team owners approved the sale of the Washington Commanders and fined the outgoing owner, Daniel Snyder, $60 million after an inquiry found he had harassed a former cheerleader. It was the largest penalty ever levied against an N.F.L. team owner.
N.F.L. coach comes out: Kevin Maxen, an associate coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is believed to be the first openly gay male coach in major American men’s professional sports.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Translating between cultures: Japanese comic books, known as manga, are popular in the U.S. But translating them for a Western audience is tricky, Gabriel Gianordoli and Robert Ito write. In Japan, the books are meant to be read from right to left. And pages are often filled with sounds — there are thousands of onomatopoetic words in Japanese, far more than the usual “pow!” of American comics.
More on culture
Fans say John Mayer’s facial expressions when he plays guitar are almost as impassioned as his music.
With six-figure face-lifts and racy text messages, the character Bitsy von Muffling on “And Just Like That …” evokes Samantha Jones of the original “Sex and the City.”