NY Attorney General Files Antitrust Suit Against Intel

A statement from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo this morning announces the launch of an antitrust lawsuit against chipmaker Intel. Intel supposedly is “bribing” and “coercing” computer manufacturers like Dell, HP into using its chips.

Intel gives them money and rebates to use Intel chips. Think about that; they don’t have to pay as much, and get paid themselves, to use Intel chips rather than AMD ones.

I like it when I get rebates and cash, myself, but I’m just crazy.

Let’s remember what abusive monopoly power is supposed to mean: reduced quantity sold, higher prices, suffering consumers. They’re “suffering” all right, with a plethora of wildly popular sub-$400 netbooks, thanks to a complex and efficient marketplace in which Intel plays an important role, along with all its business partners.

Intel does not enjoy government protection of its market share, nor does it operate in a vacuum, immune from discipline if if its rebates and “bribes” (note the language used by enforcers!) are somehow bad deals for consumers or computer makers. Intel has upstream suppliers, and downstream business customers that can revolt against and thereby discipline any monopolistic behavior, or exclusive arrangements that are unsatisfactory. If the downstream partner doesn’t make a sale, neither does Intel. If the downstream partner’s hardward sales suffer because of Intel, it can retaliate. Thus as far as abusive behavior is concerned, the market is self policing. The only thing that could prevent computer makers themselves from ganging up against Intel abuses would be the antitrust laws themselves.

Antitrust, more often than a consumer-protection phenomenon, is often protectionism. In this case, government bodies are deciding we have to buy from AMD and not Intel, and AMD gets protected from the ravages of competition. Consumers lose.

As far as competing chipmakers are concerned, they of course have no fundamental right to Intel’s customers. However they do have a right to make their own deals with computer makers more satisfactory than Intel’s. Opportunities abound in PCs, laptops, and netbooks; and moreso in handhelds that are gaining appeal and yet don’t rely on Intel.

Furthermore, why should AMD be the beneficiary of antitrust interference? Most chips are not found in PCs at all, but in vehicles and in appliances and handheld devices and gadgets of all sorts. You’ll find chips in new automobiles, coffeemakers, rice cookers, cell phones, watches, calculators, the pump at the gas station. They flush the toilet for you at the airport and turn on the sink; you don’t have to touch a thing thanks to the microchip. These might want a piece of the PC action; it’s a rhetorical and nonsense question, but why not forbid AMD from getting the market share and give it to these guys?

As particle physicist Michio Kaku noted in his remarkable book Visions, “By 2020, microprocessors will likely be as cheap and plentiful as scrap paper, scattered by the millions into the environment, allowing us to place intelligent systems everywhere.” Chips in “Wintel” desktop computers increasingly constitute just one subset of a vast semiconductor market. And guess what; fewer and fewer of the chips in non-PC devices are Intel’s. The trajectory of the marketplace is hyper-competitive, and there is no need for this antitrust action to warp things.

Some of us might be more impressed if Cuomo presented a thoughtful critique of governmental licensing and protection in his own legal industry, so that paralegals and other professionals could compete with monopoly lawyers. Now there is a realm of genuine monopoly power.