The Pickle Poetry Antitrust Case

The Pickle Poetry Antitrust Case

The Pickle Poetry Antitrust Case

The pickle poetry antitrust case is intriguing.

Back in 2002, the private investment firm called Hicks Muse that owned the Vlasic Pickle Company sought to purchase the Claussen Pickle Company.

The Federal Trade Commission blocked the merger. In the press release announcing the action, the FTC said:

According to the FTC’s complaint, Hicks Muse’s proposed acquisition of Claussen would eliminate competition and the unique rivalry between the two national pickle brands. Claussen is the dominant producer of refrigerated pickles and Vlasic serves as the primary price constraint on Claussen. Together, the companies would have a monopoly share of the refrigerated pickle market in the United States. The complaint alleges that the effect of the proposed acquisition, if consummated, may be to lessen competition substantially and lead to increases in prices or a reduction in competitive vigor. The complaint also alleges that Vlasic is the leading seller of premium shelf-stable pickles and that Vlasic’s shelf-stable pickles also operate as a competitive constraint on Claussen. Finally, the Commission contends that entry into the refrigerated pickles market by a competitor is likely to be neither sufficient nor timely enough to alleviate the likely anticompetitive effects of the transaction as proposed.

I have no deep insight into the entry and exit dynamics of the pickle industry, although it does seem to me that when the two biggest producers in a market seek to merge, the antitrust authorities are right to take a close look. But setting aside the narrow issue of gains to pickle consumers, the case led to a broader enrichment of our cultural landscape in the form of a poem by Thomas B. Leary, who served as a member of the FTC at the time. The poem was delivered at a meeting of alumni of the FTC on December 18, 2002. It’s called:

“The Spell of the Gherkin”

(With apologies to “The Spell of the Yukon” by 
Robert Service.)

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold . . .”

So begins a story of grit and glory:
The Cremation of Sam McGee.
I remember when, as a boy of ten,
T’was the epitome of poetry.

We here unveil a gentler tale,
Which still will stir the blood,
Where heroes try, in coat and tie,
To serve the public good.

* * *

There are strange things done in Washington
When companies are sold.
And paper trails tell lurid tales
Of price hikes to unfold.

It is not nice to raise the price
When rivals have disappeared.
The problem, though, is how will we know
Before the deal has cleared.

The cases we face are all over the place
But, the strangest I’ve seen so far
Was the time we took a good long look
At pickles in a jar.

Now, you may say in a scornful way:
“Who cares what the parties claim?
A nickle’s a nickle and a pickle’s a pickle;
They’re all exactly the same!”

But, you see, they’re not. Some like them hot
And some like them cold and clear.
We had to say: “What will you pay
For one, if the other grows dear?”

We sacrificed leisure in order to measure
Elasticity of demand.
As we carefully counted, the evidence mounted.
The pickles, it seems, had been scanned!

On these occasions, regression equations
Are never considered a bore.
The pluses and minuses cleared out the sinuses,
And thrilled us all to the core.

“The Spell of the Yukon,” indeed! The next time I read
Those poems I loved long ago,
About the quest for gold in the bitter cold
And wolves that howl in the snow – –

I’ll say: “My lad, you’ve never had
A moment so sublime
As that shining hour when market power
Was checked in the nick of time!”

* * *

Today, throughout this favored land
The sun is shining strong.
The bands are playing everywhere,
As children skip along.
Because those pickles, those luscious pickles
Still are sold for a song.

Tom Leary
(With a last-minute nod to the
next-best poem in the language.)

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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