London-born law prof becomes head of US competition regulator aged just 32

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By CJ McKinney on

From ‘unknown law student’ to ‘hipster antitrust chief’ to Federal Trade Commissioner in just four years

Lina Khan (credit: YouTube)

A London-born legal academic who graduated from law school just four years ago has become the new head of the US competition regulator.

Lina Khan, 32, was sworn in as chair of the Federal Trade Commission on 15 June. An associate professor at Columbia Law School, Khan shot to fame in 2017 after publishing a seminal academic article on Amazon’s anti-competitive practices.

Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox appeared in the Yale Law Journal in January 2017 and was almost immediately credited with revolutionising thinking on US competition policy.

At the time, Khan was “an unknown law student”, as a New York Times profile put it. She wouldn’t graduate from Yale until later that year.

Khan was born in London to Pakistani parents who moved to the US when she was 11. She spent her childhood in Golders Green, according to the Financial Times.

The precocious Brit (who has lost all trace of her original accent, sadly) got her first taste of the law as a legal assistant at White & Case in 2010. She later landed a job with a think tank where she first developed an interest in antitrust (American for competition law).

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Her Amazon article argued that antitrust focuses too much on whether dominant companies are ripping consumers off and ignores the damage to competition by “predatory pricing” targeting rivals.

“The current framework in antitrust”, Khan wrote, “is unequipped to capture the architecture of market power in the modern economy. We cannot cognize the potential harms to competition posed by Amazon’s dominance if we measure competition primarily through price and output”.

While some derided her line of thinking as “hipster antitrust”, liberal opinion seems to be on Khan’s side. Her appointment is expected to lead to more intervention into US mega-firms.

Modern antitrust is traditionally seen as the intellectual brainchild of Robert Bork, whose 1978 The Antitrust Paradox argued that so long as consumers were getting a good deal, regulators shouldn’t worry too much about big companies gobbling up or forcing out competitors. (For comparison, he published that aged 51, after a stint as Solicitor General.)

Khan, unsurprisingly, is the youngest Federal Trade Commission boss ever. The organisation has 1,100 staff and a budget of over $350 million (about £250 million).

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