I have had many great moments during my 30 years as an FTC economist. But the most memorable was my technical assistance mission to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (yes, it was still Czechoslovakia then) in the summer of 1991. The Soviet Empire had only recently collapsed, and the Eastern Bloc countries were struggling mightily to make the transition from central planning to a market economy. To help their fledgling competition agencies deal with novel (for them) regulatory and competition issues, the FTC and DOJ began dispatching teams of economists and lawyers to help them understand the relevant legal and economic issues. I was paired with a DOJ attorney for a three-week mission to help our hosts better understand the law and economics of natural monopoly regulation (e.g., electricity transmission, gas and oil pipelines, etc.).
Working with the Czechoslovak lawyers and economists was an incredibly rewarding – but challenging -- experience. After 50 years of Communism, they really had no idea about what made market economies work. And at the time, their country lacked much of the basic legal, economic, and cultural infrastructure (e.g., banks, enforceable legal contracts, etc.) required for a functioning market economy, and which we took for granted in the West. Compared to the “marginal” issues that I normally dealt with back home (e.g., will this merger really reduce competition?), the Czechoslovaks were grappling with truly foundational issues.
As we now know, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are two of the most successful formerly Communist countries. I’m grateful that the FTC gave me the opportunity to be there, albeit briefly, at the start.