Steve Chapman

Raising prices would not be easy, since consumers have plenty of affordable options. Music fans can listen to terrestrial radio, pop in a CD, find an Internet feed, turn on an iPod, flip to the cable TV music station or check out unknown talents on YouTube.

Web radio may not get as much attention as Howard Stern, but it has four times as big an audience as XM and Sirius combined. In his alarm about the proposed merger, Martin has mistaken a mouse for a moose.

The truth is, markets are more complex and dynamic than regulators assume. Bill Clinton's Justice Department tried to break up Microsoft before it enslaved us all, but the feds got far less than they wanted. Microsoft, however, has found out that even a virtual monopoly doesn't guarantee prosperity. Despite controlling more than 90 percent of the market for computer operating systems, the company's stock price has been flat for the last decade -- while Apple, which has only a tiny share, has increased in value 15-fold since 2003.

Meanwhile, other companies, notably Google, have trounced Microsoft in other areas. Over the last decade, says Thomas Hazlett, a professor of law and economics at George Mason University, "Microsoft has seen its market position erode, and it has virtually nothing to do with the antitrust case."

The point is not that corporations will never try to suppress competition, as Microsoft is accused of attempting with its new Vista operating system, which it recently agreed to alter in response to a complaint from Google. The point is that they will usually fail, because of the many choices available to the buying public -- and that on the rare occasions when they succeed, the success is invariably fleeting.

Even corporations that gain dominance find that no matter how they connive, they can't escape competition. In a market economy, today's fearsome predator is tomorrow's frightened prey.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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