Much of my time is spent in explaining how this capitalist/free market mix leads to the best of all possible outcomes. Except when I'm explaining that in this or that instance it needs a little nudge or limitation. However, there are times when it's necessary to condemn, in no uncertain terms, the purported actions of certain capitalists or capitalist firms. And this alleged price fixing (and do please note that "alleged" there) in the wages of engineers in Silicon Valley is one such instance. The claim is that the big companies agreed not to try and poach staff from each other thereby reducing the wages spiral that might have ensued:
In early 2005, as demand for Silicon Valley engineers began booming, Apple’s Steve Jobs sealed a secret and illegal pact with Google’s Eric Schmidt to artificially push their workers wages lower by agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees, sharing wage scale information, and punishing violators. On February 27, 2005, Bill Campbell, a member of Apple’s board of directors and senior advisor to Google, emailed Jobs to confirm that Eric Schmidt “got directly involved and firmly stopped all efforts to recruit anyone from Apple.”
It is said (note, alleged) that this practice them spread across the major firms in the area. And there's two major problems with this sort of cartel behaviour. Obviously, one is that the wages of said engineers were not bid up and they did not gain the full value of their scarcity. Sure, companies reported higher profits as a result, shareholders made more money. But we're not in fact capitalists, trying to make sure that this is what happens. We're actually free marketeers and this is one of those times when the two creeds conflict.
The second is perhaps even more important for us market types. One way of looking at said market is that it is the Great Calculating Engine of our society. Indeed, the only one we have that can have any possibility of correctly allocating resources. And if, through coordinated action such as this, people then damp those prices then our market allocation is going to be wrong. For example, depressing the wages of engineers in California would have led to some (maybe only a few, but this all happens at the margins of course) quants deciding to go off to Wall Street instead. And yet free market pricing would have told them that their skills were more highly valued in the computing rather than finance sectors.
At root of course this is again that conflict between markets and capitalism. We marketeers are very sure indeed that while capitalism is all very well it is competition in markets that harnesses and controls it. And if the capitalists do ever collude, whether it be in the prices for vitamins or the pay of the workers, then we're going to end up with a very much sub-optimal outcome. Which is why if we do find such collusion that we want to punish it very severely indeed.
If this sort of thing had happaned in Europe then the EU could levy fines of up to 10% of global turnover of each company that participated. I don't know what the potential US penalties are but I wouldn't think those numbers would be out of line with a just outcome.
We simply cannot allow such cartels to operate and should punish those who try severely.