The Left and the Right Agree: Stop the AT&T / Time Warner Merger

One of the few positives to come out of this ugly election cycle is the emergence of a truly bipartisan anti-corporate populism. Whereas the 1990s saw both Democrats and Republicans come together in support of financial industry deregulation, corporate vertical integration and harmful free trade deals, this decade has seen an about face in which the most vocal bases of both parties share a common antipathy to all of them. Despite Donald Trump’s many sins, he has moved the Republican Party toward the side of the angels on taxes for hedge fund managers, accountability for corporations that ship jobs overseas, and monopolistic anti-competitive practices. The progressive movement has done the same within the Democratic Party over the last decade, dragging the Third Way-style centrists kicking and screaming into a new era–such that now even the center-left candidate in the Democratic Party found herself in opposition to the president on trade deals, and adopting anti-Wall Street rhetoric much more in line with the Occupy movement than with the prevailing sentiments during the 1990s or even her own leaked speeches to major banks.

One heartening example of this bipartisan populism is the response to the proposed acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T. The deal would be a huge boost to AT&T in consolidating power not only over mobile devices but the content played on them. Time Warner owns an eye-opening number of media content companies from HBO to CNN to DC Comics. If AT&T controlled Time Warner content, it could unilaterally shape the way content is produced for mobile devices and the way mobile devices deliver content from Game of Thrones to Anderson Cooper to Batman. It could also potentially manipulate prices for vertical integration–for instance, giving a discount on HBO subscriptions to those who use AT&T mobile service while disadvantaging those on other networks.

This sort of vertical integration is anti-competitive and very dangerous to consumers. It’s why car manufacturers aren’t allowed to also own dealerships: the competition among dealerships helps consumers to have a fighting chance against the much more powerful manufacturers in terms of price.

Fortunately, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are opposed to the merger, as are the most authentic activist elements in both parties. Trump made his opposition to the merger a significant part of his “first 100 days” speech in Gettysburg yesterday. For her part, while (as of this writing) Hillary Clinton hasn’t made a comment on this particular deal, she has made the issue of corporate monopolies and anti-trust issues a theme of her campaign this month. The Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is even more adamant about this issue–and while Donald Trump’s well-heeled GOP primary opponents don’t care much if corporations can gouge the public at will, that’s one of the reasons they lost the primary to Trump in the first place. Americans want to see competition in the marketplace, not vague economic libertarianism that allows unbridled greed and rent-seeking to go unchecked.

Anti-trust issues aren’t very sexy to most of the public, but they’re one of the most important public policy considerations in an age of rapid corporate consolidation, online and cross-platform integration, automation and globalization. If capitalism and free markets are to have a future in Thomas Friedman’s flat world, consumers must have a fighting chance against incredibly powerful global corporate behemoths.

 

The Washington Monthly has long been on the forefront of this topic, even going back to a 2004 op-ed here by Ted Turner assailing big media consolidation. It’s gratifying to see that it will be a major topic of conversation in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.