On a Monday afternoon in late July, a group of leading Democratic members of Congress, including Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren, gathered in small-town Berryville, Virginia, to pitch the Democrats’ “Better Deal” economic agenda.
The party’s strategy for 2018 had been a topic of obsession since the day after the 2016 election. The Democrats were finally being forced to confront a fundamental weakness: the perception, as the comedian Lewis Black once put it, that while the Republicans are the party of bad ideas, the Democrats are the party of no ideas. Shortly after the election, Schumer had admitted on national television that one reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss had been the lack of a “strong, bold economic message.” In Berryville, he told the crowd, “Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today.”
Sort of. The agenda’s tedious branding—the subtitle was “Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future”—drew mostly derision, not least for its resemblance to the Papa John’s motto: “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” A New Yorker humor piece listed “rejected slogans,” including “Not Perfect, But Also Not Trump.”
The problem went beyond the name. If the Better Deal was treated like an overstuffed grab bag of policies designed to placate the entire Democratic caucus, that’s because it was one. Much early coverage focused on a proposed tax credit for job training, the exact kind of centrist technocracy so many liberals were afraid of—“reminiscent of what Bill Clinton was selling in the 1990s,” as Michelle Cottle put it in the Atlantic.
The Democrats’ problem, then, isn’t that no one knows what they stand for on the economy. It’s that everyone knows what they stand for: higher taxes, more spending on social welfare, and a stream of opaque, nibble-around-the-edges government programs. Hillary Clinton may as well have said she had binders full of ideas.
Many commentators did, however, notice one element of the Better Deal that was quite new—and potentially transformative. If you got past the bland subheading “Lower the costs of living for families,” you would have found something very different from what anyone was selling in the 1990s: a section on “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”
This anti-monopoly plank—which Schumer and Pelosi emphasized in op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively—reflected a growing awareness that the economy has become dangerously concentrated. In sector after sector, from retail to beer to eyeglasses, the market is controlled by a small handful of giant companies. And mounting evidence suggests that corporate consolidation is behind some of the economy’s deepest problems: income inequality, declining innovation, and the exodus of wealth and jobs from the heartland toward the coasts.Perhaps because the movement was so successful, antitrust eventually came to lose its political cachet. It became “one of the faded passions of American reform,” wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964.
Donald Trump’s ability to tap into these symptoms goes a long way to explaining his decisive Rust Belt appeal. He could channel a sense of decline among white voters there because, unlike Clinton, he told a story about what caused it—free trade, illegal immigration, and corrupt politicians—and how to fix it: quit NAFTA, build a wall, lock her up. That story was mostly false, and it oozed racism and sexism. But Clinton didn’t offer an alternative. If Trump was a quack doctor, peddling fake medicine, then Clinton missed the diagnosis.
That’s why including proposals in the Better Deal to address consolidation, however light on details, could end up being a turning point. It marked the party’s first unified attempt to grapple with the structural economic barriers holding so many people back. Unlike Trump’s racio-economic populism, the story of monopolization isn’t a hoax, and it doesn’t pit ethnic groups against each other.
A month after the Better Deal announcement, something happened that gave warnings about corporate consolidation more urgency. New America, a center-left think tank, fired a team of anti-monopoly researchers after the group’s director, Barry Lynn, praised European Union sanctions against Google. That was apparently the last straw for Eric Schmidt, a billionaire Google executive and, along with Google itself, one of New America’s most generous funders. A chain of emails from New America’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, strongly suggested that she fired Lynn and his team for angering Schmidt and imperiling the think tank’s access to future Google money. (Slaughter publicly denied that suggestion, claiming that Lynn had a pattern of bad behavior.)
It would have been hard to concoct a better anti-monopoly publicity stunt: a single plutocrat was revealed to have the power to restrict the flow of ideas into public debate. The story of the firing broke on the front page of the New York Times, and two days later Tucker Carlson, of all people, was interviewing Lynn’s colleague Matt Stoller on Fox News about whether Google is a monopoly. In September, the comedian John Oliver even devoted a long segment of his HBO show to “corporate consolidation.” Concern about monopoly was suddenly mainstream.
This is new. The Reagan administration sharply curtailed antitrust enforcement in the 1980s, and no administration, Democratic or Republican, has tried hard to revive it. Quietly green-lighting enormous mergers has been a rare area of bipartisan consensus for three decades—as Chuck Schumer, the senator of Wall Street, now freely acknowledges. “How the heck did we let Exxon and Mobil merge?” Schumer said to George Stephanopoulos while discussing the Better Deal. “And that was Democrats!”
The idea that something’s got to be done about monopolies seemed to go from fringe argument to a pillar of the Democrats’ economic plan, at least rhetorically, overnight. But it didn’t really come out of nowhere. The Better Deal announcement, the New America dust-up—these were the bubblings of a movement that had been brewing for nearly a decade. The story of the Democrats becoming—maybe—the anti-monopoly party, the party of small business, is not just a politics story. It’s a story about how ideas win and lose and then, maybe, win again. And it’s the story of how a small group of political outsiders got the party establishment to adopt an idea that was essentially left for dead in 1978.
A challenge in writing a story about monopolies, or antitrust—the body of law concerned with cracking down on monopolization—is that the terms themselves are like a foreign language to most people.
That wasn’t always the case. America used to have a robust tradition of anti-monopoly politics, as you may recall from learning about the “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt in middle school. Farmers were held hostage to discriminatory rates imposed by the railroad monopolies that shipped their crops. Ranchers had to settle for whatever the “big five” meatpackers wanted to pay them. Shopkeepers were squeezed by national wholesale chains. (“Monopoly” is useful shorthand. Technically, when a handful of companies control a market, rather than just one, it’s called an oligopoly.)
In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed attempts to build monopolies or restrict competition. Congress expanded the scope of illegal business activities with the Clayton Act of 1914, the same year it created the Federal Trade Commission, and it tightened the screws once more in 1936. These laws were mostly vague, but, as interpreted by the federal courts, they allowed officials in the Department of Justice and the FTC to block mergers, break up companies that had gotten too big, and make sure markets stayed competitive.
Throughout those years, it was common for leading politicians to talk about the dangers of monopolization. At the most basic level, the problem with monopolies is that, with no competition, they can charge exorbitant prices. But consolidated economic power poses dangers beyond prices. In the 1912 election, candidate Woodrow Wilson declared, “If monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of the government.” Franklin Roosevelt, in his speech accepting the Democratic renomination for president in 1936, blamed the Great Depression on the “economic tyranny” of a monopolized economy.
Around that time, Roosevelt and his legendary antitrust chief, Thurman Arnold, kicked off a period of especially aggressive antitrust enforcement that would last into the 1970s. Note that this period saw the country’s fastest increases in living standards, the economic halcyon days to which so many people, not least Trump voters, wish we could return. The historian Alfred Chandler Jr. later wrote that Roosevelt’s antitrust division “set the stage” for the twentieth-century information revolution by forcing companies like IBM to create room for rivals to compete and innovate.
By the 1960s, it was understood that the federal government would intervene to keep firms from getting too big, period. In the 1961 case Brown Shoe Company v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a merger giving one company control over 2 percent of the nation’s shoe outlets violated the Clayton Act. But, perhaps because the movement was so successful, antitrust eventually came to lose its political cachet. It became “one of the faded passions of American reform,” wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1964. Historians, he wrote, had come to “ignore antitrust for the same reason the public ignores it: it has become complex, difficult, and boring.”
He might have added “vulnerable.”
Before his last name became synonymous with failed Supreme Court nominations, Robert Bork was a law professor at Yale and a disciple of the so-called Chicago School of economics. The Chicago School movement, most associated with Milton Friedman, argued for laissez-faire economic policy based on the premise of individuals as hyper-rational market participants. To the archconservative Bork, antitrust wasn’t boring; it was an outrage. Cases like Brown Shoe proved that the Supreme Court had gotten out of control. It was blocking, on touchy-feely grounds, business activity that basic economic models promised would increase efficiency.
In 1978, Bork published The Antitrust Paradox, which utterly upended the field. The Court’s doctrine, Bork argued, was incoherent: it sought both to protect consumers from high prices and to protect small businesses from being squashed. Those goals were at odds with each other—paradoxical—because protecting small businesses from monopolies would allow them to charge higher prices.
In Bork’s entertainingly snarky telling, most politicians, judges, and even economists were just too stupid to see this obvious contradiction. The truth is that antitrust law reflected a decision to balance the protection of small (or at least, non-monopoly) businesses, which leaders going back to Thomas Jefferson saw as vital to democracy and opportunity, with the economic advantages of larger enterprises. But Bork thought there was no way to make those trade-offs in a principled way.
And so Bork argued that federal judges must resolve the “paradox” by declaring that the only legitimate purpose of antitrust law was to promote “consumer welfare,” basically meaning lower prices. And the only way to promote consumer welfare was to promote efficiency, because efficiency meant more production, which meant cheaper products. Any other purpose would interfere with efficiency and must therefore be ignored.
To see how radical this was, just consider one example of something not captured by consumer welfare: employee welfare. In a town dominated by a single employer, workers may be forced to submit to poverty wages and abusive work conditions. Coal miners know this all too well—so do Walmart employees. (See Alec MacGillis, “What J. D. Vance Doesn’t Get About Appalachia.”) But to Bork, that could never justify antitrust enforcement so long as the product stayed cheap.
The Antitrust Paradox makes for remarkable reading today. Like a caricature of a Chicago School economist, Bork explicitly warned against learning from experience. Rather, all business practices should be judged based on what “simple” (his word) economic models predict. “Only theory can separate the competitive from the anticompetitive,” he wrote. And theory says consolidation is good, because it means strong firms are crushing weak ones.
But the most striking thing about Bork’s book is how up front he was about seeing the fight over antitrust as part of the culture wars of the 1960s and ’70s. The Warren Court, he wrote in the 1993 preface to the second edition, “wrecked many fields of law in its reckless and primitive egalitarianism. Antitrust was one such field.” For Bork, an antitrust decision like Brown Shoe was the same kind of leftist judicial activism as Roe v. Wade.Like a caricature of a Chicago School economist, Robert Bork explicitly warned against learning from experience. “Only theory can separate the competitive from the anticompetitive,” he wrote.
He presented his method as a technical, value-neutral way to apply the law—a “science.” It was a cousin of originalism, another favorite Bork theory, which holds that judges must interpret the Constitution by figuring out the Founding Fathers’ true intentions. And, just like originalism, the consumer welfare test pretends to free the law from the grips of ideology when in fact it simply swaps in a different one.
Antitrust, Bork lamented, had been invaded “by the ideologies of statism and interventionism,” and his loathing for economic progressivism was so intense that he repeatedly tipped his hand. For instance, he berated liberal judges for usurping Congress’s authority, but also argued that if Congress tells courts to consider factors other than prices, the courts should refuse. That betrayed the phoniness of his professed concern about judicial activism. What was at stake was no less than the fate of capitalism versus socialism.
When it came to economics, Bork got almost all the important stuff wrong. “I doubt that there is any significant output restriction arising from the concentration of any industry,” he wrote, meaning there was nothing wrong with monopolies short of outright price-fixing. After all, if a monopoly raised prices, other competitors would swoop in to undercut it. The market corrects itself.
But Bork was writing for an audience of nine, and here he was devastatingly effective. Almost as soon as it was published, The Antitrust Paradox became gospel at the Supreme Court. By 1979, one year after the book came out, the Court was already citing its claim—debunked by historians—that “Congress designed the Sherman Act as a ‘consumer welfare prescription.’ ” It’s not a stretch to say that, within its field, The Antitrust Paradox had the biggest practical impact of any single work of legal scholarship, ever. “The decisive cause,” by Bork’s own account, “was a change in the composition of the Supreme Court.” As the Warren Court’s “liberal ideologues” died or retired, Richard Nixon had been able to install a conservative and corporate-friendly majority that cottoned instantly to Bork’s free-market fantasia.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 meant conservative free-market economics was ascendant no matter what. But Bork provided the intellectual framework to scale back antitrust, and once his ideas caught on among the judiciary, even aggressive-minded enforcers would have a hard time winning cases. Meanwhile, generations of college students who took Econ 101—people who today run the nation’s corporations, think tanks, and government agencies—were steeped in the Chicago School dogma that monopoly can’t be a problem because the market will always fix it. The laissez-faire approach to mergers and competition ultimately became orthodoxy in both parties. “Antitrust was defined by Robert Bork,” the legal scholar Barak Orbach told the Washington Post when Bork died, in 2012. “I cannot overstate his influence.”
Bork reserved special contempt for people who worried about the economy growing too concentrated overall. “The imminent concentration of all ownership in a few giant corporations, with the concomitant demise of small business, is the standard, Mark I, all-weather antitrust hobgoblin,” he wrote. “This congealing of the economy . . . never comes to pass.”
Well, sure, but only thanks to the legal regime that he was helping to dismantle. After the Reagan administration, following Bork’s lead, kicked off the era of lax antitrust enforcement and rampant mergers, the economy would begin a steady climb to levels of concentration not seen since before the original Progressive Era. The most intense wave of mergers has taken place in the years since the 2008 financial crash. According to an analysis by the Economist last year, two-thirds of all corporate sectors grew more concentrated between 1997 and 2012. Today, for example, three chains—Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid—control 99 percent of the nation’s pharmacies, and two of them tried to merge last year. Four companies control 85 percent of the beef market. Waves of airline mergers have left four major carriers that account for 80 percent of domestic seats. And so on.
All this merger activity has led to the exact thing Bork promised wouldn’t happen: higher prices. In 2015, the Northeastern University economist John Kwoka published a meta-analysis of every study ever done on mergers in the U.S. since 1985. He found that more than 60 percent of studied mergers led to product price increases, of an average of nearly 9 percent. In some sectors the effects are especially jarring: other research shows that hospitals with no local competition charge 15 percent more for the same care than hospitals with three or more competitors. (See Phillip Longman, “How Big Medicine Can Ruin Medicare for All.”) In short, post-Bork antitrust policy has failed even on its own terms.
Price increases were only part of the story, however. Median wages stagnated, as more and more economic gains went to the top 1 percent of earners; rates of small business creation declined; and the biggest companies’ profits kept growing even as they invested less and less in their businesses. But for years, no one thought to ask whether the rise of a new class of monopolists and the dawn of a new Gilded Age were connected.
Barry Lynn is an unlikely foil to Robert Bork. A tall fifty-six-year-old Floridian with squinting, skeptical eyes, he is neither a lawyer nor an economist. In 1999 he was the executive editor of a small business magazine when a massive earthquake in Taiwan caused the stock prices of several U.S. tech companies to crash. It turned out that almost all the world’s semiconductors were produced there, so that the earthquake, which knocked off power to the region’s airports, had momentarily cut off an essential step in the supply chain. That was Lynn’s epiphany. At a time of widespread boosterism for the emerging global economy, the quake had revealed the danger of industrial concentration.
After the business magazine folded, in 2001, Lynn got a fellowship position at New America while he worked on a book about the frailty of the global supply chain, which came out in 2005. In his next book, Cornered, published in 2009, Lynn wrangled with the broader effects of a hyper-concentrated economy. That year, drained from writing two books back to back, he decided he needed a new strategy. Instead of spending years on another book, he would supervise a team of researchers. And instead of pumping out white papers like other think tanks, the team would produce original journalism.
Robert Bork had inaugurated the second monopoly age by convincing the legal world to ignore facts on the ground. Lynn and his team would take the opposite approach, building a case for rejecting Chicago School competition policy by showing what life really looked like in Bork’s America.
But first they needed an outlet. One was Harper’s, which had published a 2006 piece by Lynn arguing to break up Walmart. The other—and here’s where this story gets very incestuous—was the magazine you’re reading right now. Lynn’s work brought him into contact with another New America fellow named Phillip Longman, who happens to be senior editor at the Washington Monthly.
In early 2010, Paul Glastris, the magazine’s editor in chief (so, my boss), was looking for a story about the economy. Longman pitched him a piece that would take on a central riddle of the 2000s: from 1999 to 2009, the economy had added zero new jobs. Even before the real estate bubble burst, growth was historically weak. Explanations like technology and offshoring didn’t quite add up.
Longman and Lynn had a novel theory: the rise in corporate consolidation was the culprit. Small businesses drive most job creation in the U.S. A monopoly, meanwhile, has little reason to hire more workers, because it can just charge higher prices. At the very least, Longman and Lynn concluded, economists and policymakers should start asking whether monopolization was partly to blame for a decade of weak job creation.
The Monthly had published pieces on concentration in specific industries, including a 2004 cover story by Ted Turner about media consolidation. But Longman and Lynn had figured out something bigger: consolidation across sectors was driving troubling nationwide trends. The article became the first in a series that Lynn and his team would publish in the magazine over the next seven years (including Longman’s piece on health care monopolies in this very issue). In 2011, Lynn got funding to set up his Open Markets group at New America. “The idea was to get as many pieces out there under as many names—up to that point it was mostly just me, and sometimes Phil, writing about these issues,” he said. “But there were no other names. So it was like, ‘Well, Barry sees another monopoly!’ ”
His first hire was a recent Williams College grad named Lina Khan. Khan became a fixture of the Monthly table of contents in 2012, covering the plight of independent chicken farmers and collaborating with Longman and Lynn on two especially prescient pieces: one on the nasty effects of airline consolidation, which saw renewed interest during the airline scandals of the past year; and one documenting a steep decline in rates of business start-ups since 1980, which was later validated by a Brookings study inspired by the article.
The pieces hardly went viral, but they left a trail for other researchers to follow. As the smoke cleared from the 2008 recession, economists were trying to make sense of the fact that the share of income going to labor, versus capital, was going down. That could have been due to technological change—but if that were true, you’d expect to see rising investment. That wasn’t happening. Other possible theories didn’t square with the facts either. Something was pumping up corporate profits at the expense of workers.
“This is where the Barry Lynn stuff comes in,” Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize–winning economist, told me. “Most people who do good economics do stuff partly based on statistics, on measurement, on data. But you always want a story that buys into lived experience. If you tell a story that fits the data but doesn’t sound at all like what you see in the world around you, then we’re very suspicious of that story.” The argument about consolidation both described the real world and fit the strange data economists had been observing. It had taken journalists, whose currency is reporting, not theory, to see it.
In 2012, Krugman wrote approvingly in a column about Lynn and Longman’s argument “that increasing business concentration could be an important factor in stagnating demand for labor, as corporations use their growing monopoly power to raise prices without passing the gains on to their employees.”
That shout-out from Krugman, the first of several, was essentially an invitation to other economists to do research to test the hypothesis. Over the next few years, they would begin supplying the numbers to back up Lynn and Longman’s observations. But apart from Krugman, the reaction from prominent thinkers and writers was mostly silence. The dominant liberal worldview was still better captured by a 2005 paper written by a then up-and-coming liberal economist named Jason Furman. The title was “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story,” and it argued that liberals should celebrate Walmart for providing such cheap goods to poor people.
Furman would go on to chair Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Under the Obama administration, antitrust policy continued to be permissive—2015 would be the biggest year ever for mergers. Lynn still needed to figure out how to get the attention of the political elite.
When Lina Khan showed up at the Omni Hotel in New Haven for a welcome party for the Yale Law School class of 2017, she wondered if she’d made a mistake. She had applied to law school because she was convinced that the law needed a new antitrust movement. But journalism still beckoned. As she wandered around the outskirts of the reception, she told the first person she met that she was already thinking about dropping out.
That person happened to be me. (I told you this story was incestuous.) It was late August 2014, and I was a third-year student helping run the first-year orientation program. I told Khan that journalists were indeed cooler than lawyers, but since she was already at Yale she should probably give it a shot.
Boy, was that good advice. Yale Law School, where students taking antitrust in room 120 can feel Robert Bork’s portrait smirking at the backs of their heads, is one of the most insidery institutions in America—a place where Harvard and Yale college grads outnumber those from all state schools combined, and where students begin gunning for Supreme Court clerkships before they get their first-year course schedule. Bill and Hillary Clinton met there. They had Bork as a professor.
In other words, while Barry Lynn and the Washington Monthly kept banging away from outside the political establishment, Khan had infiltrated the establishment’s finishing school.
During her first year she met a second-year student named Michael Shapiro, who had worked for the National Economic Council in the Obama White House before coming to Yale. Shapiro, like some of his former colleagues, was aware of the new monopoly critique, having read Krugman’s columns. But from Khan he got a steady dose of the most emphatic version of that argument.
Shapiro was plugged into the small world of Democratic wonks brainstorming economic policy in anticipation of the coming presidential campaign, and he passed along the monopoly stuff that he was discussing with Khan at school. (One of his contacts was an old friend, Jessica Schumer, daughter of Chuck and chief of staff to Jason Furman. Also a Yale Law grad.) When the Clinton campaign launched in spring of 2015, Shapiro joined the economic policy team.
“I think he was a key voice on this, early, as a place that we should focus,” said Jake Sullivan, the campaign’s top policy adviser (and yet another Yale Law grad). “Like, really early. The end of ’14, beginning of ’15.” The most tangible result came in October 2015, when Clinton published an op-ed in Quartz promising, if elected, to “take steps to stop corporate concentration in any industry where it’s unfairly limiting competition.”
2015 seems to be when the first tendrils of interest in bringing back antitrust started sprouting among liberal cognoscenti. Around the same time as the op-ed, Furman and his former colleague Peter Orszag delivered a paper arguing that economic “rents”—profits in excess of what companies should earn in a competitive market—were largely to blame for rising inequality. Furman, you’ll recall, is the guy who a
decade earlier was urging liberals to embrace Walmart.
The major liberal think tanks were also getting involved. New America already had Lynn and company. The Roosevelt Institute in May 2015 published a report, coauthored by Joseph Stiglitz, that focused heavily on breaking down industry concentration to foster competition. Most significantly from a political perspective, the Center for American Progress, the policy factory for the Democratic Party founded by John Podesta, would issue a paper in mid-2016 called “Reviving Antitrust.”
Even the Economist, normally a cheerleader for all things free trade and free market, published a March 2016 story picking up the argument that the super-high profits flowing to the top firms suggested a monopoly problem.
Meanwhile, in the White House, the Council of Economic Advisers was building off the Furman/Orszag paper from 2015. In April 2016 it published a brief adding the administration’s weight to the argument that consolidation was up, competition down, and American workers were suffering for it. Obama himself issued an executive order directing all agencies to identify ways to crack down on anticompetitive practices in their areas of jurisdiction.
But, even with the executive order, this was still basically the realm of white papers, conferences, and issue briefs. It was policy, not politics.
One Friday morning in March 2016, while I was in town for a story, I met Khan for breakfast at Patricia’s, a New Haven diner. Lunch wouldn’t work because she had to catch a train to D.C. She was vague about why, but eventually I pulled it out of her: she was having dinner with Elizabeth Warren. Warren’s staff occasionally organizes policy-oriented dinners for the senator, and they had reached out to Khan for help planning one focused on antitrust.
It might seem strange that a senator and former law professor would reach out to a current law student for advice on a legal topic. But there just weren’t many options. Khan was one of very few people interested in antitrust who wasn’t already an antitrust lawyer trained to look at the world in terms of Borkian efficiency.
“Effusing about one’s interest in antitrust and monopoly was not very common, or so I’m told,” Khan said. “I talked about this stuff at parties.” Her Yale pedigree didn’t hurt, either.
Warren’s office asked Khan to suggest other dinner guests. Naturally, she picked her old boss, Barry Lynn. Lynn had pitched the Democratic primary candidates (even Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb) his argument for an anti-monopoly agenda, but to little effect. Even Bernie Sanders had been lukewarm. Now, Lynn was being invited to present the argument he had been obsessing over for a decade to one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate.
Khan and Lynn showed up with a stack of reading material for Warren, mainly their Washington Monthly stories from over the years. Warren was a natural audience. A purveyor of wonky progressive populism, she had made her name in part by inveighing against “too big to fail” and the government’s response to the financial crisis. She also was vocal about net neutrality, which is rooted in concern over how internet provider monopolies will abuse their power. A few weeks after the dinner, Warren’s staff asked Lynn to help organize an event where the senator would give a speech on consolidation and competition.
The speech Warren gave, in late June 2016, read like a synopsis of the work Lynn and his team had been doing since 2010. “I love markets!” she declared. But the markets needed help. The “too big to fail” problem, she explained, “isn’t unique to the financial sector. It’s hiding in plain sight all across the American economy.” That, she said, left consumers with fewer choices, made it harder for start-ups to enter markets, devastated local economies, and allowed the biggest players to rig the political system in their favor.
In Lynn’s view, Warren had done no less than carve out a new niche in the party—between the corporate wing, cozy with Wall Street banks and Silicon Valley tech giants, and the Bernie-ite, self-styled socialists. To my boss, Paul Glastris, the speech had “the potential to change the course of the presidential contest,” as he wrote in a breathless blog post.
That was wishful thinking. The mainstream press barely covered the speech. No one cared.
True, the Democratic platform in July included a section on “Promoting Competition by Stopping Corporate Concentration,” thanks in part to work by Lynn’s colleague Matt Stoller. According to Herbert Hovenkamp, one of the country’s foremost antitrust scholars, it was the first platform to make prominent mention of anti-monopoly policy since 1912. But no one besides party activists really pays attention to platforms. Clinton herself, despite the early op-ed in Quartz, barely returned to the topic, other than in one campaign speech a few weeks before the election.
Several people from the campaign policy team told me they wished they had pushed the competition issue harder. The fact that they did not was one symptom of a by now exhaustively documented failing: despite Bill Clinton’s panicked insistence that Hillary needed to develop a stronger economic message to win in places like Michigan, the communications team thought it knew better. The campaign would stick to talking about how vile Donald Trump was.
“This was an issue that we never got to give the lift that we wanted,” said Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s top policy adviser. A veteran of two disastrous campaigns, Sullivan doesn’t hold himself out as a political pundit. But I was curious whether he thought being louder about anti-monopoly policy would have been smart.
“I’m not sure how much weight this set of issues can carry politically, but my hunch is, quite a bit,” he said. “It tells a story that both allows you to explain why things are going on but also has some hope of being susceptible to solutions.”
So why didn’t the campaign push it harder? Sullivan acknowledged the obvious—the campaign was light on economic messages in general—but also suggested that his team never quite figured out how to talk about things like consolidation, antitrust policy, and competitive markets in a way that would get through to voters. “Some aspects of it are difficult to translate,” he said, like the threat monopolization poses to democracy. “They are more abstract.”
Voters in 2016, unlike in 1936, weren’t used to hearing and thinking about the perils of monopoly. A recent piece in the Atlantic by Stacy Mitchell showed that use of the word “monopoly” in books peaked in 1949 and has since plummeted to 1880s—pre–Sherman Act—levels. Although Harper’s and the Washington Monthly had been raising the issue for years, more prominent elite media like the Economist and the Atlantic didn’t catch on until the 2016 primaries were under way. The mainstream press—major newspapers and network TV—still hasn’t. It’s a lot to ask of a political candidate, in the midst of a campaign, to simultaneously run on an issue and teach voters what it is.
“One of the things the Chicago School stole from us is the language,” said Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and member of Lynn’s post–New America group, the Open Markets Institute. “It sounds technical, but it’s actually deeply political, deeply moral. The loss of language was a central loss.”
In 2014, Teachout ran a surprisingly strong campaign against Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York, winning 34 percent of the vote despite raising less than $1 million. Lina Khan was her policy director. Teachout, who had written a book making a corruption-based argument against Citizens United, had two main policy platforms: public financing for elections, and fighting consolidation. But media coverage of her candidacy focused almost entirely on corruption and campaign finance, which the press was used to, and ignored her anti-monopoly platform, which it wasn’t. A feature on Teachout by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker didn’t mention monopoly or consolidation once.
Trump’s election forced a traumatized Democratic political class to recognize that it had no coherent vision that addressed the circumstances of the modern American economy. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, was especially vocal about the party’s need to develop a compelling agenda to have any chance at taking back Congress in 2018, though he gave no indication that he had anything specific in mind. From November through July, his office spearheaded an effort to gather ideas that could both get buy-in from the various factions of the party and appeal on a gut level to the voters the party had lost. It was a post-election Warren Commission, endlessly studying where the bullet had entered the party’s brain.
Schumer and his staff spoke with all forty-seven other Democratic senators, as well as leaders from the House, including Nancy Pelosi and the cochairs of the messaging committee. They also talked with people at the major liberal think tanks and survivors of the Clinton campaign, including Sullivan.
At many of these stops, what they found was anti-monopoly. Key Clinton and Obama policy people were on board; the top think tanks were pushing it; and Elizabeth Warren, who after Bernie Sanders is the most influential figure within the Democratic left, had gone all in with her speech last summer. A handful of other prominent senators, including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, were also pushing for antitrust to be part of the agenda.
Oh, and remember Michael Shapiro, from the campaign? In fall of 2015 he started dating his old friend Jessica Schumer; in 2016 they got married. Jessica had drafted the party platform in Philadelphia that contained a section on breaking up monopolies. It’s safe to say that her father was hearing about the topic from many directions.
Meanwhile, Shapiro’s old schoolmate Lina Khan had been influencing the conversation from inside the ivory tower. In January, the Yale Law Journal published her 24,000-word academic article “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” The article is a direct attack on the argument Bork advanced in The Antitrust Paradox—namely, that the only thing the law should worry about when it comes to monopoly businesses is their effect on consumer prices and product quality. Khan makes a powerful case that Amazon—even though it delivers quality products at low prices with incredible service—should be seen as a major threat to competition thanks to its dominance of essential internet infrastructure.
The article has been viewed more than 80,000 times—an astounding number for any piece of legal academic writing and truly remarkable for a student author—and generated enough buzz that Khan was profiled by Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post. In the still-small world of people who think and talk about monopoly and antitrust, Khan had become an overnight sensation. That was powerful evidence that there was pent-up demand for intellectual leadership on how to address the radical changes being wrought by tech giants like Amazon.
While a threshold number of Democratic wonks were now behind an anti-monopoly push, elected officials needed some assurance that voters would reward them for sticking their necks out on an unfamiliar topic. A slew of Washington Monthly articles had insisted that anti-monopoly policy would be good electoral politics, but there was never any evidence. That changed in April with a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates. The poll presented voters with a battery of questions and scenarios to probe their feelings on corporate consolidation.
The poll found that voters were much more worried about how the very rich use their power to benefit themselves than about excessive government regulation. Eighty-six percent agreed with the statement “Our economy is increasingly dominated by a small number of very large corporations,” and nearly 60 percent, including Rust Belt voters, said they were “extremely concerned” that “[c]orporate monopolies control too much of our economy and our political system.”
Maybe the wonks were onto something.
Let’s not exaggerate. The Democratic Party is not suddenly the anti-monopoly party in the way that Reagan’s GOP became the party of deregulation and Trump’s has become the party of nativism and white grievance (and more deregulation). The Better Deal is just an elaborate set of talking points, and the section on competition and consolidation is one of many—too many, you might say—policy items. The 2018 congressional candidates are free to pick and choose whichever elements of the agenda they want, if any. In the upcoming midterms, former Obama administration officials Lillian Salerno and Austin Frerick are running on anti-monopoly platforms in Texas and Iowa, respectively, as David Dayen reported for the Intercept. But that’s two among dozens. Doug Jones, currently running in the December special election for Jeff Sessions’s vacant Senate seat, doesn’t mention anything about consolidation, or anything else Better Deal related, on his campaign’s issues page.
It’s true that important figures in the party seem convinced that taking on monopolies is an important idea. Keith Ellison, a leader of the party’s progressive wing in the House and the second-in-command of the Democratic National Committee, has taken to anti-monopoly with gusto. Over the summer he recorded a half-hour podcast discussion with his colleague Ro Khanna, a freshman congressman from a district including Silicon Valley, on all things monopoly and competition. When I spoke with Ellison in his office in September, he was in the middle of reading Barry Lynn’s Cornered and Jonathan Taplin’s recent book, Move Fast and Break Things, about the dangers of big tech.
“I’m not into this to try to advance a political position,” he said. “I actually believe that monopolies and cartels are bad. It is truly something that I believe in. But from a political standpoint, Democrats are always trying to figure out, how do we work for the consumer and the small business person? Well, this issue opens the door to that.”
On the Senate side, in late September, Senator Amy Klobuchar—seen as a possible 2020 presidential candidate—introduced a bill into the antitrust committee, of which she’s the ranking Democrat, titled the “Merger Enforcement Improvement Act,” which would give antitrust enforcers more information on the effects of mergers. Its nine cosponsors—all Democrats—include Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, also potential 2020 candidates.
But these are baby steps. Turning anti-monopoly into winning electoral politics, as Chuck Schumer hopes, and into successful policy, if Democrats ever take back power, presents a number of challenges.
First, Democrats need to figure out how to discuss it in a way that connects with voters. “The lesson out of the election is: really detailed, well-tuned plans on a wide range of issues do not capture the public’s imagination as well as a smaller number of bold clear ideas that represent values,” said Andy Green, the managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress. So far, there’s no proof that Democrats can turn anti-monopoly ideas into statements of core values. Tom Perriello ran in the Virginia gubernatorial primary on a message built partly on addressing consolidation, and lost handily to über-establishment candidate Ralph Northam. Zephyr Teachout ran for Congress in a New York district that Trump won, and lost by nine points. The candidacies of Frerick and Salerno will be important test cases.
Part of the appeal of focusing on consolidation is that it’s a pocketbook issue: mergers have jacked up the prices of things that really matter to ordinary people, including medicine, airfare, and internet access. The April polling by Hart Research found that “rising prices for essentials” topped respondents’ economic concerns, and a slim majority rated “corporate monopolies are raising the prices we all pay” as an “extremely serious” concern.
But the pocketbook paradigm could be a trap. Voting is more an expression of tribal identity than a rational bet on the practical effects of policy. Promising to help voters’ bottom line only works if they trust you in the first place. And focusing just on prices ignores the issue of small business and regional competition. Cheap consumer goods can’t make up for the lost jobs and wages in the large swaths of the country denuded of local businesses by behemoths on the coasts.
Sticking to the price argument also doesn’t address what may be the most urgent front in the war over consolidation: big tech. Giants like Amazon, Google, and Facebook pose threats to our democracy that aren’t captured by prices, as recent revelations about how Russia used Facebook and Twitter to influence the election illustrate. For consumers, Google and Facebook’s products are free; Amazon, meanwhile, is beloved for its low prices and exceptional service. Building a new anti-monopoly movement that confronts the issues posed by these tech giants will require a vocabulary for how their dominance threatens not consumer prices but, rather, the existence of competitive markets, media, and freedom itself—interests that were part of the antitrust movement before the Borkian revolution.An anti-monopoly, pro-competition agenda offers Democrats a way to make sense of what has gone so deeply wrong in our political and economic system without embracing either the revolutionary anti-capitalism of the far left or the anti-government nihilism of the right.
“If you just leave it in the arena of, ‘Oh, I want to order some sneakers online and I’ll get them tomorrow and they’re a pretty decent price,’ then we’re sunk,” said Ellison. “You can hope and pray that Chipotle opens up a restaurant in your neighborhood, and hope that a Walmart comes, and hope that a monopolist blesses you with their presence. Or you can fight the monopoly, keep the markets de-concentrated, and maybe open up your own shoe store, restaurant, or whatever. Maybe . . . we could return to interesting, local culture again, which these people are destroying.”
This will require angering some of the Democrats’ most important and deep-pocketed donors, something the party has not yet revealed an appetite for. The Better Deal, like the party platform before it, didn’t say a mumbling word about the new tech giants. (Klobuchar and her colleague Mark Warner did recently propose a bill that would force Facebook to disclose more information about political ads on the site.)
“They can start infecting—some people argue they already have—the whole of Washington,” said Ellison, referring to monopolists and their lobbyists. “You can get members of Congress to be like, ‘Monopoly? What are monopolies? We like monopolies, monopolies are awesome.’ ”
Reforming competition policy will also trigger pushback from the antitrust bar. Herbert Hovenkamp, the leading antitrust scholar, agreed that enforcement has been too lax, but warned that going back to a pre-Bork approach that looked out for small businesses and workers, not just consumer prices, “would drive the economy back into the Stone Age.” In his view, the economic boom times of the New Deal and Warren Court eras happened in spite of antitrust enforcement, not because of it.
If Democrats have the skill and guts to take on these challenges, though, the rewards of an agenda that prioritizes breaking down monopolization could be big. Today the owners of America’s nearly thirty million small businesses tend to lean Republican. A movement to take small business’s side against the corporate Goliaths marauding the economy could change that dynamic. The tech industry itself is full of small and medium-sized firms that would surely support a movement to rein in the likes of Google and Amazon.
More broadly, an anti-monopoly, pro-competition agenda offers Democrats a way to make sense of what has gone so deeply wrong in our political and economic system without embracing either the revolutionary anti-capitalism of the far left or the anti-government nihilism of the right. Another way to say this is that anti-monopoly politics is a traditional American position—“the middle ground,” as Republican Senator Orrin Hatch recently put it, “between intrusive public management and corrosive private conduct.” (On the other hand, Hatch defends the Bork consumer welfare approach and has teasingly labeled those who disagree “hipster antitrust.”)
“I used to go to a lot of Tea Party rallies,” said Zephyr Teachout. “They had a satisfying story: ‘You’re out of power because of big government.’ And the Democrats’ message has been, ‘You’re not out of power.’ That denied people’s stories. The only way to counter the Tea Party is to give people another story about why they’re out of power. If there’s the Tooth Fairy and nothing, I’m going with the Tooth Fairy.”
Trump, like any salesman, understood that. He won the industrial Midwest by pretending that kicking out Mexicans and renegotiating NAFTA would bring back the good jobs. The Democrats need a better, truer story. In beginning to push back against a monopolized economy, they just might have found one.