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Antitrust Returns to American Politics

 |  March 13, 2019

Posted by New York Times

Antitrust Returns to American Politics

By Tim Wu

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s announcement on Friday of a plan to break up major tech monopolies like Facebook and Google was critically important — not just as a policy proposal, but also as a sign of the return of antitrust to politics.

In the United States, economic policy is ostensibly a matter of democratic governance, but for too long antitrust has been viewed as a technocratic matter best left to experts. This is a mistake: Excessive corporate size and power can be linked to many voter concerns, including stagnant wages, the invasion of privacy, the rise of fake news, the demise of the middle class and an unresponsive democracy.

Antitrust is especially salient today because we witness the tremendous power of the tech monopolies firsthand, in our daily lives. Nearly everyone uses Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, and nearly everyone can see how smaller businesses have been hurt by their dominance. Nearly everyone has an opinion about whether they are too powerful, whether they know too much, whether they ought to be admired or feared.

Add to these concerns the dangers of agricultural monopolies, rising costs for cable and broadband, and anticompetitive drug pricing, and it is clear that for Ms. Warren and other presidential hopefuls in the Democratic field, the problem of monopoly power should be a central issue — perhaps the central issue — in the 2020 campaign.

Though every Democratic candidate is against President Trump and in favor of working Americans, antitrust is an issue over which the candidates have real disagreement. There are stark differences between, say, Senator Bernie Sanders’s calls to “break them up” (usually a reference to banks), and former Vice President Joe Biden’s “cooperative” approach. Mr. Biden (still undeclared), has taken the position that big corporations should not be “singled out” and that their chief executives can be persuaded to shoulder their responsibilities toward workers and communities. (In the late 1970s, Mr. Biden resisted efforts to strengthen the antitrust laws, though his views may have changed as the law has grown weaker.)

Antitrust law is not an instrument of socialism or of unfettered capitalism; it seeks to protect markets from abuse by their participants. Ms. Warren and Senator Amy Klobuchar seem to have the deepest understanding of this. Ms. Klobuchar is not as aggressive on the issue as Ms. Warren, but she has cast herself as an antitrust reformer, introducing thoughtful new laws for merger reform. Senator Cory Booker, for his part, has over the last year staked out a trustbusting position centered on labor markets, with particular emphasis on the worrisome effects of corporate consolidation on workers and their salaries.

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