Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

Target Monopolies!

By Zephyr Teachout

Tagged activismmonopolization

The central challenge of a democracy is power, and how to structure society such that people can govern themselves. For the last 40 years, we have seen unprecedented levels of concentration of power. That concentration has infected and corrupted both political parties. And the corruption that flows from concentrated power has rightly outraged the public. People do not want the basic decisions that govern their lives to be made by Monsanto, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, J.P. Morgan, ExxonMobil, and a handful of hedge funders.

Concentrated economic power creates centralized, non-responsive political power. These corporate giants have enormously powerful lobbies, and they take over trade associations that once represented diverse interests. They fund and pressure think tanks. They exercise massive power over big parts of the progressive infrastructure itself.

Therefore, one of the most important things progressives in America must do is to rebuild the old models of populist thinking—this time for the information age. We need to once again put anti-monopoly crusades and fighting illegitimate Wall Street power at the center of our agenda. This project would have four tasks:

Educate the public about the hidden monopolies in our system. Most Americans do not know that we have an economy that is one of the most concentrated, least competitive, and least open to new entrants among developed democracies. They may know that Amazon dominates books, but not that it is becoming dominant in groceries, or that it does not use neutral search results. That education requires funding hundreds of journalists to write about market power, like the impactful work being done by the journalists and think-tank scholars at the Open Markets program at New America. The journalists should be serving all forms of media: long-form investigation, tabloid-style exposures of power and corruption, podcasts, short videos, longer documentaries, and virtual reality tours showing how your eyeglasses and your cat food both emerge from industries without meaningful open competition. The project would investigate and provide regular public reports on the nature of market structure (a role that the Federal Trade Commission used to perform).

Educate activists about the existing tools that can be used to fight concentrated power. People understand that electoral campaigns are political moments with a huge opportunity for public impact; they don’t understand that mergers are political moments. The best example of how a politicized public had a dramatic impact on market power was the national grassroots campaign for network neutrality (now in peril under Trump). But there are many other opportunities. The Public Service Commission in New York, for instance, has the power to block mergers in New York State unless they are in the public interest. New York’s PSC could have stopped the Comcast-Time Warner merger—activists should learn to be building and pressuring at moments like that, at state and federal and local levers of power. The same energy pushed toward political campaigns could be directed at mergers, and at pushing for divestiture in overly concentrated markets. Activists can publicly push the Justice Department and FTC to do their jobs, push for more engagement, more Section 2 cases, more protection for a free market. We should support a hub for legal teams building the cases that can be brought, identifying the key moments of legal leverage, and providing training and legal support to activists.

Educate lawmakers and activists on left and right about the laws that Congress and state houses could pass to deal with new monopolies and monopsonies. In the last two years, there has been an outpouring of new books and articles from economists, journalists, and legal academics about the challenges to our economy and democracy posed by the new platform monopolists like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Al Franken, Richard Blumenthal, and Elizabeth Warren have brought antimonopoly concerns into the Senate. This project would connect the leading anti-monopoly thinkers with lawmakers to figure out strong, fair rules of the game. At a University of Chicago conference I attended in March on our concentration problems, the recurring theme was how America is far behind Europe in directly addressing these issues with the new platforms. We should create a team of 15-20 policy leaders—including the rare economists who have not been trapped by Bork/Posner thinking but also, importantly, reaching outside of the economics profession to people trained in journalism or law. That team would spend four years meeting with interested members of Congress, state Senators, and Governors, and drafting model legislation.

Educate citizens through Supreme Court and judicial nominations. The Neil Gorsuch hearings were unique in that concentrated power and its relationship to corruption was a central theme­—this should be true for any Supreme Court nominee, as the Court has in the last three decades been taken over by pro-monopolist justices, which in turn has shaped how we live, who we buy shoes from, who serves food in our institutions, and who controls the market. We should make sure that any Supreme Court Justice gets scrutiny. There are lots of legal groups that scrutinize judicial nominees; but they don’t do it on this issue. We should support a small team ready to pour over the corporate records—and antitrust records—of nominees, and build a large online anti-monopoly presence. No judge or justice can be confirmed without answering questions about whether they are Brandeisian or Borkean in their approach toward concentrated power.

Democrats can’t change things if they don’t take on concentrated power and corruption. That’s both true as a matter of politics and policy. As a matter of politics, if Democrats are in the tank for Wall Street, turnout is going to keep declining, Trump or no Trump. And as a matter of policy, Democrats can’t win even when in power if they allow these giants to keep exercising a veto on legislation they don’t like.

More importantly, our freedom is at stake. Citizens cease to be citizens if we allow big companies to govern us, regardless of who is in office. As President, FDR described “privileged princes . . . thirsting for power” who, in the late 1920s, took “control over government itself. They created a new despotism . . . In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property.”

The new despotism is back, and more powerful than ever. We must fight it or risk democratic destruction.

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Zephyr Teachout is a visiting assistant professor at Duke Law School. She was previously the National Director of the Sunlight Foundation and the Director of Online Organizing for Howard Dean's Presidential Campaign.

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