Five Stones for Goliath

This week: conversations with Zephyr Teachout, Ralph Nader, Nicco Mele, Ben Tarnoff, and Matt Stoller about Joe Biden vs. monopoly power. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

Joe Biden signed an order on July 9th taking aim at Big Tech and corporate consolidation. In his remarks, he called for a sharp turn from trends of the past four decades:

Forty years ago, we chose the wrong path, in my view, following the misguided philosophy of people like Robert Bork, and pulled back on enforcing laws to promote competition.

We’re now 40 years into the experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power. And where- — what have we gotten from it? Less growth, weakened investment, fewer small businesses. Too many Americans who feel left behind. Too many people who are poorer than their parents.

I believe the experiment failed. We have to get back to an economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out.

For critics of corporate consolidation, the order and Biden’s remarks were something to celebrate. Still, Ralph Nader on this week’s show reminds us that reversing 40 years of neoliberal policy will take more than an executive order:

Congress is not inclined to do what Congress did in the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Public Utility Holding Act where they deconcentrated legislatively. The practice now is to have it resolved in the courts, which could be 10, 15, 20 years, because the corporate attorneys are very skilled.

Ralph Nader.

Joining Nader for this week’s hour are four more critics of Big Tech. One anti-monopolist, Matt Stoller, author of Goliath, finds hope in the different way Congress works lately — in a convergence of right-wing with left-wing on the subject of monopoly power, at least. Stoller says this week:

So one of the groups that praised the executive order were cattle ranchers and farmers. So the Farm Bureau, which is incredibly right-wing, and the US Cattlemen’s Association, which is very right-wing,they came out and said, “Biden trying to resurrect the Packers and Stockyards Administration, doing some things on ‘Made in USA,’ we need that.” And that is creating this strange dynamic . . . a lot of Republican senators have been writing about the meat packers, Wyoming just updated its antitrust laws, in the House antitrust subcommittee, you saw some conservative Republicans like Ken Buck and Matt Gaetz being very adamant helpers of the anti-monopoly framework. So it’s this interesting moment when there’s a fracture on both sides of the aisle, like this isn’t just like a progressive thing.

Matt Stoller.

Zephyr Teachout, the former candidate for governor of New York and current law professor at Fordham, shares on our show the view that there’s a bipartisan recognition of monopolies’ threat:

We have to go at the root of concentrated power . . . People experience rational paranoia, fear, and humiliation when you have a concentrated economy, and they are dying to have leaders speak up about it, which is why you see this totally weird and wonderful bipartisanship in antitrust.

Zephyr Teachout.

For Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of Logic magazine, the issue isn’t monopolies as much as the profit motive more broadly. Monopolization, he points out, doesn’t explain all sorts of predatory practices in the world of Big Tech:

When we think just of Facebook for this example, the question is, if we were to promote competition, if Facebook were a smaller and more entrepreneurial firm, if it had to compete against several other Facebooks, would that produce a better result? And I think it’s hard for me to imagine that it would.

Competitive pressures compelled Facebook to develop this obsession with user engagement when it was a comparatively smaller and leaner firm. And you would imagine in a more competitive landscape, multiple firms would be angling for any possible advantage and they would be incentivized to collect even more data potentially and to monetize it.

Ben Tarnoff.

Nicco Mele, author of The End of Big, says there’s still hope for renewed democracy in the anti-monopoly movement:

Look, I think David killed Goliath with five smooth stones . . . And in some ways, it doesn’t take much. This relationship between big corporate power and big national politics is insidious and dangerous, and I believe really threatens the future of the country immediately, in profound ways. But I also believe fundamentally in American resourcefulness, in the ingenuity of our culture, in the amazing flexibility and diversity that immigration, forced or otherwise, has brought to our nation. We have to turn back to our neighbors and to our local communities to combat big economic power and monopoly power, but also to combat the national politics.

Nicco Mele.

Read: Zephyr Teachout

Over at The Nation, you can read Zephyr Teachout’s explanation of the serious turn represented by Biden’s anti-monopoly sentiments. You’ll find, among other things, an enumeration of what Biden has called for:

[H]e directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to ban noncompete agreements, so that employers can’t trap employees but have to actually provide benefits that make them choose to stay. He ordered the Department of Agriculture to use its full power under the Packer and Stockyards Act to break the stranglehold of distributors and other corporate giants that crush farmers and farmworkers. He directed the Consumer Financial Protection Board to issue a rule that would allow bank customers to take their financial transaction data with them to a new bank. He directed federal health officials to enable importation of cheaper drugs from Canada in a direct confrontation with Big Pharma.

Watch: Fists in the Pocket

Marco Bellochio’s 1965 gothic drama, driven by an Lou Castel’s performance of relentless loathing in an icy landscape, shows you what greed, alienation, and a bad mood can do at the small level. It’s on the Criterion Channel now; seek it out.

This week’s ephemeral library

The case for masking up indoors again in NYC. Robert Reich: “Both parties are beholden to an anti-democratic coalition. This is stopping real change.” On Heinrich Heine. Fintan O’Toole on Louis Menand.