On Thursday, November 14, The American Conservative and The American Prospect magazines held an event titled “The Bipartisanship America Needs: Left-Right Convergence on Confronting Monopoly Power.” Despite the speakers’ differing political views, panelists all agreed on one thing: Republicans, Democrats, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission have not adequately enforced antitrust regulation.
Three of the main themes discussed were: the U.S. government has failed to address monopolies; simply fining companies for wrongdoings does not go far enough; and monopolies impact nearly every industry.
The event, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., featured FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, the Open Markets Institute’s Sandeep Vaheesan and Phillip Longman, the Stigler Center’s Guy Rolnik, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law’s Liza Lovadahl Gormsen, RealityChek’s Alan Tonelson, The American Prospect’s David Dayen and Robert Kuttner, and The American Conservative’s W. James Antle III and Jonathan Tepper.
Chopra commented that economic power often translates into political power. The power and control that large corporations have over the government has been used as a weapon to keep others out of the market.
Rolnik, clinical associate professor of strategic management at the Booth School of Business and senior fellow at the Stigler Center, asserted that both the right and left are to blame for the consolidation of private power. Rolnik argued that “the question here isn’t ‘how do we fight monopoly?’ but ‘how do we restore democracy?’” To rein in the political power of large corporations, according to Rolnik, it’s essential to acknowledge that power is at the center of economics, politics, and policy.
Similarly, Vaheesan, legal director at the Open Markets Institute, called the government’s lack of action on antitrust cases a “bad bipartisan consensus” that needs to be replaced with a “populist bipartisan consensus.” Tepper, senior fellow at The American Conservative, called today’s concentrated power a complete failure by the FTC and the Department of Justice for more than 40 years.
Chopra acknowledged that the FTC has not been tough with antitrust enforcement. Chopra said in part that the government is mistakenly focused on getting the headline instead of the addressing the problem with meaningful action. Elaborating on this point, Chopra spoke to Facebook’s $5 billion settlement with the FTC over consumer privacy rights. Chopra criticized the settlement, saying that although it received extensive media attention, the fine “will do almost nothing” to change Facebook’s behavior.
In a similar vein, Rolnik called fines “pathetic” and noted that fines are merely turning into the cost of doing business for Big Tech. Even these seemingly large fines are sometimes only a week or month of cash flow, Rolnik noted. He suggested that criminal investigations, instead of the civil investigations that are common today, may be more effective deterrents.
Vaheesan echoed Rolnik’s sentiments, saying that by focusing on fines, the government is essentially sending a message to corporations that they can do whatever they want as long as they ask for forgiveness later.
While the event addressed monopoly power in Big Tech, it also touched upon monopolies in other industries. As Chopra commented, anticompetitive behaviors exist in nearly every industry, from trash pickup to pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Tepper called the healthcare industry the “epitome of the problem of concentration.” Longman, managing editor at the Open Markets Institute, described this concentration as doctors’ practices being bought by large groups that are subsequently bought by hospitals. In addition, hospitals themselves are merging to create an even further concentrated market, resulting in higher prices.
In a time of great political turmoil and increasing partisan politics, the event’s takeaway message was this: Given that nearly every industry is affected by concentrated market power, there must be a bipartisan effort to dislodge this control.