Would you like to read a U.S. senator’s book about antitrust law? No? How about two U.S. senators’ books about antitrust law?
Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, recently published books with a combined 825 pages about the history of America’s skepticism of large and powerful corporations.
I read them both and wouldn’t recommend that other mortals follow my lead.
But the books are remarkable if only for what these senators on opposite sides of the political spectrum agree on: They want tougher regulation, new laws, more aggressive judges and citizen movements to tame what they see as America’s too-big business elite, especially technology powers like Google, Facebook and Amazon. A shorthand for these two books is that Teddy Roosevelt was good and big tech is bad.
I don’t want to draw too much of a false equivalence. Ms. Klobuchar’s “Antitrust” is deeply researched and comprehensive. (Maybe too comprehensive.) Mr. Hawley’s “The Tyranny of Big Tech” is largely an incoherent mess. But let me explain some of what I learned from reading them:
The senators agree that big is bad. One of the strangest sights in modern American politics is how powerful tech companies like Google and Facebook have generated bipartisan hatred. They have few friends. Certainly not these writers. To them, the power of tech companies is emblematic of what goes wrong when big corporations are left mostly alone to do what they want. It’s weird, really, how alike they sound.
Mr. Hawley’s book opens with an anecdote of a 2019 meeting with Mark Zuckerberg in which the senator says he challenged Facebook’s boss to break up his company. (Zuckerberg said no, not surprisingly.) “The tech barons have risen to power on the back of an ideology that blesses bigness — and concentrated power — in the economy and government,” Mr. Hawley writes.
And Ms. Klobuchar: “The sheer number of mergers and acquisitions, outsized monopoly power and grotesque exclusionary conduct in the Big Tech sector exemplifies what is going on with the power of BIG.”
Quite similar, no?
Mr. Hawley and Ms. Klobuchar are channeling a view among some economists and legal scholars that the accelerating concentration of many American industries is a root cause of many problems, including income inequality. In this view, if U.S. laws more effectively enforced competition, Americans would have better health care, cheaper cellphone bills and more control over what happens to our digital data.
Wow, they love Teddy Roosevelt. Both senators are nostalgic for when the former president challenged the big corporate barons of his day in railroads, oil, finance and other industries. (This view of history, but especially Mr. Hawley’s, is a little off base.)
The point of the hero worship is to say that U.S. law and the American public throughout history have fought back against companies they felt were getting too powerful. The senators want to bring back that spirit of both citizen and government rebellion against corporate “bigness.” This is also a point that the law professor and antimonopoly advocate Zephyr Teachout made effectively in her book on corporate monopolies last year. (Yes, there are a lot of books about antitrust.)
If you want to read at length about the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the Grange movement opposing agricultural monopolies after the Civil War, then Ms. Klobuchar has the book for you. Both senators are trying to make people see and care about the consequences of corporate monopolies in their lives. Their shared message is that people who feel that the system and economy aren’t working for them should be engaged about antitrust law.
The best idea: Stop calling it “antitrust.” Ms. Klobuchar says that the word is an artifact of 19th-century corporate giants like Standard Oil and is meaningless to 21st-century Americans. She’s right. Ms. Klobuchar says that we should instead start talking about competition policy, monopolies or simply “bigness.” And yes, Ms. Klobuchar acknowledges that her book is titled “Antitrust.”
What about Congress? Both senators agree that the government watchdogs and courts have failed to restrain big companies from getting even bigger and abusing their power. Neither one takes enough time to blame themselves and their peers in Congress for this.
It is the job of legislatures to write laws that tell companies what they can and can’t do, and to empower government watchdogs like the Department of Justice with money and authority to enforce the rules. In other words, THIS IS YOUR JOB, SENATORS. In their books, the senators liberally mention bills that they have proposed to restrain big tech companies. They are less forthcoming in talking about failures to pass those bills or whether they were good ideas in the first place.
Ms. Klobuchar, for example, led legislation in 2017 that would have forced internet companies like Facebook to disclose what organizations were spending on political ads, similar to the disclosures for conventional media. It hasn’t passed.
The senators are best when they talk about themselves. Ms. Klobuchar talks about relatives who emigrated from Slovenia at the turn of the 19th century and worked in mines with terrible conditions and poor wages. In her telling, she wouldn’t be where she is today without ordinary citizens fighting against big, bad companies and petitioning for laws to better restrain monopolies and provide genuine competition for their labor.
Mr. Hawley is most effective when he talks about his anxieties as a parent. Like many of us, he spends too much time on his phone and says his children have noticed. He agonizes when his young son is drawn to smartphones and tablets, and he tries to be more conscious about the time and attention his family devotes to screens.
I’m not sure Mr. Hawley’s beef has much to do with the power of big tech companies rather than the general brokenness of our brains thanks to our constant access to gizmos. The effects of screen time aren’t so clear. But Mr. Hawley has some ideas that are worth listening to: Emphasize real-life communities, not only ones we engage with through screens. The government should intervene to ban techniques like websites that let people scroll forever without end and automated recommendations that feed us one video after another from YouTube or TikTok.
Recommended reading: I wouldn’t hand either senator’s book to people who are curious about why they pay so much for medicine or worry about their kids being hooked on Instagram. Instead I’ll suggest two other works that tread similar ground but are shorter, more readable and already influential among people who care deeply about powerful corporations’ effect on the world.
Tim Wu’s 2018 book, “The Curse of Bigness,” is a short, breezy and captivating history of American monopolies and the risk he sees from today’s powerful corporations. (Did I mention that it’s short?) Lina Khan’s 2017 law school review paper, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” was an intellectual cannonball that questioned decades of development in U.S. law and how it failed to account for the influence of new corporate powers like Amazon.