Two-thirds of U.S. industries became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 — a statistic highlighted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in her new book, “Antitrust,” and one she hopes might wake Americans up to the growing threat of monopoly power.
The book charts two concurrent trends over the last several decades: a marked decline in anti-monopoly enforcement from the 1970s to today, and a steady move toward market concentration in most sectors.
The idea of preserving competition and curbing monopolies used to excite the voting public, Klobuchar argues, until antitrust gained a reputation as too complicated and dry for the average person to engage with.
“We’ve got to make this real,” Klobuchar told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. “I wrote this book because we have a serious competition problem in our economy right now. It’s hurting our families, our workers, our democracy.
“And people have to understand it’s affecting them. They ask themselves, ‘Why don’t we have good privacy protections or [why aren’t we] doing something on misinformation in tech?’ Well, part of it is we have big monopolies that are the gatekeepers,” she added. “We’ve got monopolies in everything from cat food to caskets.”
With the publication of her book, Klobuchar is calling for a concerted effort from both the legislative and executive branches of government to strengthen existing antitrust laws, enact new ones and fortify the agencies charged with enforcing them.
“We have this history in our country of rejuvenating capitalism and using the antitrust laws to do that. And now, because of conservative courts, and because of literally no action by Congress, we’ve done nothing. And look what’s happening: We literally are living in a new Gilded Age,” she told Brancaccio.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: If I were pitching a movie studio, maybe they would bite on “Ghostbusters 5: Next Generation,” or something. But if I were to pitch “Trustbusters 2021,” would anybody be interested?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Oh, come on — I actually have a whole section in the book about the use of antitrust in famous programs like “Billions” and the James Bond movies. So, you know, if that doesn’t make you interested, I don’t know what. And part of my argument is: We’ve got to make this real. I wrote this book because we have a serious competition problem in our economy right now. It’s hurting our families, our workers, our democracy. Big Tech makes up a full 20% of the total value of the stock market. And people have to understand it’s affecting them. They ask themselves, “Well, why don’t we have good privacy protections or [why aren’t we] doing something on misinformation in tech?” Well, part of it is we have big monopolies that are the gatekeepers. Why does it cost so much for farmers to pay for seeds or fertilizer, get their goods to market? Look at monopolies: We’ve got monopolies in everything from cat food to caskets. And so that’s why I stepped back, looked at history, looked at how in the past, from farmers with pitchforks or union organizers, that we were able to make the case. And I tell the stories through history of the people, the faces of the people that took on monopoly power, and make the case we can do it again.
A history of “rejuvenating capitalism” using antitrust laws
Brancaccio: It’s a wild ride reading through the history in the book. But you see companies abusing their positions as at the root of, what, a lot of the anger and polarization we see now?
Klobuchar: Well, much more than that. If you look at misinformation online, I do see it that way. Yes, because there’s not enough incentive for these companies to compete to do something about it. But I also see it at the root of problems with wages for workers. If you only can go to one monopoly with your skills, or two companies, or even three, that’s a problem. I see it as the root of not allowing, as many women-owned or minority-owned businesses to, not just to get started — people can try — but to succeed. And our whole ecosystem has been affected by this monopoly power that we’re seeing throughout the economy. And over time, we did something about it, right? Look at AT&T: [Congress was] willing, through Democratic and Republican administrations, to take that on. What happened? Much lower long-distance rates, a stronger AT&T, in the words of their own chairman. And the cellphone industry got started. At the time it started, it was like Gordon Gekko from the movie “Wall Street” with a phone the size of a briefcase. And then we had competition happen. So we have this history in our country of rejuvenating capitalism and using the antitrust laws to do that. And now, because of conservative courts, and because of literally no action by Congress, we’ve done nothing. And look what’s happening: We literally are living in a new Gilded Age.
Ideas for the Biden administration, Congress and regulatory agencies
Brancaccio: But you’re not just calling for people to get on the stick. You actually want and think that we need new laws to fight these issues.
Klobuchar: Yes. In the book, I list 25 ideas for things people can do, simple, straightforward things. What the new administration can do in terms of the kinds of people they put in these jobs and cases they can take on, and then also what Congress can do. And that’s where my bill comes into play, which is really sweeping legislation to update our laws so they are as sophisticated as the companies we’re trying to regulate. That’s things like looking backward at exclusionary conduct like the hearing [Sen.] Mike Lee and I just had on the app stores, where they’re charging — 30% of your money that you give companies goes to Apple or Google, depending on which one you’re on for the app stores.
Or it is also looking at mergers going forward, changing the burden, so that it is easier to prove up these cases. Right now, it’s so hard to bring these cases. And then finally, helping the agencies to do their job. You tell me how they’re going to take on the biggest companies the world has ever known with duct tape and band aids. They are literally a shadow of their former selves. And I’m talking about the FTC and the Department of Justice antitrust division. And this bill, it has strong bipartisan support. Sen. [Chuck] Grassley and I are leading it, a number of Republicans are supporting it. It just simply changes the filing fees for big companies so that we can use that money to help fund the agencies, to be able to have the lawyers to actually take on these companies. Otherwise it becomes a joke.
Excerpted from “Antitrust” by Amy Klobuchar. Copyright © 2021 by Amy Klobuchar. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Evaluating and reevaluating mergers
Brancaccio: Among the many pieces of this that stand out: You’re arguing for, after a merger is approved, what you call a “look-back provision,” almost like giving mergers a performance review, every once in a while?
Klobuchar: I wouldn’t put it quite like that. First of all, when a merger is approved, a lot of times the agencies will put conditions on it. That makes sense, right? You’ve heard about that with things like Comcast and other mergers, but then they’re not really enforced. So that’s a piece of it, is making sure that they get enforced, the conditions, and they can look back at what those are.
The second thing is, look at what happened with AT&T way back. They looked back at that, right? That’s not a big surprise. But that was before we had a bunch of conservative court rulings. So they look back at it and said, “Wait a minute, this hasn’t worked. They control all the machinery under them, and they also control all the phone companies.” I know about this because for 14 years I was in the private sector, and I represented MCI when they were trying to take on the local companies. So this just makes it easier to look back at these mergers.
How come Facebook — OK, maybe the agencies screwed up. I think they did, in not looking at those mergers more carefully, Instagram and WhatsApp. And now that we know more, we know that Mark Zuckerberg sent an email where he said, these businesses are nascent, but the network’s established, the brands are already meaningful — now, listen to this — and if they grow to a large scale, “they could be very disruptive to us.” Well, that is Exhibit A that came out in my friend [Rep.] David Cicilline’s House hearing.
“Disruptive to us” — that’s what tech is supposed to be. It’s supposed to disrupt the economy and do new great things. But [Zuckerberg] is looking at it, as he said in another email, that he would rather buy then compete. They are buying up everyone around so that they don’t emerge and aren’t able to grow to be actual disruptors and create competition. That’s exactly what’s going on. So the only way you get at that is by looking back.
Brancaccio: But I just want to understand this better, because, you know, a merger happens and it’s judged to be hurting the consumer, can you really back these things back apart? Once you’ve made purple, it’s hard to pull the red and the blue back out.
Klobuchar: As I said, throughout time, whether it’s looking at Microsoft, Standard Oil, if you want to go way back to the muckrakers and Ida Tarbell, we’ve looked back. And this just put some guidelines in a new sophisticated economy about how you can do it, and giving a bit more power, shifting the scale some, to be able to make it easier to look at this exclusionary conduct. When Sherman did the Sherman Act and they did the Clayton Act, they didn’t really anticipate that you’d have a web, or app stores that basically took over the web.
So yeah, it makes some changes. But you can look back — and I want to make this clear, David: I was in the private sector for 14 years. I think these companies have done some great things for America, for jobs and the like. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t now say, “Wait a minute, this is getting unfair, bad things are happening.” So we’re gonna have to make some changes. We may have to look at these, where they are because of their exclusionary conduct, we let those mergers through, yeah, but now it’s gotten to the point where they’re so big that this is hurting competition. That’s happened throughout history, that is not radical. And then you say, “Hmm, maybe we’ll break off parts of this. You’ll still exist, Facebook, but maybe we’ll break off parts of this so we can have some competition. Maybe we’ll put some new rules in on privacy and things like that.” We can no longer just believe them when they say “trust me.” That hasn’t worked very well for a lot of people.
Overhauling campaign finance laws and antitrust laws
Brancaccio: Thinking about the political prospects of some of this, what do you think comes first, Senator: campaign finance reform, then you get the new antitrust laws passed? Or does it go the other way around?
Klobuchar: The chicken and the egg. And you just happened to pick the sweet spot for me, because I lead the Rules Committee. And we are considering the For the People Act in a markup in May. And those things can go at the same time. They are different. So the the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, those are going to be proceeding right to the floor in the near future, only because those bills have been around for quite a while. And right now, they have some bipartisan things in them, but it’s a major political fight. And I think you must do that after you’ve seen what’s happened in Georgia.
At the same time, the antitrust bills are interesting, because this is a more bipartisan issue, in many ways. And those bills, some of them, you could take them out on their own and pass them separately like the bill I just mentioned with Sen. Grassley, like the bill that allows newspapers to coordinate in terms of negotiating with Big Tech, because little newspapers aren’t going to be able to do well on their own for the price of their content. Huge deal. And that’s bipartisan in both the House and Senate, I lead that bill. And this exclusionary conduct, or the app stores, you could do something with each of these. So in that way, they’re a bit different, because I think the For the People bill has to stay together as one big bill, but I think that these you could start doing bit by bit by bit, or you could pass them as one bill.
But you’ve happened to arrive at the two things that I am focused on with my work in the Senate, and I just think they both have to happen. Otherwise, right now, there are so many lobbyists for all these companies that I can’t ever tell who’s stopping stuff. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. You know, whether it’s one Democratic senator or one Democratic house member, a Republican over here, or someone that has some company in their district, it isn’t easy. But the public is with me, and I have enough people that are willing to stand up to this, like my friends, [Sen. Richard] Blumenthal and [Sen. Cory] Booker, that, you know, I think we have a movement going right now. And traditionally, that’s what happened. The railroad barons were hugely powerful, the steel companies hugely powerful way back in time. And what happened was that the people finally had it. And we were able to ride that, Theodore Roosevelt was able to ride it right into the White House. But it is a moment in time like no other because of the lack of any action when it comes to monopolies.
Rebranding as “competition policy”
Brancaccio: I mean, your book does talk about the need for maybe some rebranding. I mean, a lot of people don’t even know what a trust is, until they read your book and then they get the full, multilayered exploration of that. But you’re suggesting maybe instead of “antitrust,” calling it “competition policy.” I mean, there may be some something there. It’s still a little bit wonky, isn’t it?
Klobuchar: Well, it is. Except, antitrust — I was teasing Pete Buttigieg. As you know, we were rivals on the debate stage, but friends actually throughout the campaign, and now, and he had a book come out this fall called “Trust,” and I have one called “Antitrust.” So the rivalry continues.
The book is called “Antitrust” because that’s what the subject is, and I think it’s an interesting turn on words, because people don’t trust right now, they don’t trust institutions. But at the same time, if we really want to put a different kind of spin on it in terms of what we need to do, I like “competition policy,” because that incorporates pushing competition, which can also mean things like “Made in America” provisions. It can mean doing something when it comes to immigration reform, because you want our our country to be more competitive and have workers in place. It means something about minimum wage, it means doing something about tech. And so I make the case in the book that — like European countries and others, Australia does this, they much more refer to this combination of things as competition policy. So we start seeing what the antitrust laws were intended to do is to promote competition, which I think is a much more positive way to talk about it.
Brancaccio: Well, on this point, maybe you could consult Mel Brooks. I mean, he’s still around. And in the film he had back when you and I were teenagers, “Silent Movie,” there was a corporation called Engulf & Devour. It had the slogan: “Our fingers are in everything.” So maybe he could help you out. Competition policy, maybe with a little extra gloss.
Klobuchar: Exactly. And I did think about that kind of theme at our hearing on the app stores. Because, literally, we discovered in the course of this hearing, that Google had actually, one of their business people had called someone at Match.com, because Match.com had the audacity, along with Spotify and Tile, to appear and talk about the intimidation and how hard it is to take on these app stores that now have really become our modern-day web and our monopolies. And we found out that Google had actually called this company beforehand, Match, and said to them, “Hey, we just read your testimony” — on the eve of the hearing — “and it seems like it conflicts with what you said in your earnings reports to your shareholders. We think that’s a problem.” So what do we all think it is? Blumenthal, Lee and I? We think that’s intimidation. We think that only monopolies have the power to do that. So your reference to the movie to me is kind of relevant because that is literally what is going on right now: devouring.
The effect on innovation
Brancaccio: So just before we go, so my listeners are clear, some people worry that if you’re leaning on corporations, ultimately what you get is less innovation. I mean, the book spends a lot of time talking about abuses, as you see it, in the pharmaceutical industry. But that’s a risky business when they’re trying to make important drugs. Most of what they try fails, and occasionally something scores. And don’t you worry that by being tough with, say, the pharmaceutical industry, we end up with less innovation?
Klobuchar: Not one bit. This is a massive industry. It’s tended actually to be pretty competitive, and then it’s got more and more consolidated. And I make the case there’s a huge risk in doing nothing. Look at what happened with EpiPens. Look what happened with the price of insulin. I tell the story of a drug for newborns with heart defects where one company, it was always about $109 a treatment. Then one company suddenly has both drugs, they buy out the other one, and it goes up to $1,500 per treatment, which was a huge deal, went to court, conservative courts throw it out. It’s outrageous. If a senator and the FTC and Democratic and Republican attorneys general can’t take on pharma for the newborn babies, I think we have a problem with our laws. So, I think you can do smart things with pharma, like allow for reimportation of less expensive drugs from Canada and push Medicare to negotiate for better deals for all of our seniors without hurting that innovation one bit.