AuthorLynn, Barry C.

Joe Biden's grand plan sure sounded right for the final weeks of the campaign. In this time of pandemic and economic upheaval, learn from the hard lessons of the Great Recession and spend big to "build back better." Focus on jobs, clean energy, infrastructure, and expanding the Affordable Care Act. It was to be nothing less than a new New Deal. Or, as Vox put it in August, Biden is "self-styling as the next FDR."

Well, Joe Biden did win big. But Democrats did not carry the Senate--and even if they are successful in the Georgia runoffs, their hold on that body will be too tenuous to deliver the trillions of dollars in spending Biden promised. The emerging consensus, as described by The New York Times, is that Biden cannot drive a series of expensive programs forward but must be content to "nibble at the edge of tax policies" and other micro measures while bracing for a sluggish recovery.

And that's the optimistic take. From day one Biden will also have to parry the populist-tipped thrusts of Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton and other Trump-inspired contenders for 2024, and perhaps of Trump himself if he seeks to reclaim his crown. Biden might also find himself under assault from the left wing of his own party, sometimes wielding the same arguments as anti-corporate Republicans.

The prospect gets ugly fast. Former FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt and others have charged Barack Obama with "wasting" the financial collapse of 2008 by not pursuing deep structural fixes. Faced with an even graver set of challenges, Biden might never get a chance to prove that he's capable of true reform. Instead, he faces two years as a hostage of the Senate, followed by two years of panic as the MAGA troops muster outside the White House gates.

But what if Biden instead chose to follow through with his promise to transform the nation, only using different tools than he envisioned in the campaign? The fact that he will enter the White House knowing that a Keynesian stimulus is off the table could prove key to his ultimate success if it inspired his team to find smarter ways to achieve its goals.

One set of tools offers the promise of true transformation, without the need for large sums of money or strong congressional support. This is the use of America's vast suite of anti-monopoly laws already on the books to address the extreme and growing concentration of private power that has harmed the economic and political well-being of almost every American. An anti-monopoly agenda would enable Biden to frame, direct, and drive deep structural reforms tailored to deliver everything from better health care to better jobs to real solutions to the climate crisis, and to create opportunity and stimulate investment and innovation across the entire economy. Such an agenda would even offer ways to steer political debate in a more constructive and civil direction.

Rather than button himself into a beige cardigan next to the White House fire, President Biden can stride forth as a second Harry Truman, taking the fight to the thieves and bullies and demagogues while telling a story of America that explains who broke our nation, how they did it, and how we can fix it.

Fully understood and embraced, anti-monopolism offers Biden the opportunity to establish the foundations for a 21st-century political economy that is fair, just, safe, prosperous, and sustainable, and to do so on the cheap. Even better, antimonopolism offers him the chance to establish a liberal political regime in America able to protect his achievements for decades to come.

The idea that monopolists pose some sort of threat to the public weal is now widely accepted. In the case of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, for instance, three of every four American voters favor some sort of breakup of the corporations.

Reaction against extreme concentration of wealth and power has in fact played a large and growing role in the nation's politics for more than a decade. In 2008, Obama's promise to fight farm monopolies proved key to his win in the Iowa caucus. When he then failed to deliver, and instead bailed out the biggest of banks, populist anger powered the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. That same anger was a key to Bernie Sanders's shocking rise in 2016, and to Donald Trump's even more shocking victory that November. And it played a big role in the Republicans' strong showing in 2020, as Trump, aided by supporters like the Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, continued to paint Democrats as supercilious servants of financiers and data barons.

Since 2016, elements of the Democratic Party have made big advances in steering the raw anti-wealth and anti-elite anger in a constructive direction. Elizabeth Warren led the way in June 2016, delivering a speech in which she characterized the rise of monopoly as a fundamental threat to the economic well-being of Americans and to democracy. During the 2020 primaries, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders all built on Warren's analysis of the fundamental role played by bad competition policy.

Then, in early October, the Democratic-led antitrust subcommittee in the House issued a groundbreaking report that detailed how Google, Facebook, and Amazon exploit their power in ways that threaten America's democracy and system of capitalism, and sketched how to use anti-monopoly law to break that power. Two weeks later, Democratic state attorneys general played a major role in prodding Bill Barr's Justice Department into filing the first major antitrust suit against Google. Finally, in December, Democratic appointees on the Federal Trade Commission drove the FTC's decision to sue to break up Facebook.

The Biden team has clearly paid close attention, and a detailed read of the campaign's policy papers reveals an assortment of promises to break concentrations of power. The statements are simple and strong. Biden's "Plan for Rural America" promises to "make sure farmers and producers have access to fair markets where they can compete and get fair prices for their products." The campaign's "Agenda to Boost America's Small Businesses" sounds as folksy as Biden himself in its pledge to "combat corporate power, promote competition, and ensure markets work for everyone so that small businesses have a fair shot."

Unfortunately, beyond these demonstrations of recognition, there's little sign that the Biden team comprehends the systemic nature of America's monopoly crisis, or the full suite of tools available to fix the problem. On the contrary, Biden thus far has left the shaping of anti-monopoly policy largely to the same people who failed to address the threat under Obama, and who generally continue to embrace the old Reagan-era doctrines that treat the concentration of private power as mostly benign.

To be sure, part of the art of making campaign promises is to leave plans vague enough that everyone sees what they need to in order to support a particular candidate. And in this case, it worked. Simply not being Donald Trump was good enough to give Biden comfortable margins in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.

But walking into the White House is different, and the lack of a coherent plan to address concentrated power poses two large and immediate challenges.

The first problem is that Biden's team does not understand the array of tools available to fix many of the most pressing challenges we face today. Consider Biden's "Plan to Rebuild U.S. Supply Chains," which aims to address two grave dangers at one go--the shortages of masks and other protective gear that contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and America's growing dependency on China for industrial goods that are vital to U.S. national security.

There is a lot to admire in the document. In the pledge to address...

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