Progressives' Secret Weapon.

AuthorVaheesan, Sandeep


It is by now widely acknowledged that the United States has a corporate concentration crisis. Sectors across the economy--from agriculture to airlines to online search to pharmaceuticals to telecommunications-are dominated by a handful of giant corporations, and the trend is only accelerating. Globally, 2017 saw the most mergers and acquisitions in history; as of this writing, 2018 was on pace to set new records. Think AT&T and Time Warner, CVS and Aetna, Disney and 21st Century Fox, and so on. The consequences of all this consolidation include lower wages, extortionate health care prices, and government at every level beholden to big business. It's great for corporate executives and shareholders, who are enjoying record profits--and terrible for most everyone else.

The trend derives primarily from radical policy shifts during the Reagan administration combined with the activism of conservative judges who, applying cartoonish right-wing economic hypotheses, intentionally reinterpreted antitrust laws--which were designed to limit monopolies and consolidation--in ways that favor monopolies and encourage mergers. With scores of Trump The enforcer: Rohit Chopra, one of two Democrats on the five-member FTC, has urged his colleagues to use their authority to crack down on harmful business practices. appointed judges coming on board and Brett Kavanaugh ensconced at the Supreme Court, that phenomenon is likely to get even worse. It now looks like we may be stuck for another generation with a federal judiciary that is ideologically opposed to the government doing anything about the increasing dominance of corporate goliaths.

Yet a powerful anti-monopoly instrument already exists and is waiting to be used. It turns out that progressives faced a similar impasse more than a century ago, in the wake of the original Gilded Age, when they saw their attempts to fight back against monopolies thwarted by a comparably reactionary Supreme Court. The solution they crafted involved the creation of an institution with the explicit legal authority to prevent and undo concentrated corporate power. That institution is in sad shape today; indeed, it perversely devotes resources to attack the very people it was designed to protect. But it remains a potentially potent weapon. With the right leadership and prodding from Congress, it could once again be used to strike back at the monopolists who are choking off America's democracy and economy, and overcome the judicial forces protecting them.

America, meet the Federal Trade Commission.

The origins of the FTC date to 1911, when the Supreme Court ordered that John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil be broken up for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. That decision is often remembered as a great triumph over plutocracy, but, in a key way, it was actually the opposite. While the Court found that Standard Oil had engaged in specific abusive and unfair practices, it also held that there was nothing wrong or per se illegal about being a monopoly. So long as a business didn't engage in "unreasonable" behavior, as determined by the courts, it was free...

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