Two companies produce nearly all of America’s toothpaste. One produces nearly all the sunglasses. Two companies control nearly all of our credit and debit cards. There are four cable and broadband providers, who have divided up the country and rarely compete with each other. There are four major airlines. There are four major commercial banks. The four Internet platform monopolies — Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google — control information flow, identity data, and your virtual life.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned Americans that “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Sadly, our elected representatives have failed to heed this warning. Instead, they accept millions in corporate PAC funding and dark money showered on them by massive private companies, then prevent or roll back regulations so that these corporations can continue to consolidate economic power at the expense of America’s economic vitality and future.
While paid-off politicians stand idly by, virtually every major sector of the American economy has been consolidated and monopolized by a few major players.
Economic power begets political power, and democratic institutions inevitably suffer. We’ve seen the damage that Facebook and Twitter have done to our elections. Personal liberty is stymied when choices are diminished and corporations rob us of options. Insurmountable barriers to entry lead to a decrease in business start-ups, which sends local wealth out to large corporations and leaves us with a blight of empty storefronts.
This ongoing market consolidation has wide-reaching effects. Monopolies charge higher prices due to lack of competition, while the quality of service suffers when consumers have nowhere else to turn (how did your last interaction with your phone company or internet provider go?). Online, where consolidation is especially acute, an outage at Amazon Web Services took out half the Internet.
Legislators must fight back, and they already have the tools they need. More than 100 years ago, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act and empowered the government with broad authority to fight monopolization by protecting consumer welfare.
President Teddy Roosevelt (a proud New Yorker) used the Sherman Antitrust Act to break the trusts through strong enforcement and a clear-eyed commitment to competitive markets. Just as he democratized the railways, oil companies, and utilities, we must rejoin this battle and democratize the finance, consumer product, and online platform monopolies that threaten our economy today.
In fact, with politicians who are paid off, uninformed, and asleep at the wheel, online platform monopolists including Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple have achieved market dominance and control that hearkens back to the worst consolidation of the trust-busting era.
There are three immediate steps that our government can take to end this corruption and fight back against creeping monopolization:
First, lawmakers must seek to prevent monopolies from occurring in the first place. They should utilize the federal government’s antitrust authority under the Sherman Antitrust Act to crack down on mergers and acquisitions, and get more aggressive in their efforts to stop creeping monopolization by companies.
Second, Congress should establish clear legal barriers to roll back vertical consolidation within industries. The Glass-Steagall Act restricting banking monopolies was a model for this type of legislation, before pro-Wall Street politicians like my opponent repealed it. Similarly, a company should not be able to own both a product and its means of distribution, as in the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner, or to be both a marketplace and a competitor in the marketplace, as Amazon is.
Third, lawmakers must deal with existing monopolies by aggressively regulating them or breaking them up altogether. Our government must be clear that single corporations or cartels will not be allowed to control entire realms of commerce without competition.
In the absence of any meaningful antitrust action, the rise of giant monopolies has caused a massive increase in corporate crime. It’s time for America’s government to start treating illegal cartels, wage-fixing, and arbitrary market restrictions as the crimes they are under the Sherman Act, and impose punishments that actually change behavior. Executives should face penalties when they are caught interfering illegally in markets.
Consumers will continue to suffer until anti-competitive corporate practices are addressed and emerging monopolies are broken up. We urgently need lawmakers with the courage to enforce existing anti-trust legislation and defend fundamental principles of competition in American markets. Otherwise, as Brandeis warned, concentrated wealth and monopoly power will continue to erode our democracy, skew our elections, and undermine our economy.