Joseph Sunny
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How the political desire to fight monopo ...

How the political desire to fight monopolies is slamming into government bureaucracies

Sep 14, 2020

Welcome to BIG, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly and finance. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…

Today’s issue is about how popular anger at big corporations is impacting the political system.

First, I’d like your help. On Monday, I’ll be testifying before the New York Senate on a bill to strengthen New York’s antitrust laws. The hearing will stream at 10am for those interested in watching. It’s a serious effort; the main sponsor of the bill is Senator Michael Gianaris, and he’s one of the key leaders who blocked New York from giving Amazon a subsidy for its HQ2 contest.

If you’re a New Yorker and want to offer a comment about monopolies, send it to me either by responding to this newsletter or by putting it in the comments. Make sure to include what town/city you live in. I’ll put some of your comments in my written testimony.

Political Exhaustion and Monopolies

When I talk to policymakers about how to address corporate power, I usually get a very basic political question. Do people really care about monopolies and corporate power? What they mean by that question is whether they will have political support if they choose to invest some of their own effort or energy into a battle over a corporate power problem, or, conversely, whether there will be a cost if they don’t.
In a democracy, the people really do matter, and so whether the people care about monopolies is an important question. Polling suggests that they do. 71% of Americans think big corporations have too much power over their families and communities, while 88% believe that big corporations have too much power over politicians. And yet, while some politicians do use the corporate power frame - Trump certainly has, as have some politicians like Elizabeth Warren - it isn’t nearly as common as it has been throughout most of American history. If the professionals, aka politicians, aren’t talking about it, well, that's a data point contradicting the polling.

I think that’s right. I also have an alternative explanation that based on some private polling, that suggests another reason for the lack of perceived political salience around the topic - exhaustion and cynicism. Americans believe that corporate power is a problem, a big one in fact. They just don’t necessarily believe it is a political problem, nor do they think the government can or will address it. To exaggerate slightly, asking the government to do something about the banks and titans that organize their lives is like asking the government to make it rain tomorrow. You might need the water, but there are some things politics can’t do.

  • In April 15, 2015, the subcommittee made its first request for information to Backpage. The corporation refused to comply.

  • In July, the subcommittee issued a subpoena.

  • In August, Backpage sent a letter saying it wouldn’t send any documents. Backpage employees refused to testify, saying they had the Constitutional right not to incriminate themselves.

The subcommittee eventually got documents from Backpage, receiving roughly a million pages from between September and December, but subcommittee staff were never satisfied that Backpage had produced all the relevant documents. The report came out in early January of 2017, right before a new set of Senators were sworn in, and with no time to pass legislation.

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