Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age

The senior United States Senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar chairs the Senate Rules Committee; the Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights; and the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. A 2020 Presidential candidate, she is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School, a former partner at two corporate law firms, and led Minnesota’s largest prosecutor’s office for eight years. Ranked by a 2019 Vanderbilt University study as the most effective Democratic senator in the 115th Congress, she has worked to pass bipartisan legislation on a wide range of issues, including consumer product safety, agricultural issues, and civil rights, among many others. In Antitrust, Klobuchar offers a history of America’s fight against monopolies as a guide to curtailing contemporary monoliths like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. 

“Antitrust” is both a good book and a historic and important one — because Klobuchar, as the chair of the Senate Judicary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is likely to oversee major changes to antitrust law. The book is really two separate projects. The first is a historical tour through America’s anti-mon­opoly tradition, stretching back to the 1624 Statute of Monopolies through the Boston Tea Party revolt against the East India Company tea monopoly, all the way to the Trump administration’s lawsuit against Google (which Klobuchar supported, with understandable reservations). The second is a description of today’s monopoly problem and a set of policy ideas to fix it.

Klobuchar is a skilled politician and excellent storyteller, so “Antitrust” is full of colorful characters (and old lithographed cartoons and pictures to match), such as the famous economist Adam Smith, who disliked “the wretched spirit of monopolies,” and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted an anti-monopoly plank in the Constitution. The history of antitrust, Klobuchar shows, is connected to nearly every institution in America, in ways one may not expect. The book, for instance, includes the story of Louisiana politicians Hale Boggs and Russell Long demanding a football team for New Orleans as a condition of letting the American Football League and the National Football League merge, thus birthing the New Orleans Saints.

Klobuchar also explores characters famous in their time but unknown today, such as 19th-century Minnesota railroad baron James J. Hill, who controlled the iron mines in which Klobuchar’s grandfather Mike worked. A constant theme in the book is America as a battleground between robber barons like Hill and unions, characterized in the Midwestern populist tradition, passed down from William Jennings Bryan to Paul Wellstone, who used to say on the campaign trail that he was for “the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”

Klobuchar traces the rise of modern monopolies to two causes. The first is the conservative legal movement organized by Robert Bork in the 1970s. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, who was influenced by Bork, slashed antitrust enforcement staff and appointed monopoly-friendly judges, who made “antitrust enforcement much more difficult and discouraged antitrust action.” The second is a lack of popular interest in corporate power since the Progressive Era, or “roughly a hundred years of political dormancy.” As popular interest waned and corporatist judges took over, monopolies reemerged, along with the downstream effects of inequality and political corruption.

In the last three chapters, Klobuchar describes what to do about the crisis, offering 25 policy ideas, ranging from more resources for agencies to changes to legal standards to shifts in who can sue for damages. The complexity of this section is overwhelming, and the writing, which had been so fluid and enjoyable, starts to wander.

Klobuchar can sound like a prairie populist, noting for instance that the “sheer size of a company gives it power — economic power, political power, and the power to potentially co-opt regulatory agencies.” She calls for filing additional antitrust suits against Google, appointing better judges and enforcers, collecting better data on industry concentration levels, and making it illegal to charge prices below cost to unfairly drive competitors out of business.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to connect the historical section with the set of solutions. For example, in the first part of the book, she discusses the history of judges weakening antitrust law. But she doesn’t explain how her proposals would address the deep-rooted problem of today’s largely pro-monopoly judiciary, since she doesn’t suggest removing power from judges (including the hundreds of new Trump-appointed ones, conservatives who are likely to be hostile to her goals). It’s not even clear whether her suggested policy changes would have blocked the infamous merger she cites at the beginning of the book, the one in which a judge facilitated Ovation Pharmaceuticals’ price-gouging of medicine for sick babies.

This mismatch between Klobuchar’s arguments about the scale of the crisis and her policy ideas is perhaps intentional. Klobuchar is no Bernie Sanders-style firebrand; she is known as a diligent, intelligent, centrist policymaker, and in “Antitrust,” she highlights her work with Republican senators like Mike Lee and Chuck Grassley to build consensus. The U.S. Senate is where she will finish writing this story.

Klobuchar’s most important recommendation is where she really shines and where her book, with its colorful portrayals of what Americans did to free themselves of monopoly, is at its best. She calls for a mass movement against monopolies, similar to those that she argues animated American history. “Antitrust became a very hot topic during the Progressive Era,” she writes, “and it should once again take center stage in American political life.” In other words, that’s the reason for the mismatch. Klobuchar knows she can’t fight corporate power alone, and “Antitrust” is her way of asking the American people to remember their history and join the fight

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