A recent virtual conversation with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar explained why antitrust legislation, breaking up mergers, and labor law are central to the pain points Americans are experiencing. A movement around building more co-operative and equitable economies could benefit from understanding the history of how the U.S. was able to reduce the size of corporations until a few decades ago.
In a virtual town hall on June 8 with Sen. Klobuchar, independent business owners around the country discussed how to take action to support survival of small businesses. The pandemic economy boosted the bottom line of many mega-corporations. Amazon, for example, earned $26.9 billion in the 12 months of the pandemic peak, starting March 31, 2020.
Klobuchar is author of the new book “Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age.” She brought up the statement by Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who said in 1972: “Antitrust laws in general, and the Sherman Act in particular … are as important to the preservation of economic freedom and our free enterprise system as the Bill of Rights is to the protection of our fundamental personal freedoms. The freedom guaranteed [to] each and every business, no matter how small, is the freedom to compete — to assert with vigor, imagination, devotion, and ingenuity whatever economic muscle it can muster.”
In 1934, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote in “The Curse of Bigness” that oil, rubber, steel, tobacco, sugar, and railroads were among the institutional coalitions that “rigged bids, defrauded patentees, crushed labor movements, and could sway prices in any direction regardless of supply or demand.”
He sought to break up large companies as a matter of democratic justice. “It is the relatively small man who pre-eminently needs the aid and solicitous care of industry and government,” Brandeis wrote.
According to a 2010 essay in Orion magazine, large corporations were reduced by the Sherman Antittrust Act of 1890, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, and the development of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Orion essay notes that today we have let corporations grow to outrageous size. “Bigness worship permeates every layer of the culture. It is racked into our brains with every turn of the advertising screw.”
In the town hall hosted by Small Business Rising and Athena for All, representing a network of about 150,000 entrepreneurial ventures across the country, Klobuchar pointed out that:
1) Where there is limited competition, there is abuse of market power, which includes unfair price setting and impacts the ability of independent businesses to bring in revenue needed to provide strong wages.
2) When there are only a few large companies, employees have fewer choices about where to work. That enables wages to be kept low.
Klobuchar sees this pandemic recovery time as poised to reboot the antitrust movement in the U.S. There is a Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act bill that would increase funds for agencies that deal with antitrust, such as the Federal Trade Commission. The Reform Act has bipartisan support. Klobuchar was hopeful that it will soon pass in Congress.
She also hopes to see Congress accept the nomination of Lina Kahn as FTC Commissioner. Kahn is a legal scholar at Columbia Law School who specializes in antitrust and competition law.
Antitrust legislation has largely eroded in the past decades, and conservative federal justices have not supported fair marketplaces, why is why Sen. Klobuchar is calling for another progressive movement to influence decision-makers. Her catch phrase — “it is time to put the trust back in antitrust” — belies her central argument: Americans freed themselves of monopolies 100 years ago, during the Progressive Era, and it is time to do so again.
Passing new anti-monopoly laws is starting to be seen as a priority for federal and state policymakers. New York State is considering pioneering antitrust legislation — the Twenty-First Century Antitrust Act — that would give New York’s small business owners the opportunity to compete fairly with dominant corporations.
The “Corporate Power” town hall was co-hosted by Small Business Rising and Athena for All, which is a coalition of local and national organizations representing working people, small business owners, people of color, and immigrants. Athena describes on its website: “We are coming together to create an economy where everyone can thrive, defend our climate, safeguard our communities from surveillance, and expand our democracy. We need everyone to devise these solutions.
This conversation with Sen. Klobuchar, and perspectives of local small business owners, is part of a larger story in the Buy Local section of the July 2021 of Minnesota Women’s Press.