‘Antitrust’ by Amy Klobuchar, and ‘The Tyranny of Big Tech’ by Josh Hawley

‘Antitrust’ by Amy Klobuchar, and ‘The Tyranny of Big Tech’ by Josh Hawley

Would you like to read a US Senator’s book on antitrust law? No? How about two books by the US Senators on antitrust law?

Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri and Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota, recently published 825-page books on the history of American skepticism about big and powerful corporations.

I read them both and would not recommend other mortals to follow my example.

But the books are noteworthy if those senators on opposite sides of the political spectrum agree: They want tougher regulations, new laws, more aggressive judges, and civic movements to tame what they see as America’s over-business elite, in particular Technology forces like Google, Facebook and Amazon. A shortcut for these two books is that Teddy Roosevelt was good and Big Tech is bad.

I don’t want to draw too much from a false equivalency. Ms. Klobuchar’s “Antitrust Law” has been thoroughly researched and comprehensive. (Perhaps too comprehensive.) Mr. Hawley’s “The Tyranny of Big Tech” is, for the most part, an incoherent mess. But let me explain what I learned from reading:

Senators agree that big is bad. One of the strangest sights in modern American politics is how powerful tech companies like Google and Facebook have engendered bipartisan hatred. You have few friends. Certainly not these writers. To them, the power of tech companies is a symbol of what goes wrong when large companies are largely left alone to do what they want. It’s really weird how similar they sound.

Mr. Hawley’s book begins with an anecdote from a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg in 2019 in which the Senator said he asked the head of Facebook to break up his company. (Zuckerberg said no, not surprisingly.) “Tech barons came to power on an ideology that blesses greatness – and concentrated power – in business and government,” writes Hawley.

And Ms. Klobuchar: “The sheer number of mergers and acquisitions, the oversized monopoly power and the grotesque exclusive behavior in the big tech sector illustrate what is going on with the power of BIG.”

Very similar, no?

Mr. Hawley and Ms. Klobuchar believe, among some economists and legal scholars, that the increasing concentration of many American industries is a major cause of many problems, including income inequality. If US laws were more effective in enforcing competition, Americans would have better health care, cheaper cell phone bills, and more control over what happens to our digital data.

Wow, you love Teddy Roosevelt. Both senators are nostalgic when the former president challenged the great corporate barons of his day in the railroad, oil, finance, and other industries. (This view of history, particularly that of Mr. Hawley, is a little off the base.)

The point of hero worship is to say that US law and the American public have fought throughout history against corporations that they believe have become too powerful. The senators want to bring back the spirit of civil and government rebellion against the “size” of corporations. This is also a point that law professor and antimonopoly attorney Zephyr Teachout effectively highlighted in her book on corporate monopolies last year. (Yes, there are many books on antitrust law.)

If you want to read in depth about the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the Grange Movement Against Agricultural Monopolies after the Civil War, Ms. Klobuchar has the book for you. Both senators are trying to get people to see and care about the consequences of corporate monopolies in their lives. Their common message is that people who feel that the system and the economy are not working for them should look into antitrust law.

The best idea: stop calling it “antitrust law”. Ms. Klobuchar says the word is an artifact from 19th century corporate giants like Standard Oil and has no meaning to 21st century Americans. She is right. Mrs Klobuchar says we should talk about competition policy, monopolies or just ‘size’ instead. And yes, Ms. Klobuchar admits that her book is entitled “Antitrust Law”.

What about the congress? Both senators agree that the government’s watchdogs and courts have failed to stop big corporations from getting bigger and abusing their power. Nobody takes enough time to hold themselves and their colleagues in Congress responsible.

It is the job of lawmakers to write laws that tell companies what they can and can’t do, and give government guards like the Justice Department the money and powers to enforce the rules. In other words, THAT’S YOUR JOB, SENATORS. In their books, the senators generously mention bills they have proposed to hold back big tech companies. They are less open about mistakes in passing those bills or whether they were good ideas at all.

For example, Ms. Klobuchar cited laws in 2017 that would have forced internet companies like Facebook to disclose what organizations spend on political ads, similar to traditional media. It has not passed.

The senators are best when they talk about themselves. Ms. Klobuchar talks about relatives who emigrated from Slovenia at the turn of the 19th century and who worked in mines with terrible conditions and poor wages. In her testimony, she wouldn’t be where she is today without ordinary citizens fighting against big bad companies and asking for laws to better curb monopolies and create real competition for their jobs.

Mr. Hawley is most effective when speaking about his fears as a parent. Like many of us, he spends too much time on his phone saying his kids noticed. He torments himself when his young son is attracted to smartphones and tablets, and he tries to be more aware of the time and attention his family devotes to screens.

I’m not sure Mr. Hawley’s beef has much to do with the power of big tech companies and not the general brokenness of our brains as we have constant access to things. The effects of screen time aren’t that clear. But Mr. Hawley has a few ideas worth listening to: Emphasize real communities, not just those we screen with. The government should step in to ban techniques like websites that let people scroll forever and automated recommendations that bring us one video at a time from YouTube or TikTok.

Recommended literature: I wouldn’t give the Senator Book to people curious about why they’re paying so much for medication, nor worry about their kids getting addicted to Instagram. Instead, I propose two more works that follow similar paths, but are shorter, more readable, and already influential to people who care deeply about the impact of powerful corporations on the world.

Tim Wu’s 2018 book “The Curse of Bigness” is a short, airy, and intriguing story of American monopolies and the risk he sees in today’s powerful corporations. (Did I mention it’s short?) Lina Khan’s 2017 law school report, “Amazon Antitrust Paradox,” was an intellectual cannonball that challenged the decades of development of US law and the influence of new corporate powers like Amazon not taken into account.