The Courage to Learn: A Retrospective on Antitrust and Competition Policy During the Obama Administration and Framework for a New Structuralist Approach

January 12, 2021 Anti-Monopoly Policies & EnforcementCourage to Learn

Executive Summary

Concentrated economic power has reached extreme proportions in virtually every sector of the economy, from Big Tech to telecommunications, banking, hospitals, defense contracting, pharmaceuticals, and retail. Monopoly power is a causal factor in our most serious economic challenges, such as inequality, health care costs, farm bankruptcies, reduced entrepreneurship and productivity, the decline of the free press, and systems of racial discrimination.

To reverse America’s corporate concentration crisis, we need to understand its cause. This report traces the root of the problem to a deliberate series of policy choices to under-enforce antimonopoly laws. For decades, a narrow guild of antitrust enforcers in both parties allowed waves of corporate mergers and acquisitions, as well as predatory conduct by powerful monopolies to fortify and extend their power.

While there has been ample recognition of the perils of conservative Chicago School thinkers who sought lax enforcement and deregulation under Republican administrations, less well understood is why the problem of concentrated wealth and power worsened under Democrats as well. This report tracks the cause to a specific ideological framework of antitrust and competition policy officials—the “consumer welfare” standard—that enforcers under both Republican and Democratic administrations have instrumentalized over multiple decades.

To show the power of this ideology among Democrats, this report documents the approach of Obama-era enforcers and competition policymakers, describing how enforcers carrying the consumer welfare banner subverted President Obama’s public pledges to structure markets to be fairer and more stable. It also lays out a host of recommendations to reject the consumer welfare standard and reverse America’s concentration crisis.

These recommendations include expanding existing antitrust actions against Google and Facebook as a signal to the business community, endorsing congressional recommendations to strengthen antitrust laws, undoing problematic mergers, reviving dormant regulatory and enforcement tools, and engaging in a sustained legislative and executive branch campaign to break up and regulate dominant corporations across the economy.

There is increased recognition on both sides of the aisle that corporate consolidation is a political and economic threat to democracy itself, as well as a growing constellation of efforts at the local, state, and federal level to address it. Now, President-elect Biden and a new Congress have an opportunity to lead the way. This report shows in detail how they can do so.