Amazon and Google Are Finally Facing the Music

A government shutdown was averted at the last second.

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It’s been a wild week in Washington, complete with a bizarre Republican presidential debate; a visit by the actual president to a picket line; another visit by the former president to a non-union plant in Michigan, where he complained that union workers were picketing in the wrong places; and growing calls for the resignation of a sitting Democratic senator who was indicted for corruption that even looks like espionage — all capped off with a last-minute measure to keep the government from shutting down signed just before the midnight deadline. 

To get that job done, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy teamed up with Democrats, called the bluff of his right flank, stripped out money for Ukraine, added in disaster relief, and otherwise kept spending levels the same until November 17.

The Freedom Caucus firebrand Matt Gaetz had promised he would depose McCarthy if he pulled something like this, and he tried to get recognized on the House floor after the measure passed, but the chamber’s session was gaveled to a close. His problem, though, remains the same, in that he doesn’t have an alternative speaker candidate who could get 218 votes, meaning he could gum up the works for a few days, but the result would likely be McCarthy remaining in power. That means that when the next deadline comes in mid-November, his threats probably won’t be taken as seriously. The far right has six weeks to regroup and reorganize for that fight. We’ll see what they come up with. 

Amid all of this jockeying, real clashes against corporate power are afoot: There is a landmark trial against Google underway, joined by a newly launched suit against Amazon. The mere fact of the confrontations is already reshaping power relations.

That got me thinking about just how radically our politics around monopoly power have shifted in just a few years. In early 2016, as the Democratic presidential primary was wrapping up, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sat down for what would become a pivotal dinner. What had been known for several years as the Warren Wing of the Democratic Party was morphing into the Sanders Wing, as the democratic socialist regaled massive crowds with talk of political revolution. Warren, meanwhile, had been readying her multiyear plan to stack the expected Clinton administration with her proteges, in line with her repeated mantra that “personnel is policy.” She had been particularly watching the work of Barry Lynn’s anti-monopoly team at the Open Markets Institute with interest, and it fit with her long-standing focus on breaking up and bringing to heel the big banks. While Sanders rose to prominence as a democratic socialist, Warren was a Republican before evolving into a Democrat in the 1990s. That legacy revealed itself in the way she framed her policy critiques and proposals as aimed at supporting the development of markets free of corporate concentration. “I am a capitalist to my bones,” she famously said. “I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating. That’s where the difference is. I love what markets can do, I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity. But only fair markets, markets with rules.”

Warren reached out to Lynn to set up the dinner, and Lynn brought along a deputy named Lina Khan and an attorney named Jonathan Kanter. Khan and Kanter laid out their idea for reimagining and reinvigorating antitrust policy, and Warren saw in it a reflection, and an extension, of her anti-corruption politics, which helpfully contrasted with a democratic socialist reluctance to embrace markets. In June 2016, she delivered a major speech on antitrust policy at Lynn’s Open Markets Institute, laying down a marker in what would become a hot issue on the populist right as well as left in coming years. 

(I write about Warren’s dinner with Khan and Kanter, and her effort to stack the administration, in my book on the American left that’ll be out in December, but it’s available for preorder now.

Of course, Warren never got a chance to staff up a Clinton administration. Instead, Khan went to the House Judiciary Committee, where she led a major investigation into the monopolistic practices of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Kanter formed his own law firm targeting those types of firms. By the time Joe Biden was elected, Warren’s Rolodex of populist staffers had grown deeper, and she successfully placed many in key positions, including Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission and Kanter as head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. The most corporate-friendly Biden cabinet member, Gina Raimondo, wound up as commerce secretary, and was horrified at the number of progressive staffers she saw salted throughout the Biden administration. “You know, they didn’t elect Elizabeth Warren president,” she fumed to Chief of Staff Ron Klain, according to Franklin Foer’s new book on the early Biden administration. 

This week, Kanter’s team was in court squaring off against Google, accusing it of abusing its market power over search, while Khan teamed with 17 state attorneys general to file a landmark suit against Amazon, alleging abuse of third-party sellers and other unfair competition practices. It was years in the making, but the showdown over corporate power is now underway. 

All that is a backdrop for this week’s Deconstructed episode, which you can find here or on any other podcast player you use. I’m joined by Matt Stoller, director of research for the anti-monopoly group American Economic Liberties Project, and Amanda Lewis, who heads a coalition of third-party sellers taking on Amazon. 

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