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What’s Missing from Biden’s Antitrust Executive Order

“Rather than competing for consumers,” big companies “are consuming their competitors.”
July 15, 2021
What’s Missing from Biden’s Antitrust Executive Order
U.S. President Joe Biden on July 14, 2021 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s that time of year again.

The Boys of Summer are going around the horn with a can of corn, trying to connect with a frozen rope to the centerfield cheap seats.

President Biden, who roots for the Phillies (with a .500 season so far), has been spending this hot summer swinging for the rafters, too.

Last week, he signed an executive order likely to anger many of the country’s major corporations. Entitled “Promoting Competition in The American Economy,” it is Biden’s attempt to use antitrust legislation to bust up monopolies in hopes of creating more jobs, stimulating the economy, and increasing competition.

In remarks before he signed the executive order, Biden mentioned “big tech”—the subject of considerable antitrust discussion on both sides of the aisle nowadays—but also mentioned several other sectors of the economy:

What we’ve seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back. We see it in big agriculture, in big tech, in big pharma. The list goes on. Rather than competing for consumers, they are consuming their competitors. Rather than competing for workers, they’re finding ways to gain the upper hand on labor. And too often, the government has actually made it harder for new companies to break in and compete.

Biden also made a reference to Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, pointing to them as the source of most of the problems on the American economic landscape today: “Forty years ago, we chose the wrong path . . . and pulled back on enforcing laws to promote competition. We’re now forty years into the experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power. And what have we gotten from it? Less growth, weakened investment, fewer small businesses. Too many Americans who feel left behind. Too many people who are poorer than their parents.”

Capitalism, Biden said, has been “the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth.” And at the heart of capitalism is the simple idea that open and fair competition forces businesses to provide better services and prices as well as new ideas and products to win and keep customers. But four decades of consolidation in many industries has destroyed competition, reduced wages, and eliminated jobs as well as stifled creativity and innovation. “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation,” he said. “Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want and treat you however they want. And for too many Americans, that means accepting a bad deal for things that you can’t go without.”

Biden acknowledged the legacy of the two Roosevelts in protecting American capitalism from some of its own excesses. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican progressive “trust buster,” was the first president to really go after the large corporations—giants “like Standard Oil and JP Morgan’s railroads. He took them on, and he won,” Biden said. “And he gave the little guy a fighting chance.”

Franklin Roosevelt—whose portrait Biden chose to hang in pride of place over the Oval Office fireplace—once again “ramped up antitrust enforcement” and went another step forward by calling for an economic bill of rights, including “the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies.”

Biden’s executive order may not rise to Rooseveltian levels. The White House Competition Council it creates will largely be a coordinating body, and so may prove  useless. And parts of the executive order read more like wish lists than instructions. Still, it is the most ambitious attempt in my lifetime to protect competition and restrain anticompetitive forces—putting capitalism in the lane where it can benefit the greatest number of people.

Some of the details from the executive order have already been widely reported, such as the move to help lower the cost of hearing aids. The order also encourages the FTC to curtail the use of non-compete clauses that Biden says often only benefits employers. It also urges the FTC to look into reining in the use of occupational licensing restrictions. “You realize,” Biden said, “if you want to braid hair and you move from one state to another, sometimes you have to do a six-month apprenticeship, even though you’ve been in the business for a long, long time? What the hell—what’s that all about?”

It is worth taking a moment to discuss two other details—one item that appears in the executive order and one that does not explicitly appear.

First, the order specifically mentions the need to scrutinize competition in the defense industry. The defense sector was one of the first to consolidate in a big way, starting with mergers in the mid-1980s. The process sped up after the Cold War ended; at a meal later dubbed the “Last Supper,” Secretary of Defense Les Aspin told the heads of the defense contractors that they would essentially have to consolidate or die. The consolidation has continued through today—even though observers both in and out of government have worried for more than a decade that it may have gone too far. Two-thirds of big defense acquisitions contracts are not competed for, and just five contractors account for nearly half of all such contracts. That doesn’t seem like an environment conducive to competition and innovation.

Second, aside from a passing reference to local newspapers being “shuttered or downsized,” the executive order is silent about an economic sector where consolidation has run rampant in recent decades: the media. I asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki about it during her daily briefing on Friday:

KAREM: You said in the statement today that he’s going to take decisive action against consolidation in a lot of industries. Does that include the media industry? I mean, we suffer consolidation more than any other. So is your administration going to break up the large media conglomerates?

PSAKI: I don’t have anything to predict or preview for you on that front.

That’s a sad answer to a serious question. Busting up media monopolies is not only desirable but necessary to ensure the safety of our democracy. The present media landscape is dominated by a few behemoths that control nearly everything we see, read, or hear.

If Biden is serious about breaking up monopolies and increasing opportunities for American workers, he has to attack the problems of large media companies.

The constriction of information, the lack of diversity in newsrooms, the lack of independent reporting, and the news organizations providing information the audience wants to hear rather than what it needs to know—all this damages the reputation of journalists and journalism, so that, as Sam Donaldson puts it, when “the cry of ‘fake news’ and denunciation of the press as ‘enemies of the people’” are thrown at the press, “even the most careful and honest of news organizations” are tarnished. (Donaldson writes this in the foreword to my forthcoming book, Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It, in which media consolidation is one of the issues I address.)

If President Biden were to swing at the problem of media monopolies, that would definitely put him in the realm of presidential heavy hitters like trust-busting Teddy.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.