The Second Twilight of the Monopolists
President Trump is fond of comparing himself to Teddy Roosevelt, as most observers of this White House know. In some ways, the comparison fits. But what is rapidly becoming undeniable is that, whatever the resemblances of the 26th President to the 45th, the political moments confronted by the two are functionally identical. For example, both faced anarchist terrorism, which led them to favor stricter immigration policy, and both faced the prospect of conflict between Russia and the Asian great power of the time (Japan in Roosevelt’s case, China in Trump’s).
But perhaps the most significant resemblance is that both men confront the rise of unaccountable, dangerous, and increasingly ruthless monopolies, whose behavior is the subject of increasingly desperate public outcry. In Roosevelt’s case, there were the unaccountable “trusts.” And in President Trump’s case, there are the rapacious, monopolistic forces of pharmaceutical companies and tech companies.
Start with Pharma, an industry now universally despised across the political spectrum for the twin evils of either driving up the cost of care with abusive prices for their drugs, or else of pressuring doctors and even television shows into telling Americans to pump more of those drugs into their bloodstreams. The former act is responsible at least in part for America’s disproportionately high cost of care, and the rapidly deteriorating character of our entire health care system. The latter is responsible at least in part for the opioid addiction crisis, arguably the worst public health crisis in recent memory.
Both of these poisonous flowers sprouted from the soil of monopoly power, not from the natural vicissitudes of a free market. At this moment, Pharma holds the power to render their drugs immune from even voluntary price limitation policies simply by claiming (often with widely dubious accuracy) that those drugs only treat rare disorders. They are able to use similarly specious arguments to extend the monopoly power granted by patents well past the time required to recoup the cost of research and development, plus handsome amounts of interest. And even when those patents run out, little to nothing prevents them from denying generic manufacturers access to their drugs on dubious grounds, even after those manufacturers have secured FDA approval. Small wonder that an industry able to wave away both government and private sector reform was able to also demand that doctors overprescribe opioids in order to pad their bottom line, and to dictate the contents of an episode of the show “General Hospital.”
Only these sorts of abuses could so sully the image of an industry whose purpose – the saving and improvement of lives – is so noble on its face. And speaking of noble purposes sullied by corporate abuses, let’s talk about tech.
By now, multiple mainstream outlets have noted an overwhelming, almost implausible level of bipartisan backlash against the tech industry. An industry whose abuses can unite the likes of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and former New Republic Editor Franklin Foer, or Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is an industry that has taken up residence in Dante’s dark wood of error.
Given the catalogue of indictments against tech, no one should be surprised. To the Right, acts like Amazon’s scrubbing of criticism of Hillary Clinton’s book, or Facebook and Twitter’s capricious bans of conservative personalities, Airbnb’s decision to lock its political enemies out of housing while loudly protesting on behalf of illegal immigrants and refugees, or Google’s decision to unceremoniously destroy the career of one of their own simply for expressing distaste at the company’s political atmosphere, not to mention their decision to lock a Christian psychologist out of his own Gmail for criticism of trans issues, and to prevent an app dedicated to free speech from being sold on their store because it permits the nonexistent concept of “hate speech,” are at once outrageous and terrifying. Imagine the phone company could cut off your service because you’d disagreed with Roe v. Wade on the line to a friend, or that the mailman refused to deliver your bills because you’d also sent in money to the NRA, and you have some idea of the fear this kind of thing causes to the Right.
The Left’s fears, however, are no less reasonable: Amazon’s increasingly naked displays of its own monopolistic ambitions, such as the purchase of Whole Foods, Facebook’s apparent suspensions of its supposed social conscience where advertising money is concerned, Airbnb’s willingness to strong-arm local governments and users into making their tax and anti-discrimination obligations optional, YouTube’s content policies that Bowdlerize their site at the expense of anything that would be out of place in the 1950’s, Google’s decision to summarily destroy the career of a centrist think tanker for the mere act of criticizing them, and the fact that Silicon Valley talks like Black Lives Matter, but acts like Sterling Cooper Draper Price, all give the Left’s various constituencies plenty of room for heartburn.
There are solutions to these problems in both Pharma and tech’s cases. However, they run substantially against the policy consensus that both industries’ well-heeled lobbying arms have tried to create in Washington. In Pharma’s case, opening up competition from generics that pass FDA standards through the CREATES Act, enforcing the rule of law by eliminating the “orphan drug” loophole in the 340B drug pricing program, demanding regulatory solutions to prevent another opioid crisis, and reforming the patent system to prevent the interminable monopoly power conferred by pharmaceutical patents would all go a long way. Legislators have begun to see their way to these solutions, though the White House unfortunately has lagged behind due to an outdated pro-Pharma Republican consensus that exists within its health policy arm.
In tech’s case, the monopoly virus may have already spread too far for pure competition to cure it, and the treatment of social media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter like public utilities a la phone companies may be the only solution. Certainly, for companies that agitated for the same treatment to be applied to companies like Comcast and Verizon via net neutrality, such a fate would be richly ironic. But such a drastic solution could at least be postponed by more aggressive antitrust action, forceful investigation of their adherence to regulatory norms surrounding their respective markets, and by tying the legal protections that Silicon Valley relies on, such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to their willingness to abide by constitutional norms surrounding free speech.
In short, as with Roosevelt before him, President Trump may soon preside over the second great era of American trustbusting, and the second twilight of monopoly. One only hopes that soon, when it comes to the unaccountable behavior of Pharma and Tech, President Trump will soon adhere to the doctrine that he should not only Tweet loudly, but also carry a big stick.