Zephyr Teachout on “Break ’Em Up”

Off-Kilter Podcast
32 min readAug 4, 2020


Rebecca talks to Zephyr Teachout about her new book “Break ’Em Up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Tech, Big Ag, and Big Money” and why we need an antitrust movement for our time. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

“Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

That’s how Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline explained a House anti-trust investigation of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google that he kicked off last year in his capacity as Chair of the House Antitrust subcommittee, in a dramatic five-hour hearing last week featuring Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. As the Washington Post put it in their coverage of the hearing, all four tech titans, which Rep. Cicilline compared to modern day versions of Gilded Age tycoons: “fiercely defended their businesses Wednesday as rags-to-riches success stories, made possible only through American ingenuity and the sustained support of their ever-growing customer bases.”

For his part, Chair Cicilline and his Democratic colleagues didn’t mince words, concluding that these companies’ “control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent businesses and expand their own power” and that “they’re engaged in behavior that’s anticompetitive, which favors their own products and services, which monetizes and weaponizes data, which compromises the privacy of their users and which creates a competitive disadvantage for companies attempting to enter the marketplace.”

As the hearing was taking place, Rebecca sat down with Zephyr Teachout, a professor of law at Fordham University and several times a popular Democratic candidate for elected office in New York State, to talk about her new book, “Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money,” and why this moment calls for “an anti-trust movement for our time.”

This week’s guest:

* Zephyr Teachout, author, “Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money”

For more on all this:

* Dig into Zephyr Teachout’s new book


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I spend most of my time working…. ♪

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

“Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

That’s how Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline explained a House anti-trust investigation of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google that he kicked off last year in his capacity as Chair of the House Anti-trust subcommittee, in a dramatic five-hour hearing last week featuring Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai. As The Washington Post put it in their coverage of the hearing, all four tech titans, which Rep. Cicilline compared to modern day versions of Gilded Age tycoons: “fiercely defended their businesses Wednesday as rags-to-riches success stories, made possible only through American ingenuity and the sustained support of their ever-growing customer bases.”

For his part, Chair Cicilline and his Democratic colleagues didn’t mince words, concluding that these companies’ “control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent businesses and expand their own power.” He added, “they’re engaged in behavior that’s anticompetitive, which favors their own products and services, which monetizes and weaponizes data, which compromises the privacy of their users, and which creates a competitive disadvantage for companies attempting to enter the marketplace.”

Literally as the hearing was taking place, I had the opportunity to sit down with Zephyr Teachout, a professor of law at Fordham University and several times a popular Democratic candidate for elected office in New York State. Her new book is called Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. And before we go to the conversation I had with her, I’d like to read just a little bit from the foreword by Senator Bernie Sanders to the book. “The monopolization of America is not some esoteric issue. It is one of the trends that has created an economic crisis for working people all over our country. We can rediscover our American tradition of controlling corporate power and promoting fair competition through anti-trust. We can halt anti-competitive mergers, break up existing monopolies and oligopolies, and appoint federal regulators ready to take action on behalf of workers and consumers, not massive corporations. We can also use regulatory agencies to crack down on anti-competitive business practices, and we can institute new guidelines for proposed consolidation that makes sure mergers are approved only if they will not harm workers and consumers or our economy as a whole.

We can do all of this, but it will not happen by itself. It can happen only through a grassroots, bottom-up movement that understands the challenge in front of us and then organizes against monopoly power in communities across this country. This book,” Senator Sanders writes, “is a blueprint for that organizing.” Really excited, given the timeliness of this conversation, to share the conversation I had with Zephyr Teachout about her new book. Again, it’s called Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. It just came out last week. And let’s take a listen.

Zephyr, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show, and congratulations on the book.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be on the show and to have this conversation.

VALLAS: Well, just to get right into it, it feels like we sort of have to start with the first main argument in your book. And there’s a lot for you to tell in the way of stories of your runs for office, as what you described yourself as an old fashioned trustbuster. But just to sort of start with kind of basic information for our listeners. It feels like it’s really important to actually just get our terms straight and give you an opportunity to define what a monopoly is before we get into why you argue monopoly is tyranny, and then go from there in why we need to do something about it.

TEACHOUT: Yes. Monopoly is a company that basically has the power to set the terms of interactions. As opposed to being inside a market, the monopoly sits on top of a market and most famously sets prices. And a lot of monopoly talk over the last 40 years has been about consumer prices. But also sits on top of the market and sets the terms of employment. Basically regulates the market. I think the easiest examples for those of us nowadays to understand might be big pharma, where we see companies like Gilead, just picking a price out of the air because they feel like it.

But I want to go deeper into your question, because the book is engaging in a long fight about what monopoly means. And there’s really two main camps. There’s variations, but there’s two main camps. And one camp, which has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan in 1980, says something is only a monopoly if it leads to raised consumer prices. And that’s the only way that we should think about this. Economists are the only ones who really have the right to use this term. It’s not a political term. It doesn’t have anything to do with power.

And in the other camp, there’s a growing number of people. And I’m proud to be part of this, and this includes myself, Lina Kahn, Tim Wu, Sanjukta Paul and many others who are working to reclaim the powerful political meaning of monopoly. And there’s a few different parts of that. One part is saying you don’t need to be an economist or a lawyer to use the term. If you’re an activist, this is a critical term that is used to challenge illegitimate power. Please use it. And we have to understand that economists and Reaganites can’t just take this language out of our politics and say, no, there is no such thing as too much private power. There’s just a problem with consumer prices, and that’s all.

VALLAS: Well, and so, you actually, in the book, you really kind of dispel one of the kind of key pieces of that, and you actually kind of tell a little bit the story of how we got here. I want to give you an opportunity to weave those two together. You bring up prices and how there’s sort of been this laissez-faire approach that, you know, well, if we just think about that this is allowing low prices, as long as we’ve got low prices for consumers, it kind of makes it all okay. You describe that as something that some folks have called the consumer welfare standard of justifying monopolies. But you bring us back to really kind of the core argument of the book, why does this matter? You argue that monopoly is tyranny. I’m going to quote a little passage here from your introduction. “No democracy can survive,” you write, “for long once a few corporations have amassed governmental power in such a massive form and scale. These corporations use isolation, surveillance, experimentation, and fear to extract value from workers, to silence political dissent, to exploit users, and to regulate all of us. You go on to describe how in this place that we’ve gotten to, the citizen has turned into a consumer, the manufacturer and farmer into a feudal tenant, and the worker into a serf. And you kind of blow that myth out of the water. You note that monopolists have begun to charge whatever prices they want, and in the process, also to pay whatever wages they want and to dictate politics however they see fit.

Tell a little bit of the story behind this language that you’re using here, which is incredibly, frankly, terror-provoking and should be for anyone reading it, but which is sort of a story of multiple decades of allowing this to happen, but also very intentional policy choices happening outside of the public spotlight in a lot of cases, and with people sort of understanding it to be the only way.

TEACHOUT: Yeah, I mean, everything that I’m saying in this book would have been just absolutely mainstream up until about 1980. Everybody understood that monopolies posed this democratic threat, that we had to be constantly vigilant about excessive private power. And although, and I’m talking about in particular the period from FDR’s administration through 1980. And FDR was, although Teddy Roosevelt gets a lot of the public credit, the FDR administration, particularly the second term, was one of the most important anti-trust, antimonopoly moments in American history. And FDR really took as a central part of his project taking on concentrated private power, recognizing the toxic role it had played in leading to a fragile and unequal society and eventually the crash.

Now, in 1980, Ronald Reagan literally rewrote the anti-trust guidelines and took what had been guidelines and an approach that said anti-trust and antimonopoly law is about preserving equality, is about preserving actual competition between lots and lots of decentralized different competitors, is about protecting against private power, and collapsed all that into new anti-trust guidelines. And basically, up until 1980, we had what is often called the structuralist approach, which is to say, we need to have a decentralized economy, private power needs to be decentralized, and we’re going to stop mergers before a company gets so big that it threatens to govern us. What Ronald Reagan did in 1980 when he rewrote the anti-trust guidelines, appointed a series of anti-civil rights and anti-anti-trust leaders in the FTC and DOJ and appointed a huge number of judges who really didn’t believe in the American antimonopoly tradition, was to basically rip out all that history and replace it with a simple sounding and clean sounding idea about what anti-trust is about, which is it’s just about prices. It’s just about consumer prices. Any merger should default go through. Don’t worry about private power. The only thing you should worry about is if a merger might lead to higher prices.

Now, that in itself was a tragedy, but the real tragedy came when Democrats got in power and didn’t do anything about it. In fact, the Democratic administrations after Reagan have continued to adopt the same ideology. There may be some differences around the margins, but effectively, they’ve all adopted the view that big is fine. There’s no threat. All we really care about is consumer prices. And unfortunately, even those on the left really adopted this. And I mean the left within the Democratic Party. You see a real focus on people’s roles as consumers and seeing that role as an especially powerful role instead of understanding well, if we purchase something, we also are workers. We are also members of a political community. You can’t just separate out that individual role. And you see basically the vanishing of antimonopoly from not just the Republican Party, not just the Democratic Party, but from being a core part of what the left does.

And one of the, this book is for people from across the political spectrum. But I spend a lot of time talking to progressives and working with progressives, organizing with progressives. And in this book, I’m kind of trying to shake the shoulders of people who I work with to say, we’ve got to stop just accepting the power dynamics as they exist and spending all our time fighting on policy choices with these behemoths sitting here dictating policy. Instead, we should spend a lot more of our activism on anti-trust, a lot more of our activism on going at the root of power itself, and not just the toxic policy choices that come out of that.

VALLAS: Well, and I really appreciate you, I think, using the phrase “shaking the shoulders,” because the book, I mean, it certainly reads that way, right, especially to progressive audiences. And I think in particular, in the direct message that you send with neon lights around it saying y’all, the left has not made this a priority, and it has to be at the top of our priority list. Like where is this in our agenda? And you actually, you talk pretty, I think, bluntly and I think I would say correctly about the why, for why this has sort of flown under the radar for folks who even, you know, the most directly engaged in politics, in policy making or advising, organizing, grassroots mobilization.

And you actually kind of pin it, a lot of it, back to a fantasy, a fantasy that we, many of us on the left, actually subscribe to, which is that somehow, what we’re up against is just about the profit motive. That that’s where the motivations stop for the behemoths that are the monopolists you’re describing, whether that’s Google, whether that’s Facebook, whether that’s Monsanto, all these people who, as you put it, wield vast control over both our civic and our individual lives in ways that far exceed just a profit motive. Talk about why this has not been an issue on the left and why you have made this such a crusade in your political life, in your public life, and now through this book, which I hope does open some real eyes.

TEACHOUT: Well, I think, you know, when you think about somebody like let’s just take Jeff Bezos because he is being interrogated by Congress, and Amazon is just one of the big tech giants that’s being scrutinized right now who recently made $13 billion while people are desperately suffering. And it’s, this is a gross inequality. It’s literally disgusting. If you look at the history of his projects, he seems pretty clearly to be following an approach that’s a lot more like Alexander the Great than anything: acquiring territory, not for a long time making profits, really focusing on acquiring more and more parts of the economy. And then, having acquired it, eventually extracts a lot of profit from it. But his own personal fantasies involve going to outer space. He talks about how much he likes people to depend on him. Mark Zuckerberg compares himself to a government on a pretty regular basis. Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google, said that, you know, we could run a city better than most governments.

They’re all actually pretty open about the fact that they have an interest in power for power’s sake. And any student of human nature, any reader of literature, [laughs] knows that the power impulse is pretty strong. And it’s kind of weird that we write it out of our contemporary thinking, because if we don’t see the power impulse, then it’s really hard to fight it. If somebody is playing on a power map, and we’re just playing on a money map, there’s a dimension that we’re actually missing. So, I think it’s really important that we understand this as a fight about power.

There’s a wonderful phrase in the Economics literature called the urge to merge. And there’s evidence, I don’t think I include this in my book, but there’s evidence that CEOs have an irrational urge to merge — taking irrationality with a grain of salt — and are far more likely to want to merge in hypothetical than people who are not CEOs. The drive to power is incredibly strong. And we have to understand that to understand what we’re up against.

I think there’s other reasons the left has not been focused on antimonopoly for some time. And if you look at the consumer crusades of the 1970s and ’80s, there was a real hope that this would be enough. Like, well, if we can just negotiate with Ford or G.E. and just get these big companies to act in better ways, then we can achieve what we want. And I guess I think it’s deeply, it’s not just wrong, it’s really naive. Because let’s say Medicare for All, something I really care about, it’s a lot harder to fight for Medicare for All when you have massive private interests with massive, outsized power that are ready to fight against it. So, there’s a false dichotomy that’s often presented, like we should regulate instead of doing anti-trust. We should regulate instead of breaking up, whether you’re talking about big banks or big tech or big pharma. And of course, I think the answer is no! In fact, we need to break up these big companies so that we can regulate them.

If you look at the history of what happened with Dodd-Frank, I was a major advocate for the proposed legislation, Brown-Kaufman, that would’ve limited the ability of banks to grow to a certain size. There are a handful of us really pushing for breaking up big banks that failed. Well, the banks were regulated in Dodd-Frank, but then they used their monopoly power to buy back the legislation that had constrained them. So, if you don’t go at the root of power, you’re consigned to constantly hacking at the branches, and in each successive iteration, having less and less power because they’re accumulating power.

I think the other part of it, the other sort of resistance, is that there’s part of the left that doesn’t want, I don’t honestly — just be frank, I don’t know that this has been as fully thought through; some people have fully thought it through — but who are resistant to the idea of markets at all. So that if you’re engaging in market structure questions like how big should a company be? Should we split off YouTube from Google? Should John Deere be allowed to be both a tractor company and a lender? Those questions seem to, a part of the far left, to embrace the existence of markets. And just to be totally clear, I do think we can have moral markets. And I challenge the left, as a very strong, unapologetic progressive, to say we’ve got to lay out a vision of what moral markets look like instead of just ignoring the market question altogether, as if we could actually have a thriving society without some kind of market exchange.

VALLAS: Well, and for anyone who’s listening, I want to hop in here and say folks might be hearing this and going, well, wait a second. How could you say that anti-trust or antimonopoly is not something that people have been paying attention to? Break them up. You know, break up the banks. This is something folks have been calling for going back to Occupy. And so, I hear that, right? If anyone’s thinking that and wondering, wait a second. There actually has been some level of progress on increasing public awareness on this front. And Zephyr, you’ve been a big part of that, and you’ve been a big part of, I think, not just ringing the alarm bells, but helping people understand the solutions and connect some of these dots. There also feels to be a very relevant, and I’d say slightly more nuanced, way that you look at that question. You do actually report on a lot of the good news. And there is a lot to tell about the strength of the antimonopoly movement, both in the U.S. and globally. And you tell a kind of a good news story of where we need to go and what we can build on in terms of people already starting to organize in these ways. But also you, I think, ask the right questions in starting to diagnose whether we’re where we should be, given the level of danger that monopoly presents to the health of our democracy.

You point out, for example, that this hadn’t been an issue in presidential debates until 2019. That there are tens of thousands of community activist organizations who are dedicated to campaign finance or to climate change or to gender equality, but that you’re not aware of a single local anti-trust league, which for anyone who’s wondering, well, what would that be? I guess that proves the point. But it also is in stark contrast to about 100, 120 years ago when you point out from your research underlying this book that there were thousands of such local leagues that were core to the kind of organizing that we’re missing in this moment. Which should include, as you point out, sit-ins at the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC or the DOJ, the Department of Justice! Actually making these demands to break things up rather than just the consumer boycotts that people have sort of settled into as the only lever that we seem to know how to pull. Talk a little bit about what you see as the movement that we need to see here and what some of the solutions are, which you actually note, many of them we already have available, actually, at our disposal.

TEACHOUT: Yeah, that’s right. And I want to challenge anybody who’s listening who says, “Oh, I know all about the monopoly problem. Yeah, I know. And you’re not telling me anything new. I’ve been focused on this for years,” to think about their own political history. So, when is the last time you asked a congressional candidate and pinned her down over and over in ways that you might have done, or local state House candidate, on where she stood on breaking up — and you can pick your industry — and whether she was pushing for more funding for the state AG’s Anti-trust Department, so they don’t have 12 people compared to these big companies that they’re up against. There were a few moments in this presidential campaign, this last presidential campaign, where anti-trust really came to the fore. And they were clarifying moments because candidates had positions that were all across the map.

Elizabeth Warren really led on this. And I think it’s notable that her campaign really took off after she came out with incredibly strong tech trustbusting. And then you saw Amy Klobuchar making anti-trust more central. Bernie Sanders certainly made anti-trust central. But other candidates like Pete Buttigieg saying he wasn’t so sure on these fronts. And then you saw candidates like Booker who initially said, I don’t know that we should break up big tech. But then after public pressure saying, no, coming back to where he had been before, which is that big tech needed to be broken up. So, you started to see these conversations.

I’m telling you this. You might’ve noticed it, but I bet most people weren’t paying as close attention as those of us deep in the antimonopoly weeds are. And these are fundamental questions about power, what your approach towards anti-trust is. These should be front and center in presidential campaigns and in congressional campaigns. So, I’m asking you as a listener, have you been pushing on this? Have you been saying, I’m going to choose who to support based on who is an anti-monopolist? Can you say who among the Democrats that you support, assuming that most of the listeners here are Democrats. But let’s just say Republicans too. Which ones are antimonopolists and which aren’t? And by the way, the divide is huge. There’s a lot of anti-monopolists, and there’s a lot of pro-monopolists. And that’s just in the political arena. Then when it comes to activism, when is the last time that you marched in the streets demanding that a company get broken up? I tried to hunt down the big anti-trust moments in recent years, and yeah, there were some signs at events, anti-Monsanto events, to stop the Monsanto-Bayer merger, which is a grotesque merger, should never have gone forward. But think about how modest that is. These were a few people in a handful of places at a handful of times trying to stop a totally illegitimate merger. We’re not talking about major protests to break up Monsanto as it existed before Bayer, which is what we’re going to need.

So, there are particular policy approaches that are ready at hand. But those policies will not be used until there is on-the-ground movement. And there were tens of thousands of anti-trust leagues in the late 19th century, huge conventions. And one of the most powerful and exciting things about those anti-trust leagues is they brought together these two different worlds that are often seen today as opposed to each other, which is small business owners and people who work for wage, wage laborers. And I think we are just starting to, especially in the Amazon fight, but we’re a long way off understanding that no, actually, sellers and workers are both being squeezed by these monopolists and need to come together and join forces. Because of these centralized new forms of private government are sucking value and humiliating both small business owners and wage workers.

VALLAS: So, it strikes me that it’s probably worth for anyone who’s maybe on the opposite side of the spectrum on this, right, there might be folks listening and going, I already know everything about this, right? And hopefully, they’re realizing that there’s probably a lot they don’t know. And maybe how engaged are most folks on this, as you’re pointing out. But then for anyone who’s sort of in the other place of going, OK, I’ve heard about anti-trust being maybe a thing I should care about. I’ve heard about monopolies being a problem. But how does this really impact me? Why is this something that Zephyr Teachout and Bernie Sanders and others and Elizabeth Warren are talking about as a threat to our democracy? You argue very concretely and with very specific examples exactly why you come to that conclusion rather than just sort of throwing the platitude out there in a way that I think some people, frankly, probably find unpersuasive. And you really boil it down to equality and freedom: that equality and freedom are urgently needed and essential components of what we need to have in order for our country, our society, our democracy to, as you put it, protect citizens from any group or any person wielding too much power. You describe this as like the highest and best goals of our country. Talk about and maybe offer a few of the examples that you put in the book. You spend eight chapters really describing how this is impacting people’s day-to-day lives in ways that they might not be tracing back to the roots of the problem. So, maybe offer a few of those examples for anyone who’s not persuaded yet that this is impacting them, and in an urgent way that is on par with something that might feel more visible like, say, healthcare.

TEACHOUT: So let’s just look at something really basic like economic inequality. When you have a handful of employers in a market instead of a decentralized market, those employers can effectively wink and nod with each other to keep wages down. And there is extremely powerful new research showing just how much monopolization is suppressing wages. In fact, one economist estimated that it’s basically consolidation in American markets has led to wage workers losing $14,000 a year in wages. That’s money that they estimated in a more decentralized market would’ve gone to workers because they would’ve been in a better negotiating position that is now going to investors. That’s an extraordinary amount of money from workers to investors. So, monopolization is a central driver of inequality and of keeping down, suppressing wages.

Before the pandemic, there was all this head scratching about how we had an incredibly low unemployment rate, but workers were still making so little money! Why? Well, it turns out that monopolization and consolidation is a major driver of that. Now that we’re in the middle of this total economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, it’s actually much worse because of the incredible scarcity of jobs. So, these already concentrated monopolists are, because of their monopoly power, are in a position to abuse and extract even more from workers. So, just straight inequality is one real reason you should care about this.

A second that really relates to the incredibly exciting Black Lives Matter protests that are happening right now has to do with the way in which monopolization exacerbates racial divides in wealth, but also in power. So, when you see a consolidated economy, more and more power is held in the hands of white people. About one in five small businesses are owned by people of color. But when you look at the Fortune 500, it’s more like 4 percent. So, I lay out how just take an industry like the funeral home industry, Black-owned funeral homes have historically been an essential part of independence and backbone, central part of supporting key political movements in this country. Well, the merger wave did not stop and avoid the funeral home industry. In fact, it’s now totally consolidated, and SCI’s this massive multinational corporation. It is not going to be the backbone support for Black Lives Matter and for a serious push for true, true policy responses, not symbolic responses, but policy responses, to the extreme and unacceptable white-black wealth gap. So, I talk about the way in which monopolization is a form of bleaching of American power. And that’s a pretty direct, direct impact.

VALLAS: Well, and it also, I mean, you bring up the racial consequences of this as well. And I feel like in this moment, there has been, I think, some greater level of visibility, of dialogue, of understanding in the public debate around the concept of racial capitalism. That was actually the subject of an episode last month hosted with our friends at The Forge, the organizing journal that had an issue all devoted to that topic. And boy, was Amazon, I think, at the heart of a lot of that discussion for — and it has been at the heart of that discussion, I think — for a lot of folks in the mainstream media and probably at home listening as they think about what comes to mind when they think about how racism is intertwined with and a consequence of, as well as fueled by, all of what you’re describing. But it does feel in this moment like actually spending just a moment on that component that is the through line of racial capitalism and of the need for an anti-monopoly movement coming out of this moment. I would love to really spend a moment on that and actually to ask you specifically, what do you hope this moment, this pandemic, this moment of greater awareness and public will, and now hopefully, political will to address racial inequality, what do you hope this moment might be a portal for, to use the words of Arundhati Roy, as you call for organizing an anti-trust movement for our time that doesn’t just stop with consumer boycotts?

TEACHOUT: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what. [chuckles] It’s not to connect anti-monopolism to recent legislation. It’s not the CARES Act. So, you might say, well, what does the CARES Act have to do with antimonopoly? It wasn’t an anti-trust or a pro-trust legislation. But it actually was a pro-monopoly piece of legislation. Because while it gave short-term support to small businesses, it gave, at the exact same time, basically carte blanche. And I didn’t mean to use that word “carte blanche” specifically, but now that I’ve used it, it’s related. It’s definitely a blanche to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to control trillions of dollars and basically give access to an incredibly valuable window to big business, to private equity to go use that money as it would to pay back, you know, to use that money as it will to invest and to get richer. And so, if you look at the CARES Act through the lens of power — and the entire book is suggesting that we look at things through the lens of power — you can’t look at the short-term provision to small businesses alone as a stand-alone. You look at the entire CARES Act as a constitutional document. And this constitutional document says short-term for small businesses, long-term for Mnuchin’s friends.

Well, guess who Mnuchin’s friends are. They are the wealthiest of the wealthy, the big monopolists, overwhelmingly controlled by white men. And guess who has been hurt during this pandemic? Some people predict as many as 50 percent of Black-owned businesses are going to go under because they don’t have a means to survive, because they don’t have access to capital. So that if you look at the pro-monopolization of the CARES Act, and you see it both as a incredible problem for equality, but incredible problem for racial equality. It’s not a neutral document on race because who is bailed out and who is not bailed out in a long-term sense, not in terms of short-term Band-Aids, is not racially neutral. So, instead, what I’d like to see is, first of all, a recognition of the centrality of taking on our corporate overlords as those of us who watch The Simpsons remember, and taking on those who would govern us. And saying these are illegitimate forms of power. We don’t want to do corporate accountability campaigns. We want to do corporate illegitimacy campaigns. We need to have a moment of radical decentralization, a rethinking of what moral markets look like. The possibility, and a recognition of the possibility, of people running businesses without being profit maximizers, but still seeking profit.

And then there are, just to be totally clear, antimonopoly is not a panacea for structural racism. It is essential to take on these centers of concentrated white power, but it is not sufficient. Because access to capital is a huge challenge among Black businesses in the Black community. So, it’s not sufficient, but it is essential.

VALLAS: One of the things that I find incredibly [cellphone alert] — I’m going to start that over for the blipping. One of the things that I find incredibly valuable, and also just that I deeply appreciated as a recovering lawyer, as someone who tries to explain what can be sort of vaguely arcane and wonky legal remedies in English, right? Which I think is a big part of helping broader movements internalize and adopt policies into their larger strategies and demands. It’s part of what you, I think, do really well in this book. You spend actually a significant amount of the book really kind of trying to open eyes to the fact that we have tools at our disposal that we could be using right now or that we could be using, I don’t know, hypothetically, next year with some new folks thinking a little differently, you know?

TEACHOUT: Yes! [laughs]

VALLAS: Cough, cough, wink, wink. But you actually lay out what a lot of those tools are. And it’s not rocket science. It really isn’t. I mean, you, I think, appropriately describe it as a profound project to reshape our politics and win back our freedom. But it’s also it’s something that’s eminently doable using existing laws that we already have on the books. Talk about what that agenda is, and talk a little bit about what an, I don’t know, hypothetically, a new president, a new Congress might be in position to do.

TEACHOUT: That administration is in a position to be transformational. I started by talking about how Reagan rewrote the anti-trust guidelines to basically say default, big mergers go through, consumer price is the only thing we care about. The one very simple, powerful act would be to rewrite those anti-trust guidelines, to reimpose a structural approach where we do not allow these mega-mergers to go through, and we are very suspicious of concentrations of private power. That would be a sea change! That alone. Rewriting the anti-trust guidelines would be a sea change. Appointing key people to positions in the DOJ and FTC who were going to take a far more aggressive approach than Obama’s approach towards anti-trust is absolutely essential. And even appointing those people would have massive reverberating impacts. Because, look, if people are aware that you have a serious anti-trust approach, that we’re really trust busting, then it’s going to change how much people are even trying to engage in the acquisition machine that they’re currently engaged in. It’ll redirect energies towards innovation and away from squashing competition where so much energy has gone right now.

So, and by the way, when I say active trustbusters, I mean people — We have, if you just look at the numbers of cases, there are a lot of numbers of cases during the Obama administration, but the fines are so small. These are sort of mild modifications as opposed to FTC and DOJ that are willing to say, hey, if you don’t break yourself up, we’re coming at you. But it’s actually, I want people to even pull back the lens further and say, wait! We need to bring anti-monopolism into everything we do. So, when we’re talking about healthcare policy, let’s push for Medicare for All, yes, but also push for breaking up these massive hospital consolidations that have driven up prices. While, and I think there’s just a beautiful example of this in AOC and Markey’s Green New Deal is while we are pushing for renewable energy, let’s do it in an antimonopoly way. And Congress has extraordinary power, and much, much bigger uphill climb, but I’m hopeful that we get a Democratic Senate. But that Congress can overturn bad Supreme Court precedent, do a lot more oversight, make sure that the enforcers are doing their jobs. And a key thing that I think people don’t often connect to antimonopoly but need to, is stop this just arbitration takeover of our judicial system. Because the favorite court system of our big monopolists is secret arbitration. And in practice, that means people just lose their rights.

VALLAS: Well, and that’s sort of the flip side of the coin, right, for some of what you were describing before in terms of the equality that we didn’t see in their response to the 2008 crash, right? We saw the bailouts of the banks. But then at the same time, and a lot more quietly, because it’s a lot of individuals being mistreated in a way that doesn’t make front page news, you describe a trend of public courts, the place where we actually should have all people equal in the eyes of the law, in theory, although not in practice, being replaced by arbitration. And in a system where you’ve got, you know, I’m putting judges in scare quotes but “judges” who are paid by corporations, right? And then there’s no actual transparency about why the outcomes are what they are. And that’s the remedy and the recourse that we, as citizens, who have been transformed into consumers have when it comes to the injustices that they get to perpetrate against us in large numbers.

TEACHOUT: Yeah. I mean, you’re a recovering lawyer. But so, you know about this, the deep contract law problem that we have in our law and our approach to society. And I bring this up because right now, we have this total fantasy that when people enter into contracts, signing away their rights to an open court and agreeing to instead, have their complaints arbitrated by a secret judge who’s paid by, they’re paid by a big corporation, that that contract is a matter of open or free choice. And it takes about two minutes to realize that’s silly. Can you imagine getting the job of your dreams or even just a job that you need to get by. And you get the job, and you’re about to finally start the next day. And you say, OK, thank you, McDonald’s. Thank you, Amazon. Thank you, Verizon. Thank you, Monsanto. I love my job, but I’m not going to sign this arbitration contract because later, when you discriminate against me, I want to be able to sue you in open court. Nobody’s going to say that! And yet, that is the courts enforce these arbitration contracts based on this fantasy that you are signing this away out of choice. Now, in I monopolized economy, that choice is pure fantasy. Because you could go to McDonald’s or Burger King: they have the same arbitration contract. You go to Verizon or AT&T: they have the same arbitration contract. So, if you’re just choosing between similar models of private, secret, unaccountable courts and not actually choosing to have your case heard in public or not.

VALLAS: And you also point to the role of a vibrant news system, something that we don’t have in this country anymore for a variety of reasons. In part, it takes us back to the story about Facebook and Google you were telling before, but obviously, also because of dying news rooms that used to provide a check on this kind of private power and corruption in public institutions, but which are increasingly losing the resources that they need to do that kind of investigative journalism. Talk a little bit about the news system that we need to have and how we get there and how that itself actually involves breaking up Facebook and Google.

TEACHOUT: Yeah, Facebook and Google, unlike, say, Craigslist, are directly making money off the journalism that people are doing. If you do a great investigative deep dive into what is happening with construction accidents in New York City and then publish that piece in a story, you aren’t going to be able to get that story to readers without your publication going through Facebook or Google. And Facebook and Google are going to advertise next to links to that story and the headlines and the key facts in that story. And they are making money directly off of the hard work that journalists are doing. And the reason I compare that to Craigslist is because I think sometimes people have sort of a handwaving sense of like, oh, the Internet killed news. And it’s not the Internet. It’s Facebook and Google and because Facebook and Google are actually making money off the very work that journalists are doing. So, I propose not only a breakup of these dynasties, but also that we have to rethink their really toxic business model. Because right now, they are effectively competing against news organizations that depend on them. So, the more money they take away from news organizations, the better they do. And that’s not good for democracy.

VALLAS: There’s so much more in the book. And we could spend another three hours, and we wouldn’t even scratch the surface. But I want to send folks to it. It’s called Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. It has, as Bernie Sanders puts it, in a foreword, it’s effectively a blueprint for the organizing that we need to see to, to see this new anti-monopoly, anti-trust movement that Zephyr Teachout is calling for that can’t just be about boycotting Amazon on Monday and Comcast on Tuesday and protesting Pfizer on Wednesday, and which needs to have a united, coherent strategy as part and parcel of the progressive agenda.

Zephyr, where would you send folks, apart from your book, which they should read, even if they think they already know everything about this for all the reasons you said and more, but where would you send folks if they’re looking to get involved, if they’ve been persuaded. They’ve heard this, and maybe they go read your book, and they say, all right, OK. This is now something I’m really worried about. I get it. What do I do?

TEACHOUT: Well, there are these new organizations that are popping up. One is Athena, which is a coalition of labor groups, civil rights groups, and activists who are fighting against Amazon and have taken as a core premise that Amazon needs to be broken up, as well as needs to change its labor practices. There’s a group, the American Economic Liberties Project, that is doing some really exciting work. The Open Markets Institute is doing exciting work. I always recommend following David Dayen at The Prospect. His book came out the week before mine, but I see us more as collaborators than competitors. You should read his book too, Monopolized. So, when you start with following those people, those are great beginnings. But then you know what? Maybe you could start your own local anti-trust league. Never, it’s never a bad time to start trustbusting.

VALLAS: And it’s a great, I think, note to end on. You heard it from Zephyr Teachout. Go start a local anti-trust league. That is the cool thing to do in 2020 if you’ve got some time on your hands amid the COVID pandemic. And in the meantime, go find her book, and maybe don’t find it on Amazon. We’ll put some links on our syllabus page to other places you can find it, Break ’em up: Recovering our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. Zephyr, thank you so much for taking the time. Wish I had another couple of hours with you just to get you telling stories of some of your runs for office on these issues. But I just really, really appreciate the chance to get to hear a little bit from you about this book that, in so many ways, is one of the most timely pieces, I think, that people could read to connect some of the dots of the moment we are all living through. So, thank you so much.

TEACHOUT: Thank you so much for having me!

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart — And the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.



Off-Kilter Podcast

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: tcf.org/off-kilter.