By this point, you must know how Donald Trump feels about big tech. He loves to use Twitter, as is painfully clear to anyone on social media, but his seemingly near-constant and very public spats with tech company CEOs reveal that he's no fan of the industry. And indeed, he has oftentimes worked at odds with tech companies--from revamping the H-1B visa system, the nation's most popular high-skilled guestworker program to threatening to eliminate Section 230, the provision that has allowed social media to avoid liability for what their users post on their platforms.
What's less clear is how the Democratic challenger Joe Biden would come down on big tech and the potentially anti-competitive behavior that increasingly puts tech bosses in congressional crosshairs. This edited excerpt from "Big," Matt Stoller's newsletter should be your guide.
Meet Joe Biden
As odd as it might sound, Joe Biden does have a populist streak. For example, in 1994, Biden was the chair of the Judiciary Committee overseeing the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Stephen Breyer. Though a Democrat, Breyer was known as extremely favorable to big business, and he was particularly obsessed with cost/benefit analysis in striking down regulations. Biden really let him have it in the hearings, telling Breyer that his views were "presumptuous and elitist," saying he found it offensive to presume Americans "would change their cultural values if" they knew the true costs. In a later interview, Biden then called Breyer's ideas "Harvard-ese ... that offends me." Of course, Biden voted for Breyer, showing that his instincts and his political choices don't always align. But it's a remarkable, and little noted, nugget from Biden, a genuine chip on his shoulder--a disdain for economic eggheads.
Now the pessimistic take. As a senator, Biden had a fairly orthodox Democratic economic policy framework, often tilting toward Wall Street. This was particularly true for policies like the Bankruptcy Bill in 2005, which Biden supported. That law made it much harder to escape credit card debt, and allowed big banks to take more risk through derivatives. Biden also supported free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the entrance of China to the World Trade Organization. During his time in the Obama White House, he negotiated with Republicans around austerity and tax cuts in ways that progressives did not like, and he helped open the door to Chinese influence over the NBA with some negotiations over film exports.
Though his policy track record tilts more toward corporate power than away from it, that doesn't say as much about his ideological views. Biden has largely treated domestic economic interests as parochial questions, not as substantive ones. Delaware houses the credit card industry and corporate chartering--it's the capital of incorporations--and Biden just did their bidding to represent his state and to raise campaign money.
His real passions are in foreign policy and things like crime, gun control, violence against women, and so forth. He's a Watergate baby-style politician, not particularly focused on political economy, responding to voters and using the corporations around him as transactional mechanisms to get to what he really cares about. This style is different from that of Obama, a hard-core Hamiltonian who believes in the essential nature of Wall Street and the progressive destiny of an America guided by Google and Facebook.
In the White House, Biden often sat on the left of policy disputes, and he headed the administration's middle class task force. Biden and Elizabeth Warren (D-VT) get along, whereas Obama looked at Warren with disdain. Biden's best friend is Ted Kaufman, and Kaufman was a senator who very much did try to break up the banks in 2010. Kaufman is apparently interested in antitrust, and he's heading up Biden's transition team. Now, I don't want to overstate Biden's populist streak; ex-Biden aide Jeff Connaughton wrote a tell-all making it clear Biden didn't do anything to break up the banks in 2009 or work to investigate Wall Street executives. But Biden tended to have more sympathy and interest in the lives of working people than Obama, as well as a sense that something had gone wrong in 2016.
Biden's mild populism has continued since he left office. In 2018, at an Economic Policy Institute event, he came out against mandatory arbitration for workers, and against non-compete agreements restraining employees from leaving their jobs. On tech policy, Biden has different instincts than Obama, who loved Silicon Valley, even musing that after he left office he might become a venture capitalist. Biden, by contrast, is not a fan of the Valley, calling big tech CEOs "little creeps." He has also called for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would have been mind-boggling 10 years ago. (It's also now party wide--Democrats simply despise Facebook.) But my sense is that Biden's populism will most clearly emerge in his desire to spend a lot of government money and make things in America, not in taking on corporate power.
Biden is an institutionalist, and as such, is bringing back a lot of Democrats who have been renting themselves out to powerful corporations. His institutional links to the industries he knows and likes are more old-line--Hollywood studios and telecom. One potential chief of staff is Steve Ricchetti, a corporate lobbyist who represented a swath of industries, but is basically aligned with AT&T. Chris Dodd, a close friend, repped Hollywood studios. Another close adviser is Tom Vilsack, Obama's ag chief turned dairy lobbyist, and a friend of large agribusinesses.
So that's Biden's background. He's no movement guy, but a transactional regular Democrat. What this means is that there's a strong element of establishmentarianism and randomness to the Biden's choices; he will choose his friends and allies for policy roles, and these have no ideological coherence. These picks will tilt older and toward the Black political establishment, with Jim Clyburn (D-SC) having a lot of influence.
I'm not saying the campaign isn't doing much about anti-monopoly policy or that it's ignorant to the issues of the day. But they'd better buckle up. America of 2020 is a very different place than it was12 years ago, economically, politically, and intellectually.
America's M&A Problem
Roughly every week, a major newspaper publishes a story or op-ed on just how concentrated the American economy has become. Recently it was The Wall Street Journal, in an article declaring "technology companies are set to end the year with their greatest share of the stock market ever." Policymakers globally are seeing that economies are swollen and misshapen, with big business dominant. At this point, there are so few listed companies that the Wilshire 5000 stock index has fewer than 3,500 names in it, because there have been so many mergers.
Wages are down, inequality is up, and it's evident every day that large powerful firms are making choices best left to governments, such as Mark Zuckerberg's now routine apologies for allowing destructive things to happen on Facebook. Moreover, antitrust traditionalism has become embarrassing, with anyone against reform routinely shown up as fools and idiots by Wall Street capital allocators who unwittingly mock them daily. Take Goldman Sachs's President John Waldron announcing a new merger wave and talking up his excitement at helping big business buy competitors and fire people.
"Politicians are going to be faced with the uncomfortable reality that you're going to have more big business doing better and that there's going to be more losses of jobs along the way," Waldron said at a recent conference.
Waldron is saying this publicly, recognizing that the public is unhappy, and that the economy is creating serious social dysfunction. Queue the haters. The tide is rising against monopolies and anticompetitive policies.
Everyone Hates Monopolies
In 2008, Americans faced their first major, panic-induced recession since the 1970s, with the housing bubble collapse and ensuing Wall Street meltdown. Academics, Congress, bankers, lobbyists, and Federal Reserve officials were completely unprepared. In that moment, the most recent Democrats in office were elected in 2006 and 2008, running against Bush and the war in Iraq; they did not really have any strong views about corporate power.
Because of this intellectual and political emptiness, Congress subordinated itself to the executive branch and the Fed. As a staffer, I sat in Financial Services Committee meetings where White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner presented legislation to the committee, which would become the Dodd-Frank reform package passed in 2010. Barney Frank, the chair of that committee, distrusted his own members, and wanted them to have as little authority as possible; the adults in the room, in his view, were those at the Fed and in the administration.
This time, by contrast, Congress is full of intellectually confident leaders within both parties. In the Senate, Warren, Mark Warner (D-VA), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have ideas--strong ones in some cases--on how to address concentrated power. Both Klobuchar and Hawley questioned Amy Coney Barrett on antitrust law at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Most important, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) has put forward a very strong baseline with a powerful House Antitrust report, with recommendations on how to break up platforms, reform antitrust law, and rejuvenate enforcement.
Even going beyond Congress, there's also a war within big business, a sort of everyone in the economy against big tech. Companies like Epic Games, Oracle, AT&T, Walmart, News Corp. and Microsoft are going at Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. In that sense, Biden's institutionalist leanings cut both ways. AT&T, as well as other Biden allies such as Comcast, is interested in putting more regulation on Google, Facebook, and Amazon, so that they are on a level playing field. Hollywood studios, another strong Biden support group, are deeply embittered towards Google for copyright violations. In other words, in the war within corporate America, which I've written about, Biden instinctively is on the opposite side from big tech.
So the Biden administration may be facing a strong Congress, as well as institutional pressure from other sectors. Still, none of this is set in stone. Under Trump, the Democrats, especially Cicilline, have been aggressive. The risk is that these efforts will collapse, much as nascent congressional moves to investigate Wall Street in 2008 fell apart as soon as Obama took office and effectively said, "Don't worry, I got this." Will Congress reassert itself? It's an open question.