Who’s to blame for out-of-control corporate power?

The public is waking up to the outsized power corporations wield over our economy and democracy. It’s about time.

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One man is especially to blame for why corporate power is out of control. And I knew him! He was my professor, then my boss. His name… Robert Bork.

Robert Bork was a notorious conservative who believed the only legitimate purpose of antitrust — that is, anti-monopoly — law is to lower prices for consumers, no matter how big corporations get. His philosophy came to dominate the federal courts and conservative economics.

I met him in 1971, when I took his antitrust class at Yale Law School. He was a large, imposing man, with a red beard and a perpetual scowl. He seemed impatient and bored with me and my classmates, who included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, as we challenged him repeatedly on his antitrust views.

We argued with Bork that ever-expanding corporations had too much power. Not only could they undercut rivals with lower prices and suppress wages, but they were using their spoils to influence our politics with campaign contributions. Wasn’t this cause for greater antitrust enforcement?

He had a retort for everything. Undercutting rival businesses with lower prices was a good thing because consumers like lower prices. Suppressing wages didn’t matter because employees are always free to find better jobs. He argued that courts could not possibly measure political power, so why should that matter?

Even in my mid-20s, I knew this was hogwash.

But Bork’s ideology began to spread. A few years after I took his class, he wrote a book called The Antitrust Paradox summarizing his ideas. The book heavily influenced Ronald Reagan and later helped form a basic tenet of Reaganomics — the bogus theory that says government should get out of the way and allow corporations to do as they please, including growing as big and powerful as they want.

Despite our law school sparring, Bork later gave me a job in the Department of Justice when he was solicitor general for Gerald Ford. Even though we didn’t agree on much, I enjoyed his wry sense of humor. I respected his intellect. Hell, I even came to like him.

Once President Reagan appointed Bork as an appeals court judge, his rulings further dismantled antitrust. And while his later Supreme Court nomination failed, his influence over the courts continued to grow.  

Bork’s legacy is the enormous corporate power we see today, whether it’s Ticketmaster and Live Nation consolidating control over live performances, Kroger and Albertsons dominating the grocery market, or Amazon, Google, and Meta taking over the tech world.

It’s not just these high-profile companies either: in most industries, a handful of companies now control more of their markets than they did twenty years ago.

This corporate concentration costs the typical American household an estimated extra $5,000 per year. Companies have been able to jack up prices without losing customers to competitors because there is often no meaningful competition.

And huge corporations also have the power to suppress wages because workers have fewer employers from whom to get better jobs.

And how can we forget the massive flow of money these corporate giants are funneling into politics, rigging our democracy in their favor?

But the tide is beginning to turn under the Biden Administration. The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are fighting the monopolization of America in court, and proposing new merger guidelines to protect consumers, workers, and society.

It’s the implementation of the view that I and my law school classmates argued for back in the 1970s — one that sees corporate concentration as a problem that outweighs any theoretical benefits Bork claimed might exist.

Robert Bork would likely regard the Biden administration’s antitrust efforts with the same disdain he had for my arguments in his class all those years ago. But instead of a few outspoken law students, Bork’s philosophy is now being challenged by the full force of the federal government.

The public is waking up to the outsized power corporations wield over our economy and democracy. It’s about time.

Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.

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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.

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