Yesterday, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance hosted a seminar on the topic of "Reining in Monopoly Power: Small Businesses and the Push to Strengthen Antitrust Laws." The webinar follows a similar event last year in Washington, D.C., that coincided with Winter Institute 15 in Baltimore. Central to yesterday's conversation was the monopolistic market power of Apple, Google, Facebook and, especially, Amazon.
The keynote talk was delivered by Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI), chairman, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, who explained that the country's Democratic legislature was ready to act to defend small and local business against predatory companies. "We know that small and local businesses are going to be key to our economic recovery after the pandemic," he said. Cicilline noted that for a long time, companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook were given a free pass and Congress didn't want to be seen obstructing the growth of entrepreneurial American companies. But times have changed, and Cicilline said, "we must level the playing field."
The talk was moderated by Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer for the American Booksellers Association, and several booksellers were participating online and offering comments in the chat thread. Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan., appeared on-screen and asked Cicilline about the possibility of breaking up Amazon. Cicilline's reply was pragmatic: "Breaking up Amazon may just result in 10 companies that behave just as a badly, but it will improve competitiveness."
Cicilline advocated passing a Glass-Steagall Act for the retail marketplace. "How Amazon is working creates a tremendous amount of unfairness," he said. "It fosters anticompetitive behavior, favors self-preferencing for their own products. I think you either need to be a seller of goods and services or you can control the marketplace — you cannot do both."
Cicilline continued, "Right now it is impossible for small stores to compete with Amazon and we have a responsibility to fix it. They do what they want and engage in a set of behaviors that is disturbing. We want the marketplace to work, so you can make space for other companies to work. We want all great companies to survive and flourish."
In a follow-up panel discussion, Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, noted, "The courts have been enamored with the idea of big efficiency. This has allowed big companies to bully smaller rivals." She said one example of this was predatory pricing and the fact that small businesses are not given access to the same deals, due to economies of scale, that larger companies are. She continued, pointing out that Amazon's collection of data has ultimately become a form of surveillance. "They control inventory, shipping, point-of-sale systems, and access to the internet," she said. "They have effectively constructed a God-like view of what is happening in the economy."
Zephyr Teachout, author and professor at Fordham Law School, noted later in the day that the country is at an inflection point for those fighting for antitrust action to be taken against monopolistic companies. "The failure to enforce antitrust laws since the Reagan administration has been a bi-partisan betrayal for the last 40 years," she said. "We are at a crucible moment for antitrust, Now, it is not whether congress will act, it is what they will do. If we want strong antitrust laws, the time to act is now."