Are Facebook and Google afraid of Hillary Clinton?
While Donald Trump busies himself battling beauty queens on Twitter and occasionally touting his slapdash, unworkable "concepts" on trade, taxes, and immigration, Hillary Clinton is busy being a normal American presidential candidate. For instance, she's releasing reasonably detailed papers on all manner of public policy issues. (I know, so very boring.) If this were a normal American presidential election, these proposals would be vigorously discussed and examined, particularly at the presidential debates. Instead we get extended back-and-forths on her network server management issues.
But these policy proposals really do deserve our attention. For instance, consider Clinton's speech in Toledo on Monday, in which she attacked the anti-competitive, anti-consumer business practices of "too many" in corporate America. The Democratic presidential nominee didn't go full Elizabeth Warren. But it was pretty close:
Look at Wells Fargo. Really shocking, isn't it? One of the nation's biggest banks bullying thousands of employees into committing fraud against unsuspecting customers. … It is outrageous that eight years after a cowboy culture on Wall Street wrecked our economy, we are still seeing powerful bankers playing fast and loose with the law. … Part of the problem is large corporations are amassing so much power in our economy. Sometimes it's called market concentration or even old-fashioned monopolies. … As president, I will appoint tough, independent authorities to strengthen anti-trust enforcement and really scrutinize mergers and acquisitions, so the big don't keep getting bigger and bigger. [Hillary Clinton]
All hail Hillary of the House Clinton, First of Her Name, Slayer of Monopolies and Megabanks.
Now, a competent Republican presidential campaign would take note of its opponent's tough, populist speech. It would place that speech in the context of what many left-of-center thinkers are saying these days about corporate power and inequality. For instance, the Obama economic team has put forward a thorough analysis of how American industry is getting more and more concentrated, potentially harming consumers and small business.
Moreover, a competent, policy-oriented Republican presidential campaign would note that many Democrats are using the reality of greater market concentration as a springboard for attacking Silicon Valley and the broader technology sector — one part of the American economy that seems to be working pretty well. (At least, that's the impression I get when I pull that small pane of glass from my pocket allowing me to instantly access the sum of human knowledge.)
This summer, Warren singled out Amazon, Apple, and Google as examples of concentrated corporate power. She even compared them to Wall Street's "too big to fail" megabanks. And in a New York Times op-ed last month, former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich bemoaned the economic and political power of "Big Tech." Like Warren, Reich looks favorably on the European Union's efforts to break up Google's supposed monopoly powers and practices. Indeed, some on the left would actually dismantle some of these tech industry giants here in the U.S.
Interestingly, Clinton never mentioned tech in her Toledo speech, instead singling out banking and healthcare. Then again, she never gave the tech industry any sort of special dispensation due to the special economics of the digital economy where, for instance, the more users you attract to a platform, the more valuable it may get.
Would President Hillary Clinton aggressively pursue anti-trust actions against America's most successful and innovative companies as many in her party would like? We don't know. But how could Big Tech not be at least a bit worried about a regulatory war against them during another Clinton administration, especially given the Democratic Party's continued leftward shift?
Maybe they are worried. The day after Clinton's speech, Google's top economist Hal Varian had an op-ed in the Financial Times in which he made the case that tech giants are nothing like the robber baron monopolists of old. Rather, they are constantly subject to "disruption" while continuing to innovate and bring cool new products and services to consumers and small businesses alike.
A competent GOP nominee might be coming to the defense of Big Tech, and questioning Hillary's commitment to this vibrant sector of the American economy. And in doing so, he might broadly acknowledge that many sectors of the economy have grown more concentrated, perhaps making the economy less competitive and dynamic. But he also might explain, as Varian did, how the tech sector can be different. It wasn't so long ago that MySpace was the largest and most dominant social networking site. Fortune magazine once declared Yahoo the winner of the "search engine wars." The founders and executives at top tech firms hardly think their positions are forever secure. Will smart bots threaten Google's core search business? Will the fast-growing Chinese market undermine the iPhone in Asia? Look out Facebook, here comes Snapchat!
A competent GOP nominee might also point out all the ways — in addition, perhaps, to an anti-trust rethink on the right — to make the economy more competitive, including reforming occupational licensing laws, less stringent patent and copyright protection, and reviewing tax and regulatory rules that benefit incumbents over startups. He might also point out how the Obama administration's healthcare and banking overhauls might be driving increased business concentration in those sectors.
A competent GOP nominee might say some or all of these things as part of an intellectually honest agenda to promote a more open and dynamic economy. But instead, the GOP nominee is Donald Trump.