Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Big Tech and Big Ag. What industries could be next?

Warren says America's concentration problem is "hiding in plain sight" across the economy.

DUBUQUE, IOWA - MARCH 01:  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign rally at the Stone Cliff Winery on March 1, 2019 in Dubuque, Iowa. Warren is campaigning in the state with the hopes of securing the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a March 1 campaign rally at the Stone Cliff Winery in Dubuque, Iowa. –Scott Olson / Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren “loves” markets — just not ones without competition.

Within the last month, the Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate has unveiled proposals to address the consolidation of power in the technology and agriculture sectors, which she says is hurting consumers and competitors.

But are Big Tech and Big Ag the only industries Warren would like to break up? Maybe not.

In a 2016 speech at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank, Warren said that the concentration problem is “hiding in plain sight all across the American economy” and called on government to address it. She also mentioned several specific industries — in addition to tech and agriculture — that federal regulators should address.

Advertisement

In another Open Markets speech in 2017, Warren called for “a new breed of antitrust enforcers,” who would more strictly enforce the existing monopoly rules and apply closer scrutiny to vertical mergers, as well as across-the-board government involvement to promote competition.

“America is a country where everyone should have a fighting chance to succeed—and that happens only when we demand it,” she said in the 2016 speech.

Warren has said she emulates former President Theodore Roosevelt, who worked to break up oil, railroad, meatpacking, and cigarette monopolies. Here are the other industries that she could target as president:

The industry: Banking

What she said: Warren is one of the lead co-sponsors of the “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act,” which would separate traditional banks that offer savings and checking accounts — and are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — from institutions that are involved in investment banking and other “riskier” activities. Warren also recently questioned the Federal Reserve’s records of “summarily” approving bank mergers and acquisitions.

In her 2016 speech to Open Markets, the senator pointed to the financial industry as a prime example of how concentration “threatens the economy”:

“For years, banks have been in a feeding frenzy, swallowing up smaller competitors to become more powerful and, eventually, too big to fail. The combination of their size, their risky practices, and the hands-off policies of their regulators created a perfect storm, resulting in the worst financial crisis in 80 years. We know that excessive size and interconnectedness promotes risky behavior that can take down our economy — and yet, today, eight years after that financial crisis, three out of the four biggest banks in America are even bigger than they were before the crisis and two months ago five were designated by both the Fed and the FDIC as “too big to fail.”

The industry: Airlines

What she said: Two decades of consolidation in the airline industry culminated with the merger of U.S. Airways and American Airlines in 2013, after the two companies agreed to sell some of their airport slots in an anti-trust lawsuit settlement with the Justice Department. Still, in 2016, Warren said the industry trend had harmed consumers:

In the last decade, the number of major U.S. airlines has dropped from nine to four. The four that are left standing—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—control over 80 percent of all domestic airline seats in the country. And man, are they are hitting the jackpot now. Last year those four big airlines raked in a record $22 billion in profits. Eighteen billion alone came from fees for baggage and legroom and pay toilets. OK, the last one was a joke, but what have passengers received in return for their higher costs? Fewer flights and worse service. Airline complaints rose 30 percent just from 2014 to 2015.

Advertisement

The industry: Health care and pharmaceuticals

What she said: In her 2016 speech, Warren laid out the state of corporate dominance when it came to both insurance providers and pharmacies.

A handful of health insurance giants—including Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare, Aetna, and Cigna—control over 83 percent of the country’s health insurance market. Three drug stores—CVS, Walgreen’s, and Rite Aid—control 99 percent of the drug stores in the country.

Warren was among a handful of Senate Democrats who raised questions about the attempted merger of Aetna and fellow insurance giant Humana in 2016. She also voiced concerns in 2017 about the vertical merger of Aetna and the drug store giant chain CVS, which was completed last fall.

CVS and Aetna announced that they plan to merge, less than a year after the DOJ blocked Aetna’s proposed merger with Humana. There is already increasing concentration and decreasing competition in the health care sector, which has left Americans with higher medical bills and a lower quality of care. It’s critical that DOJ scrutinize the proposal and stand ready to take the necessary action to defend competition. We need more—a lot more—antitrust enforcement so that giants get the message that they can’t use mergers to stamp out competition.

The industry: Telecom

What she said: In Warren’s 2016 speech, she said the dominance of a few conglomerates in the cable and internet service industries had resulted in worse service for customers — singling out the particularly detested telecom company Comcast.

Consider Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and internet service provider. Comcast has consolidated its position by buying up rivals. Today, over half of all cable and internet subscribers in America are Comcast customers. And last year was Comcast’s best year in nearly a decade. But while big telecom giants have been consuming each other, consumers have been left out in the cold—facing little or no choice in service providers and paying through the nose for cable and internet service. Over a third of Americans who theoretically have access to high speed internet don’t actually subscribe because the price tag is too high. And the data are clear: Americans pay much more for cable and internet than their counterparts in other advanced countries and, in return, we get worse service.

In 2017, despite her concerns about President Donald Trump’s reported political motives, Warren applauded the Justice Department’s (ultimately unsuccessful) lawsuit to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, another example of vertical integration.

I’m glad that the Justice Department has filed suit to stop the AT&T and Time Warner deal. By bringing together one of the nation’s leading content distributors and one of the world’s largest TV and entertainment companies, this merger invites higher prices, fewer choices, and worse service for consumers.

In addition to vertical media consolidation, Warren called the effects of a few companies — such as the Republican-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group — owning a dominant share of the country’s media outlets “downright scary.”

Take the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group—the largest TV station owner in the U.S. —and Tribune Broadcasting—another large TV station owner. David Smith, Sinclair’s executive chairman, is a big-shot Republican donor who aggressively uses his local stations to promote his own political views. He threw in with Trump during the 2016 campaign and used local news stations to plant pro-Trump stories. Jared Kushner even bragged about reaching a deal with Sinclair to get more positive coverage of Trump.

That deal has paid off in spades. After the election, Smith met with [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai to discuss FCC rules that prevented Sinclair from acquiring Tribune, and Pai immediately got to work to help pave the way for a merger that, if completed, would give Sinclair access to over 70 percent of American households—and a chance to quietly pump his own brand of right-wing politics into local news programs in nearly three out of every four homes in America.

This is downright scary. A free and independent media is powerfully important to the survival of democracy, and the FCC is on the verge of trashing the independence that we all rely on.

The industry: Retail

What she said: Before Amazon’s rise in the e-commerce space, Warren voiced concerns about the effect of Walmart’s still-growing power on smaller retailers, as well as its treatment of workers. Last year, she criticized the company for paying billions to shareholders while paying workers just $11 an hour.

Warren and other Democratic lawmakers have consistently pressured Walmart to raise its wages, following contested estimates that the chain’s workers collect $6 billion in federal assistance. Last September, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill, targeting retail giants like Amazon and Walmart, that would tax large corporations the price of its employees food stamps and other public assistance (the Vermont senator was the bill’s only sponsor).

Advertisement

In her 2016 speech, Warren pointed to the “Walmart effect” as an example of how one large company can harm competition — and in turn employees.

When competition declines, small businesses can be wiped out — and our whole economy can suffer. Look at what is often referred to as the Wal-Mart effect. Wal-Mart is big, and it’s powerful. It delivers anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the products Americans consume, and it controls over half of all groceries sold in some major cities.

Wal-Mart’s gigantic size gives it a competitive advantage over small businesses. And often, when Wal-Mart moves into town, small businesses collapse because they can’t compete with the price leverage Wal-Mart has built with its suppliers.

Wal-Mart is notorious for the low wages and poor working conditions it offers, and the Wal-Mart effect has an impact on suppliers as well—forcing them to cut their own workers’ wages and benefits to keep Wal-Mart’s business. Workers who cannot survive on those wages turn to public assistance, including housing, health care, and food stamps, that is subsidized by other taxpayers. Wal-Mart workers alone are estimated to collect about $6 billion a year in federal taxpayer subsidies just to survive. That means the low, low prices that Wal-Mart advertises are paid for, in part, by high, high tax subsidies that every other American pays for. In the meantime, Wal-Mart’s investors pocket the high, high profits.