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Trustbusters, whose forebears broke up AT&T, weigh crusade vs. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

Joseph N. DiStefano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

Once upon a time, our competition cops weren't afraid of giants. Federal regulators broke up Rockefeller's Standard Oil monopoly, kept DuPont from dominating military supply, and broke Ma Bell into what's now Verizon and other pieces.

But it's been popular, since the Nixon-Reagan-Clinton trade deals, to neglect old ways of measuring monopoly. If IBM, Exxon, GM, and DuPont have to compete with government-backed Chinese and European companies at home and abroad, does it make sense to punish them if some of their products are extra popular with U.S. buyers?

Break up JPMorgan Chase, the biggest U.S. bank, and you just invite government-backed Chinese banks to run the financial world, as its CEO, Jamie Dimon, argued last week.

And scholars led by Robert Bork argued that big, dominating businesses are not bad if their prices are low for consumers. Sometimes big companies are the most efficient, cheapest suppliers. Even if their inefficient small-business rivals get crushed.

But as trustbusters napped -- and the Obama Justice Department closed antitrust offices in Philadelphia and other towns -- it should be no surprise there are now very few American suppliers of some basic products, such as insulin for diabetes, balloon helium, or bread and breakfast-cereal grains -- and their rich owners are jacking up prices and reaping fat profits at consumers' expense.

The Trump administration has vowed to do something about monopoly power -- at least in the case of the big West Coast tech giants, whom the president and some of his supporters accuse of pandering to Democrats and liberals.

 

So Makan Delrahim, Justice's antitrust chief (who formerly advised Apple and other big companies), and Joe Simons, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, met last month -- at an antitrust conference in Cartagena, Colombia, Bloomberg reports -- to divide the four top tech players and investigate them.

Justice is looking at the smartphone-maker and music-retailer Apple and the search-shop-advertise heavyweight Google, both of which have been slapped hard by antitrust enforcers from the European Union. Those blows include $9 billion in fines against Google for its exclusionary Android, shopping, and ad policies, and ongoing probes of Apple's music and publishing market control.

Meanwhile, the FTC is reviewing the digital-shipping giant Amazon and social-media leader Facebook, and how they may "misuse their massive market power," as Reuters put it last week, helping send their shares lower on the stock market.

The president has made a crude popular case for this crusade, alleging that Facebook's and Twitter's customer-exclusion policies have been used to punish conservatives. Trump has also complained about the close (and mutually profitable, both sides claim) package-delivery business relationship between the Postal Service and Amazon, whose boss, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post, famous for its scrutiny of presidents and government spending. Leftists make similar complaints that they are disproportionately targeted.

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