WASHINGTON, July 6, 2016 - Two days after her highly publicized appearance with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., delivered a little-noticed speech that just might restore the issue of competition in food and agriculture to the presidential radar.
Her address to the New America “Open Markets Program” in Washington on June 29 raised the visibility of a subject that has been mostly invisible during the presidential campaign but has been getting attention from left-of-center “think tanks” including New America, the Center for American Progress and the Roosevelt Institute.
At the New America event, Warren ticked off a list of industries in which “sector after sector” of the economy is succumbing to consolidation and eroding competition. “Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy,” she said.
The meat industry is one of several sectors where lack of competition is “hiding in plain sight,” she said. The financial sector tops Warren’s list, but she also rued the continued consolidation of airlines, health insurance companies and retail drug stores.
“Four companies control nearly 85 percent of the U.S. beef market,” she said, “and three produce almost half of all chicken.”
Warren’s address and all three “think tank” reports offer at least implicit criticism of the Obama administration’s lack of vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws and call on the next president to ramp up efforts to restrain consolidation. President Obama’s USDA and Department of Justice (DOJ) held a series of highly publicized workshops to hear complaints about agribusiness consolidation but disappointed critics by taking little action.
Warren gave the president credit for his April 15 executive order requiring all government agencies to identify ways that they can play a role in increasing competition.
The next president, Warren said, should “require all agencies to promote market competition and appoint agency heads who will do so.” Alluding to proposed poultry contracting rules at USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration, she noted that the department “has a role to play in making sure that poultry farmers and produce growers aren’t held hostage to the whims of giant firms.”
In addition to DOJ Antitrust Division responsibility for enforcing specific antitrust laws, she said, “Promoting competition should be taken seriously across the executive branch. The FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and other agencies have a role to play in making sure that financial institutions don’t become so large that their smaller competitors don’t have the opportunity to serve American families and small businesses. The FCC and FTC both have a role to play in making sure that small, innovative tech companies can develop newer and better ways for us to connect with each other without being crushed by the big guys.”
Warren said that, in addition to their economic impact, “concentrated markets create concentrated political power.” Echoing remarks by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, she said, “Over time, this means a closed, self-perpetuating, rigged system – a playing field that lavishes favors on the big guys, hammers the small guys, and fuels even more concentration.”
Her prepared remarks said the next president could reverse a nearly 50-year trend of continued consolidation. “Strong executive leadership could revive antitrust enforcement in this country and begin, once again, to fight back against dominant market power and overwhelming political power,” she said, adding, “Competition in America is essential to liberty in America, but the markets that have given us so much will become corrupt and die if we do not keep the spirit of competition strong.”
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