Senator Amy Klobuchar’s favorite game when she was growing up was Monopoly. Little did she dream when moving her thimble token around the board — dodging opponents’ monopoly holdings — that she would one day head up a Senate committee dealing with antitrust policy for our nation.
Since her Minnesota upbringing, Klobuchar has become a champion of anti-monopoly policies, bent on reforming and strengthening much-neglected antitrust laws. Alerting the public on the need for action drove her to write a compelling book: Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age (Alfred A. Knopf). It’s part history — the nation’s and the Klobuchar family’s narrative — but mainly it’s a call to action.
Klobuchar spices the book with vintage cartoons — more than 100 of them — antitrust humor (there is such a thing), and stories about what lax enforcement of antitrust laws has cost us. It’s a hefty, well-researched book — with 200 of its 600 pages devoted to notes.
She describes how she happened to write the book, beginning with a phone call that arrived shortly after she was sworn in as a new U.S. senator in 2008. A pharmacist at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis called asking for help: the price of a life-saving drug used to treat premature babies had suddenly increased astronomically in price.
Weeks later, Klobuchar met with Alan Goldbloom, the hospital’s president. He confirmed what the pharmacist had said. Ovation Pharmaceuticals — a Deerfield, Illinois company — had bought the drug Indomethacin from mega drug company Merck and had jacked up the price from $78 per treatment to $1,614 — a price more than 20 times its original cost.
Ovation had already bought the rights to another drug treating the same critical condition, essentially cornering the market and hitting the monopoly jackpot. Although Klobuchar’s efforts led to a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit and much evidence of price gouging, the federal district judge found for the company. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court also failed to level the playing field. It would be years before competition emerged, years when a company bled hospitals, families, and the U. S. government for cash at the expense of the health of newborns.
Klobuchar writes that stakes are high and facts are stark: American firms engaged in $10 trillion in acquisitions from 2008 to 2017 and the effects of monopoly power can be felt everywhere. She asks: Why is healthcare so expensive? Why do farmers pay so much for seed and fertilizer? Why are so few incentives in place for Big Tech companies to protect your private information? Klobuchar says, “If you’ve wondered about this, you should be thinking of the state of the nation’s anti-trust laws.”
What to do about the way the system works today is saved for the book’s final chapters, following Klobuchar’s history of America’s long fight against monopolies. She begins with the Boston Tea Party, a revolt against King George III’s attempt to impose monopoly power on the colonists. It’s a captivating tale — not quite a page-turner — but absorbing. It delves into the gilded age of robber barons, the rise of all-powerful trusts and then breakthroughs with Sherman and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts, the rise of muckraking journalists, and the election of trust-busters like Teddy Roosevelt.
Klobuchar’s story even has its arch villain, none other than Robert Bork, the rejected Supreme Court nominee. Bork emerged from the Chicago School of academics who advocated for limited enforcement of anti-trust laws (only when prices went up). Bork and other market-worshipping economists saw wealth creation — even if it went into the bank accounts of rich monopolists — as the be-all and end-all.
Given Bork’s hands-off approach, it was a surprise to discover his hand in the Microsoft Corporation’s dispute with the government in the late 1990s. Bork had argued that Microsoft should be broken into three companies, an about-face that maybe was influenced by his becoming a paid legal consultant for another player.
Klobuchar concludes her impressive book with a specific list of what Congress can do to reform the system and 10 suggestions for citizens to take action. She calls for a new, grassroots, antitrust movement involving the public, not just a few economists, lawyers, and antitrust experts. She wants citizens to demand antitrust reform, to combat the crisis that has led to raised prices, curtailed wages, wide-spread racism, squashed new businesses, and corrupted politics.
When people ask her what monopolies and antitrust have to do with their lives, the answer she now gives is the same as when she was raking in Monopoly game rents: Everything.