Some books are dull because of their subject matter, and others are dull despite it. Senator Amy Klobuchar's new opus, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, manages to be even duller than its already dull subject. Though the last few pages detail Klobuchar's goals as head of the Senate antitrust subcommittee and may therefore be useful for some readers, they're packaged in 500 pages of incoherent fluff.
Of course, antitrust law is a warren of dull economic jargon, and even the flashiest author would be hard-pressed to jazz it up. Early on, the Minnesota Democrat announces her commitment to making it accessible to a lay audience: In Antitrust, this approach means we get a long discursion on her maternal grandparents.
Antitrust jumps from family history to American history and various policy prescriptions, but the main philosophical thrust is an attempt to situate antitrust law firmly in the American tradition. Klobuchar leans heavily on anti-monopolist tendencies among the Founders and state constitutions, quoting Alexander Hamilton at length (with the requisite nods to the Broadway show). At times, the history seems disjointed, as when she argues that America's Founders could "never have conceived of the enormous influence" multinational companies now have in the same paragraph as she notes their attacks on the British East India Company.
The book then moves into a dense, detail-laden account of every antitrust movement of the last two centuries, evidently to show Klobuchar has done the reading. Multiple pages are block quotes lifted out of various antitrust textbooks. She's conspicuously careful when criticizing political figures for their racial record. Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all receive flak for their prejudice, while a page later Margaret Sanger, America's most successful eugenicist, is described solely as "an advocate for women's access to contraceptives."
As a senator from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Klobuchar loves a good water reference: Checks "are literally flooding the seat of democracy" (they are not literally flooding the seat of democracy); "we need to cross the river of our divides to reach higher ground" (which side are we crossing to?). There are the rhetorical crutches: In "the era of BIG," "we need to invest in people." Antitrust law itself is explained more times than I could count. On page 345, the absentminded reader is reminded that antitrust law is "about penalizing unlawful, anticompetitive conduct."
Klobuchar rightfully points out the "Swiss cheese" of contemporary antitrust law, which is littered with carveouts for industries as disparate as baseball and anti-hog-cholera serum. Antitrust should be "a serious, nonpartisan lever of competition policy"—she's particularly miffed that almost a third of Antitrust Division probes under former president Donald Trump targeted the weed industry.
Klobuchar then pivots in the back half of the book to a laundry list of Democratic prescriptions, from ending right-to-work laws to net neutrality to a new voting rights act. The ties between these topics are unclear and at times completely contradictory. When the Sinclair Broadcast Group blames "fake news" for declining trust in the industry, it's dangerous. A page later, Klobuchar says we face a wave of "blatantly and misleading" news.
As the chairwoman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, Klobuchar has made no secret of her goal of passing sweeping antitrust legislation. And there seems to be increased appetite from both sides of the aisle for checks on big tech companies. Klobuchar notes that congressional hearings are all well and good, but no substitute for comprehensive legislation. She's hoping 50 other colleagues feel the same way.
But for all its bluster, Antitrust rarely goes after existing monopolies. Klobuchar prefers instead to tie each prescription to a warning about how monopolies in the abstract are bad for consumers. Perhaps it's simply wise politicking, but it's a noticeable tonal shift after a fact-heavy historical overview. And there's little description of the anticompetitive behavior companies like Facebook and Amazon engage in daily.
The book ends with "10 things you can do" to curb corporate power. Citizens are advised to "make your voice heard by writing op-eds" or to "start a small business to take on the power of BIG yourself, and find a committed lawyer." It's a bizarre conclusion to a book on the policy levers the government has to rein in big business. One hopes the antitrust legislation Klobuchar lobbies for over the coming years is, if as dry as her book, at least more coherent.
Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age
by Amy Klobuchar
Knopf, 624 pp., $32.50
Published under: Book reviews