COMPASS: Congress is out, but infrastructure talks go on

July 7th, 2021

Good morning from steamy Capitol Hill. Hope everyone had a great July 4th. If you missed DC’s fireworks display, you can watch it here.

Both the House and Senate are out of session this week for the holiday. Senate Democrats return next week to kick off their infrastructure policy process, which right now appears to include bipartisan infrastructure legislation, paired with a Senate budget process that will include a reconciliation component which only requires a simple majority to pass. The topline number for the budget process has yet to be determined. Politico reported yesterday that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hoping for something around $6 trillion.

Heritage Action, Club for Growth, the Coalition to Protect American Workers, FreedomWorks, and Taxpayers Protection Alliance put out a statement calling the bipartisan infrastructure legislation “a Trojan horse for disastrous policies.” Meanwhile, White House officials are already reportedly engaging Republicans in “informal discussions” for a second infrastructure package, based on “human infrastructure.”

The battle over Big Tech continues unabated in Washington. Daniel Oliver, the former head of the Federal Trade Commission under Ronald Reagan, is out with a new essay arguing that Congress should update antitrust law for the digital age. Below is an excerpt, but read the whole thing here. (And if you missed it, check out my essay from May, where I argue that the current application of our antitrust laws has been distorted away from Bork’s comprehensive view of consumer welfare.)

In the 1980s, [Judge] Bork’s theory became the policy of the Reagan administration’s antitrust enforcers. But even 1980 is now a long time ago, closer to the age of radio, even crystal radios, than to the internet age we live in today, and it is surely a mistake to trap the thinking of as brilliant a man as Bork in the amber of his time.

A major change in the country now as compared to 1969, 1978, or 1980 is the raging culture war, which Bork commented on in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, published in 1996. Hostilities have escalated dramatically since then, and most of big-corporate America is not only not on the side Bork would be on but is using its market power to hasten the country’s arrival at Gomorrah. Slouching, Hell; now it’s sprinting towards Gomorrah.

Would Bork stick to the position he first staked out in 1969? That seems unlikely.

Antitrust is part of the real world. It’s not a laboratory experiment. What is the purpose of law? What is the purpose of public policy? What is the purpose of antitrust? That debate is the one “conservatives” in this country are now embroiled in.

There are the libertarians who seem unconcerned about the blatant attacks on our liberties as long as that attack is perpetrated by private companies (even if those companies achieved their dominance through government regulations that disadvantaged their competitors).

That is not the position of traditional, cultural conservatives. They value societal, and constitutional, arrangements as much as they value economic efficiency. They know there’s a culture war going on, and they know they’re losing it…

As an economic theory, big may not necessarily be bad. But what happens if big always, or often, or even only sometimes, turns out to be bad? Bad for what?

That’s the question.

Which is “better”: a system that lets big corporations do whatever they want — even if those actions are designed to undermine our democratic institutions, suppress dissent, and marginalize those who hold differing values, including traditional American ones like individual responsibility and the “racist” presumption that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin? Or is it better to have a system that safeguards our democratic institutions — even from powerful private interests — and promotes traditional American values, or at least protects those that hold them from reprisal?

And here’s a question for the assorted libertarians and “economic conservatives” whose exclusive focus is maximizing economic efficiency: how long do you think those efficiencies will be maximized once our individual liberties are extinguished? How’s that working out for people in China?


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One More Thing…

Last week the Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted a symposium on Big Tech, featuring remarks from Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Bill Hagerty, and Rep. Ken Buck, and panel discussions on Sec. 230, antitrust reform, and common carrier requirements. Watch here.