Jul 9, 2021 - Technology

Biden order: End the monopoly game

Illustration of a pattern of buckets of money with a giant hand picking up one bucket.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden wants to remake the U.S. economy by injecting more competition into highly concentrated industries including airlines, Big Tech and agriculture to improve choices and prices for consumers.

Why it matters: The ambitious executive order signed Friday directs the federal government to step up antitrust enforcement and regulation. The move marks a sea change from four decades of a hands-off-big-business approach ushered in by Ronald Reagan.

What they're saying: "Let me be very clear, capitalism without competition isn't capitalism. It's exploitation," Biden said at a White House signing ceremony for the order.

  • The president argued that industrial concentration harms employees by giving them less choice in where to work and lowering their wages.

Details: The administration's order urges agencies to take specific actions help consumers' pocketbooks, including ...

  • Charting a path for states and tribes to safely import drugs from Canada, and urging the Federal Trade Commission to ban arrangements in which name-brand drug makers pay generic companies to stay out of the market.
  • Allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, and cutting down on costs Americans' pay to get them from specialists.
  • Forcing airlines to to refund fees when baggage is delayed or when in-flight WiFi doesn't work.
  • Banning internet service providers from charging high early termination fees, which can run upwards of $200.
  • Barring non-compete clauses in employment contracts that make it harder for workers to change jobs.

Between the lines: Don't expect any of this to happen quickly — the process of adopting new regulations can take months or even years.

  • The executive order relies on individual agencies to carry out the White House policies — which means lengthy rulemaking processes and lobbying frenzies from powerful industries.

The big picture: The order will make it harder for companies across sectors to merge or create joint venture agreements, and may lead to federal attempts to unwind acquisitions.

  • That includes more scrutiny of Big Tech platforms' attempts to buy smaller rivals or scoop up troves of consumers' data through deal-making.

Yes, but: The president has yet to name a nominee to lead the antitrust division of the Justice Department, who, along with newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan, will be key in carrying out antitrust action.

Our thought bubble: Executive orders can be an ineffective means to change federal policy, as numerous failed initiatives by the Trump administration demonstrated. But the Biden administration is well stocked with bureaucratic veterans who may be able to make at least some of these changes stick.

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