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Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty

In an essay in Harper's in 1913, Louis Brandeis, the future Supreme Court justice, decried the "curse of bigness," a broadside against the huge business trusts that dominated the U.S. economy. Big railroads and banks, in his view, were at core in the era's widespread economic squalor and political corruption, and he made it his aim to break them up.

Today, taking stock of the new political turbulence crossing the globe, numerous scholars have found disturbing similarities in the Gilded Age, the heyday of the trusts, just preceding World War I.

  • This is because in pharma, telecoms, Big Tech and more, judges and politicians have again allowed private companies to run rampant, heedless of workers or society, writes Tim Wu in "The Curse of Bigness," his forthcoming book.
  • The anti-establishment wave, economic inequality, and xenophobia of our age? Wu's thesis is that Bigness — what he calls the new trusts — are behind all of it. They are "the No. 1 problem" confronting the U.S., he tells Axios — "at the root of all the other challenges the country faces."

The big picture: In an Oct. 25 report, the McKinsey Global Institute said that outsized companies around the world, which it calls "superstars," dominate total global business revenue, and that they are only growing more dominant.

  • Researchers have linked such companies to decades of largely flat U.S. wages and inequality, especially in rural areas where people have little choice where they work.
  • Since the 2016 election, Big Tech has been under a political microscope, threatened with regulation and greater taxation.
  • Against the glare of opprobrium, the Big Tech companies, quite different from the imperious Gilded Age trusts, are attempting to at least appear responsive.

But they are not going as far as Wu urges in what is a forcefully argued, extended essay — the immediate breakup of Facebook, and a watchful eye on the rest.

  • All 71 of the acquisitions that have made Facebook what it is today need to be reviewed, and some "were illegal," he asserts. Facebook "dried up innovation, resulted in higher prices, and was used as a tool to influence the 2016 election."
  • It should especially disgorge Instagram and WhatsApp, he says.

When Wu talks this way, it's because of the parallels he sees in the Gilded Age and the 1930s, when profound inequality, populism and nationalism led to "extreme politics, and ultimately war and totalitarian government." In the book, he writes:

Over the 20th century, nations that failed to control private power and attend to the economic needs of their citizens faced the rise of strongmen who promised their citizens a more immediate deliverance from economic woes. The rise of a paramount leader of government who partners with monopolized industry has an indelible association with fascism and authoritarianism.

Wu trots out statistics: In the late 1960s, the share of national income going to the top 1% of earners was 8%. As of last summer, it was 23.8%. "We are in grave danger of repeating the errors of the 20th century," he told me.

  • In addition to Facebook, Wu counts up 214 acquisitions by Google and 91 by Amazon. He wants Google to disgorge YouTube and Waze.
  • But while tech gets almost all the attention, other sectors like pharma and cable TV are worse, he says. Some 68 million Americans, he says, have only one broadband server.

Yes, but: It turns out that bigness may not always be a curse. Wu is less categorical when it comes to Amazon, which he says has good and bad qualities. On the good side, it is shaking up industries that need to be shaken up, like insurance, he argues, and it provides access to products that some people otherwise would not have.

  • Amazon "still has competition," by which he means Walmart and Target. "But it needs to be watched carefully."

Go deeper

Laurel Hubbard to become 1st openly trans athlete to compete at Olympics

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, when she became the first openly transgender athlete to represent NZ. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has announced that Laurel Hubbard has been selected for the women's weightlifting team for the Tokyo Games — making her the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the event.

The big picture: Hubbard, 43, is part of a five-member Kiwi weightlifting team and will compete in the women's super heavyweight category. Meanwhile, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe will become the first openly trans athlete to travel to the Olympics with Team USA, when she arrives in Tokyo as a reserve rider.

American Airlines cuts hundreds of flights amid demand surge

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

American Airlines announced Sunday that it's cutting some 950 flights from its schedule, including 296 this weekend, to reduce potential pressure on its operations, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

Driving the news: The U.S. vaccine rollout has led to a massive increase in travel bookings. The airline noted in an emailed statement that it's facing an "incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand."

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Florida Pride parade fatal crash a "tragic accident," police say

Participants walk away as police investigate the scene where a pickup truck drove into a crowd of people at a Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Florida, on Saturday. Photo: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

Police said Sunday they believe a driver unintentionally hit spectators at a weekend Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Florida, resulting in the death of one man and leaving another person hospitalized.

The latest: Addressing speculation that the crash may have been a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, Wilton Manors police chief Gary Blocker said in a statement: "Today we know yesterday's incident was a tragic accident, and not a criminal act directed at anyone, or any group of individuals."