When Barry Lynn learned that everything was about to go public, he realized he didn’t have much time. So he called his wife and asked her to bring the car downtown to the headquarters of New America, the center-left think tank that had been his professional home for 15 years. She arrived shortly thereafter with the family’s Toyota Highlander and a neighbor’s 17-year-old son—there to pitch in some extra muscle.
Up in the office sat Lynn’s most valuable possessions: The Federalist Papers, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Federal Antitrust Policy by Hans Thorelli, biographies of Louis Brandeis, John D. Rockefeller, and piles of works by obscure scholars and thinkers. For Lynn, these weren’t just books. They were the intellectual foundation of the entire anti-monopoly movement, the source material for his life’s work. And tonight, that life’s work was the reason he was out of a job—and boxing up his library.
Two months earlier during that summer of 2017, Lynn had made public remarks about Google, a firm he viewed as an example of just the kind of modern-day monopoly he was trying to disassemble. The comments had caused Google’s top executive, a major New America donor, to complain to the think tank’s president. Within days, Lynn was out, though he was permitted to remain in his office to get his affairs in order. But that would change the next morning, he knew, when the New York Times, acting on information Lynn himself had provided, would detail the circumstances of his departure and put New America at the center of an embarrassing scandal.
At the time, concerns about monopolies were elbowing their way back onto Washington’s agenda after decades in the wilderness. Lynn had secured new funding, expanded his staff, and advised a growing roster of lawmakers. Would he have to start again? On the ride home, he worried about the future. How would his financial backers respond to the Times story? Would congressional aides still seek his team’s input? Or would all this momentum slip away?
In retrospect, the blowback about corporate influence on a supposedly independent think tank probably helped bring new attention to the very point Lynn had spent years making. Two years later, the question of how to address the awesome powers of Big Tech has emerged as a signature issue of our time—a formerly sleepy cause that looks likely to turbocharge Washington’s vast lobbying industry as corporations and their critics spend big new dollars trying to sway legislators and policymakers.
They’ve got a lot to lose. Google and Facebook control websites that receive 70 percent of all internet traffic, Amazon accounts for nearly half of online retail sales in the United States, and, taken together, these three Silicon Valley empires collect more than two-thirds of all digital-advertising spending. In a polarized Washington, hating on Big Tech is an impulse that knows no party. Presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have demanded that Facebook be broken up. Conservative media stars including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have blasted the platforms for what they view as censorship of right-wing opinion. In 2017, the Trump administration launched an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block AT&T’s $85-billion merger with Time Warner. While Trump’s contempt for CNN—a Time Warner subsidiary—may have motivated his opposition, he framed it to appeal to the public’s new suspicions. “It’s too much concentration of power,” Trump said of the merger, “in the hands of too few.”
Did the city suddenly wake up and smell the monopolistic coffee? Not exactly. The story of how antitrust—the cause that evokes Teddy Roosevelt—made it into the headlines of 21st-century America is more interesting. At its center is Lynn, a 58-year-old journalist turned public intellectual with a chip on his shoulder. “He’s part Southern gentleman,” says former New America colleague Sascha Meinrath, “part cranky bastard.” Inspired by the progressive-era reformers who took down US Steel, Lynn argues that only by reviving a lost tradition of antitrust enforcement can we unwind the corporate monopolies that have divided the country into haves and have-nots, captured our political system, and imperiled our democracy. According to Felicia Wong, CEO of the liberal Roosevelt Institute, Lynn is the “Paul Revere” of the modern anti-monopoly movement.
But before Lynn’s ideas could reach lawmakers, they had to break through the intellectual cartel that controls the market for policy solutions in Washington. “Nobody would pay attention to us before,” says Lynn’s longtime collaborator and fellow journalist Phil Longman, “because we didn’t have a PhD after our names.” Now, however, Lynn and his unlikely band of reporters, lawyers, ex–political operatives, and Twitter warriors have become the central nervous system for the most serious challenge to corporate power in a generation.
“It’s amazing to see that the conversation has just so completely changed,” says Leah Douglas, a former policy analyst on Lynn’s team. “Every time I get a New York Times alert that’s like, ‘Google and Facebook facing further antitrust scrutiny,’ I’m just like, ‘I remember when that was on the whiteboard as a dream.’ ”
Lynn grew up in a working-class section of Miami, in a house where his brother, an automobile fanatic, kept V8 engines and junked cars out in the front yard. As a boy, Lynn watched his father, who’d spent his own childhood in a sharecropping family picking strawberries, slink to work each morning to the insurance office he despised until the day he was finally fired. Lynn’s father eventually teamed up with his next-door neighbor, a former Greyhound bus mechanic, on a roofing business. Lynn saw how the career change instantly rejuvenated his dad, how much satisfaction he found in humping rolls of tar paper up ladders and pushing his mower through the Florida heat, sometimes with Lynn’s help. He developed an appreciation for the way mom-and-pop entrepreneurs could take control of their own lives.
“My dad was just like, ‘I’m going to go do it for my own damned self,’ ” Lynn says. “But then he was actually able to do that. There was this space for that.”
Nevertheless, Lynn was eager to escape his scrappy community: “My motivation was get the hell out of Miami by whatever means possible.” In 1979, he moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia with financial aid. He saved money and spent half a year traveling in India after graduation. A few years later, he and his college sweetheart turned wife moved to Latin America.
“Sometimes you feel like you are insane. Because you’re walking around saying, ‘I see it. Don’t you see it?’”
Within six months of going to work for the Daily Journal, an English-language newspaper in Caracas, Lynn landed in the middle of his first high-stakes battle with authority. He and some colleagues had written to management suggesting ways to improve the paper’s journalism—a move the bosses saw as an attempt to unionize. In the hopes of squelching it, they fired the most junior staffer: Lynn. He found a new job but continued to help his onetime coworkers as they fought for, and eventually secured, formal union protections. It was a lesson that would later prove useful. “You understand,” he says, “how it is that people actually create real power when they don’t really have power.”
In 1992, Lynn and his wife moved to Washington, where he became editor of a glossy magazine called Global Business. His worldview would be rocked by an unlikely event 7,800 miles away. In 1999, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake leveled central Taiwan, claiming nearly 2,500 lives and destroying thousands of buildings. Lynn was puzzled to learn that the economic damage quickly spread to the US, where computer production plants in Texas and California shut down. When he investigated the connection, he discovered that the earthquake had blocked the export of semiconductors from an industrial town on Taiwan’s west coast. It was an aha moment: The international supply chain was so consolidated that problems in a single Asian outpost could grind an entire industry to a halt.
“So then I ask,” he recalls, “ ‘How is it that things became so concentrated?’ ”
The question turned into his animating pursuit, which he explored in two books. Researching them, he discovered America’s lost tradition of antitrust enforcement.
Beginning in the mid–19th century, robber barons like John Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan used monopoly force to shake down smaller competitors, buy politicians, and abuse employees. Awful working conditions and massive inequality led to uprisings on farms and in factories. Reformers responded by championing new laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, and new agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, to restrain monopoly power. Today we remember them as efforts to keep big cartels from ripping off consumers. But according to Tim Wu’s book, The Curse of Bigness, the goal wasn’t simply to protect prices at the checkout counter. It was to preserve competitive markets and, more broadly, block unfair power anywhere in the economy or political system. Bigness itself was viewed with suspicion. “We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” said Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, “but we can’t have both.”
Throughout much of the 20th century, regulators in Washington enforced this philosophy aggressively. The feds didn’t just target the big fish, like Standard Oil or AT&T. As recently as the 1960s, Federal Trade Commission officials were so concerned about corporate consolidation that they sued—successfully—to block a merger of two Los Angeles grocery chains because the deal would have given the combined company a 7.5-percent share of the local market.
Everything changed in 1978, when a libertarian law professor and Nixon-administration alum named Robert Bork published his seminal work, The Antitrust Paradox, arguing that economic efficiency—as opposed to protecting competition in the marketplace—was the true goal of America’s antitrust statutes. In the view of Bork, who became a household name when the Senate blocked his Supreme Court nomination a decade later, corporate mergers and even monopolies were typically dangerous only when they harmed “consumer welfare”—a position that came to be interpreted as triggering higher prices.
Politicians of both parties embraced the argument, all eager for ways to extract the economy from its 1970s malaise. But its more profound influence was on the courts. Judges began using price effects as the determining factor when ruling on whether a merger could go forward. If a merger resulted in higher costs for customers, it was bad. If it lowered prices, no problem.
With remarkable speed, “efficiency” became the rudder of antitrust policy and quietly ushered in a merger-friendly environment that has lasted nearly 40 years.
The more Lynn learned, the more radicalized he became. The merger-and-acquisition bonanza—think Exxon’s purchase of Mobil, Citicorp’s union with Travelers—was, he came to believe, responsible for much more than problems in supply chains. Unchecked consolidation had created the enormous conglomerates that had killed off local stores and hollowed out small towns. These same behemoths had used their financial muscle to control the political process, and they’d deployed their economic power in ways that produced dangerous inequalities. Worst of all, Lynn argued, they had turned America into a place where a laid-off insurance salesman, such as his father, could hardly hope to support his family by striking out on his own.
“If you just take off these lenses that Robert Bork put on your eyeballs,” he says, “you are going to see the world in a different way, and you are going to see all these tools which you cannot see now.”
In 2010, Lynn launched a program at New America, later dubbed Open Markets, to focus on the issue. Rather than churning out white papers, as most think-tank academics did, he and his small team used journalism to tell stories of those harmed by concentrated power, building off earlier work he’d done, such as a proposal in Harper’s that made “The Case for Breaking Up Wal-Mart.” Many of Lynn and his team’s articles appeared in the Washington Monthly, which was among the few publications in America calling attention to these issues at the time.
Lynn and his longtime colleague, Longman, weren’t alone in their pursuit—the American Antitrust Institute was also trying to slow consolidation. Lynn, however, wanted to build a base for political change, and his agenda wasn’t exactly popular. Republicans and Democrats alike had grown enthralled by economies of scale, which delivered not only market efficiencies but campaign contributions. Raising funds for Open Markets was a constant struggle. Without business-community support, he hustled up financial help from a few smaller foundations while subsidizing his living by writing articles for American Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Top-tier lawmakers refused to take his calls. Lynn and his team eventually lined up meetings with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and staff for former Virginia senator Jim Webb. “You see how far down the food chain we had to go?” Longman says. But even they wouldn’t touch the issue.
It was a lonely, demoralizing time. “Sometimes you feel like you are insane,” Lynn recalls. “Because you’re walking around saying, ‘I see it. Don’t you see it?’ ”
The people he resented most, though, were the mainstream economists. These ivory-tower academics, in his view, had been taken hostage by their theoretical models, which simply couldn’t account for the ways concentrated corporate power affected the real world. Worse, they refused to accept Lynn and his team as peers. “We were excluded out of all those circles for ideological reasons, for reasons of class and of education and everything,” Longman says. “Academics—they just never want to admit that journalists might know something they don’t.”
Lynn wanted to build a base for political change and his agenda wasn’t exactly popular. Raising funds was a constant struggle. And top-tier lawmakers refused to take his calls.
Still, Lynn was so desperate to persuade the experts that he once barged into the office of Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz while the Columbia professor was in the middle of a meeting with a graduate student. “I’d say, ‘Oh, this is only going to take a minute,’ ” Lynn recalls, “and I would not move for an hour.”
While pressing his case, Lynn refused to acknowledge the polite hints that it might be time to leave. Stiglitz’s assistant began sending phone calls through to the professor, and the confused graduate student hovered impatiently nearby. Finally, an aide carrying a tuxedo dashed into the office and yelled to Stiglitz: “You need to be in the car in five minutes! And before that, you need to be in this!”
In the end, Stiglitz—like so many others—seemed unmoved by Lynn’s appeal.
One morning in 2012, Longman was reading the Times on his bus ride to work when he spotted an article and just about fell out of his seat. Right there, on the Gray Lady’s op-ed page, was the Nobel laureate and star liberal columnist Paul Krugman citing Longman and Lynn’s work, which had been published in the Washington Monthly, in a column about why wages remained down even as corporate profits were hitting record highs.
While Lynn and Longman had struggled for years to win converts “one soul, one mind at a time,” as Lynn puts it, the endorsement of Krugman—whose day job, after all, was as a Princeton professor—was the first in a series of events that finally brought mainstream attention to the issue. The Economist magazine proceeded to advocate for stronger antitrust enforcement in a cover story, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors published research on industry consolidation, and the Democratic Party reinserted antitrust into its official platform in 2016. Then came the big shock: Trump’s election. The revelations about the Kremlin hijacking Big Tech platforms enraged the left, of course. But there was also a more subtle takeaway: The results were interpreted as a rejection of the technocratic class represented by Hillary Clinton—the stratum Lynn found himself blackballed by.
It was against this backdrop that Lynn’s onetime staffer Lina Khan delivered the big breakthrough. Khan had joined Open Markets as a recent college grad with no prior interest or experience in antitrust. But after a crash course with Lynn, she began writing about consolidation in the airline and chicken industries for the Washington Monthly, and about consolidation in the chocolate business for Foreign Policy. Later, she enrolled in Yale Law School—where Bork himself once taught. In a 2017 article for the school’s legal journal called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” she argued that the current approach to antitrust policy simply failed to address the ways a company like Amazon—which actually lowers prices to consumers—could use its immense power to harm the economy. As an example, Khan noted that the e-commerce giant could keep prices artificially low in order to drive smaller competitors into the ground—a strategy that was once viewed as an illegal form of “predatory pricing.”
The article exploded inside academic circles, made Lynn’s former employee an overnight star, and intensified calls to break up Big Tech. But as Lynn’s ideas gained traction, he and his allies took criticism from all quarters. Conservatives such as Joshua Wright, of George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, derided the movement as “Hipster Antitrust.” Moderate Democrats, too, dismissed the approach as dangerously radical. Broadly speaking, says University of Pennsylvania professor Herbert Hovenkamp, a leading antitrust scholar, Lynn’s approach would use the antitrust framework to tackle more political concerns—such as corporate influence of Congress—that it simply isn’t designed to address. “Antitrust,” Hovenkamp says, “is not a fix-all for all of the world’s problems.”
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how the firm used by Trump’s campaign had improperly scraped personal data from 50 million Facebook users, Congress tuned in. “A lot of lobbying firms would kill for the kind of access we have.”
Behind the scenes, Lynn was facing more perilous enemies: the corporations he has spent the past 15 years attacking. After the publication of his second book, Lynn was subpoenaed as a witness in an antitrust case involving a company he’d criticized. As a result, he had to dip into his savings to pay for a lawyer and deal with the process servers loitering outside his house. “It was just really creepy,” says Lynn’s wife, Anya Schoolman. “For a long time, when there were people sitting in vans in front of our house, I would take pictures of license plates. So you feel a lot of that pressure.”
Finally, in 2017, the animosity spilled into public view. That summer, Lynn released a statement celebrating the $2.7-billion penalty that European antitrust officials had imposed on Google. His remarks upset Google’s Eric Schmidt, who until the previous year had been New America’s chairman. In the ensuing ruckus, Lynn lost his job but became, at least in some circles, a household name.
The day after the split went public, Open Markets—operating out of a WeWork—relaunched as an independent organization.
Over the following months, news events helped generate additional momentum for the group’s agenda. In March 2018, the press revealed that a consulting firm used by Trump’s presidential campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had improperly scraped personal data from more than 50 million Facebook users—turning the growing suspicion of Silicon Valley into a full-blown backlash. Congress tuned in, and suddenly Open Markets emerged as Washington’s go-to destination for policymakers, staffers, and academics looking to educate themselves on the monopoly problems associated with Big Tech. As Sarah Miller, the program’s deputy director, says, “We cannot keep up with the incoming requests.”
Lynn’s team has met with the staffs of a slate of 2020 presidential contenders, including Warren and Sanders, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. “A lot of lobbying firms would kill for the kind of access we have,” Longman says. Both Lynn and Lina Khan discussed antitrust issues with Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes before he published his 5,000-word manifesto in the New York Times, calling for the social-networking giant’s breakup. And lawmakers from New York state—including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—got assistance from Open Markets in their ultimately successful campaign to keep Amazon’s HQ2 out of the Big Apple.
Lynn is influencing the debate over Big Tech in other ways as well. Early Facebook investor and Silicon Valley stalwart Roger McNamee credits Lynn for opening his eyes to potential antitrust solutions to Silicon Valley problems. McNamee argues that Facebook should be disassembled, and after publishing his book, Zucked—a project that began as an article in the Washington Monthly—he’s a regular presence in Washington, meeting with regulators and lawmakers about the company’s dangers. Meanwhile, Khan, the former Open Markets staffer, is now a lawyer for the Democrats on the House’s antitrust subcommittee, chaired by David Cicilline—a Democrat from Rhode Island who just launched the congressional investigation to determine whether Big Tech companies have violated antitrust statutes.
As the 2020 election approaches, lawmakers and politicians looking to curry favor with populists will push various proposals to rein in Big Tech. Lynn himself won’t be in front of the cameras, but his influence will certainly be felt behind closed doors. Matt Stoller, a fellow at Open Markets, says he’s come to see Lynn’s impact on Washington’s Big Tech debate as similar to the way the Velvet Underground shaped rock music. “The Velvet Underground was never very popular,” Stoller says, “but everybody who was a fan started [their own] band.”
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Washingtonian.