Pluralistic: Why they're smearing Lina Khan (14 July 2023)

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A line drawing of pilgrims ducking a witch tied to a ducking stool. The pilgrims' clothes have been emblazoned with the logos for the WSJ, Microsoft, Activision and Blizzard. The witch's face has been replaced with that of FTC chair Lina M Khan.

Why they're smearing Lina Khan (permalink)

My god, they sure hate Lina Khan. This once-in-a-generation, groundbreaking, brilliant legal scholar and fighter for the public interest, the slayer of Reaganomics, has attracted more vitriol, mockery, and dismissal than any of her predecessors in living memory.

She sure must be doing something right, huh?

A quick refresher. In 2017, Khan – then a law student – published Amazon's Antitrust Paradox in the Yale Law Journal. It was a brilliant, blistering analysis showing how the Reagan-era theory of antitrust (which celebrates monopolies as "efficient") had failed on its own terms, using Amazon as Exhibit A of the ways in which post-Reagan antitrust had left Americans vulnerable to corporate abuse:

The paper sent seismic shocks through both legal and economic circles, and goosed the neo-Brandeisian movement (sneeringly dismissed as "hipster antitrust"). This movement is a rebuke to Reaganomics, with its celebration of monopolies, trickle-down, offshoring, corporate dark money, revolving-door regulatory capture, and companies that are simultaneously too big to fail and too big to jail.

This movement has many proponents, of course – not just Khan – but Khan's careful scholarship, combined with her encyclopedic knowledge of the long-dormant statutory powers that federal agencies had to make change, and a strategy for reviving those powers to protect Americans from corporate predators made her a powerful, inspirational figure.

When Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, he surprised everyone by appointing Khan to the FTC. It wasn't just that she had such a radical vision – it was also that she lacked the usual corporate law experience that such an appointee would normally require (experience that would ensure that the FTC was helmed by people whose default view of the world is that it should be structured and regulated by powerful, wealthy people in corporate boardrooms).

Even more surprising was that Khan was made chair of the FTC, something that was only possible because a few Republican Senators broke with their party to support her candidacy:

These Republicans saw in Khan an ally in their fight against "woke" Big Tech. For these senators, the problem wasn't that tech had got too big and powerful – it was that there were a few limited instances in which tech leaders failed to wield that power in the ways they preferred.

The Republican project is a matter of getting turkeys to vote for Christmas by doing a lot of culture war bullshit, cruelly abusing disfavored sexual and racial minorities. This wins support from low-information voters who'll vote against their class interests and support more monopolies, more tax cuts for the rich, and more cuts to the services they rely on.

But while tech leaders are 100% committed to the project of permanent oligarchic takeover of every sphere of American life, they are less full-throated in their support for hateful, cruel discrimination against disfavored minorities (in this regard, tech leaders resemble the corporate wing of the Democrats, which is where we get the "Silicon Valley is a Democratic Party stronghold" narrative).

This failure to unquestioningly and unstintingly back culture war bullshit put tech leaders in the GOP's crosshairs. Some GOP politicians actually believe in the culture war bullshit, and are grossly offended that tech is "woke." Others are smart enough not to get high on their own supply, but worry that any tech obstruction in the bullshit culture wars will make it harder to get sufficient turkey votes for a big fat Christmas surprise.

Biden's ceding of antitrust policy to the left wing of the party, combined with disaffected GOP senators viewing Khan as their enemy's enemy, led to Khan's historic appointment as FTC Chair. In that position, she was joined by a slate of Biden trustbusters, including Jonathan Kanter at the DoJ Antitrust Division, Tim Wu at the White House, and other important, skilled and principled fighters like Alvaro Bedoya (FTC), Rebecca Slaughter (FTC), Rohit Chopra (CFPB), and many others.

Crucially, these new appointees weren't just principled, they were good at their jobs. In 2021, Tim Wu wrote an executive order for Biden that laid out 72 concrete ways in which the administration could act – with no further Congressional authorization – to blunt corporate power and insulate the American people from oligarchs' abusive and extractive practices:

Since then, the antitrust arm of the Biden administration have been fuckin' ninjas, Getting Shit Done in ways large and small, working – for the first time since Reagan – to protect Americans from predatory businesses:

This is in marked contrast to the corporate Dems' champions in the administration. People like Pete Buttigieg are heralded as competent
technocrats, "realists" who are too principled to peddle hopium to the base, writing checks they can't cash. All this is cover for a King Log performance, in which Buttigieg's far-reaching regulatory authority sits unused on a shelf while a million Americans are stranded over Christmas and whole towns are endangered by greedy, reckless rail barons straight out of the Gilded Age:

The contrast between the Biden trustbusters and their counterparts from the corporate wing is stark. While the corporate wing insists that every pitch is out of the zone, Khan and her allies are swinging for the stands. They're trying to make life better for you and me, by declaring commercial surveillance to be an unfair business practice and thus illegal:

And by declaring noncompete "agreements" that shackle good workers to shitty jobs to be illegal:

And naturally, this has really pissed off all the right people: America's billionaires and their cheerleaders in the press, government, and the hive of scum and villainy that is the Big Law/thinktank industrial-complex.

Take the WSJ: since Khan took office, they have published 67 vicious editorials attacking her and her policies. Khan is living rent-free in Rupert Murdoch's head. Not only that, he's given her the presidential suite! You love to see it.

These attacks are worth reading, if only to see how flimsy and frivolous they are. One major subgenre is that Khan shouldn't be bringing any action against Amazon, because her groundbreaking scholarship about the company means she has a conflict of interest. Holy moly is this a stupid thing to say. The idea that the chair of an expert agency should recuse herself because she is an expert is what the physicists call not even wrong.

But these attacks are even more laughable due to who they're coming from: people who have the most outrageous conflicts of interest imaginable, and who were conspicuously silent for years as the FTC's revolving door admitted a bestiary of swamp-creatures so conflicted it's a wonder they managed to dress themselves in the morning.

Writing in The American Prospect, David Dayen runs the numbers:

Since the late 1990s, 31 out of 41 top FTC officials worked directly for a company that has business before the agency, with 26 of them related to the technology industry.

Take Christine Wilson, a GOP-appointed FTC Commissioner who quit the agency in a huff because Khan wanted to do things for the American people, and not their self-appointed oligarchic princelings. Wilson wrote an angry break-up letter to Khan that the WSJ published, presaging their concierge service for Samuel Alito:

For Wilson to question Khan's ethics took galactic-scale chutzpah. Wilson, after all, is a commissioner who took cash money from Bristol-Myers Squibb, then voted to approve their merger with Celgene:

Or take Wilson's GOP FTC predecessor Josh Wright, whose incestuous relationship with the companies he oversaw at the Commission are so intimate he's practically got a Habsburg jaw. Wright went from Google to the US government and back again four times. He also lobbied the FTC on behalf of Qualcomm (a major donor to Wright's employer, George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School) after working "personally and substantially" while serving at the FTC.

George Mason's Scalia center practically owns the revolving door, counting fourteen FTC officials among its affliates:

Since the 1990s, 31 out of 41 top FTC officials – both GOP appointed and appointees backed by corporate Dems – "worked directly for a company that has business before the agency":

The majority of FTC and DoJ antitrust lawyers who served between 2014-21 left government service and went straight to work for a Big Law firm, serving the companies they'd regulated just a few months before:

Take Deborah Feinstein, formerly the head of the FTC's Bureau of Competition, now a partner at Arnold & Porter, where she's represented General Electric, NBCUniversal, Unilever, and Pepsi and a whole medicine chest's worth of pharma giants before her former subordinates at the FTC. Michael Moiseyev who was assistant manager of FTC Competition is now in charge of mergers at Weil Gotshal & Manges, working for Microsoft, Meta, and Eli Lilly.

There's a whole bunch more, but Dayen reserves special notice for Andrew Smith, Trump's FTC Consumer Protection boss. Before he was put on the public payroll, Smith represented 120 clients that had business before the Commission, including "nearly every major bank in America, drug industry lobbyist PhRMA, Uber, Equifax, Amazon, Facebook, Verizon, and a variety of payday lenders":

Before Khan, in other words, the FTC was a "conflict-of-interest assembly line, moving through corporate lawyers and industry hangers-on without resistance for decades."

Khan is the first FTC head with no conflicts. This leaves her opponents in the sweaty, desperate position of inventing conflicts out of thin air.

For these corporate lickspittles, Khan's "conflict" is that she has a point of view. Specifically, she thinks that the FTC should do its job.

This makes grifters like Jim Jordan furious. Yesterday, Jordan grilled Khan in a hearing where he accused her of violating an ethics official's advice that she should recuse herself from Big Tech cases. This is a talking point that was created and promoted by Bloomberg:

That ethics official, Lorielle Pankey, did not, in fact, make this recommendation. It's simply untrue (she did say that Khan presiding over cases that she has made public statements about could be used as ammo against her, but did not say that it violated any ethical standard).

But there's more to this story. Pankey herself has a gigantic conflict of interest in this case, including a stock portfolio with between $15,001 and $50,000 in Meta stock (Meta is another company that has whined in print and in its briefs that it is a poor defenseless lamb being picked on by big, mean ole Lina Khan):

Jordan called his hearing on the back of this fake scandal, and then proceeded to show his whole damned ass, even as his GOP colleagues got into a substantive and even informative dialog with Khan:

Mostly what came out of that hearing was news about how Khan is doing her job, working on behalf of the American people. For example, she confirmed that she's investigating OpenAI for nonconsensually harvesting a mountain of Americans' personal information:

Other Republicans, including confirmed swamp creatures like Matt Gaetz, ended up agreeing with Khan that Amazon Ring is a privacy dumpster-fire. Nobodies like Rep Tom Massie gave Khan an opening to discuss how her agency is protecting mom-and-pop grocers from giant, price-gouging, greedflation-drunk national chains. Jeff Van Drew gave her a chance to talk about the FTC's war on robocalls. Lance Gooden let her talk about her fight against horse doping.

But Khan's opponents did manage to repeat a lot of the smears against her, and not just the bogus conflict-of-interest story. They also accused her of being 0-4 in her actions to block mergers, ignoring the huge number of mergers that have been called off or not initiated because M&A professionals now understand they can no longer expect these mergers to be waved through. Indeed, just last night I spoke with a friend who owns a medium-sized tech company that Meta tried to buy out, only to withdraw from the deal because their lawyers told them it would get challenged at the FTC, with an uncertain outcome.

These talking points got picked up by people commenting on Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley's ruling against the FTC in the Microsoft-Activision merger. The FTC was seeking an injunction against the merger, and Corley turned them down flat. The ruling was objectively very bad. Start with the fact that Corley's son is a Microsoft employee who stands reap massive gains in his stock options if the merger goes through.

But beyond this (real, non-imaginary, not manufactured conflict of interest), Corley's judgment and her remarks in court were inexcusably bad, as Matt Stoller writes:

In her ruling, Corley explained that she didn't think Microsoft would abuse the market dominance they'd gain by merging their giant videogame platform and studio with one of its largest competitors. Why not? Because Microsoft's execs pinky-swore that they wouldn't abuse that power.

Corely's deference to Microsoft's corporate priorities goes deeper than trusting its execs, though. In denying the FTC's motion, she stated that it would be unfair to put the merger on hold in order to have a full investigation into its competition implications because Microsoft and Activision had set a deadline of July 18 to conclude things, and Microsoft would have to pay a penalty if that deadline passed.

This is surreal: a judge ruled that a corporation's radical, massive merger shouldn't be subject to full investigation because that corporation itself set an arbitrary deadline to conclude the deal before such an investigation could be concluded. That's pretty convenient for future mega-mergers – just set a short deadline and Judge Corely will tell regulators that the merger can't be investigated because the deadline is looming.

And this is all about the future. As Stoller writes, Microsoft isn't exactly subtle about why it wants this merger. Its own execs said that the reason they were spending "dump trucks" of money buying games studios was to "spend Sony out of business."

Now, maybe you hate Sony. Maybe you hate Activision. There's plenty of good reason to hate both – they're run by creeps who do shitty things to gamers and to their employees. But if you think that Microsoft will be better once it eliminates its competition, then you have the attention span of a goldfish on Adderall.

Microsoft made exactly the same promises it made on Activision when it bought out another games studio, Zenimax – and it broke every one of those promises.

Microsoft has a long, long, long history of being a brutal, abusive monopolist. It is a convicted monopolist. And its bad conduct didn't end with the browser wars. You remember how the lockdown turned all our homes into rent-free branch offices for our employers? Microsoft seized on that moment to offer our bosses keystroke-and-click level surveillance of our use of our own computers in our own homes, via its Office365 bossware product:

If you think a company that gave your boss a tool to spy on their employees and rank them by "productivity" as a prelude to firing them or cutting their pay is going to treat gamers or game makers well once they have "spent the competition out of business," you're a credulous sucker and you are gonna be so disappointed.

The enshittification play is obvious: use investor cash to make things temporarily nice for customers and suppliers, lock both of them in – in this case, it's with a subscription-based service similar to Netflix's – and then claw all that value back until all that's left is a big pile of shit.

The Microsoft case is about the future. Judge Corely doesn't take the future seriously: as she said during the trial, "All of this is for a shooter videogame." The reason Corely greenlit this merger isn't because it won't be harmful – it's because she doesn't think those harms matter.

But it does, and not just because games are an art form that generate billions of dollars, employ a vast workforce, and bring pleasure to millions. It also matters because this is yet another one of the Reaganomic precedents that tacitly endorses monopolies as efficient forces for good. As Stoller writes, Corley's ruling means that "deal bankers are sharpening pencils and saying ‘Great, the government lost! We can get mergers through everywhere else.’ Basically, if you like your high medical prices, you should be cheering on Microsoft’s win today."

Ronald Reagan's antitrust has colonized our brains so thoroughly that commentators were surprised when, immediately after the ruling, the FTC filed an appeal. Don't they know they've lost? the commentators said:

They echoed the smug words of insufferable Activision boss Mike Ybarra: "Your tax dollars at work."

But of course Khan is appealing. The only reason that's surprising is that Khan is working for us, the American people, not the giant corporations the FTC is supposed to be defending us from. Sure, I get that this is a major change! But she needs our backing, not our cheap cynicism.

The business lobby and their pathetic Renfields have hoarded all the nice things and they don't want us to have any. Khan and her trustbuster colleagues want the opposite. There is no measure so small that the corporate world won't have a conniption over it. Take click to cancel, the FTC's perfectly reasonable proposal that if you sign up for a recurring payment subscription with a single click, you should be able to cancel it with a single click.

The tooth-gnashing and garment-rending and scenery-chewing over this is wild. America's biggest companies have wheeled out their biggest guns, claiming that if they make it too easy to unsubscribe, they will lose money. In other words, they are currently making money not because people want their products, but because it's too hard to stop paying for them!

We shouldn't have to tolerate this sleaze. And if we back Khan and her team, they'll protect us from these scams. Don't let them convince you to give up hope. This is the start of the fight, not the end. We're trying to reverse 40 years' worth of Reagonmics here. It won't happen overnight. There will be setbacks. But keep your eyes on the prize – this is the most exciting moment for countering corporate power and giving it back to the people in my lifetime. We owe it to ourselves, our kids and our planet to fight one.

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