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September 26, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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Today, on the anniversary of the creation of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, the FTC and 17 state attorneys general sued Amazon for using “a set of interlocking anticompetitive and unfair strategies to maintain its monopoly power.” The FTC and the suing states say “Amazon’s actions allow it to stop rivals and sellers from lowering prices, degrade quality for shoppers, overcharge sellers, stifle innovation, and prevent rivals from fairly competing against Amazon.” 

The states suing are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

While estimates of Amazon’s control of the online commerce market vary, they center around about 40%, and Amazon charges third-party merchants for using the company’s services to store and ship items. Last quarter, Amazon reported more than $32 billion in revenues from these services. The suit claims that Amazon illegally overcharges third-party sellers and inflates prices.

This lawsuit is about more than Amazon: it marks a return to traditional forms of government antitrust action that were abandoned in the 1980s. Traditionally, officials interpreted antitrust laws to mean the government should prevent large entities from swallowing up markets and consolidating their power in order to raise prices and undercut workers’ rights. They wanted to protect economic competition, believing that such competition would promote innovation, protect workers, and keep consumer prices down. 

In the 1980s, government officials replaced that understanding with an idea advanced by former solicitor general of the United States Robert Bork—the man whom the Senate later rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court because of his extremism—who claimed that traditional antimonopoly enforcement was economically inefficient because it restricted the ways businesses could operate. Instead, he said, consolidation of industries was fine so long as it promoted economic efficiencies that, at least in the short term, cut costs for consumers. While antitrust legislation remained on the books, the understanding of what it meant changed dramatically.

Reagan and his people advanced Bork’s position, abandoning the idea that capitalism fundamentally depends on competition. Industries consolidated, and by the time Biden took office, his people estimated the lack of competition was costing a median U.S. household as much as $5,000 a year. 

On July 9, 2021, Biden called the turn toward Bork’s ideas “the wrong path” and vowed to restore competition in an increasingly consolidated marketplace. In an executive order, he established a White House Competition Council to direct a whole-of-government approach to promoting competition in the economy. 

“[C]ompetition keeps the economy moving and keeps it growing,” Biden said. “Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth…. But what we’ve seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back.”

In that speech, Biden deliberately positioned himself in our country’s long history of opposing economic consolidation. Calling out both Roosevelt presidents—Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw part of the Progressive Era, and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who oversaw the New Deal—Biden celebrated their attempt to rein in the power of big business, first by focusing on the abuses of those businesses, and then by championing competition. 

While still a student at Yale Law School, FTC chair Lina Khan published an essay examining the anticompetitive nature of modern businesses like Amazon, arguing that focusing on consumer prices alone does not address the problems of consolidation and monopoly. With today’s action, the FTC is restoring the traditional vision of antitrust action.

President Biden demonstrated his support for ordinary Americans in another historic way today when he became the first sitting president to join a picket line of striking workers. In Wayne County, Michigan, he joined a UAW strike, telling the striking autoworkers, “Wall Street didn’t build the country, the middle class built the country. Unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going, you deserve what you’ve earned. And you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”

Even as Biden was standing on the picket line, House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) released a new budget plan that moves even farther to the right. Yesterday, former president Trump backed the far-right extremists threatening to shut down the government, insisting that holding the government hostage is the best way to get everything they want, including, he wrote, an end to the criminal cases against him. 

“The Republicans lost big on Debt Ceiling, got NOTHING, and now are worried that they will be BLAMED for the Budget Shutdown. Wrong!!! Whoever is President will be blamed,” Trump wrote on social media. “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN! Close the Border, stop the Weaponization of ‘Justice,’ and End Election Interference.”

McCarthy is reneging on the agreement he made with Biden in the spring as conditions for raising the debt ceiling, and instead is calling for dramatic cuts to the nation’s social safety net, as well as restarting construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as starting points for funding the government. Cuts of more than $150 billion in his new proposal would mean cutting housing subsidies for the poor by 33%, fuel subsidies for low-income families by more than 70%, and funding for low-income schools by nearly 80% and would force more than 1 million women and children off of nutritional assistance. 

The “bottom line is we’re singularly focused right now on achieving our conservative objectives,” Representative Garret Graves (R-LA) told Jeff Stein, Marianna Sotomayor, and Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post. The Republicans plan to preserve the tax cuts of the Trump years, which primarily benefited the wealthy and corporations. 

At any point, McCarthy could return to the deal he cut with Biden, pass the appropriations bills with Democratic support, and fund the government. But if he does that, he is almost certain to face a challenge to his speakership from the extremists who currently are holding the country hostage. 

This evening, the Senate reached a bipartisan deal to fund the government through November 17 and to provide additional funding for Ukraine (although less than the White House wants), passing it by a vote of 77–19. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urged the House Republicans to agree to the measure, warning them that shutdowns “don’t work as bargaining chips.” Nevertheless, McCarthy would not say he would take up the bill, and appears to feel the need to give in to the extremists’ demands. Moreover, he has suddenly said he thinks a meeting with Biden could avert the crisis, suggesting he is desperate for someone else to find a solution. 

Former president Trump has his own problems this evening stemming from the civil case against him, his older sons, and other officers and parts of the Trump Organization in New York, where Attorney General Letitia James has charged him with committing fraud by inflating the value of his assets. Today New York judge Arthur Engoron ruled that Trump and his company deceived banks and insurers by massively overvaluing his real estate holdings in order to obtain loans and better terms for deals. The Palm Beach County assessor valued Mar-a-Lago, for example, at $18 million, while Trump valued it at between $426 million and $612 million, an overvaluation of 2,300% (not a typo). 

Engoron canceled the organization’s New York business licenses, arranged for an independent receiver to dissolve those businesses, and placed a retired judge into the position of independent monitor to oversee the Trump Organization. 

This decision will crush the heart of Trump’s businesses, and he issued a long statement attacking it, using all the usual words: “witch hunt,” “Communist,” “Political Lawfare” (ok, I don’t get that one),  and “If they can do this to me, they can do this to YOU!” Law professor Jen Taub commented, “It reads better in the original ketchup.” Trump’s lawyers say they are considering an appeal. The rest of the case is due to go to trial early next month.

Finally, today, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s request to let it ignore the court’s order that it redraw its congressional district maps to create a second majority-Black district. Alabama will have to comply with the court’s order. 

Notes:

https://www.politico.com/news/2023/09/26/ftc-amazon-antitrust-lawsuit-read-the-document-pdf-00118116

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/trump-breaks-mccarthy-republicans-government-shutdown-rcna117192

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/biden-makes-history-striking-auto-workers-picket-line-rcna117348

https://twitter.com/justinbaragona/status/1706719795226231118

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/09/26/mccarthy-conservatives-cut-spending/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/09/26/inside-spending-cuts-house-republicans-are-fighting/

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/26/politics/supreme-court-alabama-redistricting/index.html

https://www.vox.com/scotus/2023/9/26/23890737/supreme-court-alabama-allen-milligan-racial-gerrymander-defiance

https://www.nytimes.com/live/2023/09/26/us/biden-uaw-strike-detroit 

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/09/remarks-by-president-biden-at-signing-of-an-executive-order-promoting-competition-in-the-american-economy/

https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2023/09/ftc-sues-amazon-illegally-maintaining-monopoly-power

https://apnews.com/article/amazon-ftc-lawsuit-antitrust-1b91bf8026cc3edf81e817cf8596c4bf

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/26/technology/ftc-amazon.html

https://www.nytimes.com/live/2023/09/26/us/biden-uaw-strike-detroit

https://rollcall.com/2023/09/26/bipartisan-stopgap-funds-bill-unveiled-in-senate/

https://twitter.com/AndrewFeinberg/status/1706767627723681850

https://www.meidastouch.com/news/judge-rules-trump-liable-for-fraud-in-ny-ag-case

https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/fbem/DocumentDisplayServlet

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/mccarthy-calls-government-shutdown-meeting-biden-important-rcna117420

https://twitter.com/jentaub/status/1706841156238164310

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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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