In this short but persuasive book, Wu (The Attention Merchants), a Columbia law professor, connects the current political climate to a decline in antitrust enforcement. From the rise of U.S. Steel and Standard Oil through the “trust-busting” days of Teddy Roosevelt, Wu shows how antitrust laws, as championed by Louis Brandeis (who coined the term “the curse of bigness”), once functioned as a check on private power. In the modern era, however, enforcement has steadily declined; the George W. Bush administration did not bring a single antitrust action in eight years. The results, Wu argues, are a widening income gap and corporations subverting electoral politics. In the 20th century, he writes, “nations that failed to control private power and attend to the needs of their citizens faced the rise of strongmen who promised a more immediate deliverance from economic woes.” The book’s brevity is an asset—Wu skillfully avoids economic and legal rabbit holes, keeping the book laser-focused on his thesis: that antitrust enforcement must be restored “as a check on power as necessary in a functioning democracy before it’s too late.” Persuasive and brilliantly written, the book is especially timely given the rise of trillion-dollar tech companies. (Nov.)
A Washington Post NonFiction best seller
"As Tim Wu argues in The Curse of Bigness, global economic concentration is now at levels unseen in more than a century since the early days of industrial capitalism. A policy advocate and law professor at Columbia University, Wu offers a vital diagnosis: America has abandoned its rich tradition of anti-monopoly, or antitrust, law. And while the very term 'antitrust' may strike many as dreadfully dry, Wu manages to make this brisk and impressively readable overview of the subject vivid and compelling." The Washington Post
"It's a big idea for a little book, but Wu knows how to keep everything concise and contained. The Curse of Bigness moves nimbly through the thicket, embracing the boons of being small." Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
"Wu's gift as a communicator of difficult technical and legal ideas is in full evidence here. Don't let the little package fool you: it's a book with a big punch." Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
"Sweeping in scope, The Curse of Bigness is probably the best popular account of the history of American antitrust law and policy. It captures the stakes in the battle for antitrustand it cuts to the heart of one of the central questions of our time: Can democracy survive?"The New Republic
"Tim Wu's short and sharp new book, The Curse of Bigness, is an excellent primer for anyone who wants to understand why corporate wealth and power have grown so concentrated in the past four decades, and why that might be a problem for democracy." Rana Foroohar, Financial Times
"Mr. Wu writes with elegance, conviction, knowledge and certitude." Richard A. Epstein, The Wall Street Journal
“Wu joins a rising tide of public intellectuals now trying to rescue U.S. antitrust from the brink of obsolescence. ...Like Wu’s previous book The Master Switch, The Curse of Bigness takes history seriously ...He offers an agenda for reform that is both bold and realistic ...The Curse of Bigness shows with clarity and precision what such an agenda would look like.” Frank Pasquale, Commonweal Magazine
"Tim Wu, in his book The Curse of Bigness, which is a cool 160 pages and politely holds the reader’s hand through about 200 years of American economic policy and practice, argues that the time is now, 'to control economic structure before it controls us.'" VOX
"Tim Wu has pulled off an incredible feathe’s written a short, compelling book on antitrust....Wu skillfully avoids economic and legal rabbit holes, keeping the book laser-focused on his thesis: that antitrust enforcement must be restored 'as a check on power as necessary in a functioning democracy before it's too late.' Persuasive and brilliantly written, the book is especially timely given the rise of trillion-dollar tech companies." Publishers Weekly
"A brief diagnosis of our monopolized moment and an eloquent articulation of principles that Wu believes can lead us into an era of shared prosperity, economic and political independence, and, in the words of Brandeis, 'the right to live, and not merely to exist.'”The American Conservative
"Brisk and accessible, The Curse of Bigness provides a concise history of the enactment and waxing-waning enforcement of US antitrust law, along with a set of proposals for 'getting the engines of the law restarted.'" Times Literary Supplement
"Several books have been written about monopoly over the past few years, and several more are still to come. But none are as succinct and pointed as The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust In The New Gilded Age, the new book from Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor and former Federal Trade Commission advisor perhaps best known for coining the phrase “net neutrality." - Global Competition Review
"The Curse of Bigness is a useful guide to the evils of privatized scale... A revitalization of aggressive trustbusting is as radical a proposal as could be taken seriously in the short term, and Wu charts a clear path to temporarily forestall the social ills of an oligarchic private tech industry."Dissent Magazine
800-CEO-Reads Editor's Choice for November 2018
Should Amazon and Google be broken up like Standard Oil? Yes, argues legal scholar Wu (Columbia Law School; The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, 2016, etc.), but breaking up is hard to do.
The problem is a decadeslong warping of antitrust law, which the author details in this half history, half polemic book. The title comes from a phrase coined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who agitated against Gilded Age monopolists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Together with President Theodore Roosevelt, who put enforcement muscle behind the Sherman Act, they persuasively argued that monopolistic practices are inefficient, stifle innovation as well as competition, and court abusive practices against workers. (Think of AT&T, Wu suggests, a longtime state-sanctioned monopoly whose breakup cleared the way for the mainstream internet.) For much of the 20th century, Brandeis' view was accepted regulatory practice, until the arrival in the 1960s of Robert Bork, who, as a federal judge, prescribed an exceedingly narrow interpretation of the Sherman Act: So long as consumer prices didn't rise, no conglomerate qualified as a monopoly, regardless of market share. The Borkian argument, however far afield from Sherman's intent, is now gospel, Wu writes, rendering Security and Exchange Commission antitrust regulators toothless. This has allowed Google to bloat with buyouts—though, as Wu points out, it was a beneficiary of antitrust enforcement against Microsoft—developing unchecked acquisitive instincts that have eliminated competitors, with Facebook and Amazon following its lead. The author convincingly draws parallels between the new "tech trusts" and the Gilded Age titans, but one wishes for more fire in the argument: Wu's background about Brandeis is important, but the modern implications could be better woven into his narrative. As it is, his strongest cases for breaking up Google are tucked into dry concluding policy prescriptions.
A valuable briefing on an underappreciated business problem, but it could use a bit of Roosevelt's hard-nosed attitude.