Austin Frerick couldn’t believe the numbers. Last year, while working as an economist at the Office of Tax Analysis in the Obama Treasury Department, Frerick co-wrote a paper on “excess returns,” which he describes as “a fancy way of saying monopoly profits.” And the data were leaping off the charts. “We were seeing returns in places we shouldn’t,” said Frerick, 27. “It’s baby formula, strawberries, crackers. The barriers to entry of making crackers should be next to nothing.”
The paper is focused on tax policy and therefore somewhat unintelligible. But its conclusion, that outsized profits have been rising across virtually all sectors of the economy, has formed the basis of a newly prominent concern: that too much wealth and power has been concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations. “It’s the issue of our time,” said Frerick. “It’s everywhere.”
It’s difficult to translate a wonkish concept like excess returns into something bite-sized for voters. And it’s difficult to revive a long-dormant anti-monopoly movement, to explain why corporate concentration is not only bad because of potential consumer price increases, but because of reduced entrepreneurship, abandoned communities, poor quality of service, and a diminished democracy.
But Austin Frerick is willing to try. He left Treasury for his native Iowa, where he’s running for the House of Representatives in the third Congressional district, a swing seat occupied by two-term Republican David Young. And Frerick has made the fight against corporate monopolies the centerpiece of his campaign. He’s probably the only congressional candidate in history who lists among his heroes RuPaul and Thurman Arnold, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.
Frerick and another other anti-monopoly candidate in Texas, Lillian Salerno, represent a new school of thought in the Democratic Party, criticized in the past for too…