Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has long been known as a consumer advocate and a critic of big corporations. But she's not the only progressive seeking the right to challenge President Trump in 2020 who is highlighting economic inequality.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for one, fired up the base with these issues in 2016, after Warren passed on a bid. But this time, she isn't sitting on the sidelines.
In an interview with NPR host Steve Inskeep, Warren discusses how she would hold tech companies accountable and break up what she describes as an unfair competitive advantage. She also touches on her approach to trade, climate change and shares her thoughts on the idea of reparations.
Warren is the third candidate Morning Edition has interviewed as part of their Opening Arguments conversations examining White House hopefuls' core messages.
On breaking up tech companies
"Amazon operates this platform. That's cool. I'm for that. But Amazon does a second thing. They suck up information from every single transaction — information about buyer, information about the seller. And they then can use that information to make a decision to enter the marketplace themselves.
"So you're running Pet Pillows, and you're making a nice little business — you had a great idea. Amazon sees how profitable you're becoming. And Amazon says, 'Oh I know what we'll do. We'll become Amazon Pet Pillows.' Put it on that platform. And by the way, move you back to Page 6 and move Amazon Pet Pillows up to Page 1. The consequence of that is that Amazon can and often does destroy the competition on that marketplace and suck up more and more of the value for itself.
"And so my proposal is just to say, look, this is kind of like baseball. You can run the platform — that is, you can be the umpire — or you can have a team in the game — that is, you can be Pet Pillows or Amazon Pet Pillows. But you don't get to do both at the same time because that's not a level playing field for anyone else."
In addition to Amazon, Warren has talked about breaking up other big tech companies, such as Google and Facebook (all of which have been NPR funders).
At a rally last week in Long Island City, N.Y. — where Amazon was supposed to build one of its new campuses, but backed out following backlash — Warren compared the behemoth to dystopian novel The Hunger Games. "I'm sick of freeloading billionaires," she said.
Warren has a plan to tax billionaires like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Her Ultra-Millionaire Tax would apply to the richest 0.1 percent of Americans, taxing households with a net worth of over $50 million, estimating such a plan could raise $2.75 trillion over a 10-year period.
Inskeep posited that Amazon is an "incredibly efficient service that serves millions of people, [so] what's wrong with [Bezos] having a lot of money?" Warren responded that his wealth wasn't made just by himself, but was a product of the whole American economy and populace.
"Jeff Bezos, you had a great idea, you got out there, you worked hard. ... You have this great fortune. But remember, you built this fortune here in America," she said. "You used workers that all of us helped pay to educate. You got your goods to market on roads and bridges that all of us helped pay to build. You were protected by firefighters and police officers that all of us helped to pay for, and we're glad to do that. But what we're saying is, when you make it really, really, really big, put a little back in the kitty so that the next kid gets a chance, and the kid after that, and the kid after that."
On trade and relations with China
Warren: [Trump] is right that we have a problem with China. What he hasn't seemed to figure out is what's the strategy to deal with it. So for example, if you wanted to push back against China, your first move would not be to pick a fight with Canada and our other allies. We have a lot of trading partners who are good allies, and we should make sure that ... we are working with our allies. That's what makes us stronger internationally. And many of our allies are just as worried about China as we are. We need to be working with them as we go forward.
Inskeep: President Obama's administration wanted to unite a lot of U.S. allies effectively against China in a trading block with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is something that President Trump canceled, and if I'm not mistaken, you oppose.
Warren: Oh I very much oppose. Because I think that was a trading deal that was not good for the American people and not good for the American worker. You know, it was a trading deal that was written in order to help giant corporations. It's been a problem with our trading deals that date back for decades now. Over and over and over the United States has been negotiating one trading deal after another that helps giant multi-national corporations but does not help American workers, does not help Americans small businesses, does not help American farmers. They are not the ones who are being helped by these trading deals. We need to do our trading deals very differently.
Inskeep: But this was an arrangement that, according to the [Obama] administration, attempted to set the rules for the world and unite some very powerful countries against China. Isn't there something you want to do?
Warren: I don't think it was an effective way to do that.
Warren's rhetoric on favoring the American worker over multinational corporations has been a refrain of President Trump's — a large part of why he was successful in Rust Belt areas where factories had been hurt by previous free trade deals.
"The whole policy was misdirected. We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts," Warren said in April 2018, referring to years of U.S. policy toward China. "Now U.S. policymakers are starting to look more aggressively at pushing China to open up the markets without demanding a hostage price of access to U.S. technology."
On climate change
"We have to rebuild our infrastructure to deal with climate change that is bearing down upon us. The urgency of the moment on climate change cannot be overstated. It's upon us and we need to make change and make change fast. And that means in part rebuilding our power grids, our entire infrastructure system. We need to harden against the coming storms. Underpasses and overpasses and bridges. We need a 21st-century infrastructure that accounts for coming changes in climate, and we need it fast."
Warren has endorsed the Green New Deal package that aims to drastically cut carbon emissions. Warren said the revenue from her Ultra-Millionaire Tax could help pay for some of these proposals to combat climate change, and it sets her apart as one of the most progressive candidates in the field.
"We have to address the stain of slavery and we need to hit it head on. We need to acknowledge that that is a part of the foundation of how America was built and how this economy was built and that it has had implications generation after generation. There are scholars, there are activists who are talking about many different ways too that we might design a reparations program, but we're not going to ... even start down that path until we acknowledge the initial problem and say we need to get together, we need to have a national conversation about our history and the responsibility that we take for it and how we make change. ...
"Look, we have all benefited from the American economy. I say 'we all' — all the people except African-Americans who didn't get a chance to benefit and that benefit was based in no small part on race. ... Until 1965, it was the law of this country to discriminate against African-Americans and subsidize white Americans. That has effects on everybody in this country even today."
As with many Democratic candidates, Warren has embraced the idea of reparations. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reported, Warren thinks not only African-Americans should be part of the conversation but also Native Americans. The candidates vary in how they define reparations but largely focus on economic inequality. California Sen. Kamala Harris told Inskeep earlier this week that some form of reparations could also be put toward improving health outcomes.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is proposing to break up big tech companies. Warren means companies like Amazon, which now handles close to half of all online retail sales.
ELIZABETH WARREN: So Amazon operates this platform. That's cool. I'm for that. But Amazon does a second thing.
GREENE: Warren says that Amazon gathers data from sellers and uses it to sell its own products. Her proposal to change that was the start of our latest opening argument conversation with presidential candidates. She spoke with Steve Inskeep.
WARREN: So what I propose is platform will still be there. You can come, and you can still buy 27 coffee makers or whatever you want to look at online. But the competitors will all be competing straight-up. Amazon doesn't get that special advantage from having all of this extraordinary amount of information about buyers and sellers that it is not sharing with the rest of the world.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Meaning Amazon will have to sell off part of itself.
WARREN: That's right. It breaks it apart.
INSKEEP: And that's true with Google and...
INSKEEP: ...Quite a few other firms.
WARREN: That's exactly right. But again, with Google, you can still look up the capital of North Dakota. But Google can't advance its businesses over other businesses that are trying to compete in that Google space.
INSKEEP: Are you fundamentally concerned about an excessive concentration of wealth? Or is - are you concerned about an excessive concentration of power?
INSKEEP: Both of those.
WARREN: Yes. It's about the concentration of wealth and what that does in a marketplace. But it's also about concentration of power - economic power and political power.
INSKEEP: Of course, there's a history in the United States of trying to crack up monopolies.
INSKEEP: I think you alluded to the famous breakup of Standard Oil more than a century ago. But I was thinking about that. It's a famous case. I understand why it was done. But can we really say that oil companies are any less powerful today than they ever were?
WARREN: Well, at least there has been some competition through the years. And here's really the point. It's that you kind of have to keep redoing this every generation or two. You know, everybody likes a competitive market for someone else. But for most of these big businesses, they don't want to see competition. And they want to keep all the new guys, the little guys, the smaller guys out of the game for as long as it can.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about the founder of one of the companies you'd like to break up. Is there something, in your view, wrong with the idea that one person, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, can end up being worth $135 billion or whatever it is he's worth at this moment?
WARREN: Yeah. In a world where 40 percent of America couldn't find 400 bucks in an emergency, working families are under enormous squeeze. And what's happening in this economy is GDP keeps going up. The stock market keeps going up. The country keeps getting richer. But day by day by day, more of that wealth gets sucked to the very top.
INSKEEP: Although, if Bezos were sitting here, he might quite plausibly say, I agree with a lot of what you say. But I came up with this service, and it's an incredibly efficient service that serves millions of people. What's wrong with me having a lot of money?
WARREN: And I'd say, look, you can have a lot of money. I don't have any problem with that. But I'd like to see you pay a wealth tax. That's 2 percent of everything that you own above $50 million. Pay that every year back into the kitty.
INSKEEP: Which in his case would be billions of dollars...
INSKEEP: ...Per year.
WARREN: That's exactly right. In fact, it would hit, this wealth tax, only the 75,000 richest families in this country. And here's how I look at this. Jeff Bezos, you had a great idea. You got out there. You worked hard. And the other 75,000 families, you worked hard. You had a great idea, or you inherited very well.
But remember, you built this fortune here in America. You used workers that all of us help pay to educate. You got your goods to market on roads and bridges that all of us helped pay to build. Put a little back in the kitty so that the next kid gets a chance and the kid after that and the kid after that.
INSKEEP: Are you going to dampen them or prevent them from generating wealth for the country, which is, of course, what they will say.
WARREN: You must be kidding.
INSKEEP: It's what they say.
WARREN: ...On that question.
INSKEEP: It's what they say.
WARREN: Yeah. Well, that's probably what I would say if I were a ultra-ultra-billionaire.
INSKEEP: As you know very well, the last several presidents have each looked across the Pacific at China and seen some form of a problem. You talk about an unlevel economic playing field. President Trump has complained of an unlevel playing field for American companies in China. Do you agree with that?
INSKEEP: China is an unfair trader, in effect.
WARREN: Yes. I agree.
INSKEEP: Is the president right, then, to have started a trade war to try to address that?
WARREN: I - you know, he is right that we have a problem with China. What he hasn't seemed to figure out is what's the strategy to deal with it. So, for example, if you wanted to push back against China, your first move would not be to pick a fight with Canada and our other allies. We have a lot of trading partners who are good allies, and we should make sure that ours - that we are working with our allies. That's what makes us stronger.
INSKEEP: President Obama's administration wanted to unite a lot of U.S. allies effectively against China in a trading bloc with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is something that President Trump canceled and, if I'm not mistaken, you opposed.
WARREN: Oh, I very much oppose because I think that was a trading deal that was not good for the American people and not good for the American worker. We need to do our trading deals very differently.
INSKEEP: But this was an arrangement that, according to the administration, attempted to set the rules for the world and unite some very powerful countries against China.
INSKEEP: Isn't that something you want to do?
WARREN: I don't think it was an effective way to do that. And I - look...
INSKEEP: Would you be going for some other deal with different terms but with the same countries?
WARREN: The way I see the big problem we've got right now on trade is that the United States negotiates its trade deals - and this has been true for decades - in order to advance the interests of giant multinational corporations. Look at the NAFTA 2.0 right now. What's one of the big features of that negotiation? It's the pharmaceutical companies are going to be able to raise prices in Canada and Mexico.
Wait, how did that help American consumers? All it did was injure Canadian consumers and Mexican consumers. But this is how you have to look at the trade deals. The trade deals are being pushed by the multinationals.
INSKEEP: Senator Warren, thanks so much.
WARREN: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: Elizabeth Warren in one of our opening argument conversations with presidential candidates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.