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Warren’s 2020 agenda: Break up monopolies, give workers control over corporations, fight drug companies

A policy guide to the Massachusetts Democrat running for the White House

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Boston on election night in November. (Sarah Rice for The Washington Post)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is running for president on proposals to transfer corporate power to workers, have the government produce prescription drugs and create millions of new homes through federal intervention.

Warren (D-Mass.) has touted her policies as a way to use government to shift the benefits of economic growth from big businesses and the rich to the middle and working classes.

“America’s middle class is under attack,” Warren said in a video sent to supporters as she announced the creation of her presidential exploratory committee Monday. “How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut them a bigger slice.”

Warren does not see herself as a socialist and has in interviews rejected the label by saying she is a “capitalist to my bones.” The senator does support some proposals to have the federal government take over certain industries, and she has signed on as a sponsor of a bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to federalize national health insurance.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she will seek the presidency in 2020

But of the key policies Warren is championing, most aim to use the federal government’s power to restructure markets, rather than have the government take them over directly. These policies reflect her perspective that a handful of concentrated economic interests have come to unfairly dominate certain sectors and that federal intervention can reform markets to make them fairer by opening them up to greater competition.

Her housing bill, for instance, includes trying to repeal restrictive local zoning codes rather than building new federally owned housing, as some on the left have proposed.

Warren has focused on breaking up what she sees as monopolies in the technology sector and other industries through new antitrust enforcement, and she has accused large technology companies of anti-competitive behavior.

And one of her most recently passed pieces of legislation decreases the government’s footprint, deregulating the hearing-aid industry by allowing Americans to purchase the devices over the counter.

“If I could characterize Warren’s ideology, it’s that we should select the tool appropriate to each economic problem we face and not decide ahead of time that the same solution is appropriate,” said Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Whether that approach can power Warren to the White House is another matter. To critics on her right, Warren’s suite of policy proposals — many of which would require tens of billions in new federal spending — still look a lot like big-government socialism.

“Her impulse to mend but not end capitalism is the right one,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “But I think some of her ideas, like single-payer, may work for a base Democratic audience but not anybody else.”

Here’s a look at some key pieces of legislation Warren has authored or supported:

Worker power over corporations. Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, introduced this summer, is perhaps her most distinctive contribution to the field of progressive U.S. policymaking.

Most significantly, the plan would require large U.S. corporations to have 40 percent of their board of directors selected by company employees. This proposal aims to help redirect trillions of dollars to American workers, as labor’s share of national income has continued to fall despite rising corporate profits over the past several decades.

“It used to be that as firm profits grew, they grew for both workers and shareholders — everybody gained when the economy as a whole gained,” said Robert C. Hockett, a law professor at Cornell University who helped Warren write the proposal. “The point is to give wage earners a much stronger voice in the determination of their own compensation.”

This “co-determination” proposal would apply only to firms worth more than $1 billion and is modeled primarily after policy in Germany, where workers have been given a seat on corporate boards since the 1970s.

The bill would also require corporate expenditures on political candidates to be approved by shareholders and would eliminate incentives that Warren says encourage corporate executives to pay out dividends rather than plow profits back into their businesses.

Allen Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics, said that in theory he did not oppose having more worker input on corporate boards, but that Warren’s plan goes too far and would be difficult to carry out.

“It would be a revolution in corporate America and extremely disruptive, and counterproductive because it’s so extreme,” Sinai said. “It’s far-fetched and totally impractical.”

Going after monopoly power. In 2016, Warren delivered a speech calling for the federal government to crack down on tech giants and others she deemed corporate monopolies, arguing that the country needs a more robust antitrust policy.

A year later, the Democratic Party’s leadership incorporated antitrust language in its “Better Deal” blueprint, which allies of Warren credit in part to the senator’s advocacy.

“People don’t remember, but monopoly wasn’t really an issue on people’s radars at the time,” said Matt Stoller, policy director at the Open Markets Institute, where Warren delivered the 2016 speech. “It was the first time a politician had criticized big tech for being monopolistic in a big way.”

Warren’s demand that Apple, Google and Amazon face antitrust scrutiny fits her broader push on the dangers monopoly power poses for the American economy. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) This month, Warren unveiled a bill that would create a public option for pharmaceutical drugs, giving the government the power to produce affordable generic versions of certain drugs that have big price increases.

“Promoting competition used to be a central goal of economic policymaking,” Warren wrote in The Washington Post. “Today, in market after market, competition is dying as a handful of giant companies gain more and more market share.”

Similarly, earlier this year, Warren unveiled a housing bill that would aim to reward local governments for relaxing strict zoning laws that have prevented developers from expanding the supply of housing. The plan also calls for investing billions more in government spending in affordable-housing projects, as well as helping black families historically hurt by federal housing practices.

Stiffen prosecutions of white-collar crimes. Warren was the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog that Democrats have touted as key to protecting Americans from predatory aspects of the financial industry but that Republicans have decried as an activist agency unchecked by Congress.

Republicans have moved to roll back the agency’s power, but it remains popular among left-wing Democrats.

As a candidate for president, Warren will tout similar measures to crack down on white-collar crime, including a bill that would create a permanent law enforcement unit to investigate crimes at banks and large financial institutions, ending what she has called “too big to jail.” The law would also require senior executives at banks with more than $10 billion in assets to annually certify they have “found no criminal conduct or civil fraud within the financial institution.”

Another bill, backed by Warren and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), would require federal agencies to disclose more information about closed federal cases against bad corporate actors.

Nationalize health insurance, institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage. But while many of her policies stop short of having the government federalize parts of the private sector, Warren has also embraced many of the ideas that align with the left.

The best example of this is her support of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan to nationalize the health insurance industry. That plan rejects the Affordable Care Act’s market-based approach to health insurance that allows consumers to buy plans on open exchanges. Instead it would require the government to provide insurance to every American.

Similarly, Warren’s plan to confront the opioid epidemic would require the federal government to help treat millions of additional Americans who face addiction. Modeled after the national response to the AIDS epidemic, that plan would pour $100 billion in federal funding over 10 years into fighting the opioid crisis.

Warren has also co-sponsored a bill requiring a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, as well as a plan that would make it easier for workers to form and join unions.