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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.