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It’s Time to Punch Some Corporate Villains

Rather than litigate everyone’s perception of the economy, President Biden should pick some big fights with the crooks who are holding back the boom.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Picture the scene: Vice President Kamala Harris stands in front of an array of microphones outside the headquarters of a technology company freshly indicted for driving up rental prices. A crowd of reporters clamor for her attention, seeking comment on the company’s product—an algorithm that enables cartel behavior among landlords—that’s landed the firm on the receiving end of multiple class action lawsuits by renters, as well as the Department of Justice’s investigation that resulted in the present indictment. Harris leans into the moment, calling out the corporation’s greed in extracting excessive profits from renters who are just trying to afford housing.

The corporation’s famously snippy chief economist hits back all week, shooting off fiery tweets criticizing the V.P., and giving interviews on CNBC. The story dominates the news cycle for days, with the media opining on whether Harris was doing her job to protect her constituents or overstepping her role and calling out entrepreneurial tech executives too harshly.

This scenario imagines the media attention that could be generated by high-profile executive branch figures pursuing the kind of corporate crackdown we at the Revolving Door Project have been advocating. At a time when the public perception of Bidenomics has fallen flat, the White House is in need of a revival of its fighting spirit. There is an advantage to be taken in ramping up specific and confrontational rhetoric against those forces that are holding back the people’s economic boom.

Already, there is a sense that Team Biden knows that something needs to be done. As campaign season escalates, Biden’s surrogates have been whining to anyone who will listen about unfair voter views of Biden’s economic policies. They have pointed to traditional statistics that indicate a strong or improving economy, and profess confusion that voters don’t have more positive views of the administration’s accomplishments. These complaints (in addition to being silly, because people can’t be wrong about their own perceptions) have ignored clear indicators of economic stress that are affecting voters’ perceptions of the economy—including, prominently, the cost of housing.

In recent weeks, faced with voterspersistent pessimism on the economy, Biden has changed tack slightly, starting to criticize corporations for price gouging” in recent appearances, in what commentators are calling a shift toward economic populism. As he said in a speech and reiterated on X (formerly Twitter) at the end of November: “Let me be clear: To any corporation that has not brought their prices back down—even as inflation has come down, even [as] supply chains have been rebuilt—it’s time to stop the price gouging.”

However, general admonitions that corporations should stop maximizing their profits by ripping off consumers are unlikely to be effective or build voters’ confidence that Biden is prepared to hold corporations accountable. It’s simply going to sound like wan excuses until Biden puts some meat on the bone by getting specific about which corporations he’s holding out as villains, which executives at those corporations are lining their pockets by gouging the rest of us, and what he’s going to do if they don’t stop when asked nicely.

As we have long argued, there are numerous, identifiable corporate villains in the United States who routinely profit off exploiting the public. Jay Parsons—chief economist at scandal-plagued tech company RealPage, owned by the massive private equity firm Thoma Bravo—is an excellent example of one of these villains.

Parsons has spent the last year and change downplaying the role of corporate landlords in fueling the rental affordability crisis and mischaracterizing both his company’s product and its basic economic principles to any mainstream media outlet who will listen, positioning himself as an economics expert rather than a self-serving corporate executive.

As ProPublica reported last year, breaking the story, Parsons and RealPage leadership have been helping corporate landlords hike rents to price-gouge renters while presumably pocketing hefty corporate salaries. This reporting has spawned 30 tenant lawsuits, with the DOJ opening an investigation earlier this year and recently joining a class action suit on the side of the tenants. Parsons has even publicly bragged about RealPage’s Yieldstar rent price algorithm and its success in driving up rents, saying at a conference in 2022, “Never before have we seen these numbers,” prompting a colleague to add, “I think [Yieldstar] is driving it, quite honestly,” citing apartment rents that had increased by “as much as 14.5 percent.”

However, when cited by media outlets, Parsons regularly argues that private equity and institutional investors have no culpability for rising rent prices (blaming a supposed lack of supply of housing), even as he and RealPage sell their services to these same landlords on the promise that they can increase rental profits. (If RealPage can’t help you increase rent, why would you trust it with setting prices?)

Furthermore, RealPage is a dues-paying member of the National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord lobbying group dominated by notorious uberwealthy conservative villain (and Justice Clarence Thomas benefactor) Harlan Crow, which represents “nearly 2,000 abusive private equity firms, developers, banks, and real estate software companies.” Clearly, from the kind of company they keep, Parsons and other RealPage executives are committed not to evenhanded economic analysis of the housing crisis, nor just to creating nifty technology products. Rather, they are focused on helping corporate landlords price-gouge renters and reap massive profits by slowly draining ordinary Americans of resources and keeping financial stability out of reach for most of us.

If the Biden administration wants voters to believe in its economic policies, it needs voters to believe that they have a fair shot economically. That’s going to be a hard sell when people are dealing with high rents—not to mention high interest rates that make buying a home even more costly than usual, despite an increase in wages. More than anything else, Biden needs people to believe that he’ll be down in the trenches with them, fighting the good fight against the corporate villains who are nickel-and-diming them to death.

They can cement this impression by pursuing a corporate crackdown of the kind we’ve been advocating: picking fights with specific corporate villains who are profiting off exploiting the public, and using existing regulations within the executive branch to hold them accountable for their abuses. As the hypothetical scenario at the start of this article imagines, calling out RealPage and Jay Parsons—a real-life cartoon villain who blocks groups and individuals who call out his lies on social media—would be a strong place to start.

As this article’s lede imagines, public confrontations calling out Parsons and RealPage for their abuses would generate positive media coverage for the Biden administration. Parsons is a brash and reactive social media user, and would be likely to hit back at public criticism, as RealPage has already started to do in response to the ProPublica investigation and lawsuits it’s faced, keeping the dispute in the news cycle for longer.

Vice President Kamala Harris, as we’ve argued, is an asset in this fight, well suited to carry out this kind of media campaign. Many commentators have noted that Harris is at her best when she’s on the offensive, whether calling corporate wrongdoing out as California’s attorney general or as a strong member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Harris is comfortable with confrontation and could use specific, targeted fights with Parsons and others to drive policy priorities that would materially benefit constituents going into campaign season.

With the express support of executive branch leadership as cover, regulators at various federal agencies would be well positioned to continue work that supports renters. The DOJ Antitrust Division would have cover to prioritize its investigation into whether RealPage’s use of its Yieldstar software to coordinate rental prices among landlords, at times controlling large shares of local housing markets, constitutes cartel behavior—and to pursue charges if the investigation substantiates these claims—in addition to filing statements of support in class action lawsuits. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission would have cover to continue their work to address the sloppy tenant data keeping (by RealPage and others) that has led to some rental applications, disproportionately those of Black and brown renters, being falsely declined on the basis of erroneously matched criminal record checks. (RealPage paid a $3 million fine to the FTC in 2018 for such sloppy data keeping.)

These narrow efforts to hold RealPage accountable could be extended into broader campaigns to support renters. Our colleagues at the Homes Guarantee campaign have been pushing the Federal Housing Finance Agency for months to implement tenant protections in its oversight of Enterprise-backed mortgages, including limiting egregious rent hikes, instituting eviction protections, and expanding protections against discrimination. Advocates and commentators have also criticized Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge’s supply-focused, all-carrot-no-stick approach to rent prices. Instead of primarily seeking partnerships with private developers and local jurisdictions to build more housing, HUD could engage with the problems of unaffordable existing housing due to corporate landlord rent gouging and lack of renter protections.

All of these existing efforts would be reinforced by public executive branch pressure on corporate villains like Parsons, who personify the corporate greed that has resulted in an ongoing housing crisis that, in addition to immiserating millions of Americans, makes the Biden administration’s pleas for voters to appreciate its economic efforts fall flat. If the administration wants voters to see Biden as the best choice to address the economy, it needs to pick the right fights. Vague language won’t cut through. Specific, direct confrontation in calling out corporate wrongdoing is necessary. Done effectively, the potential is enormous. Let’s face it: Drawing a strong contrast with the grifter real estate developer son of a plutocrat—on housing costs—shouldn’t be that challenging for “Middle Class Joe.”