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From our school years forward, the Holy Keepers of the Corporate Order drum it into our little heads that–ALLELUIA! –we Americans are blessed to live in a “free market” economy. Wow–let’s all thank our lucky stars!
But (excuse my irreverence), what exactly is a free market?
Well, explain the mystics, it’s an economy ruled by the invisible but immutable forces of supply and demand, thus allowing basics like prices and wages to be self-regulating in an open market of pure competition. Such an economy, we’re informed, is free from distorting interventions by cartels, price fixers, supply manipulators, lawmakers, and so forth. Uh-huh, and on what planet does this magic market actually exist? Not on Planet Earth USA, where”free market” is just a rhetorical deceit that means corporate powers are free to lock down the market–which frees them to profit by stiffing consumers, workers, suppliers, and others.
And they certainly have done all that. In the last 40 years or so, a handful of ever-bigger predators have
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- Squeezed out and Bought out
- Merged and Purged
- Conglomerated and Integrated
- Undermined and Overpowered
so many economic interests that America The Free has devolved into a corporate confederacy of anti-competitive, profiteering combines. We consumers feel the slap in the face of this monopoly power when confronted with drug companies’ price gouging, credit card giants’ hidden fees, and internet providers’ ripoffs.
But it’s not just a few errant industries. Unbeknownst to most people, whole segments of our economy and society have been plunged into the black hole of monopolization, affecting us from cradle to grave, literally: Three global conglomerates control 85% of US baby formula; just two corporations make 82% of our coffins.
While the word “monopoly” technically means that a single person or corporation controls 100% of something, the broader concept of monopoly power is attained when a handful of players collectively controls enough of a market to prevent real competition by setting prices and wages, manipulating supply, stifling innovations, etc. And that is what’s squeezing our economy. Essentially these are “shared monopolies”–generally defined as four or fewer entities controlling more than 40% of any given market. An astonishing level of this domineering force has already devoured our society’s free-market pretensions, including many common products and industries presently locked down by four or fewer giants.
Corporatists and their apologists would have us believe that monopoly is the natural workings of hearty competition, rewarding those firms with superior economic ingenuity and efficiency. There is, of course, nothing natural about it. Monopolies don’t happen, they’re fabricated, and while the instigator is lust for profit, the methods for creating them are even more abject.
STEP 1: By hook or crook, amass enough power (financial, political, etc.) to gain market advantages over competitors.
STEP 2: Use those advantages to accrue “monopoly profits” to gain more financial and political power to squeeze out competitors.
STEP 3: Repeat
Want to take action? Scroll down for info on how!
The objective of monopoly, though, is not solely to eliminate market competition, but also to eradicate society’s political power to restrain corporate greed. Rarely mentioned by media or political leaders, one major, insidious impact of monopoly is that it centralizes the geography of power: When monopolistic corporations take over a community’s grocery store, a city’s airport, a county’s hospital, a rural area’s farm machinery dealer, and so forth, decisions about everything from prices to business practices–and sometimes the businesses themselves–leave town. Market concentration might seem an esoteric matter of concern only to academics and lawyers, until you realize that it relocates the center of decision-making away from a community’s consumers, workers, environmentalists, officials, et al., to some faraway, profiteering CEO you’ve never heard of, who’s never been to your town, and who (PR posturing aside) doesn’t give a damn what local yokels think.
This intentional distancing of power beyond people’s reach has now gone global, for more and more of the major corporations locking down US markets are based abroad–in Brazil, Holland, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK, Canada, France, etc. How are suppliers, customers, and other hometown folks supposed to get the attention (much less influence the decisions) of such remote powers? Of course, that’s the point: Whether they’re ensconced in a corporate bastion in Delaware or Hong Kong … you can’t touch them.
How to play monopoly
In the boardgame Monopoly, the goal is straightforward: Accumulate property, control the board, and ruin all the other players. It was created in 1903 as The Landlord’s Game by ardent anti-monopolist Lizzie Magie to educate people about the economic and social destructiveness of concentrating land ownership in private cartels. (Not for nothing is each box of Monopoly adorned by a caricature of a top- hatted, robber-baron tycoon, dubbed “Rich Uncle Pennybags.”)
More than a century later, real-world monopolists retain the game’s original objective:
- Amalgamate market power
- Crush competitors
- Run the board
Here’s looking at you
Monopoly can be sneaky. Cruise the cereal aisle in any supermarket and marvel at all the choices—from Cheerios to Cascadian Farms, Lucky Charms to Raisin Nut Bran, Total to Wheaties. Except all these (and many more) are owned by one massive food conglomerate: General Mills! Or consider that, while there are many automakers… Read on…
But rather than a game of chance dependent on a roll of the dice, today’s corporate monopolies are products of carefully plotted and executed power plays. Theirs is a game for the biggest, richest, most avaricious plunderers. Just to be a player now requires investing millions of dollars in campaign donations, lobbying firms, lawyer fees, etc. Why? Because Americans hate–hate, hate, HATE–monopolies. From 1773’s Boston Tea Party–an audacious direct assault on the British East India Company’s attempt to monopolize colonial America’s tea market–we have vehemently rebelled, again and again, against corporate control as inherently anti-democratic, abusive, un-American … and morally unacceptable. But as Thomas Jefferson warned at the start of our republic, “moneyed corporations” know that they don’t need the public’s acceptance if they can buy backdoor acceptance from a few public officials. Still, people’s disdain for monopoly power is so ingrained that lawmakers and their corporate purchasers can’t just pass a law declaring “Monopoly is hereby authorized.” Instead, they do it bit by bit through a process of obscure statutory deceits, pipelines of legalized bribery, vats of PR perfumes, and other devilish ways to rig the rules of competition against actual competition. Major brand-name corporations use workarounds to create and extend monopolies without ever having to say the word, leaving their tactics with obfuscating names ranging from arcane to quasi-comical. Here are a few, along with a major practitioner of each:
- Category captain system: Kroger
- Predatory pricing: Walmart
- Most-favored-nation: health insurance conglomerates
- Non-compete clause: Apple
- Slotting: Frito Lay
- No-poaching agreements: McDonald’s
- Pay-for-delay: BigPharma
- Loss leading: Amazon
Mergers & Acquisition
Over the past 40 years, however, the most common way to establish a monopoly has been What the Hell, let’s just go buy one. With antitrust enforcement hogtied by lawmakers in harness to corporate backers, it’s now considered a legitimate, even ethical, business practice for go-getter monopolizers to compel competitors to sell out by deploying a combination of deep-pocket cash, ruthless market- squeeze, and shareholder pressure.
Indeed, consolidating our economy is no longer something that the occasional corporate pirate does on its own. There’s now an entire industry of specialized law firms, Wall Street banks, hedge funds, lobbyists, social media pushers, and a menagerie of high-dollar consultants working full-tilt every day to help ambitious empire builders pull off M&A seizures in every US business sector. Our national and state governments used to stand as bulwarks against these anti-competitive takeovers, but since the 1980s, the corporate establishment has aggressively pushed presidents, legislators, governors, and regulators to champion the efficiencies of deregulated markets. But that “efficiency” is a euphemism for raw power, and the de-reg frenzy its promoters unleashed almost immediately detonated an explosion of mergers … then mega-mergers, and now … Hello, Monopoly!
Forbes magazine reports that in just the first four months of 2021, corporations and speculators spent an astonishing record of $1.77 trillion on M&A power plays, producing nothing but tighter market control for wealthy elites, who will use the booty to grab more wealth and power. Apple, for example, brags to its investors that it has snapped up more than 100 competitors in the past six years, an average of more than one a month. Likewise, Amazon didn’t dominate the new and highly profitable cloud computing business through its own genius; it ran a high-tech Pac-Man takeover operation, gobbling up at least 13 cloud innovators from 2012 to 2020.
The laissez-fairyland promise is that corporate deregulation produces competitive magic. Ironically, the result is just the opposite: More and much-more repressive regulation! That’s because the regs are imposed and enforced by private, self-serving CEOs and investors, rather than through a democratic process open to the public. In essence, deregulation privatizes regulation.
For a glaring example of this unhappy result, consider the joys of air travel. These days, flying has become such an obstacle course of surprise fees, constant delays, physical discomfort, and other routine indignities that the dominant carriers now rival health insurance giants and arrogant internet providers for last place in customer satisfaction. Up to 1978, airline service was treated as a necessary public convenience with multiple competitors. Then, Pres. Jimmy Carter and a covey of deregulatory disciples in Congress dismantled the rules that preserved a competitive airline structure. Pres. Ronald “I-Hate-Government” Reagan followed up by directing antitrust officials to loosen guidelines and slack-off enforcement.
Mergers almost immediately took off, competition and service crashed, and the era of the Big Three (American, Delta, United) became entrenched. Competitors? The primary owners of all three are just four Wall Street investment powerhouses: BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard, and Prime Cap. They are in sync on setting the rules of air travel: Split the market so only one or two big carriers monopolize flight choices in and out of various cities, raise and lower prices in tandem to avoid real competition, drop direct flights so customers in smaller cities have to connect through hub airports, collude in imposing onerous fees and restrictions on passengers, unite in opposition to better pay and rights for airline employees … etc.
Stop playing games
I come from several generations of family farmers and Main Street business people, and I’ve witnessed how their industriousness, ingenuity, and community values can be crushed by Walmart profiteers, aloof land speculators, faraway price fixers, and other corporate plunderers of local people. I’ve also seen my own small enterprise, Saddle Burr Productions, get squeezed by hedge fund scavengers rampantly monopolizing and looting local newspapers and radio markets. I’m not saying that small-to-medium entities are inherently virtuous, but as a group they are enterprising, local-ish, open to new competitors and market participants … and far more in tune with the pursuit of our Common Good than any greed-motivated Big Four can even pretend to be.
Again, the demise of competition and rise of a monopoly economy doesn’t just happen. It’s the direct result of actions (and inactions) chosen by public policymakers in the past few decades. The result of their decisions (mostly made against the will or even without the knowledge of America’s majority) is an economic structure that is:
- shriveling economic opportunity
- increasing inequality
- stifling innovation
- raising consumer prices
- holding down wages
- turning politics into a money game, and
- dangerously weakening people’s democratic authority.
Rather than wring our hands in despair, though, it is time to join hands in action.
We, the people of these United States, do not have to accept monopoly! All across the country, in red and blue precincts alike, majorities keep saying they HATE monopolies. So, progressives should take them up on that sentiment by putting the de-monopolization of America back at the top of our political agenda.
As previous generations have done, we can organize and mobilize and rebel against this flagrantly anti-America, plutocratic concentration of power.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
How do you fight monopoly? Start where you live–and here’s some help! The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has a guide full of examples of successful local and state anti-monopoly efforts that could be models for your own town. ilsr.org
What’s at stake? For one thing, your money. The American Economic Liberties Project tells us that, in combination with lower wages, corporate consolidation costs the average US household $5,000/year. Meanwhile, monopoly-fueled product price “markups” have tripled to 61% since 1980. economicliberties.us
How do we battle monopoly lobbyists? With advocates for the rest of us! One of our favorites is Public Citizen (Hightower is on the board). Webinars by the Open Markets Institute and the American Antitrust Institute offer deep dives into monopolies’ dangers.
Here’s looking at you
Monopoly can be sneaky. Cruise the cereal aisle in any supermarket and marvel at all the choices–from Cheerios to Cascadian Farms, Lucky Charms to Raisin Nut Bran, Total to Wheaties. Except all these (and many more) are owned by one massive food conglomerate: General Mills! Or consider that, while there are many automakers, only a handful of monopolists control production of such core components as electronics, steering mechanisms, car seats, and dashboards. Or cowboy-up with a pair of boots bearing such storied Texas brands as Justin, Nocona, and Tony Lama–now owned by the multibillion-dollar, global holding company, Berkshire-Hathaway, whose empire includes everything from underwear (Fruit of the Loom) to railroads (BNSF).
There’s also a comprehensive method of monopolization called “vertical integration” in which a single corporation controls multiple phases of an industry, enabling it to self-deal and overpower competitors, suppliers, consumers, workers, and other interests. This has happened in much of agriculture, with global grain traders like Cargill and meatpackers like Tyson grabbing domineering power over the financing, processing, distribution, and marketing of their commodities.
Or cast your eyes on this common, essential product: Eyeglasses. Popular and fashionable brands abound–Armani, Bvlgari, Costa, Foster Grant, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Ray-Ban, Vogue. But all of these and two dozen others are in the hands of EssilorLuxottica, a French-Italian conglomerate that controls 40% of global sales of spectacles. EssilorLuxottica is also the dominant owner of eye exam and retail chains, including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, Sunglass Hut, and Target Optical, as well as dominating the online market through its ownership of such firms as Eye Buy Direct, Frames Direct, and Vision Direct. The company also dominates the making of lenses, owning dozens of optical labs in nearly every state. It controls research labs (Kodak, Oakley, Ray-Ban, et al.) for development of future products, and runs its own vision insurance firm, EyeMed. The upshot is that one powerhouse, which most of us never heard of, monopolizes corrective eyesight for millions of us.